Counter Action: Green pasta salad

It’s one of the hottest days of the year so far here, although you wouldn’t know it to look at my neighbours. I don’t think a day has gone by since Memorial Day that they didn’t have the grill fired up outside. Apparently sweat is weakness leaving the body.

As long as this heat wave lasts, I’m staying as far away from heat sources as I can. No pizza or soup or homemade baked goods for this girl. Even snuggling with my roommate’s cats is a bit much.

This salad definitely fits the summer bill of fare, though. I don’t know what it is about the snap of raw vegetables that feels cooler than cooked ones, but this dish has its fair share of crunch with broccoli, carrots, and bell peppers. Have some fresh asparagus spears you need to use up? Throw them in too. Sugar snap peas? Why not. Cooked chilled edamame? Have at it. This is your salad, my friends.

Green pasta salad

(based on Best Food Cloud’s ranch pasta salad)

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. rotini
  • 2 heads broccoli
  • 4 carrots
  • 2 green bell peppers
  • 6 oz. plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/3 c. milk
  • 1 pkt. ranch dressing mix

Directions:

  1. Cook rotini until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water until cool.
  2. Dice broccoli, carrots, and bell peppers into bite-sized pieces.
  3. In separate bowl, combine yogurt, milk, and ranch dressing mix until smooth. (Based on how much whey is in your Greek yogurt, feel free to add a tablespoon or two of flour to thicken the dressing. If you like your salad extra flavorful, add up to 1 tsp. onion powder and 2 tsp. dried parsley.)
  4. Combine rotini, veggies, and dressing. Toss to coat.

Counter Action: Broccoli–cheese soup

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As I look at my post calendar, I’m seeing a theme.

In November, there was roasted garlic soup and spicy white bean stew. Today there’s going to be this broccoli–cheese soup. And in the not-so-distant future, there’s going to be French lentil soup and Tuscan bean soup and onion soup.

We’re big on soup here. I hope that’s okay.

Other things I’m big on, at least this week:

  • Jonathan Coulton’s song “Ikea.” It’s everything you ever wanted in a song about everyone’s favourite elegantly furnished maze.
  • A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter. Sure, it was published in 1909, but its themes of familial loyalty, independence, and staying true to oneself are as pertinent as they ever were. If you haven’t read it since you were a kid, try giving it another shot — I was amazed by the new nuances I caught this time around.
  • Bath & Body Works’ Purple Amethyst lotion. Here’s how the pros describe the scent: “A hypnotic blend of Italian bergamot, rare camellias & exotic sandalwood.” Here’s my analysis: “Strong on the unicorn tears, with top notes of summer moonlight and the Jazz Age and a faint afternote of Nicholas Sparks.” Bottom line: It smells good.
  • Winterspell“, by Two Steps from Hell. Would you find tasks easier to accomplish in this dark, cold month if they were accompanied by a sweeping dramatic score? Look no further: Two Steps from Hell has your back. (Other favourites: “Spirit of Moravia“, “Cassandra“, and “Men of Honor Part II“.)
  • The 2013 version of The Great GatsbyThis is preemptive praise — I haven’t actually seen it yet; it’s just been sitting in my “borrowed items” stack for longer than I care to admit. But given the reviews, I fully expect to enjoy it when I sit down to it tonight with my bowl of soup.

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Broccoli–cheese soup

(adapted from Peas and Crayons’ recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced finely
  • 2 c. broccoli flowerets, diced finely
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/8 tsp. allspice
  • 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 c. vegetable broth
  • 4 c. water
  • 3 T. butter
  • 3 T. flour
  • 1-1/2 c. milk
  • 1 c. grated cheddar cheese

Directions:

  1. Warm oil in large stockpot over medium heat. Add onion. Cook 2 minutes.
  2. Add carrot and broccoli. Cook 3 minutes.
  3. Add garlic, spices, and salt. Stir to combine and cook 2 minutes longer.
  4. Add bay leaf, broth, and water. Increase heat and cover pot. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
  5. In separate saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and stir in flour to form a thick paste. Add milk and whisk until smooth. Continue to heat and stir until mixture has thickened.
  6. Add cheese to saucepan and stir until melted and incorporated.
  7. Ladle some broth into cheese mixture and stir. Gradually add more hot broth, stirring between each addition, until saucepan is full and cheese sauce’s temperature is similar to stockpot’s temperature.
  8. Pour cheese sauce into stockpot and stir to combine. Serve with green salad and crusty bread. Garnish with grated cheese, crackers, or fresh parsley if desired.

 

Counter Action: Sweet potato–black bean enchilada casserole

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For a lot of people, winter’s not the best time of year. They’ll be rolling along just fine … and then BAM, winter hits them like a sledgehammer and it’s all they can do not to spend the next three months curled up in a lethargic ball in the corner.

Other people are more or less melancholy all year round, so winter isn’t so much a sledgehammer as an especially prolonged dip in the already hilly road.

Personally, I have the most success getting through winter when I view it as a military campaign. Not that I’ve ever been in the military, but I took a History of WWII class once and I’ve read The Things They Carried, so I have a sketchy idea of what it’s like. Work with me here. If you ask too many questions, the metaphor falls apart.

So here are my beating-winter priorities:

  • Have a mascot. It can be super relaxing to spend some time with something that’s always happy to see you. I’m lucky enough to live with three snuggle-happy cats, but if you’re in a pet-free zone, try visiting an animal shelter every few weeks. If you’re still in college, many student wellness centers will bring in therapy dogs or a clowder of shelter cats for students to pet.
  • Tune out the press. We all have those Facebook friends for whom absolutely everything appears to be going well. They’re forever posting about their killer workouts; their stellar grades; their fun, meaningful, high-paying job; their amazing significant other; the gourmet dinner they just hosted for 25 people; the coffee/quote/friend/salad that makes them #soblessed. If this makes you feel as inferior and frustrated as I do, consider unfollowing those people for a while. Better yet, take a break from the social media rat race altogether — it might help you regain perspective and re-realize that we all have our struggles and weaknesses.

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    “Never been sick a day in his life! Been sleeping through the night since he was 5 days old! Eats anything I give him! #soblessed #askingforfewerfollowers”

  • Don’t dismiss the band. Put together a playlist that helps you rise above the blues. Some of my favourites are Two Steps from Hell’s “Cassandra“, Ingrid Michaelson’s “One Night Town“, and — yes, I’ll admit it — Hank Green’s “Shake-a-Booty“.
  • Find a good drill sergeant. I’ve tried to follow Jillian Michaels’ 30-Day Shred several times now, and I’ve never been able to make it a permanent part of my life. Then I discovered Jessica Smith TV, and I realized what was missing: encouragement. Her workouts can be seriously tough (second-position demi-pointe plié squats, anyone?), but she always projects kindness and the understanding that not everyone will be 100% up to the task right away. If this is what you need in a workout leader, don’t give up until you find one who works for you. It can make a huge difference in your motivation to work out — which in turn means you’ll be more likely to get the myriad physical and chemical benefits that exercise brings.
  • Stay well-provisioned. Nothing brings me down faster than the realization that I have nothing in the cupboard except some stale bread and a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter. Cooking tasty, nutritious meals takes time and energy, I know — but it doesn’t have to take much.
  • Find some buddies. You’re not alone in feeling down. In fact, the longer I listen to my Pandora comedy station, the more I realize that a lot of my favourite comedians have dealt with depression on a regular basis. This was a helpful realization on two levels: First, that human beings can turn those kinds of harrowing experiences into such beautiful art; second, that I can trust them to offer helpful advice. Here’s something Patton Oswalt posted recently that I found especially helpful:

patton oswalt

  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re in over your head. Calling my school’s counseling center to ask for an appointment was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’m so glad I did it. It was really helpful to talk through various issues, face questions I’d been avoiding, and get some tools for managing my mental health more efficiently. Plus, I knew that I was in the hands of professionals who were uniquely qualified to evaluate whether I needed medication or more in-depth therapy. It was wonderful to hand that responsibility over to them, instead of trying to sort through conflicting advice from friends, family, and the Internet.

On the topic of provisions, I just made this casserole yesterday, and I can already tell that it’s going to become a standard this winter. It’s pretty easy to throw together, it’s fairly cheap, it’s filling, it’s got fantastically vibrant flavours, and it packs a nutritious punch. Perhaps best of all, one batch will feed one person for a week, and it freezes beautifully for the days you don’t feel like cooking.

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Sweet potato–black bean enchilada casserole

(Inspired by these Sweet Potato, Corn, and Black Bean Enchiladas from Averie Cooks; seasonings adapted from The Creekside Cook’s Crash Hot Sweet Potatoes)

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium sweet potatoes, diced
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. salt (divided)
  • 1 tsp. cumin (divided)
  • 1/2 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 c. corn
  • 1 c. dry black beans, cooked until tender (or 1 can, drained)
  • 6 large flour tortillas
  • 1 small can of your favourite enchilada sauce, divided (I used 8 oz. of Chi-Chi’s mild taco sauce)
  • 3/4 c. of your favourite salsa, divided (I used medium-hot Pace Picante salsa)
  • 3/4 c. grated cheese, divided (your choice — I used pepper jack)

Directions:

  1. Bring medium pot of water to a boil. Add sweet potatoes and cook until tender (~20 minutes).
  2. Drain sweet potatoes, reserving ~ 3 T. hot water. Add honey, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. cumin, and rest of spices. Mash until smooth.
  3. Add 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. cumin to black beans. Set aside.
  4. Spread half of the enchilada sauce evenly in large casserole dish. Add 2 tortillas to cover bottom of dish.
  5. Spoon half of the sweet potato mix, half of the corn, half of the beans, half of the salsa, and a third of the cheese over tortillas.
  6. Add 2 more tortillas and repeat step 5.
  7. Add last 2 tortillas and spread last half of the enchilada sauce and third of the cheese over the top.
  8. Cover in foil and bake at 375°F for 20 minutes. Remove foil and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until cheese is golden-brown and bubbling.
  9. Serve warm with green salad. Keep leftovers refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Possible variations:

  • Replace sweet potato with 1 medium butternut squash (cubed and roasted), or with 2 c. roasted or stewed pumpkin.
  • Chop 3 c. spinach and add half to each layer.
  • Garnish with sliced avocado, cilantro, and/or sour cream.
  • Replace Pace Picante salsa with any of these delicious homemade options: pico de gallo, green tomatillo salsachipotle salsa, or cilantro–lime salsa.

———

Photo credits: Mother and baby from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Counter Action: White bean stew with Parmesan and greens

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I have an alarming amount of fun in my local grocery store.

It’s one of these food outlet deals, where they stock surplus goods from other grocery stores. You do have to be a little careful about expiration dates, and if you’re working from a strict list of needs … well, you probably shouldn’t. They’ll probably carry bread and milk every day, but don’t count on habañero–mango salsa or fresh ginger.

On the bright side, this now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t policy turns grocery shopping into a little adventure every week. They might have regular old chicken stock … or they might have a bunch of super-fancy organic free-range chicken stock for 50 cents a box. They might have your normal bagged spinach … or they might have a set of fancy bagged salads, croutons and dressing included, that will forever change the way you feel about kale.

A couple of weeks ago, I was prowling the aisles with my cart when I saw something new at the end of the bean/lentil/rice display: a whole carton of Great Northern beans.

I’ve been curating a slew of Great Northern bean recipes since forever, and now making some of them was actually within reach, thanks to some other store who ordered too many of them.

I tried to play it cool. I’m technically an adult, after all, even if I sometimes temporarily lose that card by, say, buying ridiculously cheap chocolate milk instead of regular, as I did today. But with those beans, I knew, my adult card would be sticking around a lot longer. They’ve got fiber, they’ve got protein, they’re low in cholesterol and calories and fat, and if you’ve been putzing around saying to yourself, “Boy, I’m feeling a little low in iron and potassium,” they’ve got you covered. To make them even more attractive, in this stew, they’re anything but bland. There’s red pepper flakes and paprika to give them a kick, Parmesan and the aid of a potato masher to make them creamy, and greens to boost their health quotient even further.

In short, if you’re looking for a way to keep your eating on the healthy side this holiday season, this stew is the perfect way to do that. And good news: If you start haunting your local outlet store today, you might be able to track down some Great Northerns by New Year’s.

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White bean stew with Parmesan and greens

(adapted, barely, from How Sweet Eats)

Ingredients:

  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 4 c. vegetable stock
  • 4 c. water
  • 2 c. dry white beans (I used Great Northern), soaked overnight
  • 1 Parmesan rind (+ more to grate on top)
  • 1 c. chopped kale
  • 4 c. chopped spinach

Directions:

  1. Heat olive oil in large stockpot over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook until soft. Add garlic, peppers, salt, and paprika, and cook until fragrant.
  2. Add stock and water. Raise heat to high until soup boils.
  3. Add beans and Parmesan rind. Reduce heat and simmer covered until beans are tender (between 30 minutes and 1 hour, depending on how long they soaked).
  4. Add greens and cover pot for a few minutes, or until greens are wilted. Stir to combine. Simmer uncovered until contents are thick enough to be called stew instead of soup.
  5. With potato masher, mash stew a few times. Serve with Parmesan grated on top and plenty of sourdough.

Counter Action: Black bean–corn chowder

Goodbye, white balance. I'll call you if I need you.

Goodbye, white balance. I’ll call you if I need you.

Do you ever have days where it feels like 4 a.m. all day?

Maybe it’s because you have actually gotten up at 4 that day. Maybe you ran out of bread and cereal and pancake mix and had to make do with a mushy banana for breakfast. Maybe you checked your library account and discovered that you had three books a week overdue. Maybe you glanced at the New York Times Bestseller list and found that the book at the top — the one everybody is raving about, even that crusty old critic in Chicago — has a setting, characters, and premise very similar to the book you’re currently writing, and now if you try to publish or promote your book in any way, everyone will think you copied.

This has never happened to me. Well, except for that one time.

"What do you mean, the Molokai leper colony isn't fresh material anymore?"

“What do you mean, the Molokai leper colony isn’t fresh material anymore?”

On days like these, I find soup extraordinarily comforting. It demands to be eaten slowly and contemplatively, with an attention that isn’t often due to food. And when the soup is as good as this one, it’s well worth paying attention.  The cayenne and canned chilis give it an up-front kick, with the curry and cumin lingering underneath for a deeper flavor, and the dairy products rounding it out into a rich, filling soup. It’s a great one for these lazy summer evenings as well as chilly winter evenings, if you happen to be of the Southern Hemisphere persuasion.

And if you’ve just faced a grave disappointment of the early rising/library fine/literary anger persuasion, this soup will nurse you through the grief. It’s multifunctional like that.

Black bean–corn chowder

A combination of the black bean chowder from Time-Life Books’ Vegetables and the Pioneer Woman’s black bean chowder with yogurt–cilantro relish

Ingredients:

Soup:

  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 4-oz. chopped green chilis
  • 1 T. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. curry powder
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne
  • 4 c. chicken broth
  • 1–1-1/2 c. dry black beans, soaked overnight
  • 1 c. corn kernels
  • 2 T. butter
  • 3 c. whole milk (embrace it, friends)
  • 1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
  • 2 T. flour
  • salt to taste

Relish:

  • 1/2 c. sour cream or plain yogurt
  • 1/2 cucumber, diced
  • small handful of cilantro, minced
  • pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Heat olive oil in stock pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic. Cook until tender.
  2. Add chilis and spices. Cook until fragrant.
  3. Add broth and raise heat to medium-high. When boiling, add beans, cover, and simmer until beans are tender.
  4. Add corn, butter, and milk.
  5. Mix cheese and flour together, add to soup, and stir until thickened. Salt to taste.
  6. Mix relish ingredients together. Serve on top of soup.

 

Photo credit: Unhappy child from Bonoz on Pixabay.

Counter Action: Potato–spinach–blue cheese burgers

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It’s a tricky business, naming things.

I had a whole list of ideas for this feature’s title, most of which were problematic. “Noshes”? Too hipster. “The Bowl” or “The Plate”? Meh. “The Chew”? Already taken. “Round the Cauldron”, with a nod to Shakespeare? Maybe not, considering the ingredients in that particular cauldron. “Much Depends on Dinner”, stealing from Herrick? Too obscure. “Oven Lovin'”? Too emotional. “Counter Action”? A little violent, but different. We’ll go with it.

Not this violent and different. Sorry.

Not this violent and different. Sorry.

These burgers are from a bygone era. It was a prairie summer. I was twenty-two, heading into my last year of university, and living in an uncooled attic. In the mornings, I worked at the college library, shelving books, moving books, and throwing books away. My coworkers and I bonded over the ninety-degree weather and the long, deep, stinging cuts left on our hands and fingers from breaking down cardboard boxes. My roommate introduced me to Doctor Who, and inspired by the amount of running the characters did, we began running together in the mornings, before the thermometer inched too high and the cicadas grew too loud.

One weekend, my boyfriend’s parents invited me on a trip to visit their son, who was taking classes six hours away. The parents and I didn’t know each other very well. It was the tiniest bit awkward.

Every road trip needs a soundtrack. This was ours.

But by the end of the trip, I felt more connected to the family. The mom apparently felt the same way, because before I left their house to drive home, she loaded me up with a box of food: sushi, spinach–chive pasta, fresh berries from a roadside stand, and the creamiest blue cheese I’d ever tasted — part of which I turned into these burgers.

I’m done with university now, living in a much cooler climate with a different roommate, and the boyfriend has long since taken a different path. But some recipes are just too good to be linked with memories forever — they deserve lives of their own. These burgers are that kind of recipe. Would they work for a Memorial Day cookout, served on toasted buns with a roasted garlic aïoli and sliced red onions? Or perhaps caramelized onions? I’m betting so.

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 Potato–spinach–blue cheese burgers

(adapted from the turnover recipe in Time-Life Books’ Vegetables: Great Taste, Low Fat)

Ingredients:

  • 4 red potatoes
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 10 oz. frozen spinach, thawed and drained well
  • 4 oz. blue cheese
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 c. breadcrumbs, plus more for breading
  • olive oil for frying

Directions:

  1. Boil, drain, and mash potatoes.
  2. Combine potatoes with green onions, garlic, spinach, blue cheese, eggs, and seasonings. Mix well.
  3. Form mixture into patties.
  4. Coat patties thoroughly in breadcrumbs.
  5. Fry patties in olive oil until golden brown. Remove from heat and let rest on paper towels before serving.

 

Photo credits: Game of Thrones art from the amazing nikaanuk on deviantART, where it’s protected under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license; cricket from Pixabay.