Monday, December 27, 2010

When You Can't Afford Christmas

Do you remember the days when all you had to do was bake a tray of cookies and set out a glass of milk for presents to arrive fully wrapped and tinseled underneath your tree? Since then we have been assimilated into the month and a half of frantic shopping and pillaging to provide our friends and loved ones with the perfect and most impressive gifts.

The validity of a gift has become the whopping price tag, and the esteem with which you hold a loved one can only be expressed by how many weeks pay you poured into the filling of their gift-wrap. Of all the gifts I have received from friends, the ones that I cling to the most fondly are those that were made for me: hand written cards, silly drawings and folded candy wrappers clutter my walls in matching frames. Much to my best friend's embarrassment, I have kept a silly purple pillow with "raf and dar friends 4----->" coarsely stitched into it since fall of 2005 when he gave it to me for my birthday. Aren't time and love really the only things we can truly give each other? If we are competing to give each other equally priced gifts, why don't we just exchange blank checks and go buy ourselves whatever we wanted in the first place.

Every year, I try to show my friends that I really care about them. I build books and stuff handmade dolls, bake cakes and build things it would be much easier just to buy, but this year it seems I couldn't even afford to buy the paper and canvas to fuel my workshop. This year, I decided that maybe it is enough to bake a tray of cookies and set out a glass of milk.

I am constantly collecting beautiful boxes and ribbons, in fact I get things gift wrapped for myself, so I can come home, unwrap them and reuse the unique trimming. I filled my preciously collected bins and baggies with four of my favorite cookie recipes. I spent the greater part of two days rolling dough and filling pastry bags, tying bows and rolling ribbon. I made heart shaped lemon shortbread cookies with raspberry filling, coconut macaroon cookies with a chocolate drizzle, miniature pecan tarts with lemon zest and chocolate macaron sandwich cookies with an almond buttercream filling.

Much to my disappointment, I found baking specialty cookies is no less expensive than making any other gift, but I was happy with the results and I hope that my friends know that I truly love all of them and wish them each a happy holiday and spectacular new year.

Much love,

Monday, December 20, 2010

Soup of the week: Russian Borscht

Each week, I have found myself jumping from continent to continent sampling soups from all around the world, and in this third installment, I bring you the soup that I grew up on, Borscht. This soup has an incredible history, and thousands of varieties, in fact, everyone I have met seems to have a different recipe for the soup. Some call for sausage or veal, others stick with chunks of beef and potato, but we all can agree on three ingredients: beets, cabbage and sour cream!

This soup has a tremendous number of memories for me: from evenings sitting in a sunflower themed kitchen with my chin barely reaching over the kitchen table to high school days coming home from school and frantically putting out soup pot fires, where a lonely blackened beet rested at the bottom of a dried out pot.

I used to spend the summers with my younger brother and my grandmother Ada in a little cottage in the woods. She would make us amazing, fresh soups with ingredients plundered from the forest and watch us shovel them down before she would sit down to eat. It took me over a decade to realize that we were poor and she wanted to make sure we were full before she would eat our leftovers. Borscht is a noble and filling dish, and particularly inexpensive to make.

I dedicate this week's soup to my grandmother who spent her life loving and caring for her obnoxious, ungrateful grandchildren. You will never be forgotten.

Russia's Traditional Beet Soup

2 lbs beef, small chunks
3 beets, diced
2 carrots, chopped
4 shoots celery, chopped
1 onion, diced
3 tbsp, veggie oil
18 oz diced tomato
1/2 head of cabbage, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic
3/4 cup dill
18-20 cups beef broth, or water
sour cream - to serve

In a large pot add onions to veggie oil and brown. Add beef, brown. Add Carrots, celery and beets and cook for 5 minutes. Add cabbage. At this point you may find that you want to separate your soup fillings into two different pots, at least I did, Add 2 cups broth to each, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add garlic, tomato and the remainder of the broth (as well as salt and pepper to taste) and allow to boil for about 40 minutes to one hour until your broth has turned beety red and the beef is soft and tender.

To serve, add a generous scoop full of sour cream and a tablespoon of dill.

Enjoy and share with friends and family. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Soup of the Week: Cream of Cauliflower

My parents brought me a beautiful head of cauliflower over Thanksgiving, and it has been sitting in its lonely plastic bag since the holiday. I felt sorry for the poor guy and figured a cauliflower soup would be just the answer.

Cauliflower is high in fiber and thus fairly low in net carbohydrates, but the magic of cauliflower is its innate ability to absorb flavors. Unlike so many ingredients that lose flavor the more you meddle with them, this simple plant improves with every dollop of cream or spoonful of butter.

Below is a light and flavorful, yet creamy recipe that I have been working on. I hope you enjoy it. :)

Cream of Cauliflower

1 large head of cauliflower, chopped
1 stick butter
1/2 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stick, diced
2 tbsp cilantro
2 quarts chicken broth
3 cups milk
1 cup sour cream

In a large pot, melt butter and add onion. Cook until lightly browned. Add carrots and celery and continue cooking for five minutes. Add cauliflower and cilantro. Lower heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes.

Add chicken broth and bring to a boil on high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. At this point you can add milk and continue to simmer for another fifteen minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Move pot to a cool burner, add sour cream. Serve immediately!

Servings: 9 Carbohydrates in pot: 83 Carbohydrates in bowl: 9.2

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Happiness is Only Real When Shared

My paintings, although generally allegorical and socially driven, tend to be dramatizations of events in my life. The studies for this painting were started over a year ago after visiting a friend on the West Coast. My best friend was in the outs with his boyfriend and, arriving in Los Angeles, I found out that the friend I was visiting had just broken up with his girlfriend and was having a hard time dealing. At that time, the two were my closest friends and I found myself distraught by my inability to help them, all I wanted to do was to return their loved one, but I was incapable of doing so.

During this time, I was also looking at a lot of print and manuscript work, and became very interested in time-elapsed stories shown in one image, a sort of odyssey on one page. This composition is based on the repetition of three figures (boy, girl and myself) in a counterclockwise progression from past to future, boy falling in love with girl, being happy and watching things fall apart, as I uselessly try to piece things together.

Although the image does not really show this (as it is too fuzzy and the colors aren't right), I am really happy with how the figures were handled in this piece.

With each new painting, I strive to improve my handling of anatomy and space as well as how I treat color. Starting this drawing over a year ago, I have watched my understanding of figure and color improve significantly and it is really great to see improvement in the progression of one composition. There are a few things I am still unsure about, i.e. lightness of the upper left corner, but I have decided that it is done for now.

I have decided to start applying for graduate school for next Fall, and I am really happy with the decision. I can't wait to get back into a regular studio practice with mentors and peers around me for support, and such. Let's hope for grants.....

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Soup of the Week

Soup! It is getting quite cold outside, and all I can think about is soup. The incredibly diverse aromas and flavors that can be achieved by altering just a few simple ingredients and spices. It is truly inspirational.

With the first winter chill, my mind turned to creaming vegetables and boiling chickens and I have decided to indulge myself with a December full of soups, some of which I would love to share with you.

I have been feeling a deficit in Thai food, in the wake of my new low carbohydrate diet. I have missed the coconut soup, Tom Kha Gai, with some fervour. Looking into the recipes, I discovered that it wasn't a deal breaker after all, so I have formatted a really yummy recipe that is pretty low in carbs.

I hope you enjoy!

Tom Kha Gai
with Chicken

2 13.5 oz cans of coconut milk
4 cups chicken broth
3 stalks lemongrass
3 shallots
handful of fresh cilantro
2 limes juice and zest
1/4 cup soy sauce

1 package of chopped mushrooms
1 green pepper, chopped
1 full rotisserie chicken, deboned

Bring coconut milk, soy sauce and chicken broth to a boil. Add chopped shallots and lemon grass. Add juice and zest of lime as well as cilantro. Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the flavoring ingredients out, and return your broth to the pot. Add chicken, mushrooms and green pepper. Allow to boil for another 15 minutes.

Serve immediately.

Servings: 6 Carbs in pot: 48.5 Carbs in bowl: 8

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Several times a year we seem to congregate together to celebrate something or other. The origins of these gatherings have long been drowned in a sea of advertisements, themed gift baskets and cartoon characters, but somehow we managed to retain the sense of warmth and family gathering I have always admired about the holidays.

Living in New York for the past five years, I rarely see my family and look forward to birthdays, thanksgivings and Christmases to have the opportunity to cook together in our pajamas and stuff ourselves with a five course meal. We spend the afternoon cooking, dropping soup laden spoons on the broilers and slipping on renegade cubes of butter and settle around a 1.5ft high coffee table propping ourselves up on throw pillows to enjoy the spoils of our battle with the kitchen.

Long ago, I put a ban on most packaged foods in my kitchen, and since then have barely been able to afford the ingredients that my lavish lifestyle seems to constantly require of me. Perhaps I have developed an alter ego, one who requires that Comté and Morbier accompany every proper meal and scoffs at any jam with more than five ingredients. She's quite a burden, you see, and it is indeed a blessing when my parents arrive with logs of fillet mignon and balls of Mozzarella di Buffalo and bags filled with florets of cauliflower and haricot vert. That alter ego of mine can finish her pouting over our roasted chicken and ratatouille diet (where really, what sensible girl can complain of rosemary buttered chicken and fresh vegetable ratatouille?) and return to her epic planning of the perfect French fête. To explain the image above, I imagine my alter ego wearing a 1930's feather hat and lace dresses as she prepares her gateaux, I am sure you won't oppose.

This year, my whole family has been operating on a low carbohydrate diet, so I had to plan accordingly. No stuffings or mashed potatoes coated in glutenous gravy were to be tolerated, no chocolate bread puddings or gateaux drenched in raspberry jam could even be contemplated. Whatever was I to do with all of my wartime glass cake pedestals? Leave them to their fine blanket of dust? I wouldn't dream of it.

The stuffing and potatoes were easily overcome: I can't stand the concept of roast turkey anyway, a poor excuse for a giant dry chicken. I-make-a-lamb (as has come to be a catchphrase for me among my closest friends). Lamb is one of my favorite meats, it is fatty and flavorful and requires little dressing, the only sin being to overcook the poor beast. Thinking about my curly-coated friend, I planned the rest of the menu.

The lamb, I dusted with salt and pepper and instructed the dad to puncture its entire surface with inch long holes into which we subsequently stuffed halved cloves of garlic, giving the roast its "signature" porcupinesque appearance, and drenched in a nice shower of olive oil (I am proud to admit that I learned this recipe from my dad). Accompanying the lamb we had garlic and butter sautéed haricot vert, a signature Caprese salad (as we have discussed, I cannot survive a formal meal without one) as well as a rich and cheesy spinach and artichoke dip with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Monterey Jack cheeses (recipe below) paired with chips made of low carb tortillas. A few other dishes were in the running, but found themselves downgraded to "day after thanksgiving" meal, since it was only mom, dad and I feasting.

Meal accomplished, I had a bit of a harder time with an idea for a dessert, but a "ladies night" dinner party of a few years back reminded me of the perfect idea: a flourless chocolate cake. Bittersweet chocolate has relatively few carbohydrates (in comparison to other desserts), and this cake could be accomplished with a sugar substitute and no additional starches. I scoured the internet, and ended up mashing together a few different recipes and substituting ingredients until I came up with what I thought would be a moist and rich cake, without the hefty starch setback (recipe below).

Masterpiece accomplished, my dad and I took to our century long fully outfitted photo shoot (for my lovely readers, of course) as my mom complained of fainting fits and starvation. A full hour later, after we inched platters around and endlessly fickled around with depth of field and aperture settings, we finally sliced the roast, picked our pillow "chairs" and settled around the coffee table. We had a lovely evening making fun of each other, watching silly movies and stuffing ourselves past morbidity only to get up the next morning and feast on a brunch of solid chocolate at Payard's FC Chocolate Bar (apparently I go there often, no wonder I'm not losing any weight this week.)

Spinach Artichoke Dip

1 package of fresh spinach
1 16oz jar of artichoke hearts
1 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 cup freshly grated Monterey Jack
2 cloves garlic, minced

First thing's first, preheat oven to 350. I like to throw the entire bag of spinach, with a tiny hole in the bag, into the microwave and cook it on high for about 2 minutes. While that is cooking, drain the artichoke hearts and separate (or mush) them with your fingers. Mix together all of the ingredients save for 1/4 cup of Jack and place in an oven safe container. Sprinkle the remainder of the Monterey Jack on top and allow to bake for approximately 20 minutes, until the cheese crust is golden brown at the edges. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes and serve with chips, or whatever else you choose.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cream and Blueberries

16 ounces of bittersweet chocolate
9 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup Splenda (or sugar)
16 ounce container of heavy cream (additional 2 tablespoons of Splenda)
6 ounce carton of fresh blueberries

Preheat oven to 350. In a double boiler, melt the chocolate. Melt the butter and mix with melted chocolate. While the chocolate is melting, wisk together the sugar and egg yolks. Dip your wisk into the chocolate mixture and return it to the egg and sugar bowl, wisking quickly. This will serve to temper your eggs so they do not cook while you combine the chocolate and egg yolk mixtures. Separately, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form and fold into the chocolate. Line a 9" round pan (preferably with collapsible sides) and pour in the batter. Bake for 18-25 minutes until the batter is set.

Meanwhile, beat the heavy cream and add 2 tablespoons of Splenda. Allow the cake to cool for 15 minutes before removing from the pan and another 15-30 minutes before serving.

Hope you guys enjoy the recipes. Thank you all for keeping up with my sporadic posts, I am thankful for every beautiful moment of my life!