Overnight granola and giving thanks, in Florida

I’m writing this from one of the two couches in my mother’s tiny apartment in Tallahassee, a couple of hours before I leave to return to Chicago. I’ve been in Florida for two weeks. This is at least the fourth time I’ve tried to write a blog post. I’m not sure what’s going on. Maybe writer’s block? Must be. Because I have a lot to say. Too much, perhaps. But every time I try to write something happens, I freeze. Stop. Decide to wait until later, when maybe it will come. And now here I am, the last day, still without having posted anything. Oy. That won’t do. So I’m writing this. Which will have to be good enough. Hopefully inspiration for more will return soon.

Before vacation, there was a different problem. For a week or so after my last post, I was just busy and overwhelmed with life. Then I had the flu. Which took me out for almost two weeks. It was awful on so many levels, probably mostly because of the surprising emotional component. There’s nothing like being sick with no one around to make you feel alone. It was a good wake-up call. To what I’m not yet sure, but it was a call to something, if only to make sure I always have some chicken soup in the house. To be grateful for my health, I suppose. Which I am. It is nothing to take for granted.

Now, as I prepare to head back to Chicago, I am absolutely filed with gratitude for having been born and raised here, in Florida. It’s a strange place, yes. I left because I couldn’t live here, had to escape the racism and small-mindedness. Yet it is also the most beautiful place I know, mysterious and deeply, richly alive. Although I took about a million photos and videos, so many that my phone is completely full, I’m having trouble with the transfer. But I have a few.

This vacation started and ended in Tallahassee, sandwiching a week on St. George Island.  During my daily walks on the beach I fell in love with a tree that had washed up to the shore. Here it is, as it looked during the sunny hours on the one stormy day. As you can see from the barnacles, it  obviously spent some time in the water before washing up to shore. Maybe it came here from Cuba, a refugee. I don’t know.

tree with barnaclesbarnaclestree in surf

What I do know is how incredibly lucky I am. So, so privileged. It’s so easy to take everything we have for granted. Being alive. Able to get up and go outside, breathe air, drink water, walk. Cook and eat delicious, nourishing food. It’s impossible, I think, to be thankful every moment. Life would become overwhelming. Too serious. Sometimes you, or at least I, have to take things for granted. Yet it seems important to spend at least some time every day in appreciation. Noticing what we have that is good.

Right now, before I finish packing, I’m noticing how delicious this granola is. I made it before I left Chicago. Because I meant to blog about it. It’s my new favorite. Which I decided to share despite the fact that it has zero beans. Only oats. And nuts. And a few other things. Although my photo will not upload (serious technical difficulties are making me CRAZY!), here’s the recipe, which I adapted this recipe in Fine Cooking. (http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/dried-cherry-coconut-granola.aspx)

4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 cups puffed rice cereal
1-1/2 cups dried, shredded, unsweetened coconut
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup halved or slivered raw almonds
1 teaspoon ground cardamon
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup extra-virgin coconut oil

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk the syrup, honey, and oils, then add to the dry ingredients. Stir to combine.

2. Spread onto a heavy-duty baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 for about 15 minutes, until just starting to brown. Turn off the oven. Stir the granola mixture, return to the oven, and close the oven door. Let the granola sit in the oven for 6 – 12 hours. Transfer to a large bowl, breaking up any large clumps. Store in an airtight container for up to one month. Enjoy!

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Vegan Slow Cooker Baked Beans

My love affair with baked beans began as a child, well before I understood–or cared–about the connection between food and health. I just liked them because they tasted good. Simultaneously sweet and savory, a necessary accompaniment to grilled burgers and chips, the tastes of summertime.

As a kid lucky enough to be given free rein in the kitchen from age eight or so, I used to make them from a can of Campbell’s pork & beans, which I poured into a square Pyrex baking dish before carefully picking out every trace of the white salt pork and adding ketchup, mustard, and brown sugar. This concoction, a classic “recipe” comprised of various processed foods, was baked at 350 for about an hour, until it was bubbling, brown, edges starting to caramelize. It was so delicious that sometimes I made it even without burgers, using it as dip for chips.

Later, as an adult, I discovered Bush’s baked beans. Full of sugar and all kinds of savory spices, they, too, are delicious. And I will definitely eat them in a pinch. But I’d rather not. I’d rather make my own. So, yesterday, I did. baked beans version one

I’ve actually made baked beans from scratch before, a little over ten years ago. The rehearsal dinner for my wedding was a big bbq at my oldest sister’s house. One of her friends smoked a pork butt, and my sister made a bunch of other awesome food. She drew the line at baked beans, though. Which was reasonable. We could have bought canned beans, of course. But I was trying to save money. Plus I wanted it to be special. And vegetarian. I was on my own.

Back then, the first time I made baked beans from scratch, I came up with something good after weeks spent scouring the internet and making several test batches. My former husband was a great test subject, enthusiastic and appreciative, but unafraid to say when something wasn’t right. In the end, what I made was spicy and rich and perfectly cooked. But I kept no record. Which is just as well, maybe. After all, that was another lifetime. I’m moving forward as this new and improved version of myself, alone. There’s plenty of good from my past that I’m taking with me into this new life. But the baked beans that I made for my wedding party? Like the paint choices in my condo, which I seriously loved, there are some things that should be left behind.

So. Starting over. Yesterday morning, I sat down over coffee and thought about what I wanted to achieve. I realized that my goal was simple: a vegan slow cooker version of baked beans without any refined sugar products. After looking at several recipes, I settled on three from these cookbooks: How To Cook Everything VegetarianMark Bittman; Southern Sides, Fred Thompson; and Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman.

All of the original recipes I looked at contain at least one refined sugar product (molasses, brown sugar, ketchup), two out of three call for chicken broth, and Fred Thompson’s drool-inducing recipe includes bacon. But I was undaunted, in part because of Mark Bittman’s directness about the absence of bacon being a problem, which he resolves by using kombu. As he says right at the start of his recipe, “[i]t’s tough to find a vegetarian version of baked beans with bacon, with that creamy texture and delicate balance of sweet and smoky flavors. Enter kelp, also known as kombu…. Kelp contains a natural acid that tenderizes the beans as the seaweed itself melts away, leaving behind a luxurious sauce with complex flavor.”

Armed with this promise from the trusted Mr. Bittman, as well as various other tips and ideas from the two other recipes, I got started. And I was happy, chopping onions to Jeff Buckley and  singing along with the New Pornographers while I sauteed the onions and watched the tomato paste begin to caramelize. By the time I finished and left to go about my day, I was totally excited, anticipating the aroma that would fill my apartment when I got home, eager to test what could only be the best beans ever.

But no. I’m sorry to say that even today, after the flavors have had a chance to develop, the end result is almost pallid,  lacking in character and borderline mushy from the baking soda. On the upside, I’m pretty sure the baking soda cut the cooking time considerably. I used older grocery store beans that were not presoaked, yet the dish took less than six hours, start to finish. And these beans are not a complete failure. They taste fine and are quite healthy. I think they would be terrific for kids. But they are not special. Not what I’m looking for. Work remains to be done. More research. Testing. For now, here’s what I did in round one.

2-1/2 c. navy beans
1 5″ piece of kombu
1 dried red chili
1/4 c. grapeseed oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. tomato paste
1/2 c. maple syrup
1/4 c. brewed coffee
2 t. dried mustard
3 springs thyme
pinch of baking soda
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T. apple cider vinegar

1. Pick over the beans and discard any that are seriously discolored or broken. Rinse, drain, and place in the insert of your slow cooker.  Crumble the chili into the beans, add the kombu, and cover with 1-1/2 or 2 inches of filtered water. Cover and turn the heat to high.

2. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and saute for 5-7 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the garlic, stirring, for another minute. Then add the tomato paste and cook for another 5-7 minutes, until deeply aromatic and shiny. Add about 1/4 cup of water, stirring to get any stuck parts off the bottom of the pan, and add to the beans together with the remaining ingredients except salt. Turn the heat to low and cook for 4-6 hours. Add the vinegar and salt to taste (I used about 1-1/2 teaspoons).  Turn off the heat and let the beans cool for a bit so the salt can sink in. Serve with chips.