Parsley Pesto Pizza + Squash Apple Pizza with Einkorn Crusts

birthday weekend pizza | foodloveswriting.com

There are people who don’t believe in making a big deal about birthdays, but I’m not one of them—and I have my brother to thank.

Adam in Nashville | FoodLovesWriting.com

My brother, Adam, who is two years and two months younger than I am (but if you heard us together, you’d swear he were the one who’s older), came here to see us last week, arriving around 2 p.m. on his birthday Wednesday and staying through Saturday night. The thing you have to understand about my brother and birthdays is he is kind of the king of celebrating them.

When I turned 21, he took me to a Coach store and told me to pick out one thing I wanted, any one thing, and he would buy it for me—choosing a purse in a store so far outside my price range made me feel like the richest person in the world, and that’s a feeling you never forget. Another year, he surprised me with a party at Ravinia, this outdoor park near Chicago where Tony Bennett was playing for the night. Since then, there have been trips to Maine and, when I was dating Tim, a trip to Nashville, and every year, the building anticipation that my birthday would mean something special and something fun.

It’s his influence that has turned my mom’s February birthday into a family holiday in which we all take off work to do whatever she wants to do, which, last year, meant all three of my family members flying down here to visit together for the first time. It’s his influence that makes me vote for spending Thanksgiving (and my dad’s corresponding birthday) in Chicago every year so I can sit by my dad and tell him why he’s cool. And it’s his influence that makes me want to celebrate anyone I love’s birthday the same way, by saying, Name what you want to do and we’ll do it! I just think it’s such a great gesture, submitting your preferences to someone else’s as a way of celebrating, as a way of showing them love.

So that said, you can understand why, when my brother comes to visit us for his birthday, we want to pull out all the stops.

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Carrot Risotto (or, choosing whom you cook with)

top photo of carrot risotto

My brother hasn’t been in the car with us twenty minutes before I hear him say something in passing about a spring pea risotto he’s tried the week before, and before I can stop myself I’m exclaiming, “Risotto! I want to make risotto! How do you do it? Was it hard?”

Then, to Tim, “Remember our carrot risotto in California?”

photo of carrots

That risotto we’d had at La Bicyclette, the highlight of our meal and maybe our entire trip, was the kind of entrée you never forget, so even though I ask him, I know Tim knows it, too: a carrot risotto so creamy and buttery, so cheesy and comforting, so beautifully bright orange the way things hardly ever naturally are, that I heard at least three other bloggers say they would tackle this recipe when they got home.

Of course, I wasn’t one of those bloggers saying I’d make it later, just so we’re clear. I responded by saying how much I liked it, how warm and savory and amazing it was, but I didn’t dream of going home and trying it myself because, between us, risotto scares me. In my mind, risotto is great chefs and top restaurants and five-star reviews. It’s talent and skill and precision. There was a time, once, when I approached it, but the results were hard and bland and crunched when you took a spoonful, so Saturday, when we’re driving down the highway and I say, “I want to make risotto!” to my husband and my brother in the car, I don’t actually mean I want to make risotto. I mean that I want to eat risotto! and if it’s the La Bicyclette kind, preferably by the mixing bowl!

Because here’s the thing: risotto is hard. Risotto is fussy. Risotto isn’t something I can do.

But then my brother comes to town.

chopped onions and shredded carrots

You know, when it comes to the kitchen, the idea of cooking with other people, any people, may seem charming at first, but the truth is that not all cooks make good companions. You don’t have to share your kitchen many times before you see this is true.

There are cooks who will come into your home and take over, for example, leaving you stressed out and insecure even as they rearrange your spice cabinet. There are cooks who will second-guess you, who will comment on the weird way you hold the frosting bag while they take it out of your hands.

But then on the other hand, there are cooks like my brother, the kind who already know you so well that they are easy partners whatever the project. They come to visit and tell you about a risotto they made and make it seem so approachable and possible that before you know it, it’s Monday afternoon and you’re standing with them over arborio rice cooking on your kitchen stove, learning as you watch them, gaining confidence as you work together. These cooks aren’t common, but when you’re blessed to find them, give thanks—these are the people you want to cook with.

adam holding carrot risotto

And so it is that Adam and I are making risotto together, frozen stock thawing on the stove, my hands pressing buttons on the food processor to shred carrots, his hands chopping parsley on the cutting board. It’s not night yet, but the sky is darkening as storm clouds gather overhead, and the kitchen seems smaller and smaller as it grows more dim, so he flips on the overhead light above the stove; I close the blinds in the living room. He stirs the risotto, moving a long wooden spoon steadily through the rice and wine and carrots; I add stock, half cup by half cup, letting it soak in and be absorbed and change the rice to soft and plump and fragrant.

The two of us, who have been cooking together for as long as we’ve been cooking, work side by side in the entire process, like four hands in the same singular machine, a product of lifetimes of shared experience and kitchens and food. Even as it seems strange to be doing it now in Nashville, in my home, the one I share with Tim that’s eight hours away from where Adam and I spent most of our lives, it also seems familiar, just like Sunday afternoons making pizza in his Chicago apartment or weeknights baking cookies at Mom and Dad’s.

carrot risotto

Today, while we scoop ladles of risotto into bowls and sprinkle them with parsley and chopped carrots and Pecorino, I think how this person standing next to me has known me all his life and most of mine and how he’s been the first friend I talk to about decisions and passions and, two years ago, Tim.

I think how nice it is to cook with him because he knows me, so I can say to him, keep your eye on this and know he will; I can trust him to anticipate the next step, to catch something I miss; I can go to turn the pepper grinder just before we finish the risotto and, when it releases half a jar of whole peppercorns instead of a light sprinkling of ground pepper, I can count on him to laugh with me even while we have to laboriously pick peppercorn after peppercorn out of the simmering food.

After the last bit of stock has been worked into the pot, we take our bowls of risotto to the brown leather sofa and plop down, side by side, putting our feet up and flipping through movie trailers on Apple TV, and I feel so thankful for this brother who cooks with me, even as I feel thankful for the thing we’ve cooked, the thing I feared, the thing we eat spoonful after spoonful on the couch: risotto.

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Gluten-Free Tabbouleh

quinoa

It doesn’t matter if I’m with you in the kitchen making quinoa or talking to you through the lens of a computer screen, telling you I’m having a hard time making friends is one of the fastest ways I know to bring back all the emotions of second grade P.E. class. It’s humiliating—kind of like announcing you’re the kid no one wants to sit next to on the bus or that the guy who’s taking you to dinner is only doing it because his mom knows your mom. Over and over again the last few days, when this topic has come up in conversation with acquaintances and friends, I’ve been shocked at how humbled I’ve been to simply state the truth, how much I’ve wanted to color it with less emotion and try to hide the fact that I crave deep relationships. I feel so embarrassed to say it, like I’m asking you to pity me and tell me I’m wonderful and invite me to your dinner party, but I force myself to do it anyway because it’s true and I want to say what’s true, and also, I want to fight the urge to only tell you what I think you’ll think sounds good. I’m too good at that already.

soaking quinoa

Sometimes when Tim and I are cooking together, I’ll ask him how he wants the vegetables chopped, and he’ll say fine and minced, and he’ll ask me how I want the table set, and I’ll think, I wonder what he would want me to say? before I answer him. I don’t always do this, mostly because he’s helped me see how unhelpful it can be, but sometimes I still do because it’s a deep habit, one so ingrained in me that I fall back on it without meaning to.

I grew up what some people might call a people pleaser. I studied what the crowd around me liked and wanted, and I worked very hard to make myself fit their desires. I didn’t get in trouble, I said kind things, I learned to ask you more about your life than I’d say about mine—constantly working to gain your approval, whomever you were, so that you would like me, so that you would say something that would make me feel OK inside.

chopping herbs

In many different types of society, people pleasers hide really well. They’re not the ones parents worry about or the ones dealing with failure—they’re usually, on the outside at least, fully functional, engaging, pleasant people to be around, successful in work and at home and in churches. But the thing is, trying to please everyone else is a mask. Keeping it up isn’t just impossible; it’s exhausting. And sooner or later, you start to see that it’s nuts.

tabbouleh ingredients

Early when Tim and I were dating, we talked about this and about how I’d spent a lot of my life thus far trying to be exactly what I thought people wanted me to be. I didn’t know how to say no without guilt or how to willingly disappoint someone without anxiety, and so I started to ask myself why. Maybe it was because I was afraid of loneliness? Maybe because I liked the illusion of control? But mostly, I think it was this: maybe I was trying to fill my soul with their acceptance.

quinoa with add-ins

I recently finished the book “Grace for the Good Girl,” written by Emily P. Freeman who blogs at Chatting at the Sky. It it, she says this:

Life behind a mask may feel right and may even be fun for a short time. After a while, though, recycled air becomes stale and the effort it takes to continue trying to be someone you aren’t becomes a burden rather than a game. Only in returning home, taking off the mask, and being you again will you find relief.

holding bowl of tabbouleh

The lie of seeking people’s approval is that it will actually satisfy me, that it will actually fill me up. And I am repeatedly, regularly capable of hiding who I really am because I think that will give me what I think I need: your acceptance—even here on this blog when I talk about recipes for cauliflower rice or grass-fed pot roast or raw brownies or sauteed Brussels sprouts. There’s something really, really appealing about feeling well-thought-of or appreciated or valued.

quinoa tabbouleh bowl

And so part of learning, slowly learning, to stop hiding yourself means learning instead to do the opposite: to speak the truth and to be embarrassed and to, when you boast, boast of your weakness (or in the One who has none). Otherwise, it’s a treadmill that never ends and worse, it’s impossible to ever lose sight of yourself enough to do what really does satisfy: to taste and to give real love.

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Mama’s Meat Sauce

Mama's Meat Sauce

I come from a long line of women who can cook: My great grandma, I’m told, made legendary pasta. My grandma rolled her own cannoli shells. My mom, a woman who loves to say, Oh, it’s so simple (particularly when her only daughter asks for clarification on some new recipe trick), has a vast cooking repertoire that ranges from bakery-worthy apple strudel to hot chicken curry just the way my dad likes it.

And as with a lot of things in life, I feel there are different ways to approach this kind of heritage: Embrace it. Or resent it.

homemade meat sauce

I’ll let you guess which way I tended towards for most of my childhood and only say this: it’s amazing how we can turn blessings into curses, how we can choose to be intimidated by that which can help us grow. You may call it perfectionism; I call it ugly.

It’s like, say, when you have the opportunity to start working from home: This is such an obvious good (especially as it is the thing—the very thing—you have wanted and worked towards for years!), yet you can let yourself see it as a bad (citing all the potential problems/risks, from insurance to pay to the way it feels to step into the Unknown).

That same vice that makes you see the negatives in one situation will make you see the problems in others. But I’ve been thinking. Maybe the parallel works both ways? Maybe by learning to embrace a heritage of good home cooks, for example, you step towards learning to embrace everything else. What do you think?

I’m starting with this meat sauce.

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we’ll start somewhere

fresh parsley

The smell of parsley makes me think of Passover, and the Seders we had at our house, all through my growing up years, with different friends each time, when my mom would make a big meal that everyone would rave about. On those nights, we’d dip sprigs of parsley in salt water—the parsley symbolizing spring and the newness of life, the salt water reminding us of the tears of Israel while they were in Egypt, before God parted the Red Sea and brought them out of captivity.

Until last night, that was the only place I’ve ever eaten parsley on its own. I’ve had it in things—like Thanksgiving stuffing, where it reduces from leafy stalks to bending, fragrant herbs on the stove, drenched in butter and sauted with onions. I know bits of it—dried or fresh—go into all kinds of marinades and rubs, and I know it’s very inexpensive to buy at the store (I want to say it was $0.99 for a bundle in November Wisconsin, which, when you think about it, is kind of amazing).

But when I saw the fat package of it in my CSA box, I figured I may as well give this formerly-only-of-the-holidays herb a chance to stand on its own, a chance for us to get to know each other in a new context.

Enter this Lemon-Rice Parsley Salad adapted from Food + Wine.

sweet pepper

Besides the fact that this recipe calls for a full cup of packed, chopped parsley (exactly how much I had! do you believe in fate?), it also requires half a sweet pepper, which was a bonus in my learning-to-use-vegetables plan.

half a sweet pepper

Now, as far as getting out of my comfort zone, I cheated a little with this one, since I already knew I’d like it when I saw the olive oil and lemon juice, which, between us, can usually make me like just about anything. (I read an article once about a famous chef I can’t recall the name of now, who said everything is improved with a little lemon on top. Amen.)

lemons

rice and olive oil

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