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Here’s the thing: I really love tomatoes.

Spain has amazing fruit. Melocotones and ciruelas, frambuesas and cerezas – the cerezas (cherries) were particularly spectacular, especially when picked straight off the tree on a hot afternoon.

Cherry picking, somewhere past Leon

But the tomatoes, like many other vegetables in Spain, are terrible. And in the end, that’s what brought me back home.

The problem was the e-mails I kept receiving. “Kale’s in,” one would say. “Radishes just starting to sprout.” “You should see the carrots. You should really see the carrots.” And most importantly, “Tomatoes are coming along just fine.”

Meanwhile, my life underwent a radical change when I decided to move to Texas in the fall. The more I thought about Texas, and tomatoes, the more I came to understand that I couldn’t bear a summer more fresh vegetables than you can possibly eat. So, despite the temptations of European travel, I changed my plane ticket and returned home early. I visited family and friends in New York and Pennsylvania. And then finally, on Sunday, I arrived in Worcester and went straight to Nuestro Huerto, my favorite urban farm. I arrived just in time for their block party. And I went straight for the heirloom tomatoes.

I go to Texas on Monday, where it will be about 10000 degrees outside and in the middle of a drought. But this week I’m soaking up the rain, and eating all the tomatoes I can get my hands on.

Ripening verduras*

Weather:
Rainy and 71 degrees.

Mood:
Hannah: 8 out 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. yum.

Anna: 7 out of 10. Just ate a tomato.

*Photo credit to Nuestro Huerto. Photo is from last year’s crop.

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Green soup? It must be spring!**

Today is the fourth full day of Passover and I am happy to say that I am not weak with hunger yet. At the wonderful Tuesday-night seder that I went to this year, my former roommate reminisced about how last year I was totally grouchy and impossible to get along with for an entire week. I think she’s forgiven me by now.

This year I’ve protected myself from such severe moodiness mostly by bending the rules of passover considerably. Once you cut out leavened bread (pasta, rice, cookies) and legumes (peanuts, beans, soy) from my vegetarian diet, there’s hardly anything substantial left. After years of starvation I’ve decided that, given that the ancient Egyptians were able to supplement their diet with lamb, I feel comfortable eating the occasional lentil. And I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in the bible about peanut butter.

My current interpretation of the laws of passover is simple: no bread, and no corn. I like this definition because in practical terms, it means I have to cut out all the processed and pre-made foods from my diet. Bread is my most common pre-packaged indulgence, and corn (corn oil and corn syrup) is basically ubiquitous. Keeping kosher means I have to go back to basics, and prepare my meals myself.

I don’t fast for passover because I want to be hungry. (I save that for Yom Kippur). I fast for Passover because it’s a way of bringing a new kind of awareness to my life. The Emotional Calendar says that awareness is one of the keys to maintaining emotional stability, but it’s easy to forget about when you’re caught up in major life changes or a heavy work load. I like passover because it imposes awareness and brings me back in touch with myself. That’s a lesson I try to hold on to all year.

I also like Passover because it makes me get creative about my meals. Last Wednesday I took the evening off to try out a new soup that I found in my Moosewood cookbook. It’s super easy, it’s delicious, it’s healthy, and it’s kosher for passover. Doesn’t get much better than that.

My slightly modified version is below. I’m writing it from memory, so you’ll have to forgive me if I miss a vital ingredient or essential step. One thing to keep in mind: it’s better if you let it rest at least an hour before serving. Even better if you make it a day in advance.

Curried Zucchini Soup

olive oil
2 cups diced onions (1.5 onions)
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger
3 cloves garlic
3 tsp curry powder
2.5 cups water
5 cups zucchini (5 small supermarket zucchini)
2 cups potatoes (2-3 medium sized)
1 cup plain yogurt
1.5 tsp salt + pepper to taste
fresh cilantro to taste, chopped.
1. Dice the onions and saute them in olive oil over medium-low heat in the bottom of a soup pot until translucent. About 10 minutes.
2. While the onions are cooking, slice the zucchini in half and then chop into semi-circles. Also chop the potatoes. Set aside.
3. If necessary, peel and chop the garlic (or you can put it through a garlic press).
4. When the onions are done,  add the ginger, garlic, and curry powder. Cook for another minute.
5. Add the water, zucchini, and potatoes. Cover and let simmer until soft. I forget how long this takes – 20 minutes? Add salt and pepper.
6.  Remove from heat and add the yogurt and cilantro. Allow to cool until it won’t hurt you anymore.
7. Blend in batches in the blender until it’s a consistency that you like.
8. Refrigerate. This soup gets better after sitting for at least an hour. I made it a day in advance. You can eat it cold or hot, with a dollop of yogurt in the middle, and matzah on the side.

Weather:
57 degrees and sunny now, but ridiculously cold last night.

Moods:
Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. I’m happy for the weekend.
Anna: 7 out of 10.

**I don’t know who to give photo credit to but I got it on a diabetes website. I should really get my own camera.

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We tap our red maple tree using a tap, some plastic tubing, and empty milk jugs.

The plastic tubing helps keeps the bugs out, and the milk jugs provide convenient storage.

(The neighbors’ kids drink the milk)

 

Tapping the tree

The sap is reduced in batches throughout the season. Otherwise we would have 40 gallons of sap stacked in the garage!

The stove was obtained specially for this purpose. Other (more common?) uses include deep-frying turkeys, and boiling lobsters.

Boiling the sap with an industrial strength stove

 

To boil the sap down to the correct concentration without burning requires extreme accuracy.

Good thing my family is so good with precision.

 

 

Making the syrup requires intense concentration

After the syrup is ready, it’s poured hot into jars. As the air cools, the jars are sealed and the syrup is safe for the season.

The darker syrup is actually a batch made from sap gathered later in the season. I wonder what makes the difference?

Maple syrup. Note that one jar has already been eaten.

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Happy Purim!

When I was a kid, I used to have a picture book called “The Adventures of K’ton Ton.” K’ton means little in Hebrew, and K’ton Ton is a variation on Tom Thumb, only with a Jewish twist. My favorite K’ton Ton story was when he fell into the hamantaschen dough on Purim. My mother says this is impossible because he was “just like a real boy, only tiny,” but as I recall, he was baked into a cookie and popped out just as his mother was giving the cookie away to the neighbors.

Giving away baskets of hamantaschen is just one of the traditions that make Purim the most fun holiday on the Jewish calendar. Purim celebrates the story of Queen Esther, who saved the Jews from the king’s adviser, a man known as Haman the Evil. When we were kids we would go to a party at the synagogue where we were handed groggers (really obnoxious noisemakers) and given the important task of drowning out Haman’s name anytime it was said aloud.

Purim is also a costume party: people dress up as characters from the story of Esther or, really, anything else you can think of. In 2008 I celebrated Purim in Tel Aviv, where it is thought of as an “Israeli Mardi Gras.” That was when I learned another interesting Purim tradition: according to longstanding practice, adults are obligated to “drink until you can’t tell the difference between good and evil.”

Sometimes I wonder whether that’s because of the end of the Purim story, in which the Jews exact revenge by slaughtering entire villages associated with Haman. But mostly I think it’s just an excuse for a good time.

Purim started at sundown last night. I had no wild parties planned this year, but my dad and I did make hamantaschen, the traditional Purim snack. The word “hamantaschen” means Haman’s Hat – Ashkenazi (European) Jews say that the triangular cookies are in the shape of a hat. But I learned today that according to Sephardic (Middle Eastern) tradition, the cookies are said to be shaped like Haman’s ears.

My plan yesterday was to type up a hamentaschen recipe and share it here for Food Friday (okay, Food Sunday). But unfortunately, despite trying two different recipes, we were unable to find one we really liked. Of the two recipes we tried, one was a sugar cookie base made with oil instead of butter, and the other was more like a pie dough, with the butter crumbled in. But the pie-crust recipe, from a cookbook of traditional yiddish recipes, was weirdly textured and required some emergency modification. And the cookie-dough recipe, from the New York Times, didn’t hold its shape and had a strange oily aftertaste. Still fun to eat, but a little disappointing. K’tan Tan would never have approved.

Do you have a hamantaschen recipe that you would recommend?

Weather: sunny and thirty five degrees.

Mood:

Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. More on the good mood to come later this week!

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No scones here!

This weekend I’m doing a two-day Wilderness First Responder recertification. I’ll be renewing my CPR and first aid skills. I’ll also be learning all sorts of emergency tricks for situations like: what to do if you fall on your ice-pick while climbing in the White Mountains in January. Or how to respond to a snake bite in the back country in Arizona. It should be a lot of fun.

Of course, now that I live in Somerville, wilderness survival is less relevant than it was three years ago, when I took the original course. These days, my emergency survival kit includes things like an extra T pass, several Starlite mints, and a travel toothbrush. Just in case.

And when things get really desperate (like they did last week), my response rarely involves binding a broken limb with twigs, an old t-shirt, and a sleeping pad. Instead, I turn to baked goods, like the Emergency Scones that I made last week. The recipe, modified from epicurious, is below. Whether you’re feeling desperate or not, I recommend these for a delightful Sunday morning treat.

I’ve also included some tricks for working butter into flour, and for not having to go out and buy buttermilk (especially during a snowstorm). Naturally you should feel free to disregard.

Pea-Sized Pieces: the trick to making these scones is crumbling the butter into pea-sized bits. If you’ve ever made a really good pie crust before, you know that this is what makes flakiness happen – each pea-sized bit melts into a thin film that separates the layers of dough. If the bits are too big, you’ll get uneven dough. If they’re too small, you’ll get a heavy dough. And if you smear them together as if you were making cookies, then you’ll get, well, cookies. To make pea-sized bits: take a stick of cold butter and dice it as if it was an onion. Cut it lengthwise and widthwise until you have lots of discreet, rectangular butter bits that you can throw into the flour mixture. Dump the butter into the dough. Then use your hands and break the bits up until they are pea-sized, or really a little bit smaller. More like a lentil. Keep in mind, once you add the wet ingredients, that you want to keep those butter bits intact as you mix the batter.

Buttermilk Substitute: Buying buttermilk is silly since I never use it and it goes bad quickly. I mixed together 1/4 cup plain yogurt and 1/2 cup milk. Then I squeezed in the juice from half a lemon, mixed, and let it sit while I made the batter. Tasty, cheap, and I didn’t have to go to the store!

Emergency Scones

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat, plus some whole wheat, plus some white. go crazy.)
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, diced
  • grated peel from one lemon
  • 3/4 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips. (Or chop up regular chocolate chips, or a bar of chocolate).
  • 3/4 cup chilled buttermilk (or 1/4 cup yogurt, 1/2 cup milk, and the juice from half a lemon – see above)
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Whisk together dry ingredients: flour, 1/3 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon peel.

3. Add butter and work in until lentil sized. (see above for some tips.) Mix in chocolate chips.

4.In a separate bowl, whisk together milk/buttermilk, egg yolk, and vanilla. Pour into dry ingredients and mix gently to keep the butter balls intact.

5. According the original recipe, you can now take this dough, shape it into a large cheese-wheel on a lightly floured surface, and cut it into nice triangles. Instead, I scooped it up with my hands and formed it into scone-sized balls. Array the balls/triangles on a greased cookie sheet.

6. Sprinkle sugar on top.

7. Bake for 20 minutes or until crusty and a toothpick comes out clean.

Weather:

34 degrees and sunny. A great leap forward from yesterday’s single digits.

Moods:

Hannah: 6 and TGIF on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale.
Anna: 6 and really antsy.


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You may not have figured this out yet, but one of the many things that Anna and I have in common is a love of food. I love to cook (especially to bake, thanks mom). Anna loves to eat – and to talk, and write, about food.

So here at Ditch The Umbrella, we have decided to make Friday Food Day on our (emotional) calendar. We all know how a well-timed meal can heighten your sense of the season (or transport you to far-away places).  Healthy eating, like good sleep and exercise, is one of the cornerstones of a healthy body and mind. And most days, good food is enough to lift anyone’s mood.

For my first official Food Day post, I would like to invite you to journey with me to a place where the weather report is consistently sunny, and 62 degrees. Tunisia has been in the news lately for political unrest. If, like me, your knowledge of Tunisia’s history and culture is limited, I encourage you to read up on this fascinating north-African country. Or you can do what I did last weekend, and make yourself a variation of couscousi tunisie, a Tunisian stew as heart-warming on a cold winter’s night in Boston as it is on the Mediterranean shore.

With many thanks to Rachel, whose more culturally accurate version of the recipe can be found here.

Vegetarian Tunisian Couscous

Allow 40 – 45 minutes to cook
Feeds 5 people

Ingredients (with transliterated Arabic)

khodra (vegetables)
• 1 onion – DICED
• ½ kromp (cabbage) – THINLY SLICED
• 2 batata (potatoes) – CHOPPED INTO CHUNKS
• 3 sfineria (carrots) – SLICED INTO CIRCLES
• A lot of greens – I used spinach, but beet greens are better. – ROUGHLY CHOPPED
• 3 tbsp tomato paste
• 1 cup cooked fool (fava beans) (feel free to omit. I don’t like them.)
• 2 whole peppers – I used the spicier poblano, but green peppers are okay
• 2 cups couscous – Israeli or not.
• zeet zeetouna (olive oil)
spices
• melh (salt)
• harissa Arabi (a special type of spicy harissa paste used only in cooking. This is essential – although hot sauce is okay.)
• fil fil akhmar (paprika)
• black pepper

Directions

1. In a large soup-pan, cover bottom with oil (2 tbsp-ish) and cook onions on medium until translucent.
2. Add 3 tbs. of tomato paste diluted with ½ cup of water. You can dilute the paste before adding to the pan or after, either way works fine.
3. Add potatoes, cabbage carrots, and greens (everything but the poblano chili).
4. Add large pinch of paprika, and pinch of black pepper. Cook for two minutes.
5. Add approximately 5 cups of water. Add the fava beans. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
6. Add approximately 1/2 tbs. of the harissa Arabi paste to your liking. Stick to even less for shwaya har (a little spicy) or lean more towards 1 or 1½ tbs. for true Tunisian style, har (spicy).
7. Slit the green peppers (to let the juices in and out), and scrape out seeds.
8. In a small pan lightly coated in oil, pan-fry peppers until they are slightly tender, and slightly wrinkly. Keep them in there for a little longer. Set aside.
9. Cook soup until everything is tender (or for as long as you want – this is soup). Adjust spices to taste.
10. About 15 minutes before serving, prepare couscous according to directions on package. Or, use a steamer and cook directly on top of your simmering soup for a delicious flavor.
11. To Serve: put couscous in a large bowl. Pour two spoonfulls of sauce over and then all of the vegetables. Garnish with the roasted peppers. Serve the remaining sauce on the side for those who like it.

Weather: sunny and 62 degrees! Oh wait, that’s 32.

Moods:

Hannah: 7.5 out of 10 on the can’t get out of bed to jumping for joy scale. Looking forward to a good weekend.

Anna: 6.5 out of 10, for the same reason!

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Every single day, at 10:30 am, I find myself suddenly stricken with cold. My fingers against the keyboard become positively frigid. My whole body tenses up, and I start to shiver.

What’s causing this sudden temperature drop? Let’s review my morning ritual. At 8:35, I arrive at the office after a long commute and a wickedly cold trek from the train station to my office. (This morning: 15 degrees). I take off my coat and defrost over my e-mails, a hot cup of coffee, and a steaming bowl of oatmeal. The rising sun shines through the east-facing window, bathing me with passive-solar heat.

But by 10:30 am, the sun is no longer shining directly through the window. And my hot meal has become a digestive process which seems determined to suck all of the heat away from my body. In the past few weeks, I have come to the conclusion that eating doesn’t just make me tired. It also makes me cold.

I first recognized the phenomenon two weeks ago. It was 20 degrees outside and the sun was setting when I biked across Philadelphia to go to an obscure Indonesian restaurant. By the time we headed home several hours later, it had only dropped a few degrees. But as soon as I stepped outside, I started to shake uncontrollably. It took a few minutes of shivering before I was able to get onto my bike. (My date, on the other hand, said he felt warmer after the meal than before.)

Anna tells me that she experienced the same thing in Europe. Hours trekking through the icy streets in search of a good meal were fine, as long as she had her mind set on her goal (good food, asap). But trying to get home after that lovely, late-evening dinner? Horrendously cold.

The internet corroborates my digestive theory. Answers.com tells me that after you eat a meal, your body directs blood towards your internal organs as part of the digestive process. This means that you have less blood moving through your external body parts (hands, feet, skin), making you shiver. Once you’re done digesting, answers.com promises, you will feel even warmer than before because of all the nutritious food you ate.

On the other hand, answers.com also has an explanation for why some people feel warm after eating: it could be caused by rapid processing of sugars, or by heat generated through metabolic processes. My conclusion: answers.com doesn’t have a clue. And in this field, the internet is coming up cold.

So I’m sticking with anecdotal evidence, which everyone knows sounds convincing even when it’s not. Do you get cold after you eat?

Weather:

19 degrees and sunny (but it feels like 11!)

Moods:

Hannah: 5 out of 10 on the can’t get out of bed to jumping for joy scale. It’s almost time for lunch!

Anna: 4.5

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Last night, I ventured onto the not-yet-fully-cleared sidewalks of Somerville in search of food at Highland Kitchen.

“Highland Kitchen?” you think. “Kinda sounds like a greasy-spoon diner.” Or at least, that’s what I thought when I first heard about it.

Located a slightly-inconvenient distance between Porter Square and Harvard Square (it’s a 25-minute walk from Porter and a 30-minute walk from Harvard), Highland Kitchen hardly resembles the restaurant I expected when I first went there a year ago.

It’s actually a warmly-decorated space full of interesting-looking people that seems to be full by 6:45pm every night. And their menu is nothing like that of a greasy-spoon diner, although it has more than a few comfort-food options. A sampling includes smoked bluefish cakes, a spicy coconut curried goat stew, and their decadent Highland cheeseburger.

Keep in mind I had trudged through mounds of snow to get to the restaurant. Before I sat down, I had to peel off a zillion layers (see The Coldest Cold to fully understand this). And then I ordered The Dorchester.

The Dorchester is made with vodka, triple sec, pink lemonade, and a cucumber, and since Highland Kitchen likes to share, you can even find out how to mix it here.

Let me tell you, it is, hands down, the PERFECT summer drink. Which is exactly what I told the waiter, after saying that it would be even better if a) summer were actually here, b) I had a porch, and c) I were sitting on said imagined porch. Something, perhaps, like this:

Kind, optimistic man that he was, he responded, “But it gets you into that frame of mind, doesn’t it?”

It did. For a minute, I could almost feel the sun on my face. And then I looked outside.

Weather: 16 degrees in Boston when I left my apartment this morning, but at least it’s bright.

Moods:

Anna – 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Feeling pretty good.

Hannah – 5 out of 10. Long week.

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Snowed in? Eat Cookies

Wednesday’s blizzard meant a day of working from home for me and my roommates. I decided to punctuate the day with a mid-afternoon molasses cookie break. Then I returned to my computer, fresh coffee and fresh cookies in hand, while the snow piled up outside. Perfect.

Molasses Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter soft enough to mix
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar (Next time I will use less – maybe 1/4 cup)
2 eggs
1/2 cup molasses (I used blackstrap)
2 tbsp vegetable oil (this makes them chewy and delicious! do not replace with butter)
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp salt

Cream: butter and sugars in a medium mixing bowl. Add eggs and mix thoroughly. Add molasses and oil and mix thoroughly

Mix: dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, salt) in a separate bowl. this ensures that you don’t get clumps of baking soda.

Combine: pour dry ingredients into wet ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Refrigerate: Cover bowl (plastic wrap works well) and refrigerate for an hour or more. Refrigerating keeps them from sticking to your hands in the next step. If you’re not afraid of salmonella, taste test. amazing.

Scoop: Preheat oven to 325 (I did 350). Pour some granulated sugar into a bowl. Scoop up spoonfulls of dough, roll them in your hand so they’re balls, then dip them in sugar. Place them sugar-side up on cookie sheets.

Bake: 10-15 minutes. The top will crack and be a little bit hard to the touch but they will be really soft inside and floppy when you take them off the tray.

adapted from martha stewart’s cookies, which I was opposed to on principle, but oh, wow, they’re good.

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The other day Anna and I were talking about how our “food calendar” changes over time. I had noticed a sudden desire for baked foods and carbohydrates. In the summer, Anna recalled, all we wanted to eat was salad. “Remember how in July I didn’t even want to eat chocolate?” she asked.

That stopped us both short.

But it’s true that, as winter approaches, my food associations change. I am the kind of person who can be almost religious about my eating habits. I recently went to eat WooDaddy Waffles at Moynihan’s Irish Pub in Worcester and it took some real mental gymnastics to accept the idea of a Falafel Waffle or a waffle pizza. (Good thing I did – they were delicious.) It’s not that I’m not adventurous. But I take real comfort in foods that are perfectly suited to the time of day or the time of year. Apple pies in October. Strawberries in July.

And one of the best things about the approach of winter is that the end of the fall is perfectly aligned with the most delicious kind of baked goods. I don’t know if it’s some sort of innate preparation for hibernation, or whether it’s a cultural association with Thanksgiving dinners and the dearth of fresh vegetables. But it’s true that, if I happen to being slipping into a late-fall depression, all it takes is a mug of hot apple cider and a slice of pumpkin bread to get me on my feet again. Or a cranberry muffin. Slice of pumpkin pie. Hazelnut-chocolate torte. Apple strudel.

(Yes, donations are welcome.)

Anyway, this week I indulged my cravings by baking a whole bunch of new things, the best of which was this ridiculously delicious yeasted pumpkin bread. The recipe made enough to last me a couple of weeks. I’m hoping there will be some left to boost up my spirit when the first snow arrives.

Weather: 52 degrees and cloudy

Mood:

Hannah: 5, I’m feeling a bit under the weather.

Anna: 7, she has some fun, engaging projects at work today.

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