Kitchen Sink Oatmeal and Thanksgiving Prep

It’s sweet potato city in here. Escapee cranberries are meeting slow squish-deaths underfoot. All four burners and the oven are blasting, so when Matt gets back from the store with the forgotten ingredients and opens the door, he’s going to have to Kurt Russell that Backdraft.  With two prep and cook windows in my work schedule between now and sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner – right now and Wednesday night after 8 p.m. – it made sense to get started on the dishes we’re contributing immediately. Plus everything I’ve read about bread dough seems to imply that patience is key, so desperation-kneading late on Thanksgiving eve didn’t sound like the best idea.

No time like the present, so this evening is unfolding to a long stretch of cooking in a sweltering kitchen accompanied by good playlists and healthy, energy sustaining snacks:

Shout out to RCocomon for introducing us to Jack Honey at Rath and Aimee’s wedding. Hot sauce in my bag.

In this cooking marathon, I’m running out of counter space, vessels, and Gruyere – Gruyere for snacking, not cooking. One can’t live on Jack and gourmet mallows** alone. Besides the twin benefits of an cheese/sweet consumption and whiskey swilling, if you cook early for Thanksgiving, you might find yourself with a little extra this and that, perhaps enough to cobble a teeny taste-test version of the big dish you’re contributing. Happy early Thanksgiving!

But the purpose of the post is to offer a suggestion for how to start your Thanksgiving morning. With a little fiber-filled breakfast, it’ll be easier not to binge on the cheese log (or brie en croute with lingonberry jam, pinky finger UUUP) and other appetizers and wreck your appetite for the big meal. So may I suggest a little kitchen sink oatmeal? It involves a mix of steel cut oats and rolled oats (a solution for random ingredients throwing off the ratios in a ragtag “recipe”), the end-piece of an overripe banana, that last little fourth cup of coconut milk lingering in the fridge, the teensiest knob of butter, the bottom of a few bags of nuts and dried fruit, and honey.

Kitchen Sink Oatmeal
Serves 4

1/2 cup steel cut oats
About a 1/2 cup rolled oats – you’ll use these to sop up whatever extra liquid the steel cut oats don’t absorb
1.5 cups liquid – could be all water, or a mix of water and coconut milk/regular milk/cream (if you use cream in your Thanksgiving morning oatmeal, hats off)
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 overripe banana, mashed
1/3 cup mixed dried fruit – I used dried cherries and these weird Turkish apricots that Matt bought, they are dark brown and frightening
1 teaspoon honey
Dash of cinnamon, cardamom (just a teensy bit!), and vanilla, if desired
Little knob of butter
1/4 cup chopped nuts, lightly toasted – I used pecans

Bring water (and other liquids) to a boil. (Bob’s Mill recipe recommended filter water, so use that if you’ve got it). Add salt and steel cut oats, reduce heat to a simmer, and put a lid on the pot. Cook for 10 minutes, then taste-test for desired amount of chewiness.  (There will be extra liquid in the pot). As soon as the steel cut oats are slightly chewier than your preferred texture, add mashed banana, dried fruit, spices, honey and vanilla, and sprinkle on rolled oats to sop up the extra liquid. Stir, cook for another 5-10 minutes until the liquid is soaked up, then add the butter. Put into bowls, and top with toasted nuts, and random toasted coconut left over from a fried rice experiment, should you have it.  Tada! – (everything but the) kitchen sink oatmeal.

**Laziness means you can’t bear walking another 3/4 miles to the normal grocery store to buy normal marshmallows at normal prices.

Roasted Delicata Squash (and Brain)

Because a recent spice experiment with delicata squash fell a little flat, I’m going to forego an original recipe and just push the vegetable.  It caramelizes beautifully, kicks butternut to the curb in terms digit-retention when chopping and all around flavor, per Apt 8 consensus, and it comes in a neatly portable Wawa shortie hoagie size. There’s very little waste because you eat the skin, and the seeds do extraordinarily well when prepared in pumpkin seed fashion. Matt likes it so much that I roast big pans of it that disappear in about a day and a half.  From the closed fridge. While we’re at work. City mice are crazy delicata aggressive.

(Also, sisters – remember when Dad would take creative license when bellowing out the theme song because he couldn’t remember the words? “They’re laboratory mice! They like soy sauce with rice!”)

Simple roasting instructions are below. The squash lends itself well to experimentation (though not all spice combinations are winners, as in my case), but I trust this culinary professional implicitly and am planning her preparation for next time.

Roasted Delicata Squash (and seeds)

2 delicata squashes
Large-flake kosher salt
Olive oil, depending on the size of your squashes

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Scrub the exterior of the squashes well as you’ll be eating the skins after they are cooked. Cut off both ends, then slice in half vertically. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds and reserve to the side. Cut the squash into 3/4 inch slices, put in a large bowl, and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, and then toss to coat.

Arrange on a metal baking sheet, with the flesh of each slice (rather than the skin) touching the baking sheet – this will maximize caramelization. Bake for 15 minutes, flip the slices using a fork, and then bake for another 15 minutes or until the edges are browned and the squash is cooked through.

The seeds can be prepared just like pumpkin seeds – toss in an oil with your seasoning of choice, spread into one layer on a baking sheet, and bake for about 15 minutes in an oven at 300 degrees until lightly browned. Keep a close eye on them while they cook to avoid burning. Some nice flavor combinations (plus salt) include coconut oil and cinnamon; olive oil and spicy paprika; olive oil, chili powder, and a spritz of lime juice after cooking.

Cranberry Pecan Bread

A good alternative to raiding grocery store shelves for things one may not ordinarily buy in bulk but that are imperative to have on-hand during a weather semi-emergency – bottled water, bagged bread, peanut butter, hot dogs (maybe, maybe not), big clear plastic gallons of milk – is to host a baking marathon. Attendees: the baker, a TV show or movie that requires only intermittent attention to follow the plot line (say, Con Air with commercial breaks, or Burn Notice, or Best in Show — but only if you’ve seen it a few times already), and maybe someone to eat up all the finished products.  Should this storm really ratchet up, I might regret buying pastry flour, sticks of butter, and lemons instead of edible staples. Ice cream somehow found its way into the grocery bag too, so if the power goes out, please join us for a freezer par-tay. All joking aside, with lots of family and friends living up and down the coast, we’re hoping for a quick turnaround and a lesser impact than what is predicted for this storm that just so happens to share my opposite-of-destructive mother’s name.

Thanks to a few episodes of season 3 of Nikita, we’ve got a loaf of pecan and cranberry-studded bread cooling next to a pear and apple crisp that also is…cranberry-studded. Nikita herself probably doesn’t eat anything baked, or anything with fat, salt, or sugar for that matter, but she might be enticed to chow down on a slice of this bread before she heads off to ride motorcycles and karate-chop bad guys. It’s got the texture of a good banana bread with a slightly crunchy top due to a sprinkling of sugar, and the usual blah-blah-blah about how the tartness of the cranberries nicely offsets the sweetness of the bread. They really do, though. As soon as I can get my hands on more fresh cranberries, I’m making this again.

Cranberry Pecan Bread
(Very slightly adapted from Martha Stewards recipe found here)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
12 ounces fresh cranberries (if buying in the store, 1 bag is typically 12 oz.)
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar, for topping (I used regular sugar)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; grease a loaf pan (I use coconut oil spray, but Martha says butter and flour, and she is Martha).

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a medium bowl, mix together butter, egg, milk, and extracts. Add wet mixture to dry mixture and stir until just combined, then fold in cranberries and pecans.

Pour batter into your loaf pan; sprinkle top with turbinado sugar if desired.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of loaf comes out clean, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Transfer pan to a wire rack; let bread cool 30 minutes. Invert onto rack, then immediately turn right side up to cool completely.

The Upside to Going in Circles

This is one of the best times of year for sunsets in our neck of the woods/city. My favorite place to enjoy it is the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, where the running path has been revamped in the last two years – widened, smoothed, with weeds kept at bay.  It doesn’t boast sailboats like the Charles, but it has a nice beginning and end, full circle, without streams of bicycling commuters zipping by too close or too fast.  You go around one side almost blinded by sun, and come back around the other casting 20-foot shadows for the cars on Beacon to admire.  Students, older Brookline residents, parents with strollers, a few guys fishing – a nice slice of life to pass or be passed by.

When you finish your laps, refuel with a protein-filled snack. A recent cabinet-rummage inspired these banana treats, which hardly need a recipe – just assemble and eat. They will fill you up, so if you’re peckish rather than ravenous, perhaps go for half of everything listed below.

Banana & Sunflower Seed Butter Snacks
Serves 1-2

1 ripe but not too squishy banana
1-2 tablespoons sunflower seed butter
Approx. 1 teaspoon chia seeds
1 tablespoon large, unsweetened coconut flakes
Small handful of chopped pecans or walnuts, if desired
Pinch of flaky sea salt

Slice banana in half lengthwise. Spread with sunflower seed butter, then sprinkle on coconut flakes, nuts, chia seeds, then salt. That’s it.  I bet little kids would like this if you sliced the banana in coins instead.  It’s also really good for breakfast with some black coffee or juice – something astringent or slightly bitter to cut the creaminess.

P.S. Running at dusk? Here’s a good tune for it: Mansions on the Moon – Radio

I Love You, A Bushel and a Peck

First things first. This is Mema:

She uses straws to drink huge goblets of beer while looking like the world’s biggest cutie pie. That’s just how she rolls.  You can do what you want when you’re 88 years old.

During our trip to Texas in August, Matt and I got to spend a few blisteringly hot days visiting Mema — we roamed around Waco to see where my mom and her siblings grew up and then enjoyed a dinner out with all of them (my uncle has a Texas accent so thick that he can’t get Siri to do a damn thing for him), helped with a few errands and chores (H.E.B. runs and a little 105 degree weeding), and spent hours rooting around in an incredible cache of old photos and films.  Every photo came with a story, some of which I’d never heard before.  Like how my mother was named after my Grandpa’s favorite student Sandra, (said in a sing-song voice) “the smartest girl in the class.”  How Mema remembers her own grandfather always eating Limburger cheese (“Oooo-whew! And it smelled!”) And how Mema was engaged to another man when my grandpa, who was away at his marines posting and whom she wasn’t dating at the time but had in the past, wrote her a letter that read, simply: “Are you married yet? If not let me know.”  It was a characteristically succinct message from him, yet effective, because as they say: the rest was history.

On one morning during the visit we took a 45-minute drive out to Cedar Springs where Mema and Grandpa once owned a farm.  My sisters spent most of our childhood holidays and weekends there, and I wanted to relive the experience and have Matt see it for the first time. Just turning from the asphalt highway onto the rocky, dirt country road that leads to the house conjured up a gusher of memories: old blankets spread in the back of the big red suburban, where the heat from the road and the blast of the A/C made for the very best of naps, scouring freshly churned field rows for arrowheads, the smell of the peeling cedars and algae-blanketed pond and old cheese for baiting the hooks that caught the catfish that you’d name Charlie and then throw back, all underscored by the constant, undulating drone of cicadas.  Mema would make tuna fish sandwiches, Miracle Whip for some, but Hellman’s for those with more refined palates, and Grandpa would yell at rookie news anchors with bad politics while we giggled from behind his chair. Mema would care for her roses and flowers, and we’d marvel over the soft, raised veins in her hands that she said we’d all get some day.  Grandpa would read and read and read, but he’d move like a flash to the locked gun cabinet if you said you spied a water moccasin in the pond.

We’d do Thanksgiving there with ambrosia always part of the spread – for the uninitiated, that’s canned crushed pineapple, canned mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, sweetened coconut flakes, mini-marshmallows, and sour cream all stirred together into a sweet, gloppy mass.  In college I thought myself quite clever when I called it “kitschy.”  I know better now, and it still holds a place of honor on our holiday table.  Grandpa would make killer brisket until he went vegetarian, which typically wouldn’t fly in that part of rural Texas, but no one dared mess with Grandpa.  During my vegetarian stint, when we had Hamburger Helper at home I had little alternative than to sneak handfuls of it into the potted plant centerpiece. (“So that’s why it smelled so bad!” says Mom).  But when we were at the farm Grandpa would give me some of his pile of sautéed peppers and onions and say that we vegetarians would live to be one hundred.  Once in a blue moon, Mema would pull out her accordion (yeah, that’s also how she rolls) and she’d play a polka, or this song.  She’d also squash the rogue scorpion that snuck into the house with nary a moment’s hesitation.

I’ve got the beginnings of the raised veins in my hands, and a Becker nose that will persist for generations, but I still hope to someday be as tough and chipper, social and effervescent as Mema, and as quietly smart, adaptable and hard working as Grandpa, who started delivering ice from a truck as a teenager, and went on to be a first lieutenant in the Marines, a high school principal, a baseball coach who hardly knew a thing about baseball, a businessman, and a grandfather to thirteen grandchildren.

The end.

Except for one more thing…

Aren’t my mom and her sisters and sister-in-law total babes??

Seahorse v. Barnacle

Courtesy of

If nothing else went right for you this barnacle of a Monday, please accept my sincerest condolences, and then spend a few minutes scrolling through this.  Might as well scroll through it even if your Monday was smooth sailing. It’s funny either way.

Tomorrow, exit the bed from the other side, tie your shoelaces in reverse order, and do some counter/cabinet cleaning to conjure up something interesting to pack for lunch.  This recipe for Avocado Tomato Crackers was inspired one Saturday when I couldn’t peel backside off couch for long enough to visit the grocery store or one of three great lunch places within a three-block radius.  Blame it on this incredible book or laziness, but the meal was a happy result.

Mash half of an avocado with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, then spread onto a good thickish cracker (like Wasa brand) or toasted bread. Add sliced tomato, sprinkle on a little more salt, then layer on some thinly sliced extra sharp cheddar (or not if you’re going vegan – the avocado makes this hefty enough without the dairy). Top with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprig of whatever herb you’ve got – dill was great, but I imagine parsley and chives would be equally delicious. Easy, quick, and filling – just the thing to help you square those shoulders and face the rest of the day, be it barnacle or seahorse.