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Scary, no? Fortunately, this was just one marathon washing session that I embarked upon after unpacking lots of shower gifts.  Still, it’s a very different kitchen counter than the one I’m accustomed to seeing….

When Bryce and I first glimpsed our house, its tiny backyard was a jungle of Southern-grown weeds.  Fortunately, its seller mowed that down before we moved in, leaving us with a similarly unattractive but less inconvenient plot of dirt.  We took a hands off approach to the yard during the winter and resolved to put it to good use, or at least make it less of an eyesore, come spring.

A badly photographed glimpse into the yard

A badly photographed glimpse into the yard

So now that spring – or is it summer? We’ve got temps in the high 80’s today – is here, we’ve finally given our attention to making a garden from our pit o’ mud and weeds.  I spent a few days slowly turning over the earth with a little trowel, only to be rescued by Bryce, who sauntered in with the big shovel and finished the job in under an hour. D’oh!

While Bryce churned up the ground, I busied myself with a few other tasks.  First, I emptied the pots from last year’s balcony garden.  The parsley and sage from that batch appeared to be attempting a comeback, but they were tough, discolored, and not really worth saving.

The large black box is our worm composting house.

The large black box is our worm composting house.

Then, I tackled the first plantings for our new herb garden.  I started with pots, seeds, and compacted soil that my sister-in-law Aubrey gave me back in December.  It’d all been sitting on our porch ever since, just waiting – like me – for warmer days.

The setup

The setup

I’ve never grown a thing from seed (wait, there are a few pregnancy jokes here, no?), but planting the chives, basil, and parsley was a pretty straightforward process.  After I loosened the soil disks in water, I filled each pot and pushed in a dozen seeds with the eraser of a pencil.  Then, I got to play chalk-artist:

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It’s kind of amazing how much work goes into transforming a yard, even a small one like ours.  A 4′x18′ plot separated by a sidewalk from a 10′x18′ plot isn’t much, but for a busy medical student and a physically restricted pregnant woman, it is a slow-moving project.  Our work on it comes in fits and starts, so my updates will, too!  Next time, I’ll tell you more about our herb garden and the signs of life in those pots.

Now that temperatures in Charleston have edged over the 80° mark, I don’t leave the house without something cold to drink.  Usually, that drink is water.  But once in awhile, I get awfully bored with the clear stuff, and a squeeze or two of lemon just isn’t enough to revive my interest.  At times like those, I really miss iced tea, which I can’t have much of these days.

Yes, it seems pregnancy is going to pervade this blog.  Is it too late to change the name?

Anyway, necessity being the mother of invention and all that, I’ve since found a few recipes for refreshing drinks that neither contain caffeine nor have the ability to leech iron or folic acid (tea, it turns out, is a sneaky little bastard. Who knew?).  One of my favorites comes from the newer of the two Gourmet cookbooks; it’s a fruity, healthy concoction called “Agua Fresca.”

Because the recipe begs for adaptation, I’m going to ditch my usual scrupulousness about copyright laws and tell you exactly how to make it.  I hope Ruth Reichl doesn’t smite me!

To prepare an agua fresca, all you really need is a blender and some basic ingredients:  two cups of cold water, one cup of ice cubes, 1/4 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon of lime juice, and 2 cups of your favorite tropical-esque fruit.  Following Gourmet’s suggestion, I often use pineapple (frozen works fine, and is so easy!) with a few basil leaves thrown in.  I’ve also used strawberry and basil, subbing lemon juice for the lime.

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Once you add the ingredients to the blender, run it until the drink looks smooth and free of big pieces of fruit.  The book suggests forcing the blended liquid through a sieve to make sure it’s lump-free, but I tend to run the blender for eons and skip that step.  Here’s what it’ll look like if you do that, though:

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Side note: Do not buy this Kenmore blender. It is dreadful.

After an hour or so in the refrigerator, the drinks are cold, smooth, and ready to enjoy. They’re a tasty way to get a serving or two of fruit, and they look really fun in tall glasses, too.  And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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The basil gives these their green tint.

Now that I’m eating for one and a quarter – he’s  not so very big! -  my decisions about what to cook have taken on even more importance.  I spent hours flipping through my cookbooks before, and now I spend…well, even more hours.  One of the food issues that pregnancy has raised my awareness of is the mercury content in seafood.  While fish are a great source of protein and Omega-3 fatty acids, some also swim about with loads of mercury under their scales, adding to their stash as they get bigger and older.  I’m not so well-informed about just how bad mercury is for babies – or for me! – but the idea of ingesting the silvery gunk from the bottom of thermometers just doesn’t appeal to me.

Fortunately, I’ve learned that some varieties of seafood carry much less metal than others.*  Most shrimp, for instance, are relatively low in mercury, but still packed with protein and DHA.  And another of my favorites, clams, has a similar profile.  So after much cookbook-flipping a few nights ago, I set out to steam clams with shallots, butter, and beer (Yes, I’m still using it in cooking.  No, I’m not drinking it.).

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I love cooking clams because, unlike almost any food I can think of, they come with a built-in timer.  If a clam opens, it’s cooked through, simple as that.  There’s no guessing, poking, or slicing involved, and no anxiety about whether you’re risking infection by eating underdone meat.  And as long as you remove a clam from heat pretty quickly after it opens, there’s almost no way you’ll overcook it.  Beat that, chicken breasts!

Because the clams yield a flavorful sauce once they’re out of the pan, I also steamed small potatoes to accompany them.  Once they soak up the sauce, the potatoes transform from boring to buttery, with a touch of bitterness from the beer.  And because babies need vegetables too, I also prepared one of my new favorite recipes, carrots roasted with garlic and thyme.  After a quick sear-n-saute, halved carrots cook in the oven for about 20 minutes.  When they’re tender and well-browned, I squeeze the roasted garlic cloves over them – it’s an incredibly satisfying dish.

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I usually don't peel my carrots.

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Aside from the carrots, which take a little while in the oven, the components of this meal came together quickly and without much work on my part.  Did I mention I love cooking clams?

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Between the clam shells and the pale potatoes, this meal made for a pretty monochromatic presentation.  Bryce and I ate it too quickly to mind, though, and the baby isn’t much of a critic, just yet. I hear that will come!

*For more information on seafood sustainability and mercury content, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s well-regarded site.

A funny thing happened around the time that I made my last post.  First, my daily green tea began inciting a queasy feeling in my stomach.  Next, the smell of Bryce cooking eggs made me want to flee the kitchen forever.  And finally, I started to wonder if my Saturday morning trips to the farmers’ market were really worth the energy.

You see where this is headed, right?  Flash forward to five months since my post, and I looked like this:

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In the time it took me to generate that big ol’ belly, I didn’t feel much like cooking, much less writing about the aroma and taste of food.  I also kept busy moving into a new house, and studying for and taking PhD exams in Chapel Hill.

This is all to say: a lot has changed since August!  But now that things have settled down a bit, I’m ready to start cooking, eating, and writing all about it on the blog.  So I hope you’ll check back soon for my usual dining posts, which I’ll be supplementing with tales of first-time gardening, joining and using a CSA, and, come fall, making baby food.

For now, I’m off to raise a glass to the new and improved dinewithdanielle.  Ah, milk.

When I’m planning to cook with pecans, I usually purchase large bags of shelled nuts.  They’re a great snack to have on hand, and I never worry that they’ll go to waste.  I often eat them raw and straight from the bag, one sneaky handful at a time.  After I made Pecan Sandies, though, I had so many pecans left over that decided to try coating the nuts with a mix of bolder flavors.

Frank Stitt’s recipe for Spiced Pecans is literally something you can throw together in minutes.  While the raw pecans browned in the oven, I stirred together melted butter, olive oil, rosemary, cayenne, salt, pepper, and dark brown sugar in a large bowl.  The only thing that required chopping was the fresh rosemary, which is easy to strip from its woody stems.

Pecan Seasoning

After about 10 minutes, I tossed the warm pecans into the spiced coating.  The mix smelled so strongly of rosemary that I was a little worried; I like the herb, but its scent overpowered everything else in the kitchen!

Spiced Pecans

I needn’t, it turns out, have worried.  As long as you chop the rosemary finely enough, no one pecan has enough of the herb to overwhelm its flavor.  Set out with deviled eggs and dill pickles from the farmers’ market, these pecans made an appealing and addictive Southern appetizer!

If I’ve written a lot about cooking for guests lately, it’s because that’s what I’ve spent a lot of my summer doing!  We’ve been lucky enough to have friends and family visiting on a near-weekly basis, and I always try to have something yummy and homemade ready when they arrive.  We don’t often do full blown dinners – part of the fun of visiting Charleston is, after all, sampling its amazing restaurant scene – but we like to have something on hand.  When Bryce’s brother Daniel and his wife, Aubrey, came to visit, I made a batch of Frank Stitt’s Pecan Sandies.

I’d looked forward to trying this recipe from the day I noticed it in Stitt’s book.  Though his other desserts appear equally or more tempting than the sandies, I loved the idea of making my own slice-and-bake cookies.  Truth be told, rolling, cutting, and baking them yourself is much more fun that just buying a tube of Pillsbury in the supermarket.

The sandies start with oven-toasted pecans, coarsely chopped.

Chopping Pecans

Folded into an intensely buttery batter, the pecans lend it a coarse texture.  So I was surprised, as I scraped the batter from the mixing bowl, by how soft and easy to handle it was.  It felt almost like fluffy nougat, or an unusually dense meringue, as I rolled it into a log.

Pecan Sandies RollOnce it had chilled for a half hour, the batter was ready for slicing and baking.  I divided slices between two parchment-lined baking sheets, and crossed my fingers while they browned in the oven.

Pecan Sandies

Soon, my not-quite-round sandies were finished and ready to eat!  They were vaguely crisp but also delicate, ready to dissolve as soon as they entered my mouth.  Buttery and studded with plenty of pecan pieces, they tasted much better than their Keebler cousins, too!

I think Pecan Sandies are an ideal cookie to make in advance when you’re preparing to welcome good friends.  Because they’re not too sweet, they work just as well as an afternoon snack as they do a low-key dessert.  They also keep well for a few days, so you won’t be scrambling around the kitchen while your friends are out sight-seeing.  Just be sure not to make them too far in advance – if you do, your supply might run out before your guests even arrive!

We’ve had a lot to celebrate here in Charleston.  New friends, visits from old friends, a scholarship or two, and sightseeing with our families has kept us busy and happy, mindful of the blessing of summer.  Most recently, we celebrated Bryce’s white coat ceremony at MUSC, which took place on Saturday.

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Special events like this one usually call for feasting, and Bryce’s ceremony was no exception.  Over the weekend, we had a dinner and dessert downtown, cocktails at too many restaurants to count, sunset seafood  at the Isle of Palms, and an Italian brunch on John’s Island.  For someone who loves food as much as I do, it was a heady, downright dizzying weekend!

After so much extravagant eating, though, Bryce and I sometimes feel the need to do penance by eating simple, healthy meals at home.  When the time for atonement comes, we often turn to the Mayo Clinic Cookbook, a guide to health-conscious cooking designed by the famous medical institute.  It’s recipes include nutritional breakdowns beside their ingredients, which are often fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.

One of the best summer recipes in their book is for Squash with Leek Vinaigrette.  Sliced and steamed, the squash – and in my case, zucchini – are a perfect foil for a flavorful vinaigrette built around chopped leeks.

Chopped Leeks

Humble as they may be, leeks are one of my favorite foods.  Like larger, milder scallions, they’re fairly inexpensive and easy to use, but they lend lots of fresh flavor to soups, sauces, and even this vinaigrette.  To make it, I softened the leeks in olive oil, then added them to vegetable stock, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

While the leeks sauteed, I steamed yellow squash and zucchini in a covered pan.  When they were tender but still firm, I tossed them into the vinaigrette and sat down to eat.

Squash and Zucchini

These vegetables would make a great side dish to grilled meat or fish, or even grilled portobello mushrooms.  Served atop rice, though, they can be a satisfying meal all on their own.

Squash with Leek Vinaigrette

With recipes as flavorful as this one, even foodie penance doesn’t seem so bad.

I love trying new recipes almost as much as I love eating at new restaurants.  Sometimes, though, I get stuck on a particular combination of ingredients and find myself cooking it again and again.  That’s exactly what happened when I found Ina Garten’s recipe for onion dip, which she enhances with plenty of golden, caramelized slices of onion.  Whenever I have weekend guests, I follow Ina’s lead by keeping a container of the dip and a big bag of Cape Cod chips on hand.

I usually use yellow onions in the dip, though sweet varieties work well, too.  Halved and thinly sliced with a serrated knife, they’re ready for long, slow cooking in a frying pan.

slicing onions

The slices look overwhelming  in number when they hit the pan, but they quickly condense as they cook in oil and butter.  Ina recommends browning them over high heat, then lowering the temperature to finish them gently.  Speckled with salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne, the onions smell homey and comforting.

Browning Onions

Caramelizing Onions

When the onions were a rich, translucent gold, I let them cool to room temperature.  I whisked sour cream, softened cream cheese, and mayonnaise together in the meantime, creating a creamy base for the dip.  Combined with the onions and the pan oils, the dip took on an amber hue.

onion dip

Served at room temperature, Ina’s onion dip is dangerously addictive.  Imagine the best store bought type you’ve ever had, then give it more subtle sweetness and a taste that’s lighter despite being rich with butter.  Sounds good, right?

I most recently made the dip when Bryce’s brother, Daniel, and his wife, Aubrey, came to visit, and it barely survived a day!  We pulled it out of the fridge between meals and even carted it to the beach in a cooler.  The dip is so good, in fact, that I’ve had to make a kitchen rule:  because it so completely saps my restraint, this stuff only gets made when we have visitors.  It’s a tough rule to follow, but its also entirely necessary.

Help Wanted

Dear Friends of Dinewithdanielle.com,

I need your help!  In the next day or so, I’m planning to send a few samples of my writing to local publications.  Hopefully, they’ll like what they see and will send an assignment my way.  If you’ve been following the blog, could you comment on this post – or on the Facebook page – and name one or two of your favorite posts?  Which have you found the most interesting?  The most well-written?  Strongest overall? Which sounds most like it could be in a magazine or newspaper? I’d love to hear your picks before I decide what to send around.

If you comment here, only I will see your email address.  And here’s a secret about that: you can put whatever you want in that box, real address or fake. No one will be the wiser, either way.  If you’re so inclined, you can even use a fake name!

Thanks for your opinions and your help.

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