Saturday, August 29, 2009

An anomaly and a breakfast casserole.

Being prepared is not quite my strong suit. Aside from bringing an umbrella to work every day, rain or shine, I'm not the most reliable person to turn to when something small yet unexpected is needed. If we're on a train together and you suddenly have a manic sneezing fit, I will not have Kleenex on hand to save you. If we're on a backpacking trip through Europe and you need Band-Aids for your blisters, the most I could do is help you find the nearest drug store. And if you have a headache? I never have aspirin, so don't even ask.

(In case you're wondering what's in that big purse of mine, there's always a camera, a journal, and a book. Because I might have snot running down my face and a raging headache on occasion, but if inspiration hits, I'm ready for it.)

There are some things, though, for which a person can never be prepared.

Tim is Murdo's 13-year-old cat, and after years of helping feed him and groom him and scoop his litter and wake up with his paws on my pillow and his whiskers in my face, he's become my cat, as well. His bones crack, he can only jump as high as the bed, and we're pretty sure he's going blind in one eye. But nothing could prepare us for what we encountered after coming home from a weekend away earlier this summer: a severely dehydrated, limping kitty, suffering from what we would learn to be a very, very serious case of kidney failure.

This was in late June. Tim stayed at the vet for an entire week, in a large cage, hooked up to an IV to help regain his fluids. We visited him every day -- Murdo would go up to three times a day -- and Tim got better with each visit. One day, he lifted his head and seemed to recognize us. Another day, he was looking alert and meowing. Near the end of the week, he was climbing into Murdo's lap to cuddle. By Friday, Tim had started eating on his own, bit by bit, so we took him home for the weekend. We were afraid it'd be the last time we'd spend with him before taking him back to the vet on Monday and expecting the worst. But Tim is a fighter. And he survived it all.

The vet called Tim his anomaly. In his thirty plus years as a veterinarian, he had never encountered a cat with such high toxin levels that recovered so quickly, if at all. It's my strong belief that those daily visits saved him. Seeing us every day, knowing that we didn't just abandon him and that he still had something to fight for, gave him the strength he needed he prove the doctor wrong and bounce back to life.

When he came home, he started eating and drinking on his own. Within a week or two, he was sitting in our laps and sleeping with us again. He eventually got strong enough to walk and jump. It's been two months since his sickness got the better of him, and right now, he's the healthiest he's ever been. Tim stared Death in the face, and Death blinked.

Kidney failure isn't curable. We have to feed him special kidney diet food and give him subcutaneous fluids every other day to help flush out the toxins. But he's doing so much better, and we're just grateful for each day that he's with us, greeting us at the door when we come home and spooning with us when we fall asleep at night. Nothing could prepare us for the life and fight and strength that this sweet cat would prove to have. And sometimes, the unexpected can be quite a nice surprise.

zucchini + sausage breakfast casserole

Make-ahead Sausage and Zucchini Breakfast Casserole
(adapted from Simply Recipes)
There are, of course, occasions that you can and should prepare for. Brunch, for example. This is a simple recipe for a make-ahead breakfast casserole that I prepared when my family came to see the new apartment one Saturday morning. I threw all the ingredients together the night before and kept in the fridge until morning. Because if there is one thing I can be sure to prepare for, it's food. I'm always expecting to eat.

10 eggs
2-3 cups grated or shredded cheese (I used a mixed Italian blend)
6 slices bread, cubed
2 cups milk
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 small onion, diced
1/2 medium bell pepper, diced
1 cup cooked Italian sausage, cubed (I used a couple of leftover grilled sausages)
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F. Beat the eggs in a large bowl and mix in the milk and cheese. Add the bread and stir to coat the bread, being careful not to over mix so the bread doesn't disintegrate. Add (don't over mix or the bread may disintegrate). Add veggies, sausage, salt and pepper (keep in mind that the Italian sausage will add seasoning, as well). Pour mixture into a buttered 13x9-inch casserole dish. Cover and store in refrigerator until ready to bake.*

Bake in oven for 50 minutes to an hour, until the top is browned and the center springs back when touched. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 8.

*In the morning, I set the casserole out for about a half hour before baking so it wouldn't be cold when placed in the oven.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Back to school. And sandwiches.

I remember the day I graduated from the school of peanut butter and jelly and made the transition to cold cuts. I was in Mrs. Brummitt's PM kindergarten class, and the sandwich contained Oscar Mayer bologna, lettuce, and mayo. My mom made it for me. And I remember liking the crisp of the lettuce and the creamy mayo and the meaty bologna, and coming home and telling Mom to please make it again.

hello, delicious.

Things have changed since my kindergarten days in 1989. For example, lunch time no longer includes a choice between chocolate milk or white milk, and I no longer wear ruffly black and white polka-dot socks. And yet, some things remain the same: my height, for the most part, and my sandwiches. No, I'm not still bringing bologna-and-mayo sandwiches made my Mom. More like turkey-ham-mustard-everythingelseinthefridge sandwiches made by Murdo. And on those glorious sandwich days, I'll come home and ask him to please make it again.

Sometimes, when I'm sleeping, Murdo steals my camera and takes pictures of the sandwiches.*

sandwich + photo by murdo.

And sometimes, when I'm eating, I'll stop and stare at the sandwich and think things like, "There's something in here that I really like. What is that? Celery? There's actually celery in this sandwich? This is the best sandwich ever."

sandwich + photo by murdo.

Other days, I'll hop around in my desk chair a bit because he added radishes. Or a baggie of Rainier cherries. Or a pickle, wrapped lovingly in tin foil.

sandwich + photo by murdo.

Yes, when I'm sitting at a desk and staring at a computer all day, these are the kinds of things that excite me. Or any day, for that matter, because a sandwich made especially for one person by another is certainly something to get excited about. Hopping excited. Each bite is a surprise, each layer carefully constructed, the sogginess factor calculated and solved. It's enough to make me forget I'm no longer in kindergarten anymore and that I'm all grown up (well, kind of). It's just radishes and Rainier cherries and the simple joys of life.

work lunch.

*Photos of sandwich assembly taken by Murdo.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cora Cooks Pancit.

I love my parents' kitchen. There's always something simmering or frying on the stove, vegetables and fruits resting on the counter, and people. People peeling garlic, chopping vegetables, telling stories. My dad tells the best stories. We'll be at the kitchen table, finishing up dinner, my mom peeling a grapefruit for dessert and passing around the segments, as he tells us about growing up in the Philippines. About diving off the backs of water buffalo into the river, eating ice cream sandwiches made with actual bread, picking papayas straight off the trees.

The kitchen in my parents' house -- much like countless other kitchens everywhere -- is where all the action takes place. Cooking is a family affair, even when not everyone is cooking. I could be the only one chopping and sauteing and roasting in that kitchen and yet still, every time I turn around, a dirty bowl will be suddenly clean and a cutting board cleared and ready for more. My dad is like a cleaning fairy in that respect, and it makes cooking in their kitchen all the more enjoyable.

Other times, I'm the helper. There are some dishes for which my mom requires help in the kitchen: making lumpia eggrolls, for example, and cooking pancit. Cooking these foods involves detailed chopping, careful rolling, assembly lines.

Cora Cooks Pancit.

So when the people at Shen's Books sent me a review copy of the children's book Cora Cooks Pancit, I was kind of thrilled. Filipino food and culture isn't very well known in the Western world, and to be presented through a children's book really intrigued me. Written by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, a Filipino-Italian who grew up in the kitchen and now raises her own children in the kitchen, the story not only focuses on the special nature of cooking with family but also plays with the senses to immediately transport readers into the kitchen with familiar smells and sounds and flavors.

Cora Cooks Pancit.

The story is about a little girl named Cora who, on a day when her brothers and sisters are all out, finally gets her mother all to herself and asks if she can help cook. After considering some of her favorite Filipino foods ("Lines of lumpia pranced in rows. Adobo chicken legs be-bopped in time."), Cora decides she wants to cook pancit. "The thick noodles and vegetables curled and swirled in a dance party. Mmmm."

Cora Cooks Pancit.

From the stories of Lolo (grandpa) in the Philippines eating "smashed fried bananas and sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves" to Cora's excitement when she's allowed to help stir, it's all there: culture, food, and that familial bond that occurs when the two are joined.

Cora Cooks Pancit.

Yes, this is a children's book, and I'm 25 years old. But have I mentioned the pictures? The illustrations are done by Kristi Valiant, who adds detail and color and fun to every page. Cora's face is sweet and lovable, and after reading the story, kids will want to head straight into the kitchen and help cook their favorite foods.

Cora Cooks Pancit.

I can't help but think of my niece, Mira, standing on a stool and stirring macaroni and cheese, the peas and pasta spilling out of the pan, and that little girl oblivious to everything except for the happy fact that she's with her daddy and they're cooking together. I can't wait to give her this book the next time I see her, and to cook pancit with her for the first time, telling her fun stories of her Lolo and Lola in the Philippines.


There's a pancit recipe included in the book, but if you must have pancit right now (it's OK, I know the feeling), check out my mom's version here.

For more information Cora Cooks Pancit, visit Shen's Books.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I baked you a cake.

This might sound creepy, but I've always liked peeking into other people's houses. Not in a stalkerish, hide-in-the-bushes-and-stare-like-a-weirdo kind of way, but rather in passing, just-catching-a-glimpse.

It started on car rides when I was little, counting how many houses we'd pass with lit-up windows. Sometimes the curtains would be open, and I could see pictures on the wall and the TV glowing. Or families eating dinner. And I could never help but wonder what their story was -- what they were talking about, what their everyday lives were like, stuff like that. By the time I could imagine what they were having for dinner, the house was gone and we passed another.

Blogs are kind of like lit windows in a way. With each new post, the light goes on, and readers can peek inside at dinner on the table and books on the shelves and catch just a glimpse of everyday life. And if you're lucky, sometimes the front door will open and you're invited in.

That's what happened when Shanna of Food Loves Writing suggested that we get together, hang out, be friends. We know each other from a previous life as interns at a publishing company and we live in the same area and we started food blogs at almost the exact same time and really, there was no reason why we shouldn't meet up. So just like that, I had a real live blog friend. This past summer, we've gotten together a few times -- over brunch on a Sunday, and at her lovely blog party, and the other night at a Thai restaurant, where we stayed talking long after our food was wrapped up and the bill paid, while the workers prepared place settings for the next day and silently shooed us out with their swift glances.

And when we got past the normal food-and-blog talk and finally approached some truly serious stuff, i.e. what really happened to John Locke in Season 5 of LOST, I knew that I had found not only a blog-friend in Shanna, but a good friend. A real one. A lasting one.

Since she has this mild obsession with cookies and baking (while I drool over beets, plain and roasted, she bakes them into a cake), I promised her a while back that I'd bake something and post it on my blog. And after searching for a recipe that didn't involve having to go out and buy baking materials (I do not own a mixer, muffin tins, cake pans, cookie sheets, a rolling pin, loaf pans, etc. etc. etc.), my sister sent me a simple recipe for a berry upside-down cake. It only served two, so I wouldn't be stuck with a monstrosity of a dessert. I could use a flimsy pie tin purchased at the grocery store. And the only ingredient I didn't have in my kitchen was baking powder (what the hell is baking powder, anyway?)

So here it is. Please don't laugh.

look! i baked!

Upside-Down Berry Cakes (adapted from Cooking Light, via Jenny)
This one's for you, Shanna. Thanks for turning the lights on and inviting me in.

1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Dash of salt
1/4 cup skim milk
4 teaspoons reduced-calorie stick margarine, melted
Cooking spray
1 cup fresh strawberries, sliced (The original recipe calls for blueberries. I think any berry will work.)

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Combine first 4 ingredients in a small bowl and stir well. Add milk and margarine, stirring just until flour mixture is moist. Divide batter evenly between 2 (10-ounce) custard cups* coated with cooking spray. Top each with 1/2 cup strawberries.

Bake for 35 minutes or until lightly browned and fruit topping is bubbly.

*I used one mini pie tin and didn't think to adjust the baking time, but it turned out OK. I think.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A roasted beet revelation.

I've fallen. Hard. The culprit? Beets.

roasted beets.

Beets are among the family of vegetables that are commonly misunderstood -- siblings to the turnip, the Brussels sprout, spinach. Insert any of these vegetable names to the end of the following sentence, and you'll know what I mean: "Tommy (or Billy, or Katie, or Jeane-Claude), you can't leave the table until you finish your [blank]."

From an early age, children are trained to hate these vegetables. They're denied toys, television, ice cream, sleep, and forced to sit chained to the dining room table and stare at a plate of cold food. And who do these children blame for their pain and suffering? The beets, of course (or the turnips or Brussels sprouts, but for the sake of this particular story, let's just say it was the beets).

beet greens.

I mean, you never really hear anyone say, "Mmmm, I just looooove turnips" or "Can I have more Brussels sprouts please?" And if you do, that person is probably accustomed to getting weird looks. Lately, I've been professing my love for beets to anyone who will listen. I haven't gotten that many weird looks yet, but I think that's because they're just trying to be polite. Gotta love Murdo for being honest, though -- I believe his response was, "Yuck." He says that a lot when I gush over vegetables.

beets, raw and dirty.

It doesn't help the poor beets' campaign that they're hideous things, raw and bunched together in dirty, gnarly bundles, with tough skin and twisted tails not unlike a small rodent's. But after trying them roasted from a salad bar a few weeks ago and coming back for more every other day since then, I decided that it was definitely time to tackle the vegetable on my own. I had no idea what an eye-opening experience it would be for me.

beets, roasted and wrinkled.

Is eye-opening a freakish way to describe my feelings toward roasting beets? It's the only word I can think of right now that can explain how cool it is to watch these things transform from hairy beast to smooth, polished jewel.

After trimming, scrubbing, and roasting for 40 minutes in a half-inch of water, I peeled back the ugly skin to reveal bright flesh: tender, smooth, delicate, RED. They kissed everything they touched, leaving lipstick smudges on my fingers and paper towels. It was like finding treasure. And eating them? Every time I take a bite, I feel like I'm tasting the earth, deep and rich, in a garden, having lunch with Mother Nature herself.


I think the key to loving beets (or spinach, or turnips) is discovering them for yourself. I can't force little Jeane-Claude to eat his vegetables, but I can give him this recipe, and show him these pictures, and maybe if I'm lucky, he'll just be polite enough to try them on his own. And then maybe he'll fall hard, too. And maybe you'll fall hard with him.

roasted beets.

Roasted Beets

Be sure to scrub the beets and trim away (but don't toss!!!) the greens. The greens can be treated like any other leafy green, such as kale or spinach. I sauteed mine with olive oil, onions, and cherry tomatoes and topped with a fried egg. But enough about the greens. The real stars are red.

6 small beets, scrubbed and trimmed (or 3-4 large or medium)

Preheat oven to 425 F. Place scrubbed and trimmed beets in a baking dish in 1/2 inch of water. Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil and place in oven. Roast for 40 minutes, depending on size. Mine were pretty small, as I've read that smaller beets are more tender, but medium beets should be roasted for 45 minutes and larger beets, 50. They're done when easily pierced with a fork.

Drain the dish and allow beets to cool. When cool enough to handle, use plastic glove or paper towels to peel/wipe away the skin. You'll be amazed at the transformation. Slice and toss into a salad with fresh herbs and dressing, or eat plain, like I did.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Green thumbs and ratatouille.

My parents have this thing for gardening. My mom grows small jungles of orchids throughout the house, which is no easy feat for the average gardener, but she just looks at the things and they grow, just like that. It's remarkable, really. My dad likes to stick stuff in the ground, simply to see what happens -- the top of a pineapple, for example, or a random onion. He has a lovely vegetable garden, though he currently grows neither pineapples nor onions.

I grow nothing. Well, I take that back. Right now, I have two plants: a jade plant and a pothos plant, both of which are supposedly impossible to kill, but I'm sure I'll find a way, with time. Because I have inherited approximately zero of the green thumb trait my parents proudly display. My first plant that lived longer than a year (!) was a basil plant, and that only lasted so long because Murdo had attached a sentimental value to it and refused to get rid of it, despite my complaining that it had become merely a big, brown stick with limp, green flags of surrender clinging pathetically to the branches. (He finally let go a few weeks ago.)

summer veggies!

The truth is, I've never been much of a foliage kinda gal. Flowers are pretty and all, and I take lots of pictures of them, and I'm trying to make a habit of keeping fresh cut flowers on the mantle because they certainly brighten up a room, but growing them myself? It just doesn't really do it for me. Unless, of course, the plant is edible. The satisfaction one gets from cooking and eating a vegetable she grew herself has to be just plain incredible, and I want in. Big time.


I'll certainly give basil another shot next summer, and now that I have a nice big porch, possibly even tomatoes. I have to take small steps in order to get to the final destination: my very own vegetable garden, overflowing with herbs and summer squash and green beans and cucumbers and peppers. But first, I should probably learn how to pot a plant.


Until then, I'm welcoming the bounty of other people's gardens with wide open arms. It seems as though everyone who walks through our door has some lovely vegetables for us, and when my kitchen counter is filling with bowls and bowls of gorgeous summer veggies, there's really only one thing a girl can do about it.


Ratatouille (adapted from La Tartine Gourmande)
Try to use as many colors as possible -- greens, yellows, reds, orange -- and chop the veggies in equal sizes. This dish goes perfectly with a big hunk of crusty garlic bread to soak up the sauce, and the leftovers can be tossed with pasta for a summery lunch in the park.

2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 large eggplant, chopped into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 bell peppers, chopped
5 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1-2 sprigs of thyme
olive oil
salt and pepper

Sprinkle eggplant generously with salt in a colander and set aside. After 30 minutes, rinse and dry the eggplant.

Heat oil in a large, thick-bottomed pot. Add zucchini and eggplant and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Heat more oil in same pot and add garlic, peppers, and onions. Cook until soft, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and mix well. Cook tomatoes for 5 minutes, then add zucchini and eggplant. Add the thyme and bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper. Cook on low, uncovered, for 1 hour. Remove thyme and bay leaf right before devouring.

This probably makes about 4 servings, when served with salad and bread. Or it can feed two for dinner with leftovers for 3-4 more meals throughout the week.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Welcoming August. With roasted broccoli + tomatoes.

And it's August. Gorgeous tomatoes fill the farmers markets, the days get shorter and the dark creeps in quicker, noon in the city is hot and crowded. I can hardly believe it.

broccoli + tomatoes

Maybe because this is the first it's felt like summer, well, all summer. Sure, there have been long days on the boat and fireworks and weddings and corn on the cob, which all scream summertiiiiime (and the livin's easy). But here in Chicago, the summer weather hasn't been as vocal. In fact, it's been nearly silent all of June and July. Cloudy skies, cardigans and jeans, one sunny day followed by three cool and rainy ones.

I feel almost cheated. As if August came marching in and said, "Hey, I'm here! And I brought summer with me! But enjoy it while it lasts because I'm taking it back on September 1st."

roasted broccoli + tomatoes.

Luckily for me, along with August came a new apartment. With windows. And a nice kitchen. And a porch. The other night, as we sat outside with friends, citronella candles burning and sausages on the grill, I realized that I had been missing out all summer. The balcony at the old apartment had been too small to fit more than two people comfortably, let alone a grill or even chairs. The kitchen was uninspiring and tiny. The one window in the apartment wasn't enough to fully appreciate the evening light. I had been gypped big time.

dinner on the porch is a good thing.

But August has just begun, and that comforts me. I have Pyrex bowls filled with fresh tomatoes, and that comforts me. And of course, roasted vegetables with lemon are always comforting. This time, broccoli. With tomatoes.

I ate this on the porch with leftover steak and a cold beer. I might toss the remainder of the dish with pasta for lunch tomorrow, but I'll probably eat it later tonight, straight out of the Tupperware, in front of the open fridge. Because with August comes the lazy days of summer, and I welcome those, too.

dinner on the porch is a very good thing.

Lemony Roasted Broccoli and Tomatoes

adapted from Food Network's "The Neelys"

2 bunches broccoli, cut into florets
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 a lemon
olive oil
salt, pepper, oregano

Preheat oven to 450 F. In a large bowl, toss broccoli, tomatoes, and garlic with enough olive oil to lightly coat. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and oregano. Transfer to baking pan, making sure the tomatoes are skin-side down. Roast for 20 minutes, or until broccoli is tinted golden brown. Return to bowl and toss with lemon juice. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Chorizo + eggs. And a birthday.

One year ago today, I started Happy Jack Eats. I didn't quite know what I was getting into -- if this would be a project that I'd stick to, which I'm not known to do, or if it would be another failed attempt at keeping up a hobby of sorts. I just knew I liked to eat, and take pictures of what I eat, and write. I had no idea how much I could be inspired by food and photography and the blogging community as a whole. There's a whole world of incredible blogs out there, and I'm just happy to have carved out my own little space, and to welcome you all into it.

chorizo + eggs

Honestly, I didn't even know it was my blog's birthday until today, when I randomly decided to check out my first post, knowing I wrote it sometime in August. I'm glad I checked, because it would've been a shame to miss it.


Except that I don't have anything special planned. I didn't cook a dish especially for the occasion or even think about anything deep or meaningful to write. No, I just have this recipe. For chorizo and eggs, a dish I don't even really like. Chorizo's just not my thing.

I do make this dish for Murdo about once a week because he never gets sick of the stuff, because he has this passion for chorizo not unlike the passion I have for eggs or cheeseburgers or fried rice. And I don't mind dedicating my birthday blog post to one of Murdo's favorite foods because he's been there since Day 1. He's waited patiently as I've taken multiple pictures of his food at various angles, given his honest opinion about dishes I've made and photos I've snapped, even had a hand in food styling and has been known to take pictures of his delicious sandwiches for me when I'm not around to do it myself.

And he's encouraged me throughout it all, supported my dorky habit of taking pictures of every food I encounter, even made me blush a few times when telling his friends and family about my blog.

for the chorizo + eggs

And then there's you all, some of you my friends and family, some perfect strangers, some fellow bloggers I've met through the this crazy thing we call the Internet. But I'd like to know who you all are, so please, say hello. Leave a comment and tell me about yourself, how you found my blog, if you have a website. Let me know that you really do exist and that you're with me, celebrating, perhaps with some chorizo, or eggs, or both.

Oh, and thank you. Really. You're great.

chorizo + eggs

Chorizo and Eggs

1 lb Mexican chorizo
1/2 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup bell pepper, diced
2 medium red potatoes, diced
Canola oil
Scrambled eggs

Brown the chorizo in a skillet over medium-high heat, breaking the sausage up with a wooden spatula. When cooked through, set aside in a colander to let the grease drain. Add about 1 tsp oil to the skillet -- not too much, since there's still remaining grease from the chorizo. Add potatoes and cook until golden brown. When the potatoes are almost done, push them to the side of the skillet. Add the onion and pepper and cook until softened. Add chorizo and stir to combine all the ingredients.

Top with scrambled eggs (or fried eggs, or poached eggs...) and serve with hot sauce or salsa. Makes enough servings for about 3 to 4 meals, Murdo-style.