On Red Beans and Rice and Chilly Weather

Photographic proof that Dallas gets cold sometimes. This is the fountain in our courtyard.

It looked this way for days, and I was thrilled. I love the colder weather. I know, I’m at outlier. It’s ironic that I’ve spent most of my life living in quite-warm to absolutely-freaking-hot parts of the US.

Now, I’m willing to admit my love of snowy days, rainy, overcast days, and simply cold days could be a by-product of living in those hot places for so long. That it’s the novelty of the chilly that is enjoyable, accompanied as it is with the underlying knowledge that this won’t last long.

Or could be that growing up in a badly insulated house in Dubuque, Iowa gave me the chops for winter weather. Or perhaps my British and German heritage predisposes me to it by thoughtfully providing “extra insulation” that’s stubborn about going away no matter the diet or exercise plan.

Chilly weather is also an opportunity to make my favorite soups and stews. I prefer recipes that are more about assembling than anything else. And you only have to wash a cutting board, a knife, and the pot you cooked in. And yes, the bowls and spoons you eat it with. Don’t quibble with me.

This week I made Red Beans and Rice, and it came out SO WELL. Below is my very own recipe for a big pot of it. You can tweak the heat of it if you’re one of those weirdos who likes to scorch their mouth. Bless your heart. This took me about 45 minutes to chop and throw together (outside of the bean soak). It made a hot, nourishing meal that had us wantiing seconds. Below recipe easily feeds 6 people, and the leftovers freeze well.

RED BEANS AND RICE

INGREDIENTS

1 bag dried red beans (Yes, you can use canned beans, I won’t judge you. Not as good though, imo. You need 4 cans of red beans if you opt for this, don’t rinse them.)

1 box chicken or veggie stock

Olive oil to coat bottom of the pot

1 large bunch celery

2 large yellow onions

3 bell peppers, I use all the colors

4-5 garlic cloves

1-2 cups water

1 package Andouille chicken sausage (or any sausage, or no sausage if you’re veggie)

¼ cup of red wine vinegar

Za’tar spice (new to me, but OMG so good), Paprika, Cumin, Thyme, Red Pepper flakes, 2 Bay leaves, salt and pepper

Brown rice

METHOD

Soak dry beans for about four hours and then cook in your stock (enough to cover the beans by about a quarter inch, save the rest for later) – I use an Instapot, and it’s a lifesaver. The beans can wait while you finish the rest. If you use canned beans, dump them in when indicated below.

Put olive oil in the bottom of a big stock pot to coat.

Chop veggies – I get the celery going first, then add the onions and then the onions and garlic, and finally the peppers. Sautee until they are all soft.

If adding sausage, dice small and cook separately. You can add shrimp in too, if no one in your house is allergic.

Add in whatever is left of the stock, water, and red wine vinegar to the pot.

Dump in your cooked meat, and then the cooked beans and the stock from Instapot. Add in the spices – I did about 2T for each, except for the Red Pepper flakes. Those just get a tiny pinch. Tuck in bay leaves. Eyeball it. If it looks like it needs a bit more water, add it. Let it simmer together on low.

Wash out your Instapot and put in the brown rice, let that cook. By the time rice is done, the flavors in the pot will have melded together. Add salt and pepper to taste, or let people do their own at the table. It’s even better the next day. Keep leftovers refrigerated.

On Spanakopita and Booking a Flight to Greece

I must be one of those zany optimists. I’ve forged ahead with plans to travel overseas this year. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, but I can’t bring myself to lie low and not give it a go. I have hope!

Whenever I hear someone say, “Well, I don’t want to get my hopes up…” I want to ask them, why not? Why not get your hopes up, and move in the general direction of happiness? My friend Sally challenged me years ago when I said that very phrase. She asked me, “Would you rather keep your hopes in the gutter? Where they belong?” I’ve thought differently about not keeping my hopes up ever since. That Sally, she’s good at asking the tough questions. I love having her as a friend.

And… I found a really great deal on a Finnair flight. Round trip to Crete for about $600. Yes, I’ll have a killer layover in Helsinki for twelve hours coming back, but I can manage. I’ve had a SwimTrek trip on the books to Crete for a couple of years now, and I’m marching on with the hope and expectation that it is happening in 2022. A week of swims in the Mediterranean Sea with some of my wonderful swim friends and a room with a view.

If I squint really hard, I’ll be able to see Africa from the tiny coastal village of Loutro, where we are staying. Not really, but it’s out there. And another almost-week of exploring Chania and Heraklion and the ruins of the Palace of Knossos and a swim or two in the Sea of Crete. Here is their website, they do swims all over the world, and I’ve found them easy to work with. https://www.swimtrek.com

After a bit of a break during Christmas, I’m back to learning Greek using Duolingo. It’s challenging, but fun, and I gotta figure it’s just as good as sudoku for keeping my aging brain making new synapses with the added benefit of not having to do math. My aim is to be able to read signs and menus, and perhaps have a bit of a chat with a stranger or two over coffee or gyros. I do love a chat.

In celebration of finding a great flight and taking one step closer to making my since-fourth-grade dream of treading the stones of Knossos where Ariadne spun her web and the Minotaur roared, I made Spanakopita this weekend. We’ve found a great middle eastern grocery here in Dallas, and it makes for a fun road trip getting the supplies. There are two groceries, actually, if you want to check them out. Sara’s Bakery and the brand-new Jasmine next door. https://http://sarasmarketbakery.com/

This recipe is from www.themediterraneandish.com She has great additional instructions, especially for properly thawing your frozen phyllo dough. You’ll want to buy your dough frozen, trust me. No one in their right mind would try to make phyllo from scratch. Most of us simply do not have the counter space or patience for it. I’d looked at several recipes, and my addition to this one is to use a bunch of freshly chopped dill weed rather than 2T of dried dill.

You do you on that one. This was easy, made enough to feed six hungry people, and was tasty. Or gnostimo, as we say in Greek!

Spanakopita Filling:

16 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed

2 bunches Italian parsley, chopped

1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped

1 large yellow onion, chopped fine

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 T olive oil

4 eggs

10.5 oz good feta, crumbled

Freshly ground pepper.

Mix all of that together, and set to the side. Then open up your phyllo, and have slightly damp dish towels to keep it from drying out as you do this next step. It helps if you are in a Zen frame of mind, or listening to a good book on tape for this next bit.

You need about a cup of olive oil and a pastry brush. Brush bottom and sides of a 9×13 baking dish with olive oil.

Put down two of the phyllo sheets, letting them overlap and go up the sides of the dish a bit. Yes, they might tear. No big. Brush them with the olive oil (remain Zen, you’ll get the hang of it). Then lay down two more, brush with olive oil.

Do that with 2/3 of your phyllo sheets. This took me about fifteen minutes. Preheat your oven to 325, rack in the middle. Spread your mix onto the sheets.

Put down two phyllo sheets, brush with olive oil, and do that until you run out of sheets.

Fold over the edges and brush top with olive oil. Splash a few drops of water on the top. Score squares through just the few top layers. It makes cutting much easier later, and cooks better.

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Bake for an hour, until it’s all brown and crispy and melty cheesy. We had ours with delicious creamy tzatziki on the side. Opah!

On Free Books and Poison

First off, I’m thrilled to let you know that my YA dark fantasy adventure novella is featured in a wonderful collection of New Fantasy and Sci-Fi books—all of them are FREE through the end of January. Pick any/all you wish to download in any format. You can also enter to win an additional 52 books as well. You are signing up for people’s email lists when you do so, but you can unsubscribe at any time. I’ve snagged several for myself. Click here for a wonderful choice of free books: https://books.bookfunnel.com/alwaysfantasy/izy7xzaivd

It’s a nice validation, and I’m thrilled. Writing is by definition a solitary act unless you’re in the writer’s room on a television show. Other than that, it’s just you, yourself, and you. I don’t know about your brain, but mine has a few dark corners and downright bad neighborhoods. It’s not good to walk them alone… you may have encountered this on nights when you can’t sleep. It’s worse when you’re awake and on your third cup of coffee and you know what you want to say but are utterly unable to put a sentence together that isn’t utter shite. That’s when my inner mean girl pops out with a bludgeon and her judge-y voice. I have to take that voice and shove it… back down.

Have I mentioned I love writing?

Most of the time.

My current series takes place in 15th century medieval Europe. For a handy reference, that’s about 100 years after the black plague decimated the population. King Edward the IV had scandalized everyone by marrying a commoner. That nasty old murderer Richard the III reigned in this time frame, too. It’s an in-between sort of space where really anything could happen as civilization clawed its way towards the Renaissance. My books will head towards Constantinople and Damascus and the Spice Islands in the series soon, but for now, I’ve been learning about the Black Forest area of Germany (Grimm’s Fairy Tales land) and the port city of Marseille.

I’ve also been researching the foods people ate, what they drank, and a myriad of ways to kill people using poison. Yeah. Don’t cross me. Kidding. I wonder what the FBI would make of my look-up history. There should be a disclaimer for writers. I can only guess what the google history of folks who write apocalyptic fiction looks like. Or people who write murder mysteries, cozy or otherwise. You really have to watch out for them.

From my research, there are two things I’d like to share with you. The first is that in Europe at that time they didn’t have potatoes. Can you imagine? The dark ages would have been much easier to endure with potatoes on the menu. Of course, I learned this fact after my first book was mostly finished and had to go back and remove all the instances I’d mentioned potatoes being eaten or stored. I subbed in turnips instead, but you and I both know that turnips are a poor substitute for a nice carb-heavy potato.

In researching the best way to kill people using agrarian methods, I’ve come to understand that it’s remarkable that any of our great-great-great etc. grandparents lived to sire progeny at all. There were just so many things back then that could kill you aside from the usual pestilence, war, or wild animal.

Rhubarb (I’ve talked about this in a former post about Rhubarb Pie), and a lot of mushrooms, especially the red and white ones that look like fairies should sit on them are tops in “natural” poisons. Oleander (there are several horror stories of scouts using the sticks to cook hotdogs over fires and the whole lot of them dying, but I don’t know if those were true or just cautionary), Water Hemlock, Belladonna/Nightshade, Yew trees, Foxglove, Castor beans, Rhododendron, Jimson Weed, Rosary Pea, Lily of the Valley… I could go on. My favorite deadly plant that I couldn’t use in my stories is a tree that grows in tropical places like Florida called the Manchineel. That one is so bad it’s called the Tree of Death. Every bit is poisonous. You can’t even stand under them when it’s raining, as the dripping water can transfer toxins onto your skin, causing it to bubble and blister. Helpful locals will paint a bright red band around it warning you off… unless, of course, they want to kill you.

On the flip side, I’ve learned a few tasty recipes for alcoholic beverages, as no one really trusted the water in the cities, and rightly so, as the water system was also the sewage system. Ale and beer were their equivalent of Gatorade. Mead was popular with anyone who kept bees. It’s fermented honey, high in alcohol and sweet. You can try that one at a Ren Fair.

Mulsum is spiced honey wine and sounds absolutely delicious. It’s considered to be the oldest alcoholic drink in the world. I know it’s January, and we’ve all given up such things for at least three more weeks, but here’s a recipe for it from the website of http://www.KitchenLoveStories.com

3 cups lukewarm water

1 cup red wine (you can sub in non-alcoholic wine if you’re off booze)

1 cinnamon sitck

1 whole nutmeg

1 tsp cloves

4 Tbsp honey

Slice of orange or lemon in each glass.

Put everything together, mix it up, and put in the fridge for a day. Reheat it if it’s wintertime, don’t if it’s hot out. Remove the spices and serve. This recipe makes four servings, or one if you’re in despair.

Gorillas and Lions and No Tigers, Oh My!

Holidays at our house involve a lot of baking, cooking, and eating. I’ve posted my favorite Thick Sugar Cookie recipe below. You can do all sorts of fancy things when you frost them, or just sprinkle sugar on top. They hold up in give-away boxes too. It’s nice to give someone a box of cookies instead of crumbs. I also use this recipe for the base of fruit tarts in summer—just make sure you do a solid curd and let it set in the fridge, so you don’t get a soggy bottom. You know you don’t want one of those.

Speaking of soggy bottoms… I try to balance out the deliciousness of the season with exercise. Swimming and walking in my case. Here in Texas, most walks are flat with barely a rise in sight, so it behooves you to go some distance so you can have that cookie or whatever makes your mouth happy.

If you’re lucky, you have a family member that has a zoo or arboretum membership. You can walk for miles looking at pretty flowers or interesting animals and not notice until you stop walking that you’ve gone a fair distance. I don’t know if this happens to you, but I’ll feel great, positively glowing with athleticism after a long walk. Hop in the car, drive home, and then… find myself in the precarious position of not being able to get out of the car. I have to institute a sort of roll and drop which comes factory installed with a deep groan. My legs just quit and forget to tell me. Please tell me this happens to you, too.

This past weekend we went to the zoo on a membership pass, which meant we were inside an hour before everyone else. There was an added bonus of deliciously crisp and chilly weather with a clear blue arch of sky that makes it feel like all things are possible. I believe there were more zoo workers than guests for the nearly two hours we were there. It was like having our own private zoo tour.

The Dallas zoo is a manageable size, with pleasantly rolling paths that meander through different exhibits. It’s shaped a bit like a butterfly, with two big wings and a long tunnel between them. There are plenty of bathrooms, as well as places to get a cup of coffee or refreshment. It was super clean, not a bit of trash anywhere.

We were hoping to see the baby tiger, which is on the far-right wing of the zoo along with the otters. How can you not be happy when you see a sign like this?

We walked all the way over there twice, but no luck on the tigers. The otters were out the second time, though. Perhaps it was too chilly for Sumatran Tigers, but the flamingos seemed happy, and they are hot weather creatures, so I dunno, maybe they were being Tiger divas.

We scored big time at the gorillas, which are located on the left wing of the zoo. Dallas zoo has two troops. One is a family unit, complete with babies, and the other is big bachelor males. “It’s like a frat party all day long over there,” said one of the staff. They keep the troops separated by large walls. Evidently, the papa gorilla on the family side would not take kindly to other males near his tribe. The staff member hinted at bloodshed if that happened. Not the zoo experience you’d want the kids exposed to.

We also got to see the lioness up close during an excellent keeper talk. I took this picture as she tracked the movements of the painted dogs across from her enclosure. Lions are so deceptive, they just lay there, looking lazy and nearly pettable. Then their attention is caught, and you see the ferocious wild in them. We were glad there was thick glass between us and this beauty.

We did the entire zoo, which included penguins and a fun trip to the children’s petting zoo. Delightful!

Here’s hoping your holidays are happy ones!

THICK SUGAR COOKIES (for royal icing)

3 cups flour

½ t salt

1 cup butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 large egg, room temp

1 t baking powder

1 T vanilla

Sift together dry. Cream butter and sugar. Mix in egg and vanilla. Add flour in 3 batches. Knead and shape into a disk. Put in fridge overnight or 4 hours before rolling out.

375 10-11 minutes (turn sheet halfway) Cool on pan 5-7 minutes and then on rack.