Revenge of the #Basics: Pumpkin Risotto

Confession: I don’t like pumpkin spice _______. I tried one of those latte things at Starbucks last autumn for the first time, and I thought it was kind of gross. I was excited for what I thought would be a pumpkin-flavored coffee, and instead it was cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and a lot of sugar.

I love pumpkin, though. Like eggs or sandwiches, it’s unfairly categorized as a thing that is to be eaten and prepared just one way. Eggs are for breakfast. Sandwiches aren’t for dinner. Pumpkins are for sweets. Rubbish, I say.

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Risotto isn’t nearly as hard to make as people seem to believe, which is great for you: when you make it, everyone acts very impressed.  Even though it isn’t very photogenic, it is kind of of sexy. Seasonal and filling, this pumpkin take I invented has been a big hit with everyone I made it for. My best friend is convinced this is how she sealed the deal with her new boyfriend, so strong is the allure of a savory pumpkin dish.

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Book Club: How to Build a Girl

This week, Cosmopolitan asked me to interview Caitlin Moran, the Times of London columnist and author of several books about contemporary feminism. It was so much goddamned fun I don’t even have a word for it. Funny, self-effacing, profane, and simultaneously very polite. we spent a fun hour chatting about her newest book, How to Build a Girl, the first in a fictional trilogy.

How to build a girlWhile I’m deeply tempted to say this is not a book for kids, it completely and totally is. Sex, masturbation, rampant teenage horniness, drug use, negligent parenting, partying with and like rockstars: the Parents Television Counsel’s top concerns are all here, and it encapsulates perfectly how uncool, lonely, and weird you feel as you figure out who you’re going to be when you grow up. How to Build a Girl tells the story of a young girl from a big family in an industrial town in England in the early 90s. Poor, chubby, and friendless, she embarks on a journey of self-improvement and self-discovery that mirrors Moran’s own. After winning a poetry contest as a preteen, she realizes that being a good, incisive writer is her ticket out of loneliness, poverty, and her not-great Midlands hometown.

I was a pretty uncool preteen who didn’t have a lot of friends and was a little bit chubby. Like our heroine, Johanna, I won a writing contest at the age of twelve and started writing record reviews for money at about age sixteen. Like her, I grew up, figured out how to dress myself, made friends, and became a writer. How to Build a Girl, coupled with Moran’s other, non-fiction books, is something like an “It Gets Better” project for self-loathing, awkward kids. What I appreciated about Moran’s Johanna is how little time is spent feeling pity for her being a loner. Indeed, it’s positioned as a great way to have time to read, listen to cool records, and dream about your awesome, fun-filled future. The book’s arguing the virtue of playing a long game, which is the number one thing I wish I could tell my twelve-year-old self. Twelve year olds, if you are reading my blog: You are not going to be a loser forever and I am living proof of this. After all, I get to interview women like Caitlin Moran for money, and the boys who didn’t want to kiss me and the girls who made fun of me are pretty boring humans who still haven’t read Moby Dick or gone to Africa or worn dark purple lipstick.

It’s refreshing to see a novel about a teenager that deals with teen sexuality frankly and directly. Other than Forever by Judy Blume, I can’t think of another book that is so unflinching. I’ve been watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of late, and it stands in stark contrast to How to  Build a Girl. On the one hand, you’ve got virginal Buffy Summers who literally takes her boyfriend’s soul away the first time they Do It (which only happens after two seasons of boring will they/won’t they buildup). On the other, you’ve got Johanna masturbating in her twin bed, trying desperately to offload her first kiss on anyone who will have her. Once she manages that, she never, ever mentions this boy (“The Kisser”) again, mostly because it just wasn’t that big a deal. One of these things is a lot more realistic a depiction of how you feel as you figure out your own sexuality, and it’s not the one with vampires.

If I had a little(r) sister, I would give her this book so hard (my sister is too old for this to be the revelation it would be to a teenager). It celebrates the self-determination that you have as a preteen and teenager, instead of treating that unformed state as something feral that requires taming. If you know a teenage girl, I think it’s important for you to look at her and say, “if you don’t like who you are, just make a new you. Work hard, be kind, and focus on the future. Draw a new face on top of your face if you want to.” That’s what I did, and that’s what Caitlin Moran did, and that’s what Johanna does. I’m excited to see where the next two books take her, and I can’t wait to give this book to the next uncool teenage girl I meet.

Lazy Sunday: 28 September 2014

I’ve been derelict in my Lazy Sunday postings of late, so please take these lovely things read by way of apology.

Tea Party Tuesday: Bellocq Breakfast

Whenever I have something that is very, very expensive, I am consumed with a perverse desire for it to be mediocre. Not bad, exactly– I don’t want to be miserable– but I want it to be just “meh” enough that I can justify skipping Lululemon yoga pants in favor of Target ones, or Bojangles’ fried chicken in place of Thomas Keller’s. That said, I had aggressively, assertively low hopes for this week’s pick. Behold: the $37 blended breakfast tea from Bellocq Tea Atelier.

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I bought this ON CLEARANCE.

Laying aside the fact that it is silly to call a tea shop an “atelier,” I was extremely disappointed. I wanted this to be no better nor worse than any other nice breakfast tea I’d had– better than Tazo or Celestial Seasonings, maybe on par with something from Teavana. Nope. This Ceylon/Assam/Yunnan blend is pretty much a dream.

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Look at how twiggy those leaves are! It smells like toast, but in a really nice way.

Breakfast blends take a lot of flak in the tea world for being the Uggs/Nike Shorts/French manicure of the beverages, but you know, a good one is worth its weight in gold. This is a good one, and I paid roughly that. With the toasty notes of a good Assam and the security blanket smell of a Ceylon, it’s just as nice first thing in the morning while you do a crossword as it was this afternoon, when I had it for a treat during a formidable rainstorm. It has an unusually long steeping time for a black tea– five to seven minutes, depending– which I ignored the first time I made it. It didn’t get bitter and the extra minute or two let the flavors unfold and gave me time to do some dishes. The second and third steeps brought out mellower notes, but were still great, which is what you’re hoping for from a higher-value tea.

So now you’re wondering: is this worth the $45ish dollars that it costs retail? The answer to that is probably no, unless you are a great connoisseur of tea. The good news is that you can buy this without the beautiful tin for the price of about $5/ounce, which is a good value for an organic black tea. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but the tin was why I bought it in the first place: hefty and old-fashioned, it keeps the tea nice and fresh and looks beautiful on your shelf. Unless money’s no object, skip the pretty packaging and just get it delivered to you in the sleeve.

Getting Out: Charleston

Charleston Harbor and the Ravenel Bridge

Charleston Harbor and the Ravenel Bridge

Ah, the Holy City, my current home. I’ve been living in the tourism capital that is Charleston for about a year and a half now, and I’ve got designs on staying a few more months. We welcome scads of visitors every year who arrive by the thousand via tour bus and cruise ship, eager to take in the beautiful architecture, rich history, and world-class food.  The weather’s not bad, either. Truly, I run out of things to complain about. Founded in the 1670, it’s one of America’s oldest cities, and it’s still a functional port today. Though things have changed a lot here over the past few centuries, it remains a gorgeous city that is much more progressive, zanier, and more diverse than the rest of the state. Nicknamed the Holy City because of a nearly-embarrassing overabundance of churches, Charleston has played an important role in several faith traditions– Reform Judaism was born here, the country’s oldest Unitarian church is here, and it’s one of the most important cities in the Bahai’i faith.

A Charleston pocket park.

A Charleston pocket park.

It’s also routinely listed as one of the best vacation destinations in the world, so we get a true cross section of the population visiting, though they seem to fall almost entirely into three distinct categories: people who want to look at the beach, people who want to eat our food, and people who want to interact with a friendly kind of slavery. I’m always happy to see the first two, but believe me: I am not sympathetic to your position that the Old Slave Mart was “a downer” or your weird obsession with plantations. If you’ve got a soft spot for John C. Calhoun or want to tell me how human bondage wasn’t so bad, please just stay at your house and do not give money to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

After the jump, check out some photos I’ve taken around town and get my recommendations for the best places to eat, drink, stay, shop, and do in my adopted hometown.

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Tea Party Tuesday: Zoborodo

If you’ve poked around this blog at all, you have probably picked up on the fact that I hate to waste pretty much anything. I’m one of those people who puts water into the soap dispenser to get more liquid out (what? it works!), and I save all my vegetable peels so I can make stock. I’m like your grandma who lived through the Great Depression, only I have WiFi.  To me, wastefulness is lazy and uncreative, two things no one should want to be.

Right, so, pineapples were on special at Publix, and I love a sale, so obviously I bought several. I peeled them and chopped them and ate them, but then I had all these spiny skins littering my kitchen and I was loathe to throw them away. What the Sam Hill do you do with a couple pounds of pineapple peel? I googled around and came across zoborodo, a Nigerian tisane that put them to good use.

Yep, blood red tea.

Yep, blood red tea.

As we’ve covered in previous blogs, tisanes (or herbal teas) aren’t really teas at all. They’re waters infused with herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers. They’re hydrating, almost calorie-free, and have tons of benefits for you, but they aren’t tea. This one can lower blood pressure and decrease pain, plus it’s got a little vitamin C to boot.  Here’s an easy recipe for zoborodo that I adapted from a few I found online. The only odd thing in this recipe is hibiscus flowers, which you can buy at Whole Foods or a health food store.

Acquire the following:

Peel of a pineapple

A generous handful of hibiscus flowers

Two tablespoons (ish) of diced raw ginger

Juice of 2 limes (pro tip: check the “priced for quick sale” shelf at your supermarket. Limes are expensive right now, bout they’re usually there. They’re fine for juice, but just kind of ugly. I got a dozen for a dollar this week.)

Put all these in a big pot and cover with water (I did about 2 liters of water). Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes, then remove from heat and let it steep for about 10 minutes. Strain out all the things you put in and serve. You can drink this hot, but I loved it iced! It’s still 90 degrees here in Charleston, so the mere idea of drinking a warm beverage is a horror. It’s a little bit sour, so add some agave or honey if you want something sweeter. Enjoy!

So what do y’all think of my pineapple reuse? Any other tips for me?

Tea Party Tuesday: Lingonberry Green

Confession time: I have a lifestyle crush on Marcus Samuelsson. He is nice-looking, has a neat restaurant, seems to genuinely like his super-hot wife, and exudes competence on Top ChefThe guy just seems to have his life together. This weekend, I took a knife skills class and got to the cooking school a little bit early, giving me just enough time to wander around and spend more money. When I saw that he had a beautifully packaged new tea line, there was no outcome where I didn’t purchase it. 

I mean LOOK at that tin. It's so pretty.

I mean LOOK at that tin. It’s so pretty.

After an agonizing ten minutes deciding which of the four offerings I would select, I left the shop with the Ambessa Lingonberry Green. Let’s start with the downsides before I go on to the fun stuff. Bad part one: it’s a sachet, which I didn’t realize. Bad part two: I did not suddenly become a Beard award winner OR the partner of a model after drinking a big cup of this tea. 

Now, on to the fun part. I love lingonberries. They’re somewhat uncommon in the United States (though if you live up north, you can grow them), but they’re a staple in Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and other consistently cold European nations. They’re tart and sweet, and boast a host of nutritional and medicinal properties that make me wonder what all the fuss about acai berries is. The green tea they’re blended with here is a Japanese sencha, and it’s very delicate. We’ve covered how great green tea is for you in the past, so no need to rehash here.  

The nose on the leaves was just slightly fruity– enough that you knew there was cowberry in your future, but not enough to remind you of Celestial Seasonings Peach Whatever Whatever. I steeped it for threeish minutes and took the bag out and this is what I got:

Incredibly pale, yes?

Incredibly pale, yes?

It’s subtler than I expected– the lingonberries are there if you’re looking for them, but they don’t knock you out. That’s a drawback of some teas that come blended with fruit, and I was glad we sidestepped that particular pitfall. This would make a really nice iced green tea for a hot day, but I enjoyed it in its intended form, too. Definitely recommend, despite the fact that it did not come with complimentary Michelin stars. Ugh. 

The lingonberry green runs about $8 for 40 sachets, and is available here.

Anyone tried any of the other Ambessa teas? I’m curious about the Earl of Harlem!