because it’s not pasta: a woman makes homemade beef tacos

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Ever wake one morning and say, This is enough. I’m done with this nonsense? Over the past year I’ve been in this cycle where I keep eating dairy, believing that this intolerance will magically go away, that I’ll suddenly return to a time where I can devour sour cream, cheese, and oceans of milk {granted, I hate milk, but you know what I mean} without feeling as if my life would be better if my stomach were somehow excised from my body. After another night of writhing on the floor as a result of having consumed cheddar, and after another day of lapping up rice pudding — blithely aware of the sickness that will invariably ensue — I decided to just get real with myself and admit that I can’t eat dairy like I used to. There’s no point in making yourself sick just to replicate the person you used to be.

At the same time I confronted a new, burgeoning addiction. This white lady was cruel and taunting, and paired perfectly with the most delicate and richest of sauces, and she did not take well to being abandoned. Recently, I had a long talk with my doctor–who had noticed an uptick in my sugar intake–and while I’m able to speak freely about overcoming my predilection for drugs and alcohol, would you believe me if I told you that I was ASHAMED to tell my doctor that I was addicted to PASTA? That I secretly eat pasta EVERY SINGLE DAY? That I created this bizarre logic that if I had a kale shake it would somehow negate a bowl of white pasta with pesto? I cleaved to this insanity for too long, and last week I woke and said that I’ve got to quit it with the pasta and dairy.

I’m about to give you some real truth here: over the past week I finally don’t look like I’m pregnant. I’m finally sleeping through the night and not waking every three hours. I’m feeling less sluggish and more energized for my workouts. And while I feel the strongest I’ve ever been as a result of making fitness a real part of my life, I also know that my journey to strength, health and mindfulness is not a game of how long I can hold a forearm plank or how low I can squat or how high I could jump, rather it’s a mix of training and being smart about what goes into my body. Treating my body as if it were a house in which I plan to spend my life, and don’t I want this house to be feel like a home? Don’t I deserve to feel good and awake and alive every moment of every day?

This week a friend of mine told me about a woman who nearly fainted in her fitness class. After some probing, the woman revealed that she’d be watching her weight, and as a result, she hadn’t anything to eat for breakfast and only had coffee to drink. No water, no food–just a house in disrepair, a home unkempt. My friend shook her head and said, You need to eat so you have calories to lose.

It’s odd that these two examples of the extremes–a woman who denied herself, and another who consumed to excess–would force me to open my eyes. After careful thought, I plan on committing myself to a diverse, balanced diet coupled with the fitness lifestyle I’ve grown to love. To that end, I’m investing in a few sessions with a nutritionist, who can help me map out a menu of healthy options for the days when I come home late and all I want to do is fall into the couch and fondle my cat. I’ve stocked my fridge and cupboards with healthier snacks, and for the next month I’m eliminating pasta from my diet so I can crack the addiction and introduce it back into my diet slowly, allow for that indulgence to have meaning {homemade lasagna instead of a bowl of limp noodles}.

To that end, I found this delicious taco recipe in Cook’s Illustrated’s {I’m finally a subscriber!} compilation of their best recipes over the past 25 years, and can I just say that this dish is EVERYTHING. It’s filling, homemade, spicy and I feel proud that I’ve finally made a lunch that’s not a photocopy of the dozens that came before. Know that I also plan on a veg variation that will include chickpeas, lentils, and cauliflower. More to come, friends!

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Cooks Illustrated
For the beef filling
2 tsp canola or safflower oil
1 small onion, chopped small (about 2/3 cup)
3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
1½ tbsp chili powder {the original recipe calls for 2 tbsp. As a result, my tacos were insanely spicy}
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp dried oregano
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 pound 90 percent lean (or leaner) ground beef
½ cup plain tomato sauce (see note)
½ cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 tsp brown sugar
2 tsp vinegar, preferably cider vinegar {I used apple cider, and it as fine}
Salt + pepper to taste

Cook’s Illustrated Note: Tomato sauce is sold in cans in the same aisle that carries canned whole tomatoes. Do not use jarred pasta sauce in its place. We prefer to let diners top their own tacos with whatever fillings they prefer. There’s no need to prepare all of the toppings listed below, but cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes are, in our opinion, essential.

For the shells + toppings: I really veered off the original recipe because I really wanted a simple taco. I peeled + shucked 3 ears of corn and sauteed them in a pan with 2 tsp olive oil until they were charred + brown. I add some cheese + parsley, and it was divine. However, if you want to rock all the fixings, click here for the original recipe.
¾ cup corn, vegetable, or canola oil
8 (6 inch) corn tortillas
4 ounces shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese (1 cup) {I used shredded mozzarella instead}
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley leaves

DIRECTIONS
For the beef filling: Heat oil in medium skillet over medium heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, spices, and ½ teaspoon salt; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground beef and cook, breaking meat up with wooden spoon and scraping pan bottom to prevent scorching, until beef is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce, chicken broth, brown sugar, and vinegar; bring to simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently and breaking meat up so that no chunks remain, until liquid has reduced and thickened (mixture should not be completely dry), about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.

For the taco shells: The taco shells can be fried before you make the filling and rewarmed in a 200-degree oven for about 10 minutes before serving.

Heat oil in 8-inch heavy-bottomed skilled over medium heat to 350 degrees, about 5 minutes (oil should bubble when small piece of tortilla is dropped in; tortilla piece should rise to surface in 2 seconds and be light golden brown in about 1 ½ minutes). Meanwhile, line rimmed baking sheet with double thickness paper towels.

Using tongs to hold tortilla, slip half of tortilla into hot oil. With metal spatula in other hand, keep half of tortilla submerged in oil. Fry until set but not brown, about 30 seconds.

Flip tortilla; hold tortilla open about 2 inches while keeping bottom submerged in oil. Fry until golden brown, about 1 ½ minutes. Flip again and fry other side until golden brown, about 30 seconds.

Transfer shell upside down to prepared baking sheet to drain. Repeat with remaining tortillas, adjusting heat as necessary to keep oil between 350 and 375 degrees.

For assembly: Using a wide, shallow spoon, divide filling evenly among prepared taco shells; place 2 tacos on individual plates. Serve immediately, passing toppings separately.

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mexican quinoa

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After two straight days of writing {decks, strategies, articles}, I found myself lying on my floor, fearing the computer screen. I’m keeping it quiet around these parts today, with the exception of a fun group workout tonight, but know that I Hoovered this quinoa like it was my last meal on earth. The dish is the gift that keeps on giving. Also, cheese.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Kitchen Simplicity, with slight tweaks. Snaps to Hitha for the lead.
2 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp fresh garlic, minced
1/2 tsp cumin
Pinch of kosher salt
1 large jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed well and drained
1¼ cups chicken broth
1 can (1½ cups) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup corn {I used frozen corn and let it sit on the counter for an hour}
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, optional
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 quarter of a lime, juiced

DIRECTIONS
Add the olive oil to a medium-sized pot set over medium heat. Add garlic, cumin, jalapeños and a pinch of kosher salt to the pan and stir until combined and fragrant {30 seconds to a minute}.

Mix in the quinoa, broth, beans, corn, and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and let simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until quinoa is cooked and liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; stir in cilantro, cheese and lime juice. Spoon into bowls and serve with sour cream, tortillas, tomatoes, the lot!

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mexican rice + bean casserole

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After a dark week, a semblance of the woman I used to be is slowly returning and I couldn’t be more thrilled. This week presents all sorts of excitement from a new opportunity, to a meeting with my book agent to discuss a new project, to catching up with friends, to preparations for my three-week European holiday, I’ve much to do in a small amount of time. In the midst of all the frenzy, I did manage to squeeze in time this weekend to have a proper dinner on my deck, replete with napkins, sparkling water and a soothing candle — my version of burning sage, if you will.

Cheers to my private cleaning, and I hope you’ll enjoy this superb dish just as much as I did!

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Blue Apron
1 cup medium grain brown rice
2 tbsp vegetable base (paste)
1 tbsp Mexican spice blend (fennel, cayenne, turmeric and chili powder)
1 yellow bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1 red onion
1 avocado, ripened
1 lime
1 bunch of cilantro (1/4-1/2 cup chopped, depending on your preference)
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
4 corn tortillas
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese

DIRECTIONS
Make the rice: Preheat the oven to 425F. In a medium skillet bring 2 1/2 cups of water, vegetable base, spice blend, a pinch of salt and rice to a boil. Once it’s bubbling, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until the rice has absorbed all of the water.

Prepare your mis en place: Cube the avocado and squeeze some lime juice so it won’t oxidize and turn brown. Cut the peppers into strips. Finely dice the onion. Roughly chop the cilantro. Shred the cheese. Cut the tortilla into strips.

Cook the vegetables: In a large pan, heat olive oil on high until the pan becomes hot. Reduce the heat to medium, and add the onions and peppers and cook for three minutes. I like to add a pinch of salt so the onions sweat and don’t burn. Once the veggies have softened, add the rinsed black beans and cook for another two minutes. While this is happening, toss the tortilla strips in olive oil and spread out on a medium baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 5 minutes, tossing the strips halfway through the process. You want the strips crispy but not brown. Set aside everything.

Bake the casserole: Toss the cooked rice in the vegetable pan and transfer the mixture to a large baking dish, spreading the ingredients evenly. Top with grated cheese and cook in the oven for 5-7 minutes until the cheese is melted and lightly browned.

Finish it off!: Top the hot mixture with the tortilla strips, avocado and cilantro. Enjoy!

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tofu fajitas, whole wheat tortillas, pursuing a new book project + the business of leaving

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Lately all I can think about is writing a new book and what that means in age of distraction, abbreviation and constant connection. It’s been a long time since I’ve written long form, since I’ve thought about crafting a narrative, developing characters, finding the in of people. Someone once told me that writing is much like an exorcism — you obsess over the things for which you’re most passionate, and writing allows you to write them out, to give your obsession new shape, color and form. Years ago, when I was playing around with being a “line” writer {think Gary Lutz or my friend + prolific author, Kira Henehan, those who are obsessed with the architect of a sentence versus the development of a story}, someone in my Columbia workshop told me that the family story has been done. Naturally, this statement was followed by an exaggerated sigh, to which I responded in laughter. Every story has been told, but it’s the telling and the voice that make it new. I still believe this. Even now, years later, after so many people have asked if I plan to return to the terrain of my previous book.

To which I’ve responded with a very firm, no. I wrote that obsession out, practically underwent a blood-letting, and now I’ve quietly placed a clean sheet over it, kissed its cheek and allowed the waves to carry it out to the ocean.

However, what I have been obsessed with is what I like to call the business of leaving. Years ago, I wrote a story collection, which turned out to be my thesis for the Columbia MFA program, about a series of characters affected by leaving. I don’t do well with loss, abandonment, leaving, and even though I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been, leaving gnaws. When my best friend of seven years got married and excised all contact it took me a full year to barely recover. When a great love laid my heart out to pasture I was devastated. And when my father called me last week and told me his dearest friend of twenty-five years died of leukemia it took everything in me not to race home and cry alongside him.

The interesting part in all of this is that food always plays a part in every story. From ruined restaurants to beloved recipes, food has always been the center, or the character, in my life. Love, loss and what I ate will be the heart of my new project. It won’t be the sort of thing where I tell as story and dump a recipe at the end, as that’s not how I think. I’m not linear {can’t you tell?} in how I tell a story, so food has to be woven throughout, it must be integral. So this has me exploring new forms. New ways of telling a story in a new age.

Let’s see what unfolds…

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Blue Apron
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 red onion
1 bunch cilantro (2 tbsp, rough chop)
1 ripe avocado
1 lime, cut into wedges
1 package superfirm tofu (you can opt to use chicken, beef, shrimp or other protein alternatives)
1/4 cup sour cream
4 whole wheat tortillas
2 1/4 tsp fajita dry mix

DIRECTIONS
Prepare all your veggie by slicing all veggies {peppers, onion, avocado} into big chunks or strips. Squeeze some lime juice all over the avocado to prevent it from oxidizing {turning brown}.

Heat some olive oil in a large skillet with the heat set to high. Drain the water from the tofu and cut into strips. Transfer the strips to the pipping hot pan and cook until browned on both sides (4-7 minutes/side). While the tofu is cooking, add the peppers and onions along with the fajita seasoning and stir until well-cooked and combined. You want your veggies softened, but still crunchy and the tofu, browned.

In a separate pan, heat the tortillas on both sides until warmed and set aside.

Distribute the mixture to all your tortillas and add the avocado + sour cream + spritz with lime and serve!

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