Tag Archive: cheddar


Cooking is not a science. Some people say it is, but the truth—or my truth—of the matter is, there has never been anything scientific for me about cooking. I simply walk into the kitchen and observe. Look around me. What is available? I am a forger in familiar territory. My eyes have roamed these shelves more times than the Canadian geese have migrated. I just exaggerated a little bit, but it’s not technically lying if you’re just adding something to the truth, particularly if you’re a story teller. In the same way, cooking is not a science. I don’t let the truth, or a version of it, get in the way of a good culinary experiment. I suspect Benjamin Franklin did not expect lightning to strike his kite any more than Thomas Edison suspected the wire in his light bulb to glow. With cooking, it’s different. I expect the outcome to be positive in the most general sense of the word because I’ve combined ingredients that I like to eat and brought them together in harmony, sort of like a choir, only pleasing to all five senses rather than just the eyes and ears.

Granted, positive things don’t always happen when I mix two things together. I once had a hankering for something sweet and spicy, so I mixed some hot curry powder with creamy peanut butter. The problem is, I used too much and wound up with something that tasted vaguely of sawdust and cayenne pepper. Point taken: curry and peanut butter cannot simply be mixed together. My food taught me yet another valuable lesson.

But I didn’t need food to teach me mathematics. I needed a good high school calculus teacher and a good college calculus professor, and even by their powers combined, they couldn’t make me understand anything past series. Science requires precision, and cooking… well, cooking requires a lot of taste testing. Try that in a chem lab and let me know how it turns out.

I also didn’t need food to teach me philosophy, but it did help a little bit. You are what you eat, after all. I imagine that would make me some sort of chicken soup. Some days, I’m nothing more than ordinary chicken noodle. On others, I’m a zesty chicken chili. On others still, I must be chicken curry since I eat it for breakfast on occasion. In either case, I am an odd arrangement of ingredients that vary only slightly from day to day—and nine times out of ten, a recipe for disaster no thanks to some hereditary clumsiness.

I eat; therefore, I am.

People say baking is a science, too. An exact science. If you put a few extra drops of lemon juice in a batch of soup, then fine. It will be a little lemony. Toss in something to balance the flavor out, and life is good. But some extra flour in the cookie dough, a missing egg, and a sporadic oven, and suddenly, your warm, fluffy dough pillows turn into crumbly pucks of horror and sadness.

Fact: I am not a scientist. Last time I was in the chemistry lab, I nearly set the school on fire. Too bad my air-headed track athlete lab partner was cool-headed enough to turn off the gas. Otherwise, I would have been a hero among high schoolers for the first, and probably last, time in my life (because, at least in my high school, bookworms with straight A’s were hardly material for the “cool” table). I am a literary critic… I guess. That’s what you become when you finish master’s coursework in English, right? I approach recipes for baking the same way I approach recipes for soup, which I approach the way I approach prose: they are blueprints totally open to interpretation. And if my interpretation happens to include cloves where they were not included before, then who’s to stop me if the bread supports my reading?

Much like books, everyone has their own taste in food. Mine wavers somewhere between Italian, Mexican, and Japanese on most days, with heaps of soup and sandwiches to fill the gaps. The original more than likely holds enough interest, but I have a strange way of looking at the world. I read significance into things and savor contradictions the same way I do curry… although some days, I feel like the world is insipid as plain gelatin—or else it sets me smoking like a charcoal grill.

I’m not hard to please, but underneath all that literary critic frosting is a thin remnant of my childhood, the wafer of writer-ness that, like a Twinkie, will endure long past its expiration date. I was, and still am, a storyteller. Even in verbal recall, I can turn something as ordinary as going to the grocery store into a harrowing tale of how the lady on her cell phone was right in front of the stock selection and how some child in the produce asked his mom if they could have broccoli for dinner. Little facts like that stick with me, especially if they stir up some emotional reaction. Of course, by the time I retell the story, the lady with the cell phone will have been there for five minutes instead of 90 seconds. But then, I could get into the whole discussion of perceived versus actual time; it’s not a lie. It’s just my version of the truth, my perception.

I suppose food really has taught me something about that whole perceived versus actual time business, but perhaps I should save that for another blog entry.

I am not a scientist. I am an interpreter. I can’t be boxed in by lines and directions, but I can be inspired by them… hence, the creative nonfiction class. Of course, not crediting the inspiring force in some way is called plagiarism in my line of work (although I suppose creative writers call it artful stealing… or borrowing, depending on who you are). I saw a bread recipe on Stephanie’s blog, Modern Christian Woman, and I knew the minute I did that I had to try it, and as most interpreters do, I adapted this recipe to my diabolical purposes of feeding a hungry Writing Center staff during what would be my last end-of-semester party with them. They have given their heartfelt approval, and I pass it on to her with gratitude.

Interpreting is only half of my job, though. As a literary critic, I am expected to share my interpretations with others, for better or worse. After all, what good are two ginormous loaves of bread without a company to break it with?

Garlic Cheddar Herb Bread

(Inspired by Stephanie’s Recipe for Garlic Cheese Bread)

Epic Loavery

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ cup warm water
  • 4 ½ tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp spicy Italian seasoning grinder spice (sold at Kroger, but you could easily add salt and red pepper flakes to Italian seasoning.
  • 3 tbsp, plus 2 tbsp shredded Parmesan and Romano cheese

Directions

  1. Heat butter, milk, sugar, garlic, and grinder spice in a small sauce pan until butter is melted. Let cool.
  2. Combine yeast and water in a large bowl and let dissolve. Trust me… use a large bowl. You will kneading (spelling intentional) it later. 🙂
  3. Add eggs, milk mixture, cheeses (reserve 2 tbsp of the grated, though) and half of the flour to the yeast. Mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. Add enough flour to make a dough (roughly an additional 1-2 cups).
  5. Knead dough for 7-10 minutes.
  6. Spray bowl with pam and return dough to bowl. Cover and let rise for an hour. The dough should double in size.
  7. Punch down dough. Remove from bowl and make two loaves of roughly equal size. Place on a cookie sheet, cover, and let rise again (about one hour). The loaves should again double in size.
  8. Give the bread a rubdown with olive oil. I did this with my hands, but a brush would work as well. Grind some extra spice on top. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Pat everything down nicely.
  9. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.

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The bane of my existence is human error.

I fully and freely admit that I make mistakes all the time. Poor life decisions? You bet. Just this past week, I learned one of my mistakes first hand. A combination of pre-exam stress and PMS led to writing one e-mail that has changed things for the better, but even here, I am not faultless. Putting things off isn’t something I normally do unless the task involves potentially hurting someone’s feelings. I’m lucky to have friends that understand me enough to get that, friends who are honest enough–and genuine enough, or maybe mature is the word–to seek improvement when I have to be the asshole that sends the long and elaborate e-mail explaining the issue in a manner that will not generate conflict. Bottom line: I will become a better person for it. I will correct my past mistakes and be more assertive.

Damn being an English major. I can do things better in writing than I can verbally half the time, and the other half, I can’t do well in either.

Two weeks ago, I handed over my most precious possession: a paper copy of my thesis, all 94 pages. Its intended destination was the desk of none other than the department head; that which I loved like a child was being sent to a paper shredder to be bathed in red ink. Still, it must be done for the sake of timely departure. I gave it to the secretary, clutching it in both hands, and said, “This is my thesis, and to me, it is the most important thing in the world. Please, be careful with it.”

Cue two weeks of insanity, two grueling weeks where I forget that the sun shines, that the world is peopled, that I am surrounded by bars–temples of temptation that beckon me at nearly every turn. I must resist them. I must resist them to finish my coursework. The nights grew long and sleepless. The days are measures not in minutes but in words that slide out of the keys, shifting like hourglass sand that swept me away in its current. There is no rest for the weary. No food for the hungry. No cool and calming water to slake my thirst. I found spare moments of calmness, but it was not until last night, Saturday, that I felt a wave of relief crash down on me. Ten hours of nearly non-stop work, and I had given birth to the final drafts of the documents that would end my classes. One poorly written twenty-page paper and corresponding handout, and one Friday morning, separated me from the finish line I have been dashing towards for two years.

Of late, my dash has become more of a Smirnoff sort of stagger. My vision is touch and go under the additional stress and fatigue. I’ve lost count of how many meals I’ve eaten out this week. The coffee shop has become my house of worship, and I attend mass daily. Hail coffee, curry, and tea lattes, the lifeblood of exam week students! Still, my perseverance has paid off, and I have much to show for my devotion. One class down, one more to go… and my defense is only six days away. I treat myself with a slightly longer than usual break, then sleep. It took me forty-five minutes, but I finally managed to reign Morpheus in.

Sunday morning began at a slow pace. I threw my laundry in, meandered the internet stream for about a half an hour, and checked my e-mail.

Then, human error struck.

My most cherished possession was not only missing in action; it had never come into the hands of the department head. I can only imagine how it deviously sneaked out of eye shot while the secretary was busy with something else, or how, hapless and homesick, some sinister paper mites crept out of the stapler and gnawed it to dust.

Once again, I find myself turning to soup for the answer. The last of last week’s leftovers, also the last in the fourteen-week soup for the sole challenge, is sitting in the fridge. Between page 15 and 16 of an English paper, and after two thoroughly irritated phone calls, one to my parents, one to Melissa, I heat the last bowl and depart to throw my laundry in the dryer. There are some things in life you can help, things like how spicy your soup gets; and then, there are some things you just can’t. Some people deal with it in sighs and complaints. I deal with it using a slew of clauses strung together by frustration… and a shrug. I can sleep easy knowing I’ve done all I can.

After fourteen weeks, the soup is finished, as the thesis will soon be… but it’s not quite the same. I don’t plan to write another thesis, but I plan to keep making soup. My life is made of soup and stories; what good would I be without one or the other?

Chicken Tortilla Soup for the Sole

The Final Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3-4 tbsp canola oil
  • 4 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper, plus another ¼ tsp
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 1 fresh lime
  • 1 package of 10 corn tortillas
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • Shredded sharp cheddar cheese to top soup

Directions

  1. Dice onion. In three-quart sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add onion and garlic and sauté.
  2. While onion is sautéing, heat canola oil in a separate pan. Cut six of the tortillas into ½ inch strips and fry until crispy. Remove with whatever cooking implement you have that works best for that sort of thing, and place on a plate covered in a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and ¼ tsp cayenne pepper. Set aside.
  3. Add chili powder and cumin to the pan. Cook for about 30 seconds to a minute.
  4. Add chicken stock, frozen chicken, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Simmer until chicken is cooked (about 20 minutes).
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Tear remaining 4 tortillas into bite-sized pieces.
  7. Add frozen corn and tortillas to the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes.
  8. Dice cilantro. Remove soup from heat. Add cilantro, remaining cayenne, and the juice of one lime to the pan.
  9. Top with crispy tortilla strips and shredded sharp cheddar (or cheese of your choosing).

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Frost

According to Frost (2011), it is time for new insulative measures.

I moved into my apartment on a swelteringly humid day in August. I walked in expecting it to look like home, but it looked more like a jail cell than anything. Cinder block walls, high school linoleum floors, a bathroom sink outside the actual bathroom, not a lick of carpet in sight. Poorly lit, a wall phone from the eighties hung vacantly on the wall, its cord a twisted parabola that tore my expectations to shreds. The kitchen was nothing but a postage-stamp sized box that was just as sorry as the rest of my lodgings.

My lodgings. That’s right. This would be my home for the next two years.

I found myself suddenly immersed in a conflicted whir of feelings, keeping up the strong front in front of the apartment supervisor Bill and my mother, at least until the sun went down. I complained about the condition of the place. It was filthy when I moved in. Two weeks later, I would get a razor blade from Bill and scrape long, black strands of hair out from beneath the floor wax. At the same time, I was trying to pull up something positive from this experience.

All day on move-in day, my mother peppered me with positives. “This place is nice.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, I’m not. I told you about my first apartment. There were mice in the walls, and the people downstairs always fought, then had really loud make-up sex.”

As comical as it is to think of this now, I found no solace in her comments then. Maybe I was dubious because of my dashed hopes, or maybe I am just cynical enough to be spot on when it comes to knowing when people, particularly people I know well, are putting on a front. She finally caved at 9, after a grueling day of cleaning what was not clean and moving my belongings.

“This place is horrible,” she said. “Why don’t you just get a dorm?”

I couldn’t reply. That was the moment I burst into tears. I would spend much of the next few weeks in a similar condition, trying to wrap my mind around this grotesque transition, because despite my living conditions, I had determined to accept this place as my own. I worked myself ragged the first few weeks of the semester, and by then, I was so worn out that the cheap hotel mattress (which also notably had some long black strands of hair on it) was the farthest thing from my mind.

I’m not sure when I noticed it, but one morning, I woke up and felt as cozy as a cup of chicken noodle soup. “It’s mine,” I thought. “It’s finally mine.”

* * *

I prepared last week’s white chicken chili in the kitchen where I grew up watching my dad cook. Although it is the most frequently used room in the house (except perhaps the restroom), it is by far the most neglected. The appliances have been replaced twice since my family moved there twenty years ago. The walls have been painted “Eggshell White,” which I still insist makes the entire house feel a little more like a hospital since every room is a subtly different tone of white (except the restroom, which is a vibrant mint green, and my bedroom, which I rebelliously painted orange when I was nineteen). Some hardware in the sink has worn out a few times. We’ve had a few new faucets. Other than that, no renovations have been done in the kitchen.

The Lost Window

Farewell, window of my youth! In case anyone is wondering, I am still this random. I just got really good at playing the part of a normal person.

The entire house is now practically Pergo, in slightly varying shades much like the walls. The roof has been done twice. Just before I moved out, my parents decided to do some heavy renovations: they built an addition right behind my bedroom, robbing me of the window of my youth. They re-sided the entire house, put in a new patio. After I left, they even redid the family room, ripping out the faded blue carpet and replacing it with sleek wood. They furnished it with things that are now entirely foreign as a graduate student. Just how can anyone own as many sofas as there are people in the house? With all of my education, I cannot make sense of this point any more than I can make sense of this grotesque neglect of the kitchen, which soundlessly puts up with constant use and abuse.

It bit back, once. I was reaching for the carpet cleaner, and the splintering cabinets lodged one of their deadly harpoons beneath my finger nail, leaving behind a pain so intense that I nearly passed out dislodging it. I was left breathless and nauseated, and I still had a decrepit dog’s mess to clean up, a dog who, much like the kitchen, was neglected for sentimentality’s sake.

It’s strange how you only notice change when you leave a place behind. I might visit home every three months. Life keeps me busy. Maybe I should visit more. Maybe I just don’t want to, because like it or not, I live another life now, one that has changed my flavors and preferences entirely, one that has challenged me academically, professionally, and culinarily. Maybe it’s because that dark and dingy postage stamp of a room is my kitchen, one that, if I had the power, I would remodel faster than compote boils over on high heat.

The house has changed, and so have I. Even in my parents’ kitchen, I feel a longing for my faithful sous chef, who sits on the back of the stove in Mount Pleasant. I feel the blinding light cast my shadow in several directions. I’ve got a little elbow room here, at least, but that’s about all I have going for me. This is not my kitchen; it is their kitchen. My kitchen, at least for the moment, remains up north.

There are only so many beans left in my can of time here in Mount Pleasant, and they are hastily running thin. When the last of them is scraped out, when I return home for two months to steep myself in Japanese language and culture, when I pass on my living quarters to the next eager-eyed aspiring graduate student, and when I take up residence in a land with a 14-hour time difference, will I look back on this time of my life and regret or rejoice? Or will I simply forget as I run the gauntlet of emotions again, then realize again that over time, home, like chili, grows thick and warm in the presence of heat, then cools  and is consumed before a new batch is made?

About two months ago, just before beginning my creative nonfiction course, I began to notice something strange with my vision. I was seeing the world a little differently than normal, and not just because I had been living alone for over a year. It had nothing to do with the fact that I had successfully completed an interview for a job in Japan or the fact that I was looking at the world differently to meet my daily quota of haiku.

I was coming back from a visit home over Christmas when I noticed the road signs doing some odd things. The white lettering on the green background started shifting in ways that I instinctively knew was not normal. Looking back on things, I had probably been experiencing similar things since August of 2011, but I had simply been to busy to sit down and take notice. Things in the distance started shifting in the same unnatural way wherever I was, whether I was looking the gridded window panes or the Max and Emily’s menu. Letters seemed to occupy an infinite number of places at the same time, all centered around a concentric line of points that surrounded the center point where they rested. My eyes weren’t watering because of onions, but the same fuzzy effect of tears lingered, at least for a few seconds, whenever I shifted my eyes from the computer screen to the distance or from the page to the horizon.

Something must be wrong. That was my first thought. And what better time to figure that out than a trip home for Spring Break, where the vision insurance actually covers most of the exam?

By some miracle, I called the place both of my parents went when they started having vision problems and managed to get an appointment the next day. I pulled into the office and approached the front desk. “Are you here for an appointment?” the receptionist asked.

“Yes, ma’am, at 12:40.”

“Alright. Our computers are actually down right now. What’s your name?”

I told her.

“Alright. We’ve got some paperwork for you to fill out.”

So began the gauntlet. I filled it out hastily. “We’ve got two ways to check the backs of your eye,” she explained. “We can either use the drops or a scan. Now, these scans aren’t covered by your insurance, but they start at $39…”

“I think I’ll stick with the eye drops.” Having just returned from a trip to Chicago, I wanted this trip to have as small of a financial impact as possible.

Michelle, the optometrist’s aid, had the same color of hair as the receptionist did: blonde. It jumped unnaturally as she got further away. She ran me through a gauntlet of exams that left my eyes feeling achy and irritated, particularly the drops. She had threatened me with pain beforehand, jokingly, and I had thought she was serious. “Oh, no… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you… there isn’t any pain.” She then proceeded to drip what I still firmly believe was onion juice into my eye. “Oh, I forgot to warn you… the drops sting a little when they go in. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

The overly happy optometrist appeared before I can return to Bleak House. He shook my hand in his vice-like grip and introduced himself.

“Alright. We’re going to run one more test.” He started flipping through lenses, asking me which one looks clearer. In the space of two minutes, about 20 lenses, and my best guesses at clarity, he has identified the issue.

“Well, the good news is you’re 20/20 in both eyes still. Your cones and rods look excellent; I expect your eyes will be healthy forever. What you have is a spasm of accommodation.” He drew me a little diagram to explain the issue, and I watched him draw what I thought looked like a cored bell pepper. “You have this lens in the back of your eye that automatically adjusts when going from distance to close-up. It’s supposed to go 250 both ways. Yours is only going 175 out and 100 back in. That’s what’s causing the words to look a little jumpy. Now, the causes of this are stress, anxiety, and fatigue. I’ll bet you have all of those as a grad student.”

“Yeah, and then some.” We shared a laugh.

“Now, all you need to do are these eye exercises. Hold this pencil with words on it close to your eye, just before the text starts to blur, then focus on the text on the wall. Do ten reps for each eye twice a day. Oh, and reading glasses would also help. You need +0.75s.”

“Awesome. I think I’ll just do the exercises for now.” Talk about duplicity. I asked the receptionist for some insurance information, and the figures drive me so close to weeping that I resolve to hunt them down elsewhere. Unfortunately, I met with a rather annoying spasm of accommodation: my grade of reading glasses is too small for any store to carry. Thankfully, by the power of the internet, I have managed to exercise some buying power that will hopefully help correct this spasm at a much lower cost.

Looking back on my life, I realize I have met with many spasms of accommodation, not all of them effecting my eyes. The biggest one so far was moving out on my own. The adjustment took three weeks, during which I experienced a variety of panic attacks and related illness. Soup did nothing to cure my tremors. I simply needed to tough it out. Things got better once I learned how to fill the empty hours with labor of all kinds.

But now, I’m on the cusp of a new spasm of accommodation called culture shock. In five months, I will engage in a 17-hour flight to Japan, where I will begin a job as an English teacher. Right now, I can only question how long it will last, and though I look forward to it, I anticipate the adjustment period to be a little longer, the challenges to be infinitely more daunting, and the jet lag to kill me softly.Worse still, I will have to adjust to an e-reader after a lifetime of paper books… and how will I manage to enjoy anything with the smell and texture of paper, the ever-alluring perfume that drew me down this path to begin with?

Seventeen hours is a long time to fly, but this is what I wanted, and what I still want, more than anything: an opportunity to prove that I can be happy with a Master’s degree in English. It will just take some effort, much like white chicken chili. The first time I made it, I was bitterly disappointed. It was too beery. Not creamy enough. When I re-heated the frozen part, it was so revolting that I promptly ushered it to the trash can. I had eaten good white chicken chili on one occasion, in a soup cook-off at my alma mater. My attempt to match it failed. Someday, though, when I had more experience, I vowed to return to the recipe that had so shamed my cooking skills.

The Chicago trip threw my soup rhythm a bit; the pot of my life bubbled unevenly beneath an onslaught of social opportunities, and the homework remained neglected like the black crust on the bottom of a scorched pan. “I need to borrow the kitchen,” I informed my parents on Tuesday at a local Middle Eastern restaurant.

“Why?”

“To cook soup,” I answered. “Besides, I need to cook you a ‘thanks for the support’ meal.”

“Alright,” my mom answered. “That’s fine with me.”

“What do you guys want?”

“How about some chicken chili?” my dad asked.

Maybe it was just another spasm of accommodation in my life, but suddenly, I was presented with a high-stakes opportunity to trump the soup that once trumped me. Move over, Iron Chef, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Chopped. This is reality, not reality TV; this was my opportunity to impress the man who educated my palette for twenty-three years with my own cooking skills, to show him how much I had grown under his tutelage. Using the barricade of “It’s homework, so stay out of my kitchen,” I managed to throw down a meal without much interference.

“That looks like a mighty small pot of soup. What are you guys going to eat?” my dad asked, giving a hearty laugh. “Oh, you haven’t added the beans yet. Still not sure what you’re going to eat, though.”

“I’m making biscuits and salad to go along with it, so it’ll be more than enough. Just trust me.”

The results are in. I got rave reviews the whole table ’round.

But I respect my readers’ independent streaks. Partly because of some minor resistance to the Japan plan on the parental front, I like to let people make their own decisions.

White Bean Chicken Chili for the Sole
Makes 4 servings… and feeds a family of three with one leftover bowl for dad’s lunch
(Inspired by this recipe, but with 50% more chicken)

The Seventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1.5 lbs chicken breasts
  • 2 fresh jalapeños
  • 1 poblano pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 cans cannelloni beans
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 14.5 oz chicken broth
  • ½ cup half and half
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup Monterrey jack cheese

Directions

  1. Dice chicken. Saute with onions, cumin, chili powder, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, or until chicken is cooked.
  2. Dice jalapeños and poblano. Cook for an additional 2 minutes.
  3. Mince garlic. Add and cook for 3 minutes.
  4. Add chicken stock and half and half. Simmer for 35-45 minutes.
  5. Drain and rinse beans. Add to pan, cook for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add sour cream and mix well.
  7. Add cheese and also mix well. Simmer for a final 10 minutes.
  8. Top with black pepper and cheddar cheese before serving. Goes great with a garden salad and some garlic cheddar biscuits (which are like these chipotle cheddar garlic biscuits, except with sharp cheddar instead. I’ve got a couple of pictures in the slideshow… ^_^).

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I just bought my first box of saltines since 2010. These crackers are fit for all manners of cheese, particularly those deli slices of colby or colby jack. They are also fit for my off-brand peanut butter. And if I am having a bland day, I’ll eat them plain. They are, in short, the ideal snack food because of their versatility. They don’t taste like anything and can therefore be topped to the choosing of the consumer, or else devoured naked in times of duress to satisfy a salt craving.

But they are not fit for my soup.

Imagine, if you will, building a house (or any sort of structure, which, for the record, you don’t want my help with. I will make your construction gents lemonade and feed them with whatever I have on hand, but if you give me a hammer, I will somehow manage to lodge it in the concrete foundation or get it stuck in the PCP pipe… never mind how. I will manage. Trust me.). Now, a house is a very personal thing because it needs decorated and furnished with lots of stuff that speaks about who you are. You put stuff in it. Make it your own. Hang pictures on the walls. Throw area rugs on the floor. I’ve seen this happen with soup: some people delicately dip their crackers as they do biscuits (re: cookies) into tea. Others feel more destructive and crush the offending wafers to a fine powder, then sprinkle their remains into the bowl like the ashes of a cremated fisherman. As for me, I’m a dipper, and if I get oyster crackers, I will eat them prior to taking the first bite of the soup.

Returning to my point: say you’re at a diner and you order a bowl of soup. It looks a little like Progresso. This calls for some crackers, as they are the closest thing to pleasant texture you are guaranteed to get out of that bowl.

Say you’re in Mount Pleasant at The Brass Café, and you order your nine dollar sandwich with soup (which you always should at The Brass). You order the three bean (you’ve already had the chicken and rice once before, and it was good, but you’re looking for something a little different). It comes out. It’s tomato based and spicy enough to make your nose run a marathon but not spicy enough for you to lose IQ points by continuing to eat it. Aside from cooling your mouth with the water you ordered, you cut the flavor’s intensity with the crackers. Joy and bliss ensue as you finish the soup. It’s nice soup, and you don’t really have any alternatives for dipping because you bought it from someone else.  Similarly, when you buy a house, you don’t have much choice of what’s already in it, but you can change it once it belongs to you.

Just so with my soup. I spend a good, hard hour and a half in the kitchen manufacturing the Monticello of soups (I wouldn’t compare it to the Sydney Opera House or Frank Lloyd Wright’s stuff, but in terms of quality, it’s decent enough to be a Monticello), cutting vegetables into uniform chunks and turning my little slice of heaven into the Tower of London by torturing myself half to death with the smell of it cooking. The last thing I want to do is default to painting all of the walls white and buying my furniture from WalMart (unless your wallet necessitates it, which, if you’re building the Monticello, I doubt you are in poverty). I don’t cook anything I don’t like, and I happen to enjoy my soup quite a bit. In fact, it’s probably my favorite thing to eat. So, if I’m spending that much time on my soup and plan to dunk something in it, why not make it something worthwhile?

Generally, I think soup is fine as it is and doesn’t need any help, especially if I’m in control of everything that goes into it. In week 2, I bought a nice bakery loaf of multi-grain bread to go with my chicken broccoli-cheddar soup. This week, just before going to work on my chipotle chicken chowder, I decided that something delicious needed to go in there, and what better than some garlic-cheddar biscuits? They’re the only reason I ever want to go to Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday’s (I’m still weary of fish, and while Ruby Tuesday’s has a decent salad bar, I personally think that Bennigan’s has better burgers), and if I had know they were so easy to make, I would never have had a reason to set foot in either establishment in the first place (if not for Ruby Tuesday’s Salad bar, that is).

Although I don’t trust in skinny chefs, I do believe in eating healthy, so I’ve altered a recipe I found online to omit the butter (gasp), and they turned out fine. The world did not careen off of its axis or anything drastic like that, and I didn’t miss the butter flavor once I sopped these in chowder stock. I would call them Monticello windows, but that’s carrying the metaphor too far, don’t you think?

Chipotle Cheddar and Garlic Biscuits for the Sole

The Finished Product

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. canola oil / butter
  • 1 tsp. olive oil / more butter
  • 3 tsp. parsley flakes (reserve 1 tsp.)
  • 3 tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ cup shredded chipotle cheddar cheese

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, sugar, 2 tsp. parsley flakes, and garlic powder.
  3. Add oil and milk. Mix thoroughly with a fork.
  4. Fold in cheese.
  5. On a baking sheet, spoon dough.
  6. Top with olive oil and remaining parsley and pat down lightly.
  7. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Yields 9-10 biscuits, just enough for me to perform quality control.

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I spent a great deal of my undergraduate days at the food court, a tiny corner in the middle of the main building (actually composed of four halls linked together). They served a variety of overpriced food items that I could make for probably a quarter of the price at home, but convenience and an empty stomach devoured every frugal thought. I needed sustenance. It was for my mind’s sake, and regardless of what dollar amount universalizes append to such things, what surcharges and registration fees and peaceful hours you must relinquish to higher education, you can’t put a price on a well-cultivated mind.

I ordered snacks from this food court on most days: pudding cups with Oreo crumbs and what I think was supposed to be whipped cream, pita triangles with a single tablespoon of hummus. On occasion, I would have a Chicken Sonoma salad, a delectable salad with fresh grapes, strawberries, and almonds, and I would devour these in my fish tank, a tutoring room lined with windows on two sides. But it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well enough that the main attraction of this food nook hastily became their soup selection.

I fondly remember their chicken noodle. It was, for a while, the closest thing to homemade I got. They used the frozen Reames noodles, which were the thickness of a children’s book and which were always overdone by the time I got to eating them. I remember their tortilla, which to this day I am certain was made with a jar of cheese sauce. If I think hard enough, I can even remember the taste of the turkey and rice, whose gummy grains sustained me through yet another shift at my location of employment, or else a lecture on American literature, which was comparatively worse for a self-proclaimed Victorianist like me.

Although I say all of these seemingly negative things about the soup provided at Cafe de la Alma Mater, I still stand by the fact that for soup that had to be kept at a hot temperature for three to seven hours, it was edible, and it tasted a hell of a lot better than the sandwiches, who were syllabus left to marinate in their own moisture until they were the consistency of a soggy diaper.

Aside from feeding my growing soup addiction, this particular food nook introduced me to someone I now consider a good friend: chowder. I remember our first meeting. It was a cold March day, and there was more snow on the ground than I care to discuss (in my opinion, even a dusting is too much), and as I marched into the building, half-frozen by winter’s insistent grip donning my trusty winter coat and gloves, I started sliding past this culinary corner to nutrition class.

Pause. I am now no longer rushing to nutrition class because I am faced with what sounds like an excellent idea.

My predecessors all select their suppers, mostly composed of pizza that would bring any Italian to tears. “Hello, what can I get for you?” asks the gentleman at the register.

This man is not skinny.

In terms of body language, this means I can trust him.

“I’ll take a bowl of your chicken and corn chowder, please.”

“That will be $2.50.”

The soup comes in six-ounce Styrofoam container with a translucent plastic lid and a pair of saltine cracker packets. I retrieve a plastic spoon and take my bounty upstairs.

The first bite is so euphoric that I would offer winter a bite if I didn’t want every last drop of it for myself. I feel myself getting a little feral, which I tend to do when I feel my food is in danger, and consume the rest with relish. For a moment, I’m not a student approaching a Bachelor’s degree in English; I am the king of the world, and this bowl was made by my private chef. An average dish was made great by novelty and by excellent timing. Perhaps the same can be said of all things average.

I never could have guessed three years later that I would be turning that dish into a soup for the sole with a twist courtesy of parental oversight.

Last weekend, my phone rang at 10:30. My parents had been on the road for a half an hour. My first fear was that something had gone wrong on the drive home, mainly stemming from my own car troubles. Since practically everything else had gone wrong since their first attempt in mid-January, I wouldn’t be surprised if poor luck followed them homeward. They came up to visit me on Saturday for the first time in six months, courtesy of chaos on my part and on my dad’s. One of the main attractions on this trip, a new Greek restaurant, perished before the weather cooperated well enough for them to make it. I checked the building out two weeks ago to find the windows dark, the tables staring mockingly at me from the windows. “See if you ever sit on us again,” they said, then laughed with their legs as I paced away. Instead, I took them to The Market on Main, a new artisan grocery store with all manners of unusual, delicious cheese, meat, microbrews, and the like, all at a price that no grad student in their right mind could afford. My dad made three purchases: a bottle of ginger beer, a wedge of blueberry shifton, and a slightly smaller wedge of chipole cheddar.

Instead of bad news, my dad simply said, “We forgot the cheese.” This isn’t an unusual occurence; in fact, I would call it relatively commonplace, but like my encounter with chowder, this average was of a higher order. The sweet dairy bounty of neglectful neurons was all mine for the taking.

These two average events, by their powers combined, yield this week’s soup for the sole, a tongue twister of a chowder that is much easier to eat than it is to name. I speak from experience: this soup is anything but average.

The Fourth Bowl

Chipotle Chicken Chowder

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenderloins, frozen
  • 8 oz chicken stock
  • 2 chicken boullion
  • 1 pint half and half
  • ½ onion
  • 1 giant potato
  • 1 cup chipotle cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • Black pepper
  • Cayenne pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Dice onion and sauté in butter.
  2. While onion is cooking, defrost chicken tenders. Dice potatoes. When chicken is done defrosting, dice chicken.
  3. When onions begin to caramelize, add flour and mix.
  4. Whisk in chicken stock. Add chicken and potatoes.
  5. Add half and half and chicken bouillon. Mix well. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until potatoes are nearing doneness.
  6. Whisk in cheddar in small batches.
  7. Add corn, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.
  8. Serve with chipotle cheddar and garlic biscuits [here is the link, as promised].

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Endnote: Chipotle cheddar is admittedly hard to find, not to mention it isn’t very cost effective. The average treated me kindly this time, but it may not do the same for you. This recipe would actually be good with regular old fashioned sharp cheddar (I have made a non-sole version of this recipe that utilized sharp cheddar). To get the chipotle flavor, a couple of canned or dried chipotles should do the trick. To preserve tonsils and lining of the stomach, make sure your chipotles are seeded. Consider it friendly advice… I know this from experience.

On Wednesday night, I am back in the library coffee shop for another helping of leftovers, this time alone. The sparsely populated, blindingly lit room is full of empty tables. Two girls chatter over their Macs, their tones distinctly sorority girl-esque, but one can never be sure. Two tables down, another girl who was alone eating a chicken Caesar wrap now has a companion. Near the back is a man in a suit and tie, looking a little out of place among the more actually dressed occupants of this establishment. He is teaching another student a foreign language that I cannot identify from the “gus in front of verbs” comment I catch drifting through the air, practically devoid of people but cluttered with the usual coffee shop noises. Every now and then, someone else filters in for a soda or to use the restroom. As for myself, I sit next to two unoccupied tables with a black laptop bag overloaded with books. No one but today’s issue of the student newspaper sits next to me, strategically placed on the table to my left.

I’m waiting for my soup to finish cooking in the microwave, which is separated from me by a distance of roughly thirty feet. I’m much farther away from it. I’m immersed in pages written over a century and a half ago, determined to make every minute between the end of my shift and the beginning of my class mean something, even if it’s just turning one more page in the fictional Victorian saga of an independent woman.

This is my third time reading the novel. I’ve read it twice in the past nine months for my thesis, once as a preliminary glance to something that could be potentially useful, and once again not more than three months later as a text I planned to use for the fourth and final body chapter. Like my last bowl of leftovers for the week, I value this text no more or less than the first. I give it its due appreciation. I taste the subtle hint of feminism lurking between the black lines. I have covered its pages in my own annotations, hasty pencil strokes that look like they were made with a dull knife. This third time around, it almost tastes better than it did the first time, more complex, a polyphony of flavors, but it has definitely lost some of its power to captivate and compel. No longer am I infatuated by its suspenseful moments, nor am I duped by the hopes that this woman will be any different than her predecessors in my literary experience. Having gotten to the bottom of this particular pan twice already, I know that the dregs of these chapters are not exactly scorched. They do, however, have a smooth texture and a sharp flavor that reminds me of bleu cheese. I can appreciate it for what it is, but this particular flavor is one that I will never bring myself to fully like.

Like many Victorian women, and like all of her predecessors (at least the ones that I have encountered), this heroine inevitably relinquishes her independence for marriage. I see this happen in modern novels whose titles I will not mention to avoid spoiling them, and whereas most of my friends cheer for this fairytale ending, I find myself inwardly cringing.

Maybe it’s because I have practiced studying literature for longer than I have practiced cooking, but I have learned over the years that no ending can be entirely happy, not in Victorian literature, and not in terms of soup. By the time I eat the last bowl of a full pot, I am sick and damn tired of tasting the same flavors and running my tongue over the same textures. I crave a change despite my habit of supplementing these bowls with sandwiches, salads, and my fair share of nights out at the bar or at a decent culinary establishment. It isn’t quite the same with literature. Much like a frozen brick of soup in the back of my fridge, a book that has remained untouched on my bookshelf for an appropriate amount of time has a savory flavor once it has been extracted and thawed out. I find something new to appreciate as I turn the pages a second or third time, as I immerse my mind’s spoon in this bowl again, first sipping the broth tentatively, then devouring the page, noodles and all.

I can’t help but wonder, as I play the voyeur to Helen’s family drama, as I peer into her moments of fury and solitude, whether this view bears any relation to how I down day after monotonous day, soup after bowl of soup, from the same insipid pan. I find myself wondering if my life, or anyone’s, can really have a happy ending.

The coffee grinder whirs. The microwave dings.

And I turn just one more page.

I went to Panera Bread for the first time as a freshman in high school with a friend of mine and her mother in the days before I understood that restaurants would customize your order. When I first saw the menu, I had no idea what to buy. I hated mayonnaise with a passion (and still do with few exceptions), and practically every sandwich on the menu utilized one form or another as a condiment. Worse still, practically everything had tomatoes, a food that, in its raw form, is only just now becoming tolerable to me at the age of 24. I gave the menu one of my blankest looks, much like the one I would give my calculus text book three years later. I had been ordering for myself at restaurants for probably six or seven years at that point and cutting my own meat for a year longer, but thus far, I never had to make such a life-altering decision in my brief and sheltered existence.

“The broccoli cheddar soup here is really good,” my friend insisted.

I confess I was dubious. “The problem is I don’t really eat a lot of raw cheese, so I’m not really sure if I’d like a soup with a cheese base.” I associated any sort of “cream” soup with the milk and roux mixture we served at home. Chunks of potatoes or broccoli floated around in milk broth, but I canned up my complaints about the flavor to avoid offending the chef, whether that was my mom or my dad. Uttering one word of disdain was like cranking a pan full of spaghetti sauce on high and simply walking away from it: if I spawned more heat and threw off the equilibrium, the white stove top of a calm evening would look less like an appliance and more like a massacre. Of course, I only mean words, but as the only child, I tried to keep parental perturbation down to a minimum.

I wasn’t seeing any other solutions to the problem, and the menu wasn’t responding to my glances. “Get it in a bread bowl,” she suggested. “At least try it.”

Fortunately, this was before Panera became less restaurant and more madhouse. There were only a handful of customers already dining, and we were the only ones in line. It was about 11:30. Nowadays, there aren’t even any tables left at 11:30, and the line of diners stretches helter-skelter towards the door. I placed my order and got a glass of water to accompany my lunch.

If I had to choose one word to describe my first encounter with that soup, it would have to be euphoric. I became more attached to it, ordering the dish every time we visited the restaurant (until I discovered the Sierra Turkey sandwich; then, I began alternating between the two).

A few years ago, this friend added a little too much heat to my stable existence, and I simply rammed her into the back of my subconscious, relegating her to the bottom shelf and cutting all ties. The problem was that as we grew older, I aged like a barrel of wine: I was cumbersome and still had a very limited perception of the world, but my flavor was developing, changing, growing, and (hopefully) improving. I began to see the world through glass that was not rose-colored. I labored at a Pizza Hut, tolerating my menial minimum-wage job, disdaining my slacking coworkers, and at times wanting to toss a full vat of sauce on the customers. People were not all nice, and life was not easy. Conversely, she aged more like a Twinkie. As another only child, she lives in a smaller container than I do, a plastic wrapper where she sees the world not quite as it is but how she wants to. She was preserved by an abundance, and maybe an overabundance, of affection. I saw ugly sides of her that I will never share with anyone else, and those sides reminded me that unlike her, I had to earn my gas and spending money. She got sizable handouts of money from her parents regularly, but for me, every dime was a drop of sweat, every quarter a rock of the knife on the board, every dollar a spot of hot oil singeing my flesh and leaving small, white, dalmatian-spot scars.  She still appears in my dreams sometimes, usually as an antagonist, and when I wake up on mornings like that, I find myself wondering if she ever changed.

Although my relationship with this particular friend came to an abrupt end and I no longer frequent Panera, my bond to broccoli-cheddar soup grew infinitely stronger when I found this recipe and began making my own. I actually prefer my own broccoli-cheddar soup to Panera’s because the broccoli is chunkier and never overcooked.

Mount Pleasant is rumored to be getting a Panera Bread in the next six months. I jokingly tell people that the reason they don’t have one already is because I can make their broccoli-cheddar soup better than they can. It seems odd to me that Panera is just now coming here when I’m getting so close to leaving, so maybe there is some truth in this.

But it’s probably just a coincidence.

Chicken and Broccoli Cheddar Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • ¼ onion, diced
  • 4 baby carrots, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 2 chicken tenderloins, frozen
  • 4 oz fresh broccoli, chopped
  • 2 tsp butter, separated into 1 tsp portions
  • 1 ½ tsp flour
  • 1 pint half and half
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp nutmeg

Directions

  1. In a three-quart sauce pan, melt 1 tsp butter. Add onions and cook until onions are caramelized.
  2. While onions are caramelizing, defrost chicken tenderloins in microwave for 3-4 minutes.
  3. Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter and mix with flour. Cook for 1-2 minutes until flour/butter mixture is pasty and golden.
  4. Add chicken stock to the pan and whisk until roux is fully dissolved. Add half and half. Lower heat to a simmer. Dice chicken and add to pan. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  5. Add carrots and celery. Simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Add broccoli. Simmer for another 15 minutes.
  7. Add sharp cheddar in ¼ or ⅓ cup batches. Whisk each batch until it is fully melted and combined with the cooking liquid.
  8. Add nutmeg and black pepper. Serve with crusty bread.

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