Some Affections Take More Effort than Others

The artificial construct of American Valentine’s Day is a wonderful economic boost and boon for those who manage to take full advantage of the opportunity. And it’s not terrible, by any means, to feel a nudge toward wearing my heart on my sleeve a little more boldly and publicly than usual on occasion. But isn’t it also marvelous to be romantic and loving just because one really does feel kindly toward and admiring of another person? To do so not merely on one predetermined day of the year but any old time, and without requiring mass popular pressure to ensure that the signs of affection meet commercial standards, but rather, simply, that they please one’s beloved as a token of genuine affection?

Yes, I do still think it’s charming and admirable if part of what I feel moved to do is to shower particular tokens of tenderness and love on the object of my affections by treating her or him to a day of delirious delights smack dab on the aforementioned Official day of love and romance, along with any and all of the other days. Have at it! There is absolutely nothing wrong with honestly effusive compliments, dizzyingly gorgeous chocolates, fresh flowers, and champagne, if you ask me. Feel free to send them my way.

Graphite drawing + text: Heartless

Love Enough for Everyone

Yes, it is Valentine’s Day. I can’t help–whether I buy into the modern version of the  commercially enhanced holiday or not–being reminded of my many loves. And, external motivations aside, I am glad and grateful and even gleeful when I think of how much love is in my life. I have wealth and happiness beyond what anyone might think to wish for, let alone deserve, and I revel in it on Valentine’s Day and every other moment when I stop to think about my many collageI have you to thank for it, for my life in worlds of immense happiness! I am fortunate beyond reason in being surrounded by the love of so many, and in turn, to be able to love you all right back. So I send my profound thanks and my joyful love to all of you, especially on this day of all days. To my parents and my sisters! To my sisters’ spouses and offspring. To our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. To in-laws and to those who have been adopted into our family as additional and also much-loved sisters and brothers and extended family.

I send thankful love, too, to the many friends who have populated my life with such warm affection and care and company from all the parts of my life outside of my parents’ home: my playmates and classmates, my neighbors and teachers and mentors, my roommates and housemates. To the colleagues and students who made my years of teaching so much better by your presence, and the years beyond it by your memory and continued vitality, I send love. To my gracious and hilarious and tender-hearted and wise readers and commenters here at the blog. To those far-flung friends all around the world whom I can visit only indirectly but can carry in my innermost heart easily all the time. Most of you who are among these many loves of mine may never know what an imprint you left and continue to make on my heart and mind, but you do; oh, how beautifully you do.

My good fortune in a much-loved life is crowned with spending my days and nights in the delightfully daffy and deeply caring companionship of the partner spouse who is as integral to this life of love as the air I breathe and the pulse that knocks my heart and mind into these momentary recognitions of such goodness. I love you, my sweetheart! digital collageAnd I send love to all of you others who have shared and continue to shine the sunlight of your kind and cheering ways on my happy life. Happy Valentine’s Day, every one, and may you be as loved as I am! The holiday ought not be the only time you say so, but it’s certainly an excellent excuse and reminder to tell the ones who love you and whom you love that they are dear to you, too. And yes, I might as well add my own thanks to yours, since those who warm us with their love teach us, and make us able in turn, to go out and love others. That is how love works best.

Romance is Complicated

graphite drawing

The heart is a tough nut to crack!

Cynics All (Turnabout is Fair Play)
He knew the patter well; he said his lines
Like memorizing store-bought valentines
Meant to purloin a schoolgirl’s stony heart,
But his intent was different from the start,
Because the walls he’d breach were harder stone
Than made by schoolgirl innocence alone,
Were built of granite mortared all with lies
Told earlier by men who’d fantasize
That such a flimsy imitation love
Could be the trinket she’d be greedy of
Accepting, that she’d bend to such poor jewels,
But she’d built fortresses against the fools–
So he, like all his predecessors, fell
Because she knew the patter all too well–
Until at last there came the honest man
Who spoke the truth;
She took his heart and ran.


Foodie Tuesday: There’s No Substitute for a Smart Substitution

Nearly every time I get in the mood to bake something I’m missing one or more of the necessary ingredients. This happens often enough when I’m making non-baked goods, but it’s almost a given with baking, because I simply don’t bake all that often: too much wheat flour and sugar makes this sweets-addict too likely to get tummy aches or just plain to overindulge. And the fact that I don’t bake terribly often means that, in that most scientific of culinary skills, I’m the least a genius about getting the fussy proportions and timings and temperatures correct. But I still do like to bake once in a while.

Though I feel pretty safe making all sorts of substitutions in cooked and raw dishes, simply finding analogous items–ingredients that have plenty of similar qualities and can therefore be expected to fill similar roles in the combination–I know less about what the ingredients used in baking are supposed to do, unless you’re talking about spices and flavorings, and so have always been more timid about fooling around with the recipes for baked goods. But lately, I’ve come to be more of a believer that life’s too short not to have a little kitchen adventure more often, and that if I’m not using outrageously expensive ingredients the worst that can happen is that a batch of something goes so far awry that it’s just plain a failed experiment. That’s what trash bins are made for, no? I’ll bet few scientists ever made their paradigm-shifting discoveries without a few boneheaded false starts and cock-ups and misdirections and outright failures along the way either, and, well, brownies are not exactly rocket science.

So I give you:photo

Texican Brownies

Ingredients: Plain ‘classic’ brownies call for the following ingredients and proportions:

4 squares (4 ounces/113 grams) Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate–I substituted semisweet baking chocolate. It’s what I had in the cupboard.

3/4 cup  butter–while baking recipes almost always specify unsalted butter, I almost always use salted butter anyway unless there’s a lot of additional salt in the recipe; salt heightens sweetness and intensifies other flavors as well. And I love salt.

2 cups sugar–I substituted dark brown sugar for a deeper flavor.
3   eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour–I substituted instant masa flour (a fine corn flour usually used for tortilla- and tamale-making)

Then I added a few ingredients of my own to make a darker-chocolate brownie and give it a slight Mexican twist:

1/2 tsp baking soda–since the masa flour wouldn’t have gluten like the wheat flour to make the brownies rise a little, I figured they should have a boost in leavening. Look at me, being all fake-scientist-like!

1/2 tsp salt plus 1/8-1/4 tsp ground black pepper–again, wanting to intensify the spicy chocolate of the brownies–plus 1 large tablespoon Dutch processed cocoa–yet more chocolate boosting–plus 1 tablespoon cinnamon


Heat your oven to 350°F–mine runs hot, so I heated it to 325°.

Line a 13×9-inch pan with an oversized piece of baking parchment, folding it at the corners to fit and cover the sides as well as the bottom. One piece, no leaks.

Microwave the chocolate and butter together in a large microwaveable bowl on high until the butter is melted. Stir until the chocolate is melted and completely combined with the butter. Blend in the eggs and vanilla. In another bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients. Add them gradually to the wet mix, stirring until everything melds, and pour the batter into the prepared pan, pushing it into the folded parchment corners to fill them.

Bake 30 – 35 minutes (again, with my super-hot oven, I baked mine for more like 20-23 minutes) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Better to under-bake these than the opposite–fudgy, chewy brownies are good; dry, not.

The parchment will let you easily pop the whole sheet of brownies right out of the pan.

Makes 24 brownies. Mine were still a little too baked, thanks to the hot-hot oven, so I quite happily compensated for the slight dryness by frosting the ones that weren’t immediately devoured. (A number of them were. Clearly, the over-baking didn’t destroy them so badly that the members of this household wouldn’t cheerfully destroy them in another way.)

Thus, we have:photoRustic Red Frosting

No, I’m no fussy decorator. But I loves me some tasty frosting. And I wanted something that was earthy and yet juicy, something that would stand up to the depth of the spiced brownies and still have a little homey heartfelt quality to it, even if it wasn’t very frilly. I chose strawberry frosting; after all, las fresas are a fantastic favorite fruit treat in some of the Latin-American cuisine I’ve had the pleasure of inhaling eating. And this is just an easy take on buttercream icing.

Grind about one cup of freeze-dried strawberries to a coarse powder. I did mine in the blender, but if they’re dry enough you could even crush them with a wooden spoon in a heavy bowl–leaving some bits rough gives a little burst of berry flavor in the finished frosting and reminds us there are real berries involved. Add to the berry powder about a cup of powdered (confectioner’s) sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, a cup of soft butter, and a tablespoon or two of heavy cream. Blend them together well, adding more sugar and/or cream as needed for flavor and texture. Apply liberally to the brownies, cake, cookies, tongue, etc, as needed for improved state of bliss.

I sprinkled them with some edible glitter just for good measure. A little extra pizzazz never really hurt anything. But you could just sprinkle yours with the stardust of your affection and it’d be just as glamorous and grand.

This whole brownie-baking urge of mine was motivated in large part because I felt like making a sort of Valentine’s Day treat; since we’ll be in the car on a work-related jaunt much of the actual Valentine’s Day, I figured today was a reasonable substitution for the occasion. Since both my husband and I love chocolate and baked treats but do better with less wheat flour, I figured substituting corn flour could be a decent and respectable enough Tex-Mex way of dealing with that part of the equation. And since neither of us is a stickler for celebrating only on the official or ‘correct’ dates for anything, we’re both quite willing to celebrate the American holiday of love-and-romance any old time we can. Because for love, there really is no acceptable substitute.



Foodie Tuesday: Love is an Everyday Thing

photoOh, yes, Ladies and Gentlemen all, it is Valentine’s Day. At least, here in the good old US of A, where we constantly rebel against being told what to do and how to live our lives but are terrible sticklers for traditions that may or may not even suit our beliefs and needs. Now, celebrating the life–and, let’s face it, not-so-charming-to-celebrate death, since 14 February recognizes the officially accepted date of the martyrdom of St. Valentine by clubbing and beheading–of a possible whole group of Christian martyrs, who all have become conflated in the popular mind as one really nice guy who pitied and assisted the lovelorn, all of that is a matter of personal belief and taste, to be sure. Celebrating the highly adapted holiday of Valentine’s Day is one as well: as it’s been popularized, it’s a day for telling people we love them, filling them up with romantic food and drink and notions, showering them with flowers and sparkly gifts, and paying homage to our love in generally showier ways than usual.

There, my friends, is the rub where this stubborn old lady is concerned. I’m not really as curmudgeonly as all of this sounds however arguable my crankiness is on other topics. It’s just that I feel mighty strongly that if the love isn’t expressed on a fairly constant basis, in (as one might say) thought, word and deed, it means nothing whatsoever on Valentine’s Day, an anniversary, a birthday, or any other celebratory occasion no matter how the gifts and gooey treats are piled up and the lyrical words flow. It’s got to be the real, the every single day sort of deal, or it’s so much useless fluff.

photoThat said, I am among the biggest mush-meisters inhabiting the supposed real world, never tiring of being madly in love with the one person who’s crazy and silly enough to love me back in equal extremity. When we’re sitting at our respective desks down the hall from each other–which we have positioned conveniently so we can see each other across the way while working and maybe sneak a wink for no better reason than that after more than 16 years we still have a school-kid crush on each other–we are both inclined to chirp I Love Yous back and forth at intervals just because we actually do. He cheers me up when I’m feeling low and cheers me on when I’m flagging, chauffeurs me because I’m not fond of driving, works long hours to keep our accounts balanced, and tells me I’m smart and pretty like he really believes it.

So I am delighted to make a favorite dinner for him on Valentine’s Day. Appropriately enough, I can operate on the K.I.S.S. [Keep It Simple, Stupid] principal on this day of romantic silliness, because he likes things unfussy. So all he gets is a slab of tender, untrimmed Texas filet mignon, skillet seared in butter with salt and pepper (my blend of black, white, green and pink peppercorns and whole cloves) and a pinch of ground coriander, a handful of fresh-cut Romaine lettuce and some juicy tomato pieces and a few ripe strawberries, a flute of South African bubbly, and a piece of dark chocolate with toasted almond bits and crunchy salt in it. Couldn’t be easier. No recipes, no muss, no fuss, and because I made big steaks, we both have enough left over for steak and eggs in the morning.photoBecause romance is not a one-day deal, and expressing love should be the most important practice of the everyday. Bon appetit!