Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hello, Old Friend

I saw my dear friend Mr. Sun today for the first time in awhile. Remember him? You know, he's the central body of our solar system, the planets revolve around him, really hot, makes things grow- got it? It took me awhile to remember, too. It was nice to get reacquainted today.
Everyone in Gent was out in full force. It was so crowded. (And yet, unbelievably quiet-- I love this aspect of Flemish culture. There is no way you could have that many Americans in one place and have such a low noise level.)

I snapped a few pictures and enjoyed feeling the sun really shine on my face for the first time in months. This Florida girl is ecstatic. My dear friend and fellow Fulbrighter Jessica and I went shopping and sat on the edge of the Graslei drinking fruit smoothies and marveling at the blue sky; it was as if the city had taken on a totally new persona. It was a truly fabulous way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

The Lazy-ish Cook: Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad

I like beets well enough, but am not a huge fan (except in the case of borscht, which I love with every fiber of my being). Anyway, I feel like beet and goat cheese salads pop up on menus pretty frequently so I thought I'd give it a go myself. Also, as winter (finally! finally!) comes to a close, I want to make all those wintery dishes I didn't get around to before the ingredients go out of season again. Hence the beet and goat cheese salad.

This recipe is undoubtedly lazy. It was created at about midnight when I realized I had never really gotten around to eating that day and felt pretty weak. Since it was so late and I was tired, I didn't do nearly as much with it as I could have. All in all, though, it was pretty good.

So here's what I did:
I took one fully cooked medium-sized beet (I got pre-cooked fresh beets in the produce section of my favorite bio-food store) and cut it into smallish chunks. I then stuck them in the oven at 220 c, which is about 425 f, for about 15 minutes until they kind of caramelized on the outside. Next time I would make the pieces smaller so that they could dry out and caramelize even more.

I made a variation of one of my favorite salad dressings by combining almost equal parts of apple cider vinegar and olive oil (maybe 2-3 tsp of each, with slightly more oil perhaps), a teaspoon or so of honey, and as many red pepper flakes as you'd like. I like it pretty spicy. Just whisk it with a fork until the honey is more or less dissolved and the dressing is slightly thickened.

For my greens I used veldsla (the Dutch name), which is called salade de blé in French and feldsalat in German. (Belgium being a tri-lingual country, many things are labled in all three languages. I like this because I have three chances to figure out what something is, and it's pretty rare that I'm unsuccessful that way.) I don't recall ever seeing this particular green in the US before, but I assume it's called field salad if we do have it. All that to say: I used veldsla, but any salad green will do.

To assemble, I tossed the greens in the dressing and then topped them with goat cheese and walnut pieces, followed by the still-warm beets. And then I dotted this salad, as I do so many things I eat, with balsamic crema. I also toasted and buttered a section of a baguette to go along with it.

Not rocket science or a great culinary creation, but a fast, easy, tasty and healthy solution nonetheless.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lenten Reflection

I had a conversation on Monday that totally slapped me in the face. It stung. It hurt for a variety of reasons, but the main one was that I got slapped in the face with my own sin. I was confronted with just how badly things can go when I decide to ignore what I know is right and do things my way. I get hurt, and I hurt others.

So now I’m left sitting in a pile of shame and regret, feeling unbelievably stupid, naïve and sad. And although I could list how I was wronged and hurt, I know that I really have no one to blame but myself.

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent. Growing up in a church that essentially ignored the liturgical calendar, I never had much of a concept of or an appreciation for Lent. But as I became an adult and my love affair with liturgy blossomed, that changed. Is it okay for me to say that I look forward to Lent? Because I do. Lent gives me a focused time each year to reflect on what Easter really means.

If I have learned anything over the past year, it’s that the Gospel changes everything. It affects every single area of life and leaves nothing untouched. Because I believe the Gospel as presented in the Bible to be true, there’s not a part of me that I can remove from under its influence and use in a way that is contrary to its principles without negative consequences. This sometimes seems inconvenient at face value because I am not always free to do what I want, but really, it’s incredibly good news. When I attempt to be my own boss, when I start operating in a self-centered way instead of a Gospel-centered way, the resulting imbalance in my heart always wreaks havoc in my life and, unfortunately, in the lives of those around me.

I know that betraying Gospel values will always cause pain. And yet, over and over, I fail to trust that God has my best interest at heart and decide that I know better or am the exception to the rule. When that happens, I find myself standing in the middle of the mess I made, horrified that I was so foolish once again, overwhelmed by my failures and weaknesses, by my sinful brokenness. My shame and regret taunt me and it would be easy to give way to hopelessness. There are also times when the pain I experience is not of my own doing. It’s not a result of my own sin, but a result of someone else’s sin, or just a result of the brokenness of this world. There is no way to escape the death and brokenness around us. But I don’t give way to hopelessness and I am not overwhelmed by shame, and I don’t despair or become bitter, because Easter is coming.

Easter is when we celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death. Easter is when Jesus declared “It is finished” and turned the world upside-down. Easter reverses the natural order of things. Easter reminds me that God’s powerful and redeeming love is exponentially greater than my most egregious sins. Because of Easter, we no longer have to be separated from God and we have eternal glory to look forward to. Because of Easter, I can rest assured that any suffering, no matter how great, is only momentary and will be forgotten in the light of glorious eternity. And just as each Easter marks the end of our Lenten fast, it points to the day when there will be no more sin, or pain, or tears or death. It reminds us that we have a greater hope.

Easter is pretty unbelievable. It doesn’t surprise me at all that most people don’t believe it, because it’s so outrageous and fantastic. I’m thankful that God gave me the grace to believe. But even for those of us that do believe, it’s pretty difficult to wrap our minds and hearts around. Lent helps us to do that.

Lent gives me a chance to reduce distractions, to eliminate some external sources of comfort, and refocus my time and priorities in a way that will focus my attention on what the cross means. I had not originally planned to share what my Lenten sacrifices would be, but I eventually decided that it would help to illustrate what I’m trying to say and maybe even hold me accountable.

First, I’m giving up TV. I found some websites here that stream American TV online in Europe (um…. maybe a little sketchy), and I got addicted. I am watching way more TV here than I do at home. I fall asleep to it and have it on constantly for background noise. I realized that sometimes I used TV as a way to avoid being quiet and acknowledging my own thoughts and attitudes: having the TV (or in my case, computer) constantly going drowns out my thoughts. I realize that this is a common problem for people who live alone, and it’s lousy! It robs me of my time to live and explore. It also keeps me from doing more intellectually and spiritually productive things like reading, practicing effectively, studying the Bible, and praying. So no TV for me for the next 40 days. Instead, I have a fantastic booklist of theological gems to help me focus my mind during this time, and I’m committed to praying the Daily Office every morning and evening.

Second, I’m giving up desserts. How unoriginal. But I love, and I mean LOVE, sweets. Especially chocolate. To be honest, I really hate how much I love sweets and how hard it is for me to turn them down. I’m all about la joie de vivre, but moderation is hard for me and my self-control can quickly go out the window when faced with a tasty treat. What I really want is not to quit enjoying God’s gift of chocolate all together but to enjoy it for the marvelous thing that it is, and not a coping mechanism. For the next 40 days I will not have the possibility of eating chocolate to cheer me up or calm me down. Instead, I’ll have to do that by praying and exercising—both very good things to do. Hopefully that will help me to build better habits going forward.

The third thing I’m doing is both giving something up and taking something on. Recently I have been very moved by stories of oppression and martyrdom of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world. I sometimes feel persecuted because so many people despise my faith and look down on Christians intellectually, but this is such a small price to pay compared to what so many of my brothers and sisters suffer. I’m fasting one meal per week and praying for the oppressed and persecuted Church worldwide. It’s such a miniscule thing, but when the hunger pangs strike I can be reminded of how little my Christianity costs me and pray for those who risk it all to follow Jesus.

I hope that this Lenten season really helps me to get a greater sense of God’s steadfast and perfect love. Part of that will be to get a greater sense of my own sinfulness in order to see what Christ died for, and also where I would be without Him. In a Bible study I was doing recently I was asked to consider where I would be without Jesus, and the thought was so horrifying I couldn’t even write anything down. May my thankfulness and awareness of His great grace ever increase, comforting me, awing me and urging and enabling me to walk in His ways.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Magnificent Gent

I've been in Gent for almost 6 months. I love it here.

It was something I didn't fully realize for awhile, but now I am totally bummed out every time I think about leaving (though I have about 4 months left). I love the friends I have here, I am so thankful to have found a good church to be involved with, I love all the little specialty shops and bakeries, I love all the amazing art, architecture and history, I love my gym, I love how clean and quiet everything is...I just love my life here! And who could grow tired of walking past this view almost every day?

I'd like to detail the simple joys of life in Gent in the future, but tonight I just wanted to share that picture with you. I took it on Saturday as I did my weekly exploring and shopping.

God really does give me immeasurably more than all I could ask or imagine.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Back to blogging... from Gent! AND, fabulously decadent Chocolate Mousse

It's been about a year since I last posted on this blog. I originally started it because a few friends had asked me to share some of my recipes with them, and also so I could share my ideas and finds with my far-flung dear ones. I didn't resume posting when I moved to Belgium in September for my Fulbright, although in some ways it would have been a great way to share my life here. This has been met with some complaints, so I'm starting it back up. So, here's a mishmash of my life here and the things and people I love. And, since I'm required to tell you here and in the "about me" section, this blog in no way reflects the Fulbright Commission, or the Institute of International Education, etc. Actually, I can't remember the exact wording I'm supposed to use and can't find that paper anymore, but anyway, if you are deeply offended by anything I say here it's totally on me and they can't be held responsible for anything stupid that I do or say. Okay?

What better way to start up my blog from Belgium than with a chocolate mousse? That stuff is everywhere here and boy, do I love it. LOOOOOOVE it. Chocolate mousse is one of the world's perfect foods. It's soft, creamy, chocolatey decadence. I got this recipe, as I get so many recipes, from smitten kitchen. Really, she's great. I have not yet tried the Julia Child via David Lebovitz version yet, which I suspect may be a little more traditional, but this was so perfect to me that I am reticent to mess around. In fact, the second time I made it I served it to new friends from Paris and it was met with hearty approval, so I'm going to feel free not to try the other recipe until my curiosity gets the better of me.

It should be noted that my dear friend and fellow cellist, Anna Katharina, helped me on my maiden mousse voyage. It would not have been possible without her as I do not have a mixer here! She lugged the appliance from Brussels to Gent, kept me company and helped me make the mousse. Now that's a friend!

I made this recipe twice. The first time it was very dense and almost bitter, and I loved it. The second time it was softer and perhaps sweeter, and I loved it.

Rather than copy the recipe out here, I'll ask that you just follow the provided link above. I followed it pretty much exactly. Instead, I'm going to give you some pointers that I obtained from experience (the whopping 2 times I made this), and from what I gleaned after quizzing the interwebs.

1. If you are afraid of raw eggs, or cream, or butter, or liquor, do not make this. Find something else to make. Do not ruin this
perfect creation. I'll be honest and admit that I was kind of afraid of the raw eggs myself. But after one bite of this stuff, I was totally over it-- my love for this mousse helped me to see how statistically improbable and fairly insignificant a day or two of vomiting would be. That said, if you are preggers or feeding a very young child, maybe pass this one up for awhile.

2. The texture of the mousse is dependent on how much you whip the egg whites and the cream, and you probably don't need to whip it was much as you might imagine. The first time I made it we whipped them for a long time, until the cream was starting to almost resemble butter and the whites were well on their way to meringue. I didn't mind the density, which made the chilled mousse almost sliceable, but it's not usually what people are going for with mousse. The second time I did it I still whipped the cream a lot but whipped the egg whites a lot less, and the texture was rich but not too stiff or heavy.

3. Because there is no added sugar in this recipe, the kind of chocolate you buy will determine the sweetness of your mousse. It will also affect the quality, so spring for some decent chocolate. I prefer dark chocolate. I used a Cote d'Or "Noir de Noir" for this, which was 54% cacao, and it was perfect. If you want a very intense, bitter mousse, I guess you could use darker, though almighty Deb at Smitten Kitchen says no more than 60%. You could also use lighter, but what's the point? And if you have the gall to use white, I don't want to know about it.

4. Play around with your liqueur options and measurements. I used cognac like the recipe indicated, and it was great. However, I could see kahlua working really well, or even something fruity like grand marnier or créme de cassis. The first time I made it, the very dense time, I upped the amount of cognac to 2 tablespoons. It gave the mousse a pronounced cognac flavor, and brought out the bitterness of the chocolate. I followed the recipe exactly the second time and kind of missed its presence, though that's purely a personal preference.

Happy Moussing! I'm grateful to have this gem in my repertoire now... and am glad that I don't have a mixer with me in Gent so that I won't make this too often :)