Best Loved Recipes: Fourth of July

Food

In my mind, every holiday is basically about food on some level. The Fourth of July conjures memories of grilled burgers and hot dogs, buttery corn on the cob, potato salad, and juicy watermelon slices, all served on flimsy, flowery paper plates. I love summer food — messy, informal, and delicious — and that’s one reason I love the Fourth of July.

Growing up, my family didn’t go all out with fireworks (which was maybe for the best because it sure cuts down on the potential for injuries) but we did attend the Fourth of July Parade in the nearest town almost every year. It was everything you could want from a small-town Southern parade: homemade floats and vintage cars, boy scouts and baton twirlers, unintentionally scary clowns and Shriners in their mini cars. We would camp out on the side of the road with picnic food and lawn chairs and spend the entire morning eating, chatting, and watching the parade. Inevitably, someone on one of the floats had a super soaker and aimed it at the crowd, and as kids we pined for splash of cold water in the sweltering heat, even if the cooling effect quickly faded and left us sticker and sweatier than before.

My mom — who has always loved things that are kitschy and quirky — found a plastic snowman at a church rummage sale before the parade one year. She bought it on the spot and proudly set it up in one of our chairs for everyone to see. For the rest of the day, she joked about celebrating Christmas in July and said that we should make our own float next year with Santa on it. I was 11 that summer, just on the cusp on adolescence, and while I was homeschooled and a late bloomer, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t already developing a keen sense of embarrassment when it came to my parents. Mild mortification was my primary emotion over the plastic snowman. Still, I obligingly posed for a picture with it and now it brings back fond memories.

Fourth_of_July

While burgers and corn on the cob are very important, one dish that will always make me think of summer is pie — peach pie, to be exact. In my teens I decided that I would perfect the art of making pie crust from scratch. I baked pies all summer long (my family was delighted), and I think it’s the ideal all-American dessert for your Fourth of July party. Pie crust is a little tricky, but it’s worth it. And once you get the hang of it, it’s really quite simple.

My Favorite Peach Pie

The recipe below is from my copy of the Joy of Cooking, but Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen also has a great all-butter pie crust recipe and some excellent advice.

Pie Crust
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
6 tb cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup cold vegetable shortening
6 tb ice water

Mix the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add in the chunks of cold butter and shortening and use a pastry blender (it’s well worth the investment, trust me) to cut the butter/shortening mix into the flour until it has a pebbly consistency. If there are some slightly larger bits of butter, don’t worry, that makes a flaky crust! Then add the ice water a little bit at a time and blend until the the dough just barely sticks together. Cut the dough in half, wrap each disk in plastic wrap, and chill it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Don’t skip this step — if the butter in your dough gets warm it’s impossible to roll out and you won’t get those nice flaky layers in the finished crust.

While the pie dough is chilling out, make the filling. I love peach pie, but I won’t be getting any local peaches in Ohio anytime soon. If local is your thing or if you don’t like peaches, find another recipe for a different fruit filling. (But if you don’t like peaches, I’m sorry, there’s something wrong with you.)

Pie Filling
2 1/2 lb peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced into 1/4 in pieces
1/2 cup sugar
3 tb flour or cornstarch
3 tb lemon juice
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix all the filling ingredients in a bowl and let stand for a few minutes. Roll out your bottom crust and lightly press it into a 9 inch pie pan (I find it helpful to gently fold the dough in half, lift it into the pan, and then unfold it). Trim off the excess crust, but be sure to leave at least an inch hanging over so you can crimp the top and bottom together. Pour the peach filling into the pan and then roll out the second crust and place it over the top. Crimp the edges and remember to cut four vents in the top crust. If you like, brush the top with a little milk and sprinkle on some extra sugar. I almost always forget this step, but my pies turn out just fine without it.

Bake the pie at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until the crust is set and beginning to brown. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 and bake for another 30-35 minutes until the filling is bubbling over and the crust is a deep golden brown. You can place a cookie sheet under the pie to protect your oven from the bubbling fruit juices and if the crust gets too brown before the filling is done, just cover it with some tin foil to prevent further browning.

After it’s done baking, let the pie cool before you slice into it, otherwise it will still be very runny. Don’t get upset if your pie isn’t picture perfect. I like my pies to be homely and rustic, personally. And once you serve it up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it will be gone before you can blink.

Thanksgiving

Community, Food, Gratitude, Musings

I love Thanksgiving. Yes, it can be stressful. Yes, I think the Black Friday hoo-ha is awful. Yes, that whole spiel about pilgrims and Indians seems kinda icky and colonialist when you actually learn some more U.S. history. But I still love it. I love the cozy feeling of cooking and eating and relaxing with loved ones — ideally, for me, Thanksgiving hits pause for a few days during all the craziness of this time of the year. I also love pie and Thanksgiving is the ultimate pie holiday.

Pumpkin Pie Slice

(Click for source.)

This year, I have a great deal to be thankful for. I’ve been fretting about money a lot lately (health insurance and student loan payments are both really expensive), but this morning I sat down and wrote about all the things I do have, instead of the things I don’t. It feels so cheesy and forced to try and work yourself into a state of gratitude, and sometimes that applies to Thanksgiving as well. But I’ve learned that cultivating gratitude takes work, and even when it feels cheesy, it’s worth it.

One of the reasons I started this blog is because my mom was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, and that has a way of turning all your priorities upside down. She just finished her treatment this week. After a long, hard year, she’s on the road to being well. In fact, she will be just fine. Better than fine. Words cannot begin to convey how thankful I am to have her in my life. I can’t wait to celebrate with her and the rest of my family. Really, I say this without sanctimoniousness, but what is a tight budget compared to that? I have a home, a job that gives me time off for the holiday, a wonderful husband, and a loving family. I am thankful.

I hope you all have safe, warm, happy Thanksgivings.

Wellness Challenge: Final Thoughts

Food, Wellness

This month’s challenges have yielded interesting results. The most surprising? I actually want to go the gym now. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe my body finally got sick of sitting around all day. Maybe I just had to get used to the routine. Maybe I’m hooked on the endorphins. Maybe it’s all three. At any rate, I’m digging the way I feel after a tough workout.

Changing up my meals has been harder. Switching my breakfast (pb on toast with some coffee) and lunch (whatever is in the fridge, usually dinner leftovers) routine has taken some creative shopping and some prep work. Some days are still hit or miss, but I’m working on it. Fortunately, I already like eating vegetables, so that part isn’t hard.

Million-dollar question: has all of this made me more grateful? I think I have to say “yes, but …” Yes, but it’s not enough on its own. Yes, but I haven’t transformed into a perky workout goddess. Yes, but I still feel really crappy and ungrateful sometimes.

Taking good care of myself doesn’t automatically make me more grateful, or more zen, or whatever. But it does make me more predisposed to feel calm, centered, and grateful. These days I feel better about my body. I feel grateful for my health. I feel calmer and more grounded during stressful events and minor crisis (and I’ve had a lot of those this month, I’m afraid).

So, while I intend to stick to my new routines, it’s August now. Time to move onto something different. That post will come next week because (lucky me) I’m going on vacation again for a few days. I’ll hopefully have my toes in the sand, looking out over the ocean with cold drink in hand by tomorrow afternoon.

Wellness Challenge, Week Three in Review

Food, Wellness

Goal #1: Workout 3-4 times a week.

Only hit two this week, but I am SORE so maybe easing back into it after vacation was the right idea.

Goal #2: Pack and eat healthy snacks.

Not bad. Almonds are my new best friend!

Goal #3: Eat all the veggies.

Again, no CSA box this week thanks to our vacation time, but we did plan some veggie-centric dinners. I’ve been keeping up with my spinach smoothie habit (I added tofu to them too, and love the creaminess).

It’s actually been hit or miss this week. But I am giving myself some credit because playing catch up after being out of town is hard. Once upon a time, I would have taken it as an excuse to get take out and skip the gym. So I feel heartened that these routines are become exactly that — routine.

Next week I’ll be wrapping up by reflecting on whether or not this set of challenges has actually made me more grateful – or at least more inclined to feel grateful and content. In the meantime, enjoy the weekend. I’m volunteering with Habitat for Humanity tomorrow, so wish me luck. (Looks like I’ll just be doing paint prep and other things not too far outside my skill level — like, you know, roofing, or something.)

TGIF.

Vegan Accomplishments (Plus, What Next?)

Food, Uncategorized, Wellness

Project part-time veganism is starting to gel — yesterday I put only vegan ingredients in my Chipotle burrito bowl (I gazed a little wistfully at the cheese, it’s true, but it was still a tasty lunch). Now, I’m eating a tofu spinach scramble as I write this. Tofu! I feel proud of myself. I also feel like a limp noodle because lifting weights after a week off is hard. But I think these things have helped me settle in again after the severe disappointment of coming back from vacation.

Only six days left in the wellness challenge. But I’ve already accomplished the real goal: set up healthy routines. I intend to keep on exercising and eating better, even after this month is over. I feel good. I’m grateful for that, and I’m excited for the next thing.

What is next? I’m still brainstorming, but I’ve been having lots of conversations lately about community and friendship. I’m beginning to realize that having a community of folks to rely on, bounce ideas of off, commiserate and celebrate with is just vital. On so many levels. And it requires attention and care to build that. But how do I tackle that? How do you maintain your friendships? How should I set goals?

Today I’m thankful for: the new water bottle that I finally broke down and bought. So worth it to have one that doesn’t leak.

Part-Time Vegan

Food, Wellness

I think I’m going to become a part-time vegan.

I’ve chosen this month to focus on my body and building healthy habits, but it’s something that’s been slowly gaining momentum in my life for the past few years. And that’s the only reason why I was able to type that sentence above.

In college, I had many vegetarian and vegan friends (probably thanks to the fact that I attended tiny liberal arts school that focused on social justice and environmentalism). But despite my friends’ influence, swearing off animal products always seemed out of reach for me personally. No meat? No cheese? No way. Besides, in college food was mostly just fuel. I didn’t put much thought into what I ate, even after I started cooking for myself senior year. I grazed a lot. I ate at weird times. I hit the books a lot more than the gym. It didn’t matter: I avoided the “Freshman 15” and my weight was always steady.

But today —  two years after graduation and two years into a desk job and “adulthood” — I’m considering going vegan … at least part-time.

Farmers' Market

(Image via NatalieMaynor)

I’m halfway through Mark Bittman’s VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . for Good. It’s a “diet” that can be summed up like this: eat strictly vegan all day until dinner and then you can eat whatever you want (within reason). It also requires a commitment to eating whole foods and eliminating highly processed junk.

I’ve always found news stories on diets and the latest nutritional science confusing, conflicting, overwhelming, and depressing. So I’ve avoided it all like the plague and eaten whatever seemed good to me. I don’t eat much fast food, so I figured I was fine.

Except that I wasn’t. I was okay, but I gained some weight and got a mild scolding from my doctor. (“Just don’t add on ten pounds every year.” Okay, thanks doc.) In the meantime, I read about the industrial food system. I started exploring the local farmers’ market, picking out produce I’d never cooked with before, and giving it a whirl in the kitchen. It was fun. My husband and I planned some vegetarian dinners every week. Then I joined a CSA, which means a reliable stream of produce even if I accidentally sleep in on Saturday mornings. I’m now convinced that consuming more plants and less meat is a pretty sound approach to eating.

But I hit a wall because I’m not sure how to incorporate more veggies at breakfast and lunch. I rely on dinner leftovers and last-minute meals. I don’t put much thought into my snacks. I let my blood sugar get low at work. I rely on carbs too much. That’s why I’ve turned to Mark Bittman’s new book. I’ve fallen in love with his no-nonsense, compassionate writing about food. I trust Bittman because he understands that eating is personal, cultural, and social — and that it should be pleasurable. His version of a “diet” is more of a lifestyle change — adaptable, flexible, and sustainable. Hence the “six o’clock” rule. I have no desire to give up meat and cheese all together. However, this book provides much-needed structure (for me at least) when it comes to recipes, meal planning, etc. so that I can get more veggies.

I’m excited, nervous, and oddly emotional about embarking on some new eating habits. But I figure that if I want to truly feed myself well (mind and body) this is another step along the path I’ve already been on.

Today I’m grateful for: Mark Bittman! Seriously, I’d recommend this book to anyone.