A Splendid Supply of Surprising Sweets

The adventurous and interesting Tami Clayton invited me to play a game of letters (my favorite kind). The rules: reveal 10 of your favorite things that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet.

My letter (in case the post title didn’t give it away): S!


Stories: Escape into magical worlds. Power to change the real world. What I want to spend my life writing and reading.

Spices: Cooking has never been so interesting!

Sliding ladders: Ohhh, I want one so much!! Or I could just move into a library that has them.

Shakespeare: The love of my literary life (minus the earring). The genius bard of the Western world. Themes as relevant today as they were in the 16th century. Need I say more?

Sunshine: Just one of the many great reasons to be living in California again!

Scotland: The windswept land of bagpipes and legends, monks and poets, caber tossing and lovely accents–my second-favorite place in the world (after home, of course).

Springtime: My favorite season of the year!

Singing: I like to shatter windows with the high notes. (Actually, I just like imitating Hayley Westenra in the shower, on my church praise team, and when I have the house to myself.)

Sincerity: One of the characteristics I value most in friends (and in literary characters).

Socks: These are not my feet. But I kind of wish they were. My favorite Tinker Bell pair got a hole in them, but I do have a pretty awesome pair of knee-high blue-and-green argyles.

What are your favorite S-things? If you have a blog and want to play the letter game, leave me a comment and I’ll send you a starting letter via Facebook or Twitter!

The Great Potato Revolution

Well, you asked for it…another installment in my Britain story. This one’s going to have to be abbreviated, as time is short this weekend, but today we’re traveling to Dingle (An Daingean), in County Kerry, Ireland!

Two years ago yesterday, I was in a grocery store. My study abroad group of about twenty-five students was staying in a “self-catering” youth hostel–which means basically that beds, showers, and pots and pans are provided for you; the rest is do-it-yourself. Like a bed and breakfast, minus the breakfast. Hence, the grocery store.

By this time, we’d been in the British Isles for three weeks. One food group had grown very old: potatoes. Yes, the Brits think that potatoes are a food group (no offense to my British friends :)). I have nothing against potatoes, but seriously, everything included them. Everything. In a hostel in northern England, the menu one night consisted of shepherd’s pie (mushy peas and beef topped with mashed potatoes), with a side of–what else? Jacket (baked) potatoes!  

At any rate, three weeks in, with a grocery store at our fingertips, we college students wanted some potato-free fare. We were going to split into groups and take turns making dinner for everyone. As a Spanish-speaking Californian, I suggested Mexican food. Nice break, right?

Except that the SuperValu store had still other ideas about types of food groups. Items plentifully stocked: brown soda bread, canned baked beans, granola bars called “Elevenses.” Items not stocked: tortilla chips, black beans, sour cream, guacamole. Salsa existed, but was priced at an arm, a leg, and a sack of pirate gold. Hm.

Potatoes were not an option. Potatoes were never an option. So we compromised. Bought Irish soda bread and saved it for sandwiches (best bread ever). Skipped the chips and salsa/guacamole. Discovered that Irish beef tastes pretty Mexican when mixed with taco seasoning and stacked on tortillas under lots of cheese. But the best part was cooking together with friends, the spicy, familiar smells rising around us, in a sunny kitchen on the other side of the world.

And no potatoes.

Cooking Up Some Creativity

Cooking, for me, is like writing. More than just a way of putting food on the table, it’s play: from visualizing a new dish off a recipe card to shopping for a tantalizing array of colors and flavors to actually transforming the textures and smells of the ingredients into a beautiful, edible finished product. I have a few staples that I make over and over for their yum value, but I really enjoy the discovery process of experimenting with new recipes.
It’s a good thing, too, because I’m on the last three weeks of a 2-month gluten-free, low-glycemic diet (“paleolithic” for those interested), which my doctor ordered for health reasons. That means no flour products of any kind, almost no sugar, and limited amounts of any starch (brown rice, sweet potatoes, etc.). Fun, right? It’s been tough to keep coming up with new recipes, but at the same time, it’s challenged me to try some dishes that push the boundaries of normal.
This week? Pumpkin soup. Normal was definitely pushed. 
I found the recipe in a stray copy of Sunset magazine. You can find it here (I skipped the pesto, though). 
The adventure started with the shopping. The Halloween pumpkins I was planning on using turned out to not only be the wrong variety, but were also all rotten and squishy on the bottom. Gross. Went to the store to buy a new pumpkin. While I was there, I also found a large nub of fresh ginger—something I’d never cooked with before! Threw it in the shopping basket.
Next up: no coriander in the house. Mom thinks it tastes nasty. So last Saturday, I made a visit to Penzey’s Spices in Palo Alto with my gourmet friends Whitney and Jordyn. What an amazing place! I’d never seen whole vanilla pods or knew that there were four colors of pepper before. When we were done making ourselves sneeze on the wonderful aromas of lavender, cinnamon, and ground ancho chilies, I came away with a mix called Balti, which included coriander and more ginger as well as some less familiar names, like dundicut chilies, fenugreek, and charnushka (hope you don’t get stuck with those on your next spelling test).
Assembling the ingredients felt like play, but the actual cooking felt like a long trek uphill: a bit like the writing process. It will be a long time before I attempt to peel and cube a pumpkin again. After an hour, I had a bowlful of misshapen orange blocks, but I also had a cramped right hand, two blunted knives and a peeler, and pumpkin shrapnel all over the kitchen. And I do mean all over.
Not to be beaten by a squash, however, I began to sauté the onion and ginger. Lots of ginger. Having never cooked with this science-fictiony brown root before, maybe I got a little over-eager. What was I going to do with a bunch of leftovers, anyway?
When the blended soup finally made it onto the table, the kitchen smelled great. That is, until the taste of gunpowder eliminated our ability to smell anything. All that ginger I’d gotten excited about? Plus the coriander-ginger spice mix? Whoops. Even yogurt couldn’t cool it down to safe levels.
I must say, my family is one of the most patient and longsuffering I know. They courageously finished their bowls, and didn’t even throw them at me. But the remainder of the pumpkin soup certainly traveled with me to Bible study on Wednesday night, where the adventurous Jordyn kindly took it off my hands.
I guess part of experimentation is making mistakes. When you try recipes that are off the beaten path, it’s a risk: not every one will be the next family winner, or even taste like human food. Some will be a constant circus of mishaps (e.g.: continuing to find flecks of pumpkin peel stuck to the window).
But it certainly keeps life from getting boring. Maybe I won’t be making this particular pumpkin soup again, but I’ll keep playing with flavors and textures. It keeps me from getting stuck in ruts (and certainly beats airline tickets for budget adventures).  
And maybe creativity feeds more creativity: the day after my pumpkin soup adventure, I wrote the first words of Draft 2 of my children’s novel!

What’s your latest creative endeavor? Successful or otherwise? I’d love to hear your story!