Spicy Buffalo Quinoa Salad

ImageSo….hey.  I’ve been away for a few months, and I’m really sorry about that. I owe you all a few posts about my travels, but let’s get real…it probably won’t happen, even though it’s been a pretty epic season.  I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference (check that one off in the “career dreams” category), attended and spoke at the Eat, Write, Retreat conference (definitely my favorite food blogger conference), and just returned from the Evo conference, where I soaked in the amazing conversations with so many smart, savvy women in between client commitments. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen….

Friends, we eat a LOT of quinoa in our house, in salads of all varieties. Quinoa has higher protein than other grains (technically, it’s not a grain, it’s a seed), is fairly neutral in flavor, cooks up quickly and makes some fantastic salads that can chill for days in the fridge. I love all of these qualities, which makes quinoa one of my go-to pantry staples. I’ve shared many a quinoa salad here, like the standard quinoa salad with black beans and lime-cumin vinaigrette, curried quinoa salad with mango and cilantro chutney, and roasted vegetable quinoa salad.

But with all of those variations, I’ve been getting bored. Quinoa had really lost that new-grain-on-the-block shine, and my attention has been captivated by millet, and experimenting with cooking all varieties of dried beans as inexpensive main dishes ( a la smoky bean tacos). Last week, a friend invited me to join her at Protein Bar for lunch.

For those of you not in Chicago, Protein Bar has been the HOT go-to lunch destination for Loop workers for the last year or so. It’s always packed, and they claim to do “healthy food…healthier.”  I don’t get out of my office much to take a lunch break, so I’d never been. And after eating there, I’m kind of kicking myself for the neglect, because not only do they handle gluten-free food very well, they have some interesting takes on quinoa that have reignited my love.

I enjoyed Protein Bar’s Buffalo Bowl – a generous serving of quinoa, chicken, celery, carrot, blue cheese and cucumber laced with their own buffalo sauce. I was hooked. It was amazing. I couldn’t stop thinking about the salad all afternoon, and couldn’t wait for the weekend to come, so I could try my hand at my own version.

This salad doesn’t disappoint. I added a few more veggies, and spiced it up a couple more levels over the Protein Bar salad, and I can tell you I am quite excited about lunches this week, and looking forward to a few more riffs on Protein Bar offerings. Consider me, re-pumped about cooking up a pot of quinoa!

ImageSpicy Buffalo Quinoa Salad
Serves 7 as a main lunch course
Inspired by Protein Bar

Like all quinoa salads, you can toss in any veggie you have on hand, or your personal favorites. If sweet corn happens to be in season where you are, do add in a couple cooked ears’ worth – it’s super tasty and a nice contrast against the spicy dressing.

1 ½ cups dry quinoa, cooked and chilled
1 batch of GF/DF Buffalo Sauce (note: I increased the amount of cayenne and used about ½ cup of hot sauce) 
2 cups cooked chicken, diced (optional)
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 red bell pepper, diced
3 green onions, minced
3 stalks celery, minced
1 cup fresh sweet corn, cut off the cob (or thawed and drained frozen corn
3 carrots, sliced wafer thin
1 handful cilantro, de-stemmed, and roughly chopped
⅓ cup gorgonzola, crumbled
Extra Frank’s Original Hot Sauce, to taste

  1. Cook the quinoa according to the instructions (I make mine in the rice cooker, so am not one to advise on stovetop cooking), then chill completely.
  2. Make Nancy’s vegan buffalo sauce, and set aside. 
  3. Chop all of the veggies and set aside. 
  4. Mince the chicken, and place in a small mixing bowl. Add a few splashes of Frank’s Hot Sauce and toss to lightly coat the chicken, to give the protein a little extra kick. 
  5. Place the quinoa in a large mixing bowl, and break up the quinoa into individual grains with a fork or spatula. Add the black beans, red bell pepper, green onions, celery, sweet corn, cilantro and carrots and gently stir with a rubber spatula to combine. 
  6. Drizzle about half of the buffalo sauce over the salad, and gently stir to coat all of the quinoa. Taste. If you like it a little spicier (as I do), drizzle on the rest of the sauce, and stir again. You may find that you need a little extra kick, so don’t be shy, and shake a little more Frank’s Hot Sauce on there, and stir a bit more. 
  7. Finally, add the crumbled gorgonzola, and fold into the salad just before serving.  This salad also keeps very well in the fridge, and leftovers make a most delicious lunch! As the quinoa salad sits in the fridge, the spice level mutes considerably, so keep a bottle of hot sauce handy to spice it up. 

What are you favorite variations on qunioa salad?  Inspire me!  

Grilled Lamb Kabobs with Zaatar


On the last day of winter in Chicago, a winter so mild that we lived in a constant state of anxiety waiting for the weather hammer to drop and get down to some real misery, it was 80 degrees. 8-0.  Bright sunshine was welcome on our pale faces, and the entire city ventured outdoors in shorts to run, bike, walk – anything to soak up this oddly wonderful close to the winter that never was. Perhaps this sunny and mild winter was our just reward for surviving the beast of Snowpocalypse 2011. One week later, the magnolia trees, daffodils and tulips are in full-bloom – two months ahead of schedule. The summery weather inspired us to drag out the patio furniture and invite friends over for brunch AND dinner – on the same day! Carpe diem, and all that. 

Crysta joined us for brunch on the balcony, and we kicked things off with my new favorite margarita, inspired by Diane Cu’s post sharing her discovery that bitters are the secret sauce for the perfect margarita. We’ve since gone and bought the Bitters cookbook, and have become fairly obsessed with classic cocktails – we suggest you do the same. The sazerac is the new black in our house.

With the weather so beautiful, we quickly made plans to fire up the grill. I had a pound of cubed lamb in the freezer from our farm share, and decided to whip up some kabobs with grilled veggies. These little beauties really hit the spot. And not even a blast of chilly air off the Lake that cooled temps from 80 to 60 just as we were starting the grill could deter us from eating outdoors. With cocktails in hand and sweaters on our shoulders, we raised a glass to celebrate the end of a winter and toast to the growing season ahead.

ImageLamb Kabobs
Serves 4

This is about as simple as cooking can get. Marinate, grill, eat. Simplicity and great ingredients are the way to go. If you can’t find the Middle Eastern zaatar spice blend of sumac and sesame in your area, just change things up and add some rosemary, garlic and thyme to the wine for the marinade – it will be just as delicious.

1 lb cubed lamb (all pieces of uniform size, as much as possible)
⅓ cup red wine
pinch of salt
1 T zaatar
pinch of red pepper flakes
½ of a large onion, sliced into 1 ½ inch squares
1 ½ red bell peppers, cleaned and cut into 1 ½ inch squares
wooden skewers, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes

  1. Combine the red wine, salt, zaatar and red pepper flakes in a bowl large enough to hold the kabob meat. Stir together with a fork. Add the cubed lamb, tossing gently to coat the meat in marinade. Cover the bowl, and stash in the fridge for a couple of hours to marinate. 
  2. When you’re ready to eat, preheat the grill, then make the kabobs. Take your soaked wooden skewers and slide the meat onto the skewers, alternating meat and veggies, until the skewer is fully loaded. Repeat until you’ve used up all of the meat and veggies…if you have leftover veggies, make up a skewer of just veggies. They’re good for you.
  3. Place the kabobs on the pre-heated grill (target temp around 450 degrees), and grill for 4 minutes with a closed lid. Flip the kabobs over, and grill for 3 more minutes (or until desired doneness, if you want more than medium-cooked lamb). Remove the kabobs and serve…preferably on a patio with a margarita in hand.


Guest Post: Eggs, Boiled, Hard; or Cooking with Engineers

Bad egg.

This guest post is brought to you by Mark, Jenn’s husband. You may remember me from such posts as the breakfast eggy muffins. My contribution to that post involved sticking my head into the frame when Jenn was photographing the food. This is pretty close to the limits of my cooking ability: getting in the way. In years gone by, Jenn used to say that she wished I cooked more so that she didn’t have all of the cooking responsibility. I have made a few attempts at cooking dinner. These adventures invariably went something like this:

LEGOs, I mean HEROES, arise to battle the sulphurous evil  

Me: I’m going to make dinner.
Jenn: Great! You are teh best husband evar!
Me: Where do you keep the spatulas?
Jenn: Cut up these carrots while I take care of this.

Ye olde field artillery

Right in the nards.

I’m only joking a little about this. We have since come to the realization that the kitchen belongs to Jenn, and that she really doesn’t want me in there. I am allowed in to make little things. Quesadillas, omelets, stuff like that. A week ago, while Jenn was out grocery shopping, I was overcome by the strange desire to make hard boiled eggs. I haven’t had a hard boiled egg in years, and came to the realization that I had never boiled one myself. TO THE INTERNET! I found some instructions (recipe?) and made a couple. I made a comment on Facebook that I had done this. Our friend, Chris, asked if I would be putting the recipe on Jenn’s blog. And the seed was planted.

Now, a week later, you are about to read a recipe on how to make a hard boiled egg. A recipe that is essentially boiling water with one additional step. I will turn this into 11 steps.

Its stony carapace encrackened by the frightening impact of the ballista bolt, Sir Percival Hedgeworth von Frinklington sallies forth to bestab the most sinister embryonic horror right in the cholesterol.

With the simplicity of the recipe stated, let me say this: My job description has “engineer” in it. I work in a highly regulated environment. I follow instructions. To the letter. Jenn doesn’t really measure anything. I measure EVERYTHING. Jenn views recipes as suggestions. I feel physical pain if I have to deviate from a recipe. “Salt the pasta water.” How much? I’m going to measure that shit. If a recipe isn’t very specific about something and I’m not sure what to do, I will probably become irritated and grumble and swear through the whole rest of the process. One of my engineery colleagues, let’s call her “Susan,” because that is her name, and I have had several discussions about altering recipes.  We are of one mind on these things.

“If we slew this beast before it cooled down, it would have been easier to flay.”

An actual exchange from the egg boil this morning:
Me: Does this count as “boiling”?
Jenn: No, that is not boiling. You know, it boils faster if you put a cover on the pot.
Me: [The Internet] didn’t say to cover it.

I know that water boils faster if you cover the pot. I studied a little thermal dynamics in school. BTUs. Conduction. Relative and absolute humidity. Shit like that. I’m not bragging, I’m just saying that this is obvious to me. But the recipe that I read didn’t say to cover the pot. So I didn’t. That’s how I roll.

Soup’s on, bitches.

So here is how to hard boil eggs:

One (1) pot capable of holding the appropriate number of eggs (see below) with 1-2” of water covering them.
One (1) lid, pot
Water, cold. Sufficient quantity to cover eggs placed in pot 1-2”.
One (1) device (stovetop is typical) capable of applying sufficient heat to the above pot, water and eggs to raise the temperature of the water to 212 degrees F (100 degrees C).
One (1) colander or strainer or spider. For removing eggs from heated water and/or holding eggs while running under cold water (See procedure).
One (1) timekeeping device capable of indicating the passage of 1-10 minutes.

x Eggs, where x=desired number of hard boiled eggs.
Salt (optional) Quantity: unknown. The Internet claims that salting the water may prevent eggs that crack during boiling from oozing out all over and will make peeling easier. No studies were referenced that prove these claims.

1. Place eggs in pot.
2. Fill pot with water, cold. Eggs should be at a depth of 1-2”.
3. Add salt (quantity: unknown) to water (if desired).
4. Place pot+water+egg(+salt) mixture on heating device.
5. Engage heating device to a setting capable of boiling water+egg(+salt) mixture.
6. When water boils,
6.1. If heating device is electric: turn off heat, simmer for 1 minute.
6.2. If heating device is gas: reduce heat, simmer for 1 minute.
7. Remove pot+water+egg(+salt) mixture from heating device.
8. Place lid, pot onto pot.
9. Allow to sit for 10 minutes.
10. Remove eggs from water using spider, or pouring water/egg mixture into colander or strainer.
11. Place eggs into cold water, or under stream of, to stop cooking process.

At this point, eggs may be peeled and consumed immediately or used for other recipes requiring hard boiled eggs (see other recipes for further instructions).

Blue Cheese Beans

I don’t know about you, but green beans…they’re just not at the top of my vegetable eating list. They’re a little bit plain, a wintertime staple pulled from the freezer when inspiration fails you – steamed and slapped on a plate, maybe with a little butter and pepper. Those beans, they don’t inspire me.

My mom makes an amazing Christmas dinner every year. The star of the meal is always the protein – either crown roast of pork, or a beautiful herb-crusted prime rib as we had this year. But then Mom served up these green beans. Glistening with a light coating of melted blue cheese and garnished with pecans and dried cranberries…I had three helpings. Everyone had seconds. There wasn’t a bean left at the end of dinner. And I’ll tell you, I’d rather have a second or third helping of those beans than that perfect prime rib. It was a green bean conversion experience.

You need to start with fresh green beans for this recipe, and even though it’s far from bean season…they were on sale at Whole Foods this weekend, so I went for it. A little dab of good, creamy blue cheese, and a few chopped nuts and dried cherries or cranberries, and you’re in business. Make these. Now. Soon. Often. You won’t be sorry.

Blue Cheese Laced Beans with Cherries & Pecans
Serves 2 (multiply at will)
From Cook’s Country Magazine

2 cups fresh green beans, stemmed, washed and cut in half
1oz blue cheese – something on the pungent and creamy side
2 T toasted, chopped pecans
2 T tart, dried cherries, chopped
1 T olive oil

  1. Heat a large nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the oil, and when shimmering, add the beans. Toss to coat in oil, and sear for 2 minutes. Put a lid on the pan and cook for 2 minutes, allowing the beans to steam a bit. Take the lid off, and try a bean to see if they’re cooked, and still have a little crunch to them.
  2. When they’re done to your liking, turn the burner off, crumble the cheese over the beans and toss to coat in the melting cheese. Scoop the beans into a serving dish or onto plates and top with the chopped nuts and cherries. EAT!

One Year Later…

I give myself Saturdays to do nothing, or more precisely, I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do. Mostly, this means I wake up without the screaming of an alarm at 5am, walk the dog, and do the weekly menu planning until Whole Foods opens at 8am, and then do the grocery shopping before it gets crowded. On this very Saturday one year ago, Miracle joined our family. Our hearts were still aching after losing Turbo, but sadist that I am, I had to dive right back in so that I would not come home to an empty house. Unlocking the door to a dog who is always happy to see you is a magical thing that says more than anything – “welcome home.”

Those first few months with Miracle were not pretty. She loved us immediately, but was desperately sad while we were away and restless at night. Mark and I struggled in a fog of exhaustion for months. We had a taste of what life is like for parents of newborns, who catch sleep when they can, or not at all, because Miracle needed a lot of soothing. But a year is a good stretch of time – enough for a hound to gain confidence that we’ll always come home to her, and for us to get to know this clownish beast we share our home with.

Also, on the second hound, we’ve turned into complete softies. Miracle helped herself to snoozing on the furniture not long after she came home. The moment you make a few moves in preparation to leave the house and – BOOM – Miracle is on the sofa, in your seat and glaring at you…daring you to kick her off, as if to say, “If you think you’re leaving me – fine, but I’ll be right here in your spot on the couch, all day long.” I can’t argue with that. We’re gone 12+ hours per day during the week, and if she wants to chill on the furniture, I am not going to stop her. Softies.

The hound can also be persuaded to join us for a run. In the early days, running was one way we could manage her separation anxiety. Now, we use her more as an excuse to stop for a few seconds and dither around before continuing on our way. It works for all of us.

One year later, we’re so glad that Miracle joined our family. She’s a lovey little hound, always scheming for a belly rub or snuggle on the couch. Her bursts of play, endless squeaking of toys and high speed laps around the house keep us laughing. Welcome to the family, dear hound.

I’ll have a new recipe or two for you in the next couple of weeks…I hope!  In the meantime, here are a few old favorites that have been gracing our table in the last couple of months:

  • Fennel, Apple and Orange Salad – Fennel, granny smith apples and oranges are a few fresh ingredients that can be relied upon to brighten up any meal in the dead of winter. I could eat this salad daily and not get tired of it.
  • Tomato Sauce with Butter – A simple, classic sauce that makes enough for several meals, freezes well, and is a savior for getting a quick mid-week meal on the table.
  • DIY Kind Bars (grain-free granola bars) – These little tasty treats have been a near constant companion, since discovering that I am sensitive even to gluten-free oats. A little bit sweet and a good source of protein, these bars are getting me through weeks when I need to travel for work.
  • Indian Spiced Red Lentil Soup – This pot of soup is dead simple, and takes few ingredients, but it makes for a hearty bowl of soup that warms the belly on the coldest of winter days.

Thank you to everyone who has commented, written, posted and tweeted me, asking when I’d get the next blog post up. I’ve missed our conversation here – and I hope to be back more often in 2012!

Coconut Curry Turkey and Wild Rice Soup

We’ve had a very peaceful Thanksgiving weekend in Chicago – 4 days at home was just the balm I needed to catch up on sleep, de-stress, cook and relax. We celebrated the holiday with my aunt, uncle, cousins in the suburbs…and then the rest of the weekend was pretty low key. Sleeping late (which for me, is anything after 6am), naps, an afternoon cocktail, and lots of time puttering in the kitchen.

After every Thanksgiving feast, there are the leftovers. By the third day after the turkey is carved, I become weary of sliced turkey, gravy and all the trimmings that linger in the fridge. But the bits of turkey remain, begging to be used and not wasted. So this morning, I pulled the turkey carcass from the bird I roasted for my team at work last week out of the freezer and set about making a big pot of turkey stock. Once made, strained, chilled and de-fatted – it was time for the main attraction – soup.

I love the comfort in a bowl of turkey and wild rice soup. Today I decided to leave the traditional flavors of the holiday behind, and spice it up with an Indian flare…and I am glad I did. The soup has some heft to it, as a good turkey and wild rice soup should, and just enough curry for the spice to linger on the tongue, cooled by a splash of coconut milk. Like most of my soups, this is a great way to clean out odds and ends of vegetables lingering in the crisper, so use whatever you have on hand.

Coconut Curry Turkey and Wild Rice Soup
Serves 6-8

2 T olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 carrots, peeled & diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1 bunch rainbow chard, washed, leaves sliced into bite sized pieces. Stems reserved and diced.
3 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 small red potatoes, cut into ½” cubes, totaling 1 ½ cups of potatoes
1 tsp brown mustard seed
1 tsp hot curry powder
1 tsp garam masala
1 ½ T madras (mild) curry powder
⅔ cup wild rice
6 cups turkey  or chicken stock
½ can coconut milk
2 cups diced roast turkey (or chicken)
salt & pepper to taste
1 tsp white wine vinegar

  1. Heat a large soup pot over medium heat. Add olive oil and brown mustard seeds. Stir the seeds around in the oil for about 1 minute, until the seeds release their fragrance.
  2. Scoop onion, carrots, celery and diced chard stems into pot. Add a pinch of salt and stir to coat the veggies in oil. Saute for 7-10 minutes, until onions are softened, stirring every couple of minutes.
  3. Add the garam masala, curry powders, and garlic to the pot. Stir for 1 minute.
  4. Add the wild rice, turkey (or chicken) stock, stir and cover. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce heat to low and add the potatoes. Simmer uncovered for 25 minutes, over medium-low heat, stirring every few minutes.
  5. After 25 minutes, pour in the half can of coconut milk. Stir and cook for another 20-30 minutes, until the wild rice is tender. Then add the turkey and chard leaves, and gently stir the leaves into the pot. Cook for 2-3 more minutes until the chard has wilted. Season with salt & pepper to taste, and stir in 1 tsp white wine vinegar to brighten the flavors a bit. Serve.

What’s your favorite way to re-invent the holiday leftovers? Share in the comments…


Grain Free Granola Bars (DIY Kind bars)

It’s no shock to any of my friends that I ve been pretty low energy and run down the last several months. Stress has been slowly eating at me, and the lack of a real vacation since last Christmas has me feeling a little dry and crispy at the edges. I am yearning for this week s Thanksgiving holiday, and can t wait for 4 days of laziness, cooking and relaxing at home.

I adore the foods, traditions and feeding the people I love on Turkey Day, but this year abdicating all responsibility to my aunt, uncle & cousins in the  burbs sounds like bliss. I’ll whip up a little gluten-free something to bring along, but this year, I’m kicking back and relaxing. Ahhhh.

Last month, Shauna wrote a post where she shared how she d been feeling tired, and slightly  off. She learned that she needed to give up eggs and almonds, and true to her generous spirit, she welcomed the challenge and headed to the kitchen to create. I love when the words of my blogging friends tickle the brain, spin around, and settle in…Shauna’s experience resonated with me…I know I’ve had problems with eggs in the past, and looking to get more of my energy back, I made an appointment with my amazing chiropractor/healer to do some nutritional testing to get to the bottom of things.

A snip of hair for analysis, and simple muscle testing to determine the foods, chemicals and metals that give me trouble, and we had the answers…eggs, corn, oats and soy were added to my  off-limits list for now…maybe not forever, because my reaction isn’t super severe, but for now, they’re outta here. Another run through muscle testing determined the supplements and dosage I would need to help heal my body, and I was on my way with a bag of herbs and a new regime. Such is life.

Of course I’m bummed about losing eggs and corn…two mainstays of many a grab ’n go meal of spicy egg & veggie tacos, chilaquiles, and omlettes, but after nearly 10 years in this food allergy rodeo, it’s no big deal. I’ve been stuck in a rut in the kitchen lately, and this new challenge gets my fingers tingling with anticipation to get cooking, and to learn a few new techniques. With the long holiday weekend ahead, this is the perfect time to take a deep breath, stock the pantry and reboot my kitchen, and my life.

Be KIND to your Guts Bars

I traveling frequently for work, which can leave those of us with food allergies high and dry, depending on where your flight lands. Larabars used to be my go-to road food, but I ate too many of them this summer, so I switched to the higher-end goodness of the Kind bars. At upwards of $2 a pop, they re not something I can afford to eat for breakfast every day. I was thrilled to see that Camilla, from Enlightened Cooking, had already paved the way for me in recreating the bars at home. A few twists of my own, and these bars came together in a snap, and now I m set with tasty bars to last me for a couple weeks, for the cost of about 3 Kind bars. This is my kind of cooking.

Grain Free Granola Bars
Adapted from Camilla’s Enlightened Cooking
Serves: 15, 3×4 bars

2 cups raw nuts, roughly chopped (I used 1 c hazelnuts, 1 c cashews)
1 cup raw seeds (I used pepitas and sunflower seeds)
1/3 cup unsweetened large coconut flakes
1/3 cup minced dried apricots
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup brown rice syrup
1 pinch ground cinnamon
1 pinch ground black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Scoop the chopped raw nuts and seeds onto a 1/4 sheet pan (9×13), and toast for 15 minutes, stirring at the 7 minute mark, to ensure the nuts don t burn. Add the coconut flakes when you stir.
  3. When the nuts are toasted, scoop them into a medium mixing bowl. Add the minced dried fruit and stir together.
  4. Pour the brown rice syrup, honey, salt, pinch of cinnamon and black pepper in a small bowl. Warm in the microwave on the lowest setting for 15-30 seconds to gently heat the syrup to make it easier to stir into the nuts and fruit.
  5. Pour the warmed syrup mixture over the nuts, using a spatula to ensure that you get every last drop. Stir the nuts and syrup together. Put a little elbow grease into it to ensure that all the fruit and nuts get an even glossy coating of syrup.
  6. Line the sheet pan with parchment paper, and spray with oil.
  7. Scoop the nut & fruit mixture onto the lined cookie sheet, and spread with a spatula. Next, spray a second sheet of parchment to cover the bars as you press the mixture firmly into the pan. Peel the top layer of parchment off when done pressing the bars together.
  8. Place the bars back in the oven for 15 minutes.
  9. Remove the bars from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes, then proceed to cut them while they re still slightly warm. If they fully cool before cutting, they will not slice into neat squares – they will break unevenly into shards.
  10. Gently lift the bars out of the pan by the parchment liner, and use a chef knife to slice the bars into squares while still on the parchment – otherwise they will stick.
  11. Once cut, use a butter knife to separate the bars from the paper, and store in a container with sheets of parchment between layers to prevent sticking. Store in the fridge for 2-3 weeks.

Cocoa Curry Coconut Granola Bars

Every woman needs a few close friends to stand in her corner. A sisterhood, a tribe – a handful of confidants that will always have your back, ask tough questions, and tell you when you’re full of it.

I found groups of girls difficult to navigate in my younger years…the rules were complex and politics were always changing. But in college, a fact as simple as a random room assignment in South Case Hall at Michigan State gave me the first sense that I had found a smart, fierce group of women to call sisters. Most of them are still close friends, though the miles and time between visits stretch farther as the years go by. But husbands, children and careers have made them no less dear to my heart.

At the end of my college years, I found a new tribe…a small feminist discussion forum on the web. We shared intimate details of our lives, joys and the frustrations that come with defining yourself as an adult, a woman, feminist, friend and lover. Behind screen names, we shared our innermost thoughts and struggles with honesty in a way that we rarely do in real life. The women (and some men) residing in these threads of conversation online burrowed deep into my heart and life, as real as the friends I hung out with on weekends. When I moved to Chicago in 2000, I learned that several of them lived in my new hometown. We met for brunch one summer morning – shy, and barely in our 20s…and our sisterhood evolved, transferring to the “real world.”

My beautiful feminist sisterhood. Chicago, October 2011. 

Thirteen years after meeting these women online, members of the forum flew in from all over the country to rent a house in Chicago for the weekend, to just hang out. The weekend started with a party on Friday night, and knowing that we all love to cook and eat good food, we made it a potluck affair. These dear women gave me the kick in the behind to start this blog in the first place – we had long rambling conversations online about food, and I always shared what was simmering on my stove. Bringing something to this potluck required some thought…I had a reputation to maintain, after all.

Needing something I could prep ahead, I settled on my signature granola bars as the symbol of my first gluten free experiments. These women witnessed my health transformation, and my frustration in learning to cook in a completely new way. When I first figured out how to make safe, delicious granola bars, it was a eureka moment I shared online first. But I wanted to dress things up a bit – try out a new savory, spicy combo, and so I dreamed up these coconut cocoa curry bars, inspired by Jeni’s Ice Creams recipe using the same flavors. These bars are a winner. Tweak the spices to your tastes – you might like more or less curry and heat than I do, but do try them. You won’t be sorry.

Then, share these bars with the women in your life who make your heart sing.

Granola bars
Makes about 30-35 bars (approx 3×3″)

5 cups gluten-free old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 cup chopped raw nuts
 (I used a mixture of chopped pecans, cashews and pepita seeds – use whatever nuts you like best)
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut (shredded)
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened peanut butter or almond butter
1/3 c honey
1/3 c brown rice syrup (available at Whole Foods or use all honey)
4 Tbsp butter
2.5 tsp madras (sweet) curry powder
1/4 tsp cayenne (optional)
1/3 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T vanilla extract
1 tsp Kosher salt
1/3 c finely chopped crystallized ginger, optional
Parchment paper

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Mix the nuts and oats on a full sheet pan. Toast the nuts and oats in the oven for 13 minutes, then stir, and sprinkle the 1/2 cup of coconut on top of the oats and bake for another 7 minutes. Remove from oven and pour the oat mixture into a large mixing bowl along with the chopped crystallized ginger, if you’re using it. Leave the oven on at 350 – you’ll need it later.
  3. Meanwhile, during the last 7-10 minutes of oat baking, combine the brown sugar, honey, brown rice syrup, peanut or almond butter, curry powder, cayenne, cocoa powder, butter, and salt into a small nonstick sauce pan over medium-low heat, stirring with a spatula until it all melts and is well incorporated with no lumps. Add the vanilla, stir and remove from the burner.
  4. Cut two pieces of parchment paper. The first piece of parchment should be large enough to cover the whole sheet pan, including folding up the sides of the pan. Cut a second smaller piece, just large enough for you to use to cover 1/4 of the bars to aid in pressing the bars together.
  5. When the 20 minutes of toasting the oats are complete, remove from the oven, and pour into your largest mixing bowl, along with the chopped crystallized ginger – stir it all up.
  6. Drizzle half of the hot “glue” (the sugar/butter mixture) over the oats and nuts in your mixing bowl and use a spatula to stir it all together, coating the oats evenly in the sweet goo. Pour the remaining glue over the mixture and continue to stir until everything is nicely coated.
  7. Place the large sheet of parchment paper over the sheet pan covering the entire bottom with overlap for the sides, then scoop the sticky oat mixture onto the pan. Use your spatula to smooth it out into a more-or-less even layer covering the whole pan. Next, take the second, smaller sheet of parchment and use it to cover part of the pan as you use your hands to firmly press the bars together into a tightly packed, even layer.
  8. Put the granola bars back in the oven for 4 minutes, then remove and set on a cooling rack until completely cooled before cutting.
  9. Cutting the bars: Pick up the whole pan of bars by the ends of the parchment, and turn upside down on a large cutting board. Peel the parchment away, and reserve, cutting the sheet into smaller pieces to lay between layers of bars in a large storage container or ziploc bag, to keep them from sticking.
  10. Use a large chef’s knife and firmly press down with the knife with a gentle rocking motion (do not saw at the bars), and cut your granola into whatever size bars you’d like. I usually get 5 rows of bars across the pan lengthwise, 7-8 bars per row. I also like to cut one row of the bars into two-bite super mini bars for smaller snacking size.
  11. Layer the bars in a large storage container, and slip pieces of the parchment between layers. Store in the fridge for up to 2-3 weeks, though I doubt they’ll last that long.
Girl Scouts Founder Juliette Gordon Lowe was kind enough to take a moment to snap a pic with me. 
…I have to thank the Girl Scouts of the USA for the inspiration to ponder what sisterhood has meant to me. I just returned from the 100th Anniversary Girl Scouts Convention in Houston, attended by 15,000 troop leaders, staff, and girl leaders. I was  there on behalf of a client, and totally drawn in by this huge group of women who laughed, smiled, and truly welcomed every single person as a member of their tribe. Girl Scouts definitely know the power of sisterhood, and I am grateful and humbled by the week spent with their leaders. 
What has sisterhood meant in your life? And what foods do you love to share with your closest friends?  Please share in the comments below. 

Smoky Bean Tacos with Chard

Fall is here, and with it come cold, damp, windy days tailor made for spending a morning puttering around in the kitchen. For the moment, I’m still excited by the cooler weather and bringing out my favorite cozy sweaters for the the first time…Come January, I  may be less excited, but for today – bring on the fall foods and Halloween spooks.

I’ve also had nearly 2 weeks now without traveling for work, and am beginning to feel my energy rebound. The house is a bit cleaner and I have more energy and time to get back to my kitchen. Mark and I also both took Friday off work and spent the whole day together. We saw close friends and remembered the joy of having a whole day together with nothing on the agenda. Bliss.

Friday evening, we spontaneously decided to check out the production of Count of Monte Cristo at Lifeline Theatre, just a few blocks from our house…and I am so glad we did. It was a stunning production that brought your forward in your seat as you were drawn into the Count’s intrigues, and once again, the sets and costumes at this small venue would not be out of place downtown in the theater district with the care and attention they put into every detail. If you live in Chicago, I’d highly recommend checking out the production which is playing through November 13.

A couple of weeks ago, Shauna wrote a beautiful post about her weekly pot of beans and using them to make breakfast tacos. Two weeks later, that post was still bumping around in my head, so I rummaged through the basket of beans in my pantry and came up with a small jar of my favorite Rancho Gordo Old Mother Stollard beans, which are perfect for tacos. The beans are nicely plump and can simmer a long time without exploding, while remaining creamy inside. In place of Stollards, I might recommend pintos – they will fall apart, but I like their creamy texture almost as much as the firmness of Stollards.

Bean Tacos with Chard
Serves 6

1 1/2 cups dried Rancho Gordo Old Mother Stollard Beans (or pintos)
1 carrot, snapped into a few pieces
2 stalks celery, cut in half
1 onion, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch chard, washed, leaves separated from stalks and reserved; mince stalks
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 T bacon fat or olive oil
1 T olive oil for sauteeing the chard leaves
1 ham hock (about 12oz – if you’re vegetarian, triple the smoked paprika to add a nice smoky flavor)
1 T chile con carne blend, or another chile powder you like
1 T ancho chile powder
3 T chipotle puree
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
salt & pepper to taste
Feta cheese & cilantro for garnish
fresh corn tortillas for serving

  1. The night before you plan to cook the beans, pour them into a large bowl and cover with 4-5 inches of water. Stollards will absorb a LOT of water.
  2. The next morning, heat a large dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add the bacon fat or olive oil and heat until shimmering. Add the minced onion, chard stalks and red bell pepper and saute for 5-8 minutes until the veggies begin to soften. Add the garlic and stir for one more minute.
  3. Drain the beans and pour into the pot. Add enough water to just cover the beans, then add another inch of water on top. Add the ham hock, carrot and celery. Cover, and bring to a boil. Once the beans boil for 5 minutes, turn the heat down to low, so that the beans are a low simmer, throwing up the occasional lazy bubble. Simmer uncovered for an hour and a half, at which point the beans will be mostly done.
  4. Remove the ham hock and set aside to cool. Add the spices to the pot: cumin, smoked paprika, chipotle puree, chile con carne and ancho chile powder, and a 1/2 tsp of salt. Stir the spices into the beans. The pot will still be pretty soupy at this point.
  5. Let the beans simmer on the stove for another 1-2 hours, until the broth is reduced to a spicy gravy, clinging to every bean. Stir the beans whenever you walk by, but they don’t need a whole lot of attention of fussing. When the beans are done, and most of the liquid has evaporated, shred the meat from the ham hock, removing any fat, and add back to the pot of beans.
  6. Sauteeing the chard: Tear the chard leaves into bite sized pieces. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large saute pan, and add the chard along with a pinch of salt. Toss and coat the greens in oil, and cook for 1-2 minutes, just until the greens wilt. Scoop the greens out of the pan and spread on top of the pot of beans, and move the pot to the table, so that everyone can scoop their own beans for tacos and garnish how they like.
It’s been awhile since I shared a Miracle photo. She would like you to know that she now OWNS the blue club chair in the living room. And you probably wouldn’t want to sit in it anyway, now that it’s covered in blonde fur. 

Peach Sour Cherry Popsicles

It’s SEPTEMBER. It’s also Labor Day – the unofficial end of Summer and last hurrah before the supposed serious stuff of Fall to come. I cannot get a grip on this. In my mind, summer is just starting…sadly, the dark mornings and early sunsets are telling a very different story. And then there’s the fact that it was 55 degrees at the Lakefront today. The sunny, summer months have slipped by me in the hurry and scurry of blogger conference season. BlogHer Food, evo, BlogHer and Healthy Living Summit…while only 4 weekends out of the summer season, I feel like I’ve been in the air and on the move too much, and so this three day weekend at home has been just the deep breath I needed.

The weekend tally of cooking is even larger than usual, because I had time to putter and create with little else on the agenda. Roast chicken, grilled steak, Southwestern black bean and millet salad, vegetable soup, granola bars, popsicles, and three batches of ice cream from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams cookbook. If you love frozen confections as much as I do – you need this book. The flavors are brilliant, and get this – Jeni’s recipes do not require a custard base, making the cooking much more forgiving than traditional ice creams. So do yourself a favor – buy her book, and whip up some fancy ice cream…my favorite of the trio I’ve made so far is her basil ice cream with pine nut pralines. Yeah. You need this cookbook.

And before Summer gets too far away from us, I have to share one more summer treat with you. Local peaches are in their prime in the Midwest right now, and they are on the table and in our lunch bags every day. You can’t go wrong with grilled peaches, drizzled with balsamic and sprinkled with wisps of fresh basil or a simple peach crisp, hot and bubbling from the oven. But this year’s peach revelation is a simple popsicle.

Peaches make wonderful sorbets and popsicles – the fruit has a high amount of natural sugar, and the flesh once frozen maintains an almost creamy texture, rather than icy. I like to add a bit of a twist to popsicles, so a dribble of white peach balsamic brightens the pops with an extra bump of acidity…but add a handful of tart sour cherries, and you have a truly sophisticated pop.

Peach Sour Cherry Popsicles
Makes 6 popsicles
2 cups of peeled, chopped peaches (in season)
1 cup sour cherries (fresh or frozen)
2 T honey
1 T white peach balsamic (Old Town Oils is my favorite source)
is my favorite source)

  1. Combine all ingredients in the blender and puree until completely smooth. Pour into the popsicle molds, then insert the stick/caps and freeze for at least 5 hours for a solid freeze.
  2. To unmold the popsicles, heat a pint glass of water in the microwave for a minute, then dunk the frozen pops for a minute, remove from the water and gently unmold the popsicles. Enjoy.

What’s your favorite popsicle flavor – store-bought or homemade? Share in the comments below.