Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In Instagram, Restaurant Inspiration: Uncle and Chilled Tofu

Last week I read a post on Brooklyn Supper that had me reminiscing about our final days in New York and our first days in Colorado (which, I can't believe, is now almost two years ago). 
When we moved out here, I left a large circle of friends and family back east. I knew a few people in Denver, but I didn't know anyone really well. I decided to do the only thing one can do in such a situation: I hit the ground running. I explored almost every neighborhood in the city and I talked to everyone in sight (I've been described as loquacious, which I think is a nice way of saying, she talks a lot). I figured it was a numbers game; if I chatted with at least 25 people per week, at some point, I would click with someone. So I went to children's reading classes at the public library and picnicked at every playground and park in the Denver. And now some of the people that I met in those early days are some of my closest friends in Colorado.
Hold-out, selfie, ladies night
Tina was one of the first people I met when we got to town. I can't remember how our first interaction actually materialized, but I feel like it had something to do with my now-defunct WNYC tote bag (yes, I was the sucker who donated during the pledge drive) and a food-related conversation I had with her husband. Within about 5 minutes we realized that we had lived only a few blocks away from each other in Brooklyn, and we had a lot in common. It was also pretty convenient that we had children the same age.
For more than a year we had weekly play dates, sometimes meeting up more than once for a museum outing or a hike. But now that we've both taken on a few work-related projects, there isn't as much free time. And since my eldest son is in part-time pre-school, and her daughter is in a full-time program, we don't see each other as much as we used to.
Sad, yes, but that's why there's ladies night! (Holla.) I used to feel guilty about going out, but now I realize that those adult-only interactions make me a better mother, a better me and a better friend. I can concentrate on the conversation we're having without looking over my shoulder to see where my kids are or what they are up to. And to be honest, sometimes I just need a break. 
So we went to Uncle, and ate, drank and caught up. It was great.

Uncle, which is in the Highlands section of Denver, takes inspiration from Momofuku and puts out one fabulous plate after the other. We started off with the chilled tofu (served with ginger, scallion, soy vinaigrette and wakame) and fried green tomato steamed buns. Then I got a giant bowl of udon with mushrooms, which hit the spot. I'm a huge fan of finishing off my meal with something sweet, so we ordered the Monkey Bread, served with gelato, pretzels and potato chips...can you say, heaven
Inspired by the very simple preparation of the chilled tofu, I decided to make this recipe (below) from Fifteen Spatulas (no relation). The dish wasn't exactly like the one I had at Uncle, but it made for a really nice meal, and it only took a few minutes to put together. I adapted the recipe by adding a little bit of grated ginger to the sauce, but that was pretty much it. 

Chilled Tofu with Scallions and Soy Sauce (Adapted ever-so-slightly from Fifteen Spatulas, printed with permission)
** Note: Uncle uses silken tofu in their dish. I think that's what I'm going to use when I make this again. For this recipe, I used soft block tofu. 
Yield: 2 servings
14 oz block of soft or medium tofu (don't use firm)-- or try silken.

2 scallions, sliced
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1/2 tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 tbsp sriracha

Optional: I added 1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger
To make the sauce, whisk the scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds, rice vinegar, sriracha, and ginger together in a small bowl. Then taste the dressing to see if you need to add or adjust any ingredients to suit your taste level.
Slice the tofu into squares or small rectangles, soak them in the dressing and then chill them in the fridge for an hour or so. This will allow all the flavors to meld together and get the tofu chilled. Enjoy!
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Monday, April 22, 2013

hiking mondays: roxborough state park (in instagram)

Roxborough State Park is about 45 minutes away from our home in Denver, Colorado. This wide-open space has spectacular rock formations and magnificent topography-- the result of the eastern plains meeting the Rocky Mountains. 
Every time we visit the park we start off with a picnic, then we spend a few hours hiking. After about an hour or so, Theodore usually falls asleep. He puts down his "hiking bucket" (a giant plastic pumpkin leftover from Halloween), requests to be held ("hold you" instead of "hold me") and then drifts off for a bit. While Theo is resting, Otis keeps his eyes on the path. He likes to make sure no one steps on rattlesnakes, which we have yet to encounter, but it's always good to have a look-out man! 
So far we've walked the South Rim Trail (we go about 1 mile before turning around) and the Fountain Valley Trail (a 2.2 mile loop). Both of the hikes are gorgeous
With its wildlife, beautiful environment and unique habitat, we thought Roxborough State Park was the perfect place to spend Earth Day weekend. 
Happy Earth Day, 2013...

(Instagram, iPhone4S.)
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Friday, April 12, 2013

Home Sweet Home (with Giada's Almond Citrus Olive Oil Cake)

If I've done my math correctly, I sold my home in New Orleans about 2,892 days ago. Since then, and for the better part of a decade, we hopped from place to place. At last count, Omar (our trusty Rottweiler) had lived in 8 places and Otis has had 4 addresses since his birth...and he's only 3 1/2. Nomads, vagabonds, drifters. No, we were renters. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I longed for a place to call my own, a place where I could plant perennials and actually see them bloom the following year. A place where I could put up shelves, frames and anchor a mirror. I wanted a home.
When my 6-year stint in New Orleans came to an end, I moved back to my parent's home in the Riverdale section of New York City. After two months of sleeping in my childhood bed, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I moved to Carroll Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The apartment was fine, despite being a bit run down. It was well-lit and spacious by New York standards (just under 600 square feet). But then construction started on the lot next door and it was time to move. No one likes waking up to what feels like a seismic occurrence and our walls began to crack. Omar was also a nervous wreck...or was that me?

Next we rented an apartment in a turn-of-the-century Brownstone. That's where Otis spent his first year of life. We lived in Prospect Heights on a beautiful tree-lined street that was quintessential Brooklyn. But we were outgrowing the space, Omar could no longer take the stairs, and then I found out I was pregnant with Theodore. On the move again.
Our fourth space was a remodeled apartment that was about 625 square feet. Cramped yes, but it felt clean and relatively safe. Then the beeping started. Unfortunately we signed a lease for an apartment directly across from a bread factory that operated around the clock, yes 24-hours. There were beeps and honks from machinery of all sorts, fork-lifts, 18-wheelers, garbage trucks at 2 a.m.-- nothing but noise and pollution. It was a total disaster. And that's what tipped the scales for us: we'd had enough and we moved west...to Colorado.
With Otis, Theo (who was 6 weeks old at the time), and Omar, we rented a lovely, albeit quirky, home in the Highlands section of Denver. Unfortunately for us, after a year of renting, it went on the market and sold within a few days. The home was slated for demolition, so we got a 6 month rental on the edge of Denver's city line. It was a generic townhouse that could have been in anywhere-U.S.A and there was no walkability to speak of, but it served its purpose.
Then it was time to take the plunge; it was time to do some serious house hunting. 
Have you ever read 'The Hunt' in the Real Estate section of The New York Times? It was kind of like that. 
No. 1: A beautiful, old Victorian in Congress Park, a neighborhood we were pretty much set on living in. But after an investigation turned up liens and judgements against the property, we walked. 
No. 2: A bid was submitted on a 1920s stunner in Park Hill, but systemic foundation issues surfaced after our structural engineer did the inspection. We wanted it fixed one way, but the sellers weren't interested. Our inspection objections were rejected, so that house was done. Back to Congress Park. 
No. 3: Our home! We fell in love with an old, historic home built in 1895, the year Grover Cleveland was President. We closed in March...

Writing this post means that we're settled, that we're anchored, that we've bought a home. I have a long-standing tradition of bringing olive oil cakes to house warming parties, and here I am making an olive oil cake for our family...in our very own house. It's been a long, long (long) road.
Happy baking! 

Giada's Almond Citrus Olive Oil Cake (Adapted slightly from this recipe)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder (to compensate for altitude I added 1 3/4 teaspoons)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons orange zest
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 cup whole milk, plus 1 tablespoon for altitude
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted, finely chopped (original recipe suggests coarsley crumbled)
Powdered sugar, for sifting

Citrus Compote:
2 tablespoons grated orange peel
3/4-1 teaspoon orange blossom water, optional though I'd use it.
3 oranges, segmented
2 pink grapefruits, segmented

To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil an 8-inch-diameter cake pan. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar, eggs, and zests in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Beat in the milk. Gradually beat in the oil. Add the flour mixture and stir just until blended. Stir in the almonds. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Place cake pan on baking pan to collect any possible spills. Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 35 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool for 15 minutes. Remove cake and place on serving platter, top side up. Sift powdered sugar over the cake.

To make the citrus compote: Stir the orange peel, blossom water, and 2 tablespoons of accumulated juices from the segmented fruit in a small bowl to blend. Arrange the orange and grapefruit segments decoratively in a wide shallow bowl. Pour the blossom water mixture over. Cover and let stand 15 minutes for the flavors to blend.

You can cut the cake into wedges and spoon the citrus compote alongside or place the compote on top and slice.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

On 'Happy' and Heidi's Simple Fire Roasted Tomato Soup (which makes me happy)

Most our boxes have been unpacked and we are settling into our new home. I'm getting back to doing what I like to do once my boys are asleep for the night; namely, watching documentary films. My friend Kelly put me on to a film called, simply enough, Happy. And since I'm always interested in happiness, I decided to check it out. 
Happy is not one of those documentaries that moves you to tears (like The Cove or Waiting for Superman-- both of which had me writing lots of letters to important people well into the wee hours of the night), but it made some interesting points and I found moments of the film to be quite inspirational (special appearance by the Dalai Lama included).
The film-makers interviewed people from 14 different countries and looked at their lifestyles and their overall happiness. (The United States ranks 23rd in overall happiness when compared to all other countries.Ugh.)
About 50% of a person's happiness is pre-determined by genetics, also called the "genetic set-point". A shockingly low 10% comes from circumstances which include income, occupation, gender, age, personal experiences-- things like that. Which leaves a whopping 40% of a person's happiness in their own hands, meaning that they can decided to do things that make them feel fulfilled and happy. 
The film opens with a man from Kolkata who makes his living as a rickshaw driver. His hands are calloused, his feet don't look too great, and he has to muck around town during monsoon season. But the man doesn't mind; he is content and seems to be genuinely happy. A large part his happiness is derived from the love he receives from his family and his community. He feels like he has everything he needs in his life to be fulfilled.
Then there's a woman from Denmark who moves into a co-housing community following the dissolution of her marriage. Chores are shared, as is child rearing. The community gives her strength and assistance. 
The film-makers interviewed people from all walks of life but the common thread throughout all of their stories was the same: family, compassion, giving and community have a tremendous impact on happiness.  
I couldn't help think about some of the people I met with when I was at Big Law doing contract work. Here were these associates, at the top of their profession, with excellent credential and financial success. Yet most of them seemed stressed out and pretty unhappy, dare I say depressed (at least that was my perception). How could the rickshaw driver who lived with his family in a worn-down hut appear to be so much happier than the lawyers I worked with on Wall Street? The film-makers suggest that the hedonic treadmill might have something to do with it. 
Happy looks at an alarming trend among young Japanese men in Tokyo who are literally working themselves to death (karoshi), never taking a break until they collapsed from stress and exhaustion (usually in the form of a deadly heart attack). But in Osaka, where people enjoy a much more relaxed lifestyle, there are more centenarians on the island than anywhere else on Earth. The elderly engage with one another on a regular basis and there's an extremely tight-knit community-- both of which seem to cultivate long, healthy and happy lives. 
Another interesting point that was made in the film is that excessive amounts of money can't buy happiness. Money does increase happiness when it raises an individual out of poverty (or homelessness). But people who can afford their basic necessities (housing, running water, education, health care, transportation etc.)with a bit leftover, are (reportedly) just as happy as people who earned 20 times more. At least that's the conclusion this film makes.  
I've been thinking a lot about happiness recently, so I enjoyed some of the points made in Happy. It was a good way to spend an hour or so and it gave me some 'food for thought.' 
Speaking of food, here's a really simple soup I made last week. You can add coconut milk or brown rice, though I went with whole wheat couscous and a poached egg. Just add what will make you...um, happy.
::For more on happiness, here's a link to PBS This Emotional Life. 
Simple Fire Roasted Tomato Soup 
Adapted ever-so-slightly from Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks, Adapted from Melissa Clark's Cook This Now.
{Try to use cans that use BPA-free liners.} 
Prep time: 5 min - Cook time: 25 min
Serves 4
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter, olive oil, or coconut oil
1 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt, plus more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
1 (28-ounce) cans fire roasted tomatoes (pref. fire-roasted)
Optional: 1/2 of a 14-ounce can coconut milk

Optional: cup of whole wheat couscous or brown rice
Optional: toasted slivered almonds
Optional: poached egg (I fill up a pot with water, add a capful of vinegar, let it boil, put the egg in, give the water a swirl after a minute or two-- to get the egg up from the bottom-- and then I use a slotted spoon to remove it from the water.)
Optional: torn parsley, fresh oregano, pan-fried paneer.

In a large pot over medium heat melt the butter. Add the onions and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions really soften up - 10 minutes or so. Not so much that they brown, just until they're completely tender and unstructured.

Stir in the curry powder, coriander, cumin, and chile flakes, and cook just until the spices are fragrant and toasty - stirring constantly at this point. Just 30 seconds or so. Stir in the tomatoes, the juices from the cans, and 3 cups of water. Simmer for fifteen minutes or so, then puree with an immersion blender until smooth. At this point you can decide if you'd like your soup even a bit thinner - if so, you can thin it with more water, or if you like a creamy version, with some coconut milk. Taste and adjust with more salt to taste.
Add your toppings, couscous or rice, egg and/or herbs. 

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