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I’ve gotten massages a couple of time in Austin, and each time I go to the same woman at the same place who puts a few drops of this minty, menthol-y oil on a washcloth she drapes over my eyes. The strong scent made my eyes tingle pleasantly, helped me relax and become sleepy, but didn’t aggravate my migraines, which can be triggered by strong, perfumed scents. The last time I went to see her was to redeem a birthday certificate my dad got me, and when the massage was finished, I poked around the room for a few minutes as I got dressed to try and find the bottle. I finally found it: white flower oil. The next time D and I ventured out to the large Chinese supermarket north of town, I bought my own bottle. The strong association I have with this scent and a feeling of total, loose relaxation means that a few drops in a bath, on a washcloth, or on the shower floor are enough to calm me even on the worst days.

chinese dumplings on a tray

Dumpling-making is another calming activity. The process of chopping many things into small, uniform pieces, mixing them, repetitively spooning the mixture into skins, folding, and lining up on the pan gives me a sense of order and accomplishment. I like seeing the cookie sheet go from holding one lone, intrepid dumpling to being crowded with them. I like sitting next to D while we do this together, watching something we’ve seen a million times because we can’t really watch it, anyway, since we have to watch the dumplings. I like how we fall back into inside jokes, congratulate each other on dumplings that come out folded like professionals made them, and how we make fun of the awkward ones, the ones we over-stuff, the ones that leak and won’t seal and will probably make a mess in the oil. I like hearing the oil pop when D drops the first one into the pot. I like eating one when it’s still too hot, dipping it in soy sauce that’s still reducing on the stove. I like how we say we can steam them, saute them, or bake them, but we almost always fry them, because I like the crispy exterior. I even like how, between the shopping, prepping, folding, freezing, and frying, it takes all afternoon to make dinner.

folding dumplings

Making a massive amount– about 150 dumplings– every few months has become a tradition, a centering activity, for us. I think D and I usually find ourselves drawn to an afternoon of dumpling-making when things have been stressful or hectic but are starting to calm down. Dumplings are a way to commemorate a slower pace; we have the emotional and practical time this weekend to spend several hours making one meal (albeit one that will feed us for days), as opposed to past weekends when we’ve had extra work or other commitments. Making these dumplings together makes me feel closer to my partner– dumpling-making is a team sport, and we are genuinely grateful for each other’s contributions to the big win we have at the dinner table.

deep-fried dumplings

Vegetable Dumplings
Makes about 150 dumplings

You will need:
1 pound soft tofu, diced
1 pound mushrooms (I used a mixture of woodear, shitake, and oyster mushrooms), chopped fine
3 carrots, grated
1 jalapeno, diced
4 scallons, chopped thinly
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. grated ginger
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. black vinegar
1 tbsp. rice vinegar
1 tbsp. sambal
1 tsp. sesame oil
3 packages gyoza skins, thawed
Oil, for frying
Dipping Sauce, for serving

Combine tofu, mushrooms, carrots, jalapeno, scallions, garlic, ginger, and all seasonings in a large bowl. Mix well, breaking up the tofu as you go.

Working with one gyoza skin at a time, place about a teaspoon of the mushroom mixture in the center of the skin.

filling in the center of an open dumpling

Wet the outside rim of the skin and fold it, making pleats along each side. (Use  Real Butter has a great step-by-step tutorial of the folding process.) Pinch it well to seal, and set aside. Repeat until the mushroom mixture is gone.

lots of folded dumplings

Deep-frying: Heat about 1 1/2″ vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat. The oil is hot enough when, if you stick the end of a wooden spoon in the oil, the oil bubbles up around the end quickly. Working in batches, cook about 6 dumplings at a time in the oil until they are a deep, golden brown, about 7 minutes. Drain them well on a dish cloth or paper towel.

Potstickers: Works particularly well for frozen dumplings. Place the dumplings in a skillet that has been preheated over medium heat. Pour water into the skillet until the water comes about 1/3 of the way up the dumpling. Cover the skillet and cook until all water has evaporated from the skillet and the bottoms of the dumplings are slightly crisp, about 5 minutes.

Freezing the dumplings is easy: Just spread the dumplings out, not touching, on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Put the cookie sheet in the freezer for about an hour, and then transfer the dumplings to a freezer-safe container. These will keep for several months in the freezer.

My friend Lindsey and I have a lot in common. We both like margaritas, especially when some magic happens and the margaritas are pink. We love to read, but we both faked our way through some of the classics in high school and college, and think maybe they should take away our English major cards. I’m currently reading Jane Eyre for the first time, and Lindsey confessed to having only read half of Anna Karenina. We both like crafty things, like knitting or crocheting, but neither of us is very good. We both love to cook when we get together, but we don’t want to stress about it. We’re also both very beginner film photographers, so we go on “photo dates” to encourage one another to keep at it, and then we compare our results on Facebook. Neither of us is going to have a show in a gallery any time soon, but we’re not terrible. And we have a good time.

That’s what these enchiladas are. They aren’t the best enchiladas you’ll ever have, but they’re the only ones I know of that you can whip up in less than half an hour with no stress, and will still be damn tasty. On our last “let’s drink and take photos and talk about books and pretend we are hard-core crafters” date, Lindsey and I were both a little skeptical about the canned green enchilada sauce, the melting of the cheese on the tortillas, the lack of needing to wrap things in cute little rows. But as soon as we sat down with the raspberry margaritas her fiancé Nick made for us, all our fears retreated.

These are some delicious, low-budget, low-effort enchiladas. They are a lot like Lindsey and me– not going to win any awards or start their own business, but they’re having a great time.

Easy Green Chile Enchiladas
Serves 2
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman

You will need:
1/2 onion, diced
4 small hot peppers or 1 bell pepper, diced
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. green enchilada sauce (the stuff in the can)
1 can (4 ounce) chopped green chiles
6 corn tortillas
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
Salsa
Garnishes: cilantro, guacamole, sour cream (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay 6 tortillas on a cookie sheet. Spread each tortilla with the cheddar cheese.

For the sauce:
Heat the enchilada sauce and the green chiles in a saucepan until heated through.

For the veggies:
Heat the olive oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high until the butter is melted. Add the onions and peppers and saute until tender.

Assembly:
Place the cookie sheet of cheese-covered tortillas in the oven and heat until the cheese is melted, about 5 minutes.

Put one tortilla on a plate and top with one quarter of the pepper-onion mixture. Add another tortilla and another quarter of the peppers and onions. Add another tortilla. Top this last tortilla with about half of the green enchilada sauce. Spoon some salsa on top of the stacked enchiladas. Garnish with sour cream, guacamole, or cilantro, if desired. Repeat this process on another plate with the other three tortillas. Serve immediately.

Donald and I are all about simple food, quick dinners, and making our own meals. Don’t get me wrong– we enjoy dining out as much as the next couple. But we really, really enjoy cooking.

And we don’t cook “neatly.” We try to keep the fridge cleaned out, but there’s usually something hiding in the corners that’s long gone. Today, we came back from the grocery store with a jar of hatch salsa verde (by the way, it’s hatch chile season around these parts, and I’m in heaven), only to discover that we had three opened jars of salsa in the fridge. This week’s theme will be Tex-Mex at Home as we try to rid ourselves of the salsa of the salsa overflow.

There are usually dishes in the sink, though I try to keep things neater, especially as our day jobs take up more of our time and emotional stress. There are always dishes in the drying rack, despite the fact that we have a dishwasher. Making coffee in the morning usually involves spilling at least one of the following: the coffee grounds, the brewed coffee, the sugar, or the milk. So sponges are kept nearby. We sweep constantly– for all the good it does us with two cats who refuse to stop shedding, no matter how much we beg.

So our meals are usually delicious, but not necessarily elevated or refined. Except these nachos. Despite the fact that we ate them straight off the foil-lined cookie sheet, these are some refined nachos. There is some experimentation and zestiness here. We sauteed things, added booze, and reduced things. And then we used two cheeses, one of which was studded with the hatch peppers that are so popular right now. The only bad thing about these nachos is that I can’t even take any credit. All I did was remind Donald that we had a can of beans in the pantry, and he proceeded to make us a delicious, adventurous, spicy lunch while I sliced 5 pounds of strawberries (more on that later). So here they are: Donald’s spicy tequila nachos.

Spicy Tequila Nachos
Serves 2

You will need:

2 oz. tortilla chips
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese (we used a hatch quesadilla cheese, and a mild cheddar)
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
4-5 small hot peppers
1/2 can refried black beans
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup salsa
1 shot tequila
1 tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil.

For the vegetables:
Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and peppers, season with salt and pepper, and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add tequila at the end and saute another minute. Remove from heat.

For the beans:
Heat the beans and water in a saucepan over medium heat until the beans are heated through. Add the salsa, salt, and pepper, stir well, and cook until the beans are reduced a little. They should be like a thick sauce. Remove from heat.

Assemble the nachos:
Spread the chips on the cookie sheet, close together but in a single layer. Using a spoon, dollop the beans on the chips. Top with the onions and peppers. Sprinkle the shredded cheese over the whole sheet. Cook in the oven until the cheese is thoroughly melted, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately, with guacamole, sour cream, or salsa, if desired. Plates not necessary.

This dish isn’t for the faint of heart.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s an excellent use of leftover rice, especially if you felt the need to make six cups of Mexican rice for a total of four people, and then have five cups of rice leftover because you made way too much food.

Not that that’s ever happened. And not that that’s a bad thing.

This dish is a pain to put together. If you’re a rice ball aficionado, then I’m sure you’ll have no problem. But if you’re like me, and don’t have years of rice-ball-rolling experience under your belt, prepare for things to get a little messy. Between the rice (which flat refused to mold), the flour (which I wound up working into the balls as I tried to reform the balls after coating them in flour), the egg (which attempted to disintegrate the rice balls), the panko flakes (which I had to press into the sides of the balls), and the huge mess on my counters, I almost threw in the towel on this meal several times. But I persevered, and you should too.

Mexican Rice Balls
Loosely adapted from Food.com
Makes appx. 10 rice balls 

You will need:
3 cups cooked Mexican rice
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
4 eggs, divided and beaten lightly
Flour, for coating
Panko flakes, for coating
Vegetable oil, for frying

Mix the rice, cheese, and two of the eggs in a large bowl. Using a 1/3 measuring cup, mold the rice (to the best of your ability) into a ball.

Coat the ball in flour, then dip it in the other two beaten eggs, then coat it in panko flakes. Set on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. If it looks a little weird, or starts to fall apart, don’t despair. Just put it together as best you can, and do the next one. Continue until your rice is gone.

Put the sheet of rice balls into the freezer, and heat 2 inches of oil in a saucepan. When the oil is hot, take the rice balls out of the freezer and fry them in batches, turning once. The balls will need about 2-3 minutes, total. Drain on a tray lined with paper towels. Serve immediately, with Mexican-Style Tomato Sauce.

Mexican-Style Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Epicurious
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

You will need:
1 14-oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
1/4 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 fresh jalapeño, or several slices of pickled jalapeños
1 tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Warm thoroughly in a saucepan, and serve with Mexican rice balls!

I have basil coming out of my ears.

A few weeks ago, I spent over an hour at the sink rinsing and stemming the basil I’d cut from my garden, and I wound up with a mixing bowl packed with fresh basil. You would have thought I had massacred the garden for this basil, but the garden appeared untouched, despite my ten cups of basil leaves. I then spent a long, long time with my mini-Cuisinart making small batches of pesto. I froze some in ice cubes, so I now have enough pesto on hand to last me through next year.  I also oven-dried some of the basil, with great success. So now, I and the basil gods offer you pesto roasted chicken.

Once you’ve made the pesto (which goes really fast if you have a larger food processor, and are not stemming and washing a zillion cups of basil, but rather a more manageable amount), this dish comes together super easy. All you do is spread the pesto on the bird, pop it in the oven, and wait. A juicy, fresh, summery roast chicken greets you after about an hour.

Pesto Roasted Chicken
Adapted from About.com: Southern Food
Serves 4

You will need:
1 roasting chicken, washed and dried
1/4 cup pesto (See this recipe to make fresh pesto, or just use the jarred stuff)
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Fresh basil leaves
Salt and pepper

Rub about half of the pesto under the skin of the chicken, and about half on top of the chicken. Put the sliced lemon and fresh basil leaves in the bird cavity. Sprinkle the bird with salt and pepper. Roast in a 425 degree oven until the meatiest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest about ten minutes before carving.

I’m honestly not sure what to call this pasta. When the fork hit my mouth, I thought of gumbo and jambalaya and all those wonderful Creole flavors, although I’m not sure that was the original intent.

I also am not the designer of this dish. This dish came together after my boyfriend realized that some of the peppers from our garden needed to be eaten like, now, and we had a few other leftover veggies that were running low on shelf life. So he sautéed them in a pan with oil, boiled some water, and made me dinner. And it was delicious. And took about twenty minutes.

Creole-esque Pasta with Shrimp
Serves 2
Note: We tend to use frozen, raw shrimp. When we can find them already peeled and deveined, we do that as a time-saver. This week, we could only find deveined, but peeling them is a cinch. Just put them in a colander under running cold water (or, if you’re in Texas and in a drought, in a colander in a sinkful of cold water) and in about ten minutes, they’re soft enough to peel.

You will need:
1/2 lb. pasta
10-12 large shrimp
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. butter
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Cayenne pepper, to taste (substitute with red pepper flakes, if desired)
Creole seasoning
Splash of heavy cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
Freshly grated parmesan cheese, to taste

Boil a pot of water and cook pasta according to package directions. Set aside.

Heat the oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high heat, but don’t let the butter burn. Add the shrimp and cook about 1 minute. Turn all shrimp and cook about 30 seconds. Remove from heat.*

Add onion, pepper, garlic, and spices, and cook until softened and slightly caramelized. Add pasta and shrimp to skillet and toss to coat pasta in oil and vegetables. Add cream and toss to evenly distribute. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve in bowls and top with parmesan cheese.

*The key to not overcooking shrimp is to undercook them. When you remove them from the heat to a bowl, they will continue to cook each other for a few more minutes. For pasta, they also continue cooking when you add them to the hot noodles. You want them to be just barely opaque when you cook them initially.

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