Friday, July 21, 2017

Mission: Plumpossible

What a treat it was to see my friend Jenn and spend a few days with her and her husband Eric in the south of France this week! Jenn, who I met a decade ago in French class back in DC, is my kind of crazy: loves good food and wine, has an insatiable interest in learning and exploring new places, and suffers from a similar hatred of wasting things. An avid recycler and compulsive composter, Jenn seemed at many points during this visit to be my long lost twin. (Mon dieu!) This feeling was confirmed when Jenn showed me their glut of fresh red plums on Tuesday, filling containers on every available scrap of kitchen table and counter space, with many more pounds of fruit still hanging from overloaded boughs in the garden, and asked if I could make something to salvage them. Preferably gluten-free.

Challenge accepted, obviously.

When Jenn and Eric set off to work yesterday, I put in a load of laundry, turned on some music, sat down at their kitchen table, and began to chop. An hour and twelve cups of chopped plums later, I assessed what other ingredients were on hand and got cooking: plum bars, plum shrub syrup, and, because I believe I mentioned how both Jenn and I loathe wasting anything, plum fruit leather made from the skins strained out of the shrub base. 

Oh, you have lots of plums, too? Well, I already have a  shrub recipe on the blog, so you don't need that. The fruit leather is still dehydrating in the sun, so I'll hold off on sharing that recipe til I get a positive review from Jenn. For now, here is how to make your own delicious -- and super easy -- tart plum bars. Perfect for a picnic in Paris, btw....

Gluten-free Summer Plum Bars
Adapted from the smittenkitchen website's strawberry rhubarb bar recipe.


1 cup rolled oats
¾ cup all-purpose gluten-free flour
½ cup + 1 Tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons butter, 
2 heaping cups fresh plums, pitted and diced
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice


Heat oven to 375°F. For easy removal, line bottom and sides  of an 8-by-8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper.

Place oats, flour, 1 cup sugar, and salt in the bottom of your baking pan and mix. Pour melted butter over, and stir until clumps form. If the clumps feel soft or look overly damp, add up to 2 more Tablespoons of flour. Set aside ½ cup of the crumble mixture.

Press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly in the bottom of the pan. Spread half the diced plums over the crust, then sprinkle it evenly with cornstarch, then lemon juice, and 1/2 Tablespoon of granulated sugar. Spread the remaining plums over this, and top with second 1/2 Tablespoon sugar. Scatter reserved crumbs over fruit.

Bake bars for 30-40 minutes, until plums are bubbly and crumbly portion is golden and smells delicious. Let cool in pan, then put in the fridge to set. Cut into squares and sprinkle with powdered sugar or a dash of cinnamon sugar before serving. Store leftovers in fridge or freezer.

I think almond meal would be delicious in the crust/crumble part, too -- maybe swap it for 1/4 cup of the flour -- but since Jenn can't eat almonds, I didn't try it this time. Ooh, I can't wait to hear how the fruit leather comes out!

Friday, July 14, 2017

More than goat milk

Finally, in western Poland, I've found the vegetables! Each day this week, along with the ubiquitous meat and boiled potatoes, Jagoda (my relation -- a second cousin, I think?) has been feeding me luscious, from-scratch soups: mushroom, broccoli, zucchini, and, today, creamy tomato. Yummmm. And, with many thanks to her husband Krzysztof, I've also had a chance to work on a small farm in the region. I'm getting back to my roots in more ways than one.

Wednesday night after dinner, my relatives drove me to Kozka -- an organic farm that produces goat milk, cheese, and yogurt. After arriving, I chatted a bit with the farmers, Jolanta and Norbert, over herbal tea then beers, heading to bed around midnight. At the crack of 6:45, it was time to get up to help with morning milking....

I'm not going to be quitting my day job to become a goat milker any time soon, it appears. Norbert and his assistant, Danke, easily milked nearly seventy goats in the half hour it took me to get through two, never mind that about 25% of the milk that came out of my goats ended up on my pants. Luckily I was able to redeem myself with efficient garden tasks later in the morning -- so much so, in fact, that Norbert declared my thorough tomato pruning and pea crop clearing earned us all a two hour siesta after our fava bean and pork belly lunch. (Lord knows I needed the nap after the overzealous rooster outside my window had gotten going at 3am. Jerk.)

I learned so much from Jolanta during my time there, where she farms, makes yogurt and cheeses for sale, and practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine. She has lived in Lubowo since her father gave her a few hectares of land there as a wedding present in 1980. She and her carpenter husband were simply homesteading until about a dozen years after settling there she noticed their second son was allergic to cow's milk. So they got a couple of goats. Jolanta had studied agriculture in college, but she had focused on plants, so they decided to spend a bit of time in Switzerland learning how to care for livestock. They soon acquired a few more goats, and a nearby supermarket asked if they might sell some of their milk there. Then a few more goats joined the herd as demand grew... It turns out that organic agriculture is quite an anomaly in Poland, but there's been a recent uptick in consumers seeking out what is here called "biological" produce, dairy, and meat. There's still a long way to go, Jolanta assured me, but slowly the country is waking up to the ways conventional agriculture is damaging human health and the health of the environment.

As of 2012, the unique organic farm has been hosting field trips for groups of students from schools in nearby Poznan. Kids as young as kindergarteners come for 3 hours at a time to milk goats (and taste the milk), ride ponies, see a wide variety of fruits and veggies growing, and have a cookout. How cool! As far as I can tell, the farm is the only one in the country offering this amazing farm-to-school opportunity. I hope it's the start of a trend -- have I mentioned the general lack of veggie consumption in these parts? 

When Krzysztof came to pick me up from the farm last night, the couple sent me back with big hugs along with a hunk of their aged goat cheese and homemade black currant syrup. These are my people!

Thursday, June 29, 2017


So it turns out that quince is much more popular in Europe than in the States. Before Jacky gifted me a half dozen of the hard yellow fruits with an intoxicating aroma last year, I'd only encountered quince in the form of membrillo paste on Spanish cheese plates in fancy restaurants.Thus far in my summer travels, I've seen it infused in gin while visiting Ghent, then my relatives offered me some preserved quince in tea yesterday morning and poured me homemade quince vodka after dinner in Warsaw last night. I've heard rumors of quince mead, too, so I'll be in the lookout as I head through southern and western Poland....

I suspect this will not be my last run in with quince. At least I hope not, and not *just* because it's fun to say in Polish: pigwa!

Saturday, June 3, 2017


About a month ago, my friend Vera (from our, ahem, award-winning WIC challenge team) contacted me about doing a middle eastern cooking class for her cultural exchange program, Oye Palaver Hut. "Sure," I said, "but the person you really want to lead this thing and talk about Iraqi food and Middle Eastern culture is my dad. Can he come, too?" If only Vera knew ahead of time that she'd be meeting her storytelling match....

A couple of weeks ago, dad and I started brainstorming recipes we could make with the group of 6-8 families in an hour or so. Dolma? Too complicated. Baklava? Too stressful. Even though technically the national dish of Iraq is probably bamja (okra stew with meat), shalgham (turnip curry) has always been my favorite traditional Iraqi dish.

Mom and dad came over last night so we could pre-make the shalgham and hummus. Dad also brought along ingredients for a few of my favorite traditional Iraqi veggie dishes -- fassoulia (stewed white beans in tomato sauce) and khedra (stewed green beans) -- and plenty of basmati rice, all of which we would be making during the class itself. My gentleman friend Matt and landlady Jacky were also in attendance, and jumped right in to help with chopping and keeping wine glasses filled -- both key tasks during a Vincent cooking session. Things went pretty smoothly until I sliced by thumb with an impressively sharp knife. No biggie, I put on a band-aid and we kept working. Then after a few glasses of wine, we realized that the fancy halal lamb meant to fill out the shalgham was still sitting in my parents' fridge in Northern Virginia, so there was a little side trip to my local Whole Foods. A little after 9pm, which, incidentally, is not overly late in the Arab dining world, we sat down to a delicious meal, followed by a platter of baked goodies and coffee. Not a bad Friday night.

This morning, dad swung by around 9:45 to whisk me and the ingredients and equipment for our Iraqi feast to Northeast DC, where we'd be teaching. Slowly kiddos and their parents trickled in, beginning around 11:00. By noon, things were in full swing, with dad talking it up to a rapt audience while 4 pots simmered on the gas burners and cameras and microphones captured his every word. The kids, to their credit, jumped right in, eager to help with the chopping and stirring, the adding of spices and tasting of things along the way. At the end, we all enjoyed our feast together, then dad wrote out everyone's name in Arabic calligraphy. I helped to wash up while dad led the group in a little Arabic line dancing. He was in his element, as mom would say.

I think a girl and her dad could get used to this. Well, maybe without the filming -- I get a little shy.

Anyway, it's high time I included my favorite dish of dad's on this blog. Seems fitting just a few weeks before Father's Day. Maybe you can make a pot of this for your dad....

Turnips (shalgham) with Lamb
This recipe makes enough for 10 people. Also delicious made with chicken or pork.

5-6 medium size turnips (tennis ball size)
2 lbs boneless lamb, cubed (leg or shoulder of lamb)
1 small can tomato paste
3-4 tomatoes, chopped (or 1 can stewed tomatoes)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
3-4 dried red chili peppers (or 1 tsp crushed red pepper)
1 TBSP date syrup (or molasses or maple syrup)
1 TBSP fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large pot, heat 3 TBS olive oil. Saute garlic and onions 3 or 4 minutes.

Add lamb and cook 5 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Add turnips and cook an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add tomato paste and follow with chopped tomatoes. Add 1 cup water, or more, as needed and stir.

Add syrup and follow with lemon juice and red peppers.

Bring to boil, lower heat to medium and cook for at least 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

After one hour, taste, and if necessary, add any of the ingredients as necessary to get the right balance of sweet, spicy, sour, and bitter. Salt and pepper to round up flavor.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A changing climate

What a treat it was to host my dear friend Mark and his son Emmett this weekend! Too bad it took a visceral fear of our planet going down the toilet to get one of my favorite people on the planet and his oldest son down to visit me in DC, but I'll take what I can get...

As we wandered around the city after dinner on Friday night -- the guys wanted to stretch their legs after 12 hours of bus transit from Burlington -- we chatted about the various neighborhoods we walked through and their complicated racial histories, about the old days of teaching in Brooklyn (which is where I originally met Mark), about where our nation might be headed in these tumultuous times and what we were doing to be a force for good. Though there was a good bit of ranting along the way, by the time we returned home for a beer I was feeling less hopeless.

Though I am daily outraged by the stuff coming out of the Executive Office -- seriously, I shake my fist every morning at the radio as I have breakfast and listen to WAMU -- Mark reminded me that as teachers we have a real chance to foster an atmosphere of hope, kindness, intelligence, and activism. It's up to us adults who care -- because, let's face it, we are all teachers in one way or another -- to help ensure that the next generation will be made up of good people. We've got to stick together, and stick up for what's right for everyone. I am regularly heartened by the banding together of many people against hatred, racism, bigotry, and ignorance, and this was in full effect yesterday during the Climate March.

Right on. I wish Mark visited more often!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Buried treasure

I love Easter. It continues to be my favorite holiday: it's basically Thanksgiving with better weather and less football. This year, there were a few changes to the usual routine:

1. Instead of me (almost 40) and my brother (in his mid-30s) and I knocking each other out of the way to find the usual peanut m&m filled plastic eggs that mom stashed around the back yard, dad and I giggled maniacally as we pointed the world's cutest 2-year-old niece toward jelly belly filled eggs scattered about in the grass. We spent much of the rest of the afternoon chasing the dog away from the jelly beans when Elena inevitably spilled the opened eggs all over the back deck. She was so proud of herself it was hard to be annoyed. Also, the jelly beans were delicious.

2. Instead of the standard chemical tablet dyes, we dipped our hard boiled eggs in all-natural solutions made from beet juice, turmeric, and chili powder. Though in the end the eggs didn't stain, neither did my hands, so there's that. More research required before next Easter.

3. We only had 2 large meat dishes + 4 or 5 veggie dishes for 6 adults and 1 hungry toddler. Win!

4. Instead of the chocolate bunny mom normally gives me, I had another Easter surprise. Dad took me down to the basement to look through some miscellaneous bags and boxes of things he thought might be mine, and lo and behold I was reunited with some long lost cooking equipment:

For YEARS dad had insisted that I never gave him these objects on the day of my bike trip departure, at the C&O canal picnic gathering in April of 2009. And though I distinctly recall someone snapping a photo of me handing him the whisk, since I couldn't produce photographic evidence I had started to question my memory. Yesterday, almost exactly EIGHT YEARS LATER, there it was, beneath a bag of spare bike tire tubes and other "might need" items dad had kept handy at the Northern Virginia Bikeable Feast home base during my trip. And apparently for another 6 1/2 years. Nestled next to it was the missing pepper grinder, swiped from a terrible NYC restaurant back in 2004, and missing in action since that fateful day in April 2009 -- I loved that pepper grinder. And it still works! I think I'm going to put freshly ground pepper on everything for the next week....

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Loving life

My life isn't perfect -- whose is, really? -- but on days like today I feel lucky to lead the life I do.

I was reflecting on this while roaming around the C&O canal earlier today with 45 members of my school's Student Sustainability Corps -- a group made up of elementary and middle school students and an amazing special education teacher who continue to lead the school's recycling, gardening, and general sustainability efforts. They're pretty awesome, but usually I only get to spend about 45 minutes a week with a subgroup of these kids, so getting to spend more time talking and exploring together was quite a treat. The weather was perfect, and on this all-day field trip I couldn't help but smile as young people pointed excitedly at blue herons and turtles, snapped photos of wildflowers, fiddled with binoculars, marveled at rapids, and listened intently as our guide described the various forms pre-leafing poison ivy could take. (I noticed that nobody touched ANY sticks, vines, or branches for the remainder of the morning -- nicely done, ranger.)

I also noted that today's hike started at the very same spot where, almost exactly eight years ago, Ollie and I headed out on our cross-country journey. Where a group of friends and family picnicked with me the afternoon of the Bikeable Feast kickoff, where my mom told me she was proud of me, where my dad hugged me and agreed to take home the whisk and two paperbacks I decided fifteen miles into my ride were too heavy, where friends waved as I biked off into the great unknown around our country.

I got a little misty eyed that day. And today as well. Friends and family have supported and encouraged me then, and they still do. Each day was an adventure, and it still is.... Thank you, Universe, for letting me live this life!