Cooking with Strange Ingredients of Questionable Origin

Ugh, I do not feel like I am winning this camp session so far. I don’t think I’m going to not win (yet) but it’s been a slog and I’m quite a bit behind. This nonfiction writing business is kind of a drag. I mean, it’s interesting and stuff, but I feel like I need to do about twenty or thirty minutes of research for every ten words that I write. I knew I would be writing few words this time around and that it would take more research and fact checking, but sheesh. I could really go for just a quick and stupid blitz through draftyville right now, you know?

That said, it hasn’t all been rainclouds and misery these last couple weeks. One of the two nonfiction projects I’m working on is a cookbook, and that means cooking! Furthermore, it means experimental cooking, which is probably the best kind of cooking that there is.

In the interest of keeping the cookbook accessible to normal humans, I can’t do anything too crazy-go-nuts, and that’s kept me reigned in reasonably well. After all the ingredient I’m showcasing here is a little wacky itself- birch syrup. (Who here has heard of birch syrup? Tried it? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to know what you think about it!)

Birch syrup is like the half-sibling between unrelated maple syrup and molasses. It’s got that maple treeishness, and molasses’ kind of minerally tang to it, but has a flavor profile all its own that varies quite a bit from batch to batch. I’ve been working on a series of recipes that bring out its uniqueness, but within the kinds of comfort foods that people already know and love.

Some of the recipes I’m working on are things like birch vinaigrette, birch baked black beans, and birch-infused profiteroles. There are birch caramel popcorn balls, and boreal bliss ice cream, and birch brined moose jerky. (These are my comfort foods, okay?)

My kids’ favorite so far, though, has to be the birch bacon mac and cheese. Sweet and salty and gooey and hot, that double batch I made didn’t stand a chance.

1/2 pound of bacon

1 lb chopped vegetables of choice (broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, etc)

1 lb dry pasta

1/4 c unsalted butter

1/4 c all-purpose flour

2 c whole milk

1/4 c dark birch syrup

1 1/4 c mozzarella cheese

3/4 c cheddar cheese

1.  Boil pasta according to directions, cooking just slightly less than al dente. (I usually find the directions for al dente and then subtract one minute for every five. Bite a piece and if it feel just a bit undercooked, it’s ready.) Drain the pasta and set aside.

2.  Cook bacon in a frying pan over high heat until crisp, about eight minutes. While bacon is cooking, steam vegetables. I typically chop vegetables into chunks about the size of my curled forefinger and steam for five minutes, until they are just a tiny bit crunchier than al dente, like the pasta. Set aside vegetables. Drain bacon, and then chop into bite-sized chunks and set aside.

3.  Melt butter over medium-high heat in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the butter begins to boil, add flour and whisk until the mixture becomes fragrant and turns a light brown, about three minutes. (It’s better to undercook than overcook at this stage. Overcooking with make for a slightly lumpy cheese sauce while little brown flecks, while undercooking is easy to correct with a little extra cooking later. Either way, it will still taste fine.) Slowly whisk in the milk. It may be a little lumpy at first, but keep whisking as the milk comes up to heat and it will smooth out. Whisk constantly as the sauce thickens, taking care that the bottom does not scorch. Turn off heat, but keep pot over burner, and whisk in the birch syrup. The sauce should be a uniform light caramel color.

4.  Add cheese a half cup at a time, allowing it to melt completely and then whisking it in before adding more cheese. Sauce should be thick and gooey; if it is too thick, add two tablespoons of additional milk at a time until desire consistency. (I usually end up adding about an extra half cup of milk at this point, but my family likes a slightly thinner mac.)

5.  Pour the noodles, bacon, and vegetables into the cheese sauce, stirring gently until well coated. Cook over low heat until cheese sauce just begins to bubble and all ingredients are heated through, about five minutes. Serve hot.

Looking for a slightly lighter side dish? Omit the bacon and vegetables, instead adding one teaspoon of salt to the cheese sauce.

Note: While any pasta would taste good with this sauce, different pastas hold sauces differently. When choosing a good mac-and-cheese pasta, pick a “short” pasta, rather than a strand or ribbon pasta, that would cup the sauce and transfer little reservoirs of it into your mouth. Medium-to-large sized tubes or shells (such as penne, conchiglie, or rotini) about the same size as your vegetable and bacon chunks would be about right for this recipe. Alternatively, if omitting the bacon and veggies, you can go for a smaller pasta such as macaroni or campanelle.

PS- If you can’t get your hands on birch syrup (like most of the world outside of extreme northern latitudes), don’t sweat it. This recipe will still be tasty if you use maple syrup or molasses instead. Just, while you’re eating it, you are legally required to think of how much nummier it would be if you had the real deal. Legal truth. *nods*

Until next week, happy writing cooking!

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Seasonal Work

Hi, friends! Boy, summer is a busy time around here. I’ve started my full time work for the summer, hot on the heels of wrapping up a crazy school year. Sadly, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for working on my fiction projects, or even for doing submissions. (Less sad about that second part, honestly, because submissions, ugh.) But some exciting new writing opportunities have cropped up to suck up what little time and brain power I have left at the end of the day.

It’s a change of pace, but it’s interesting to be working on different things. I’ve never done work like this before, and golly, it’s downright refreshing to be getting paid for writing. I am not used to that. Here are a few of my shorter term writing projects that will be keeping me busy this summer!

Developing a Game Narrative I stumbled upon this one entirely on accident. A couple I know runs a design company in Washington. One of their clients made a game but wanted some kind of narrative overlay for it before pitching it to game companies or self producing and didn’t feel equipped to do it himself. They thought of me, and next thing I knew, I had a writing gig! This job is perfect for me because I love writing and I love games, and I basically get to do the fun ‘flavor’ stuff while the game designer does all the hard work. I’ve had a lot of fun pitching different narrative ideas and the client has picked his favorite. Now I get to work on fleshing it out into a full game manual. Whee!

Updating and Rewriting a Manual Honestly, this one is… less fun. That said, I believe the information in the manual is important and I like the people I’m working on it for. The manual is for one of the local nonprofits here in Fairbanks and it’s for the volunteers in their program, but the “current” manual is mega outdated. It’s like ten years old, predating like half of what the program currently does and referencing a bunch of things that it doesn’t do anymore. So it’s definitely due for a refresher. I’m going through it with the program head to figure out exactly what he needs done, and then I’ll go at it. Not the most exciting work, but rewarding in other ways.

Writing a Cookbook! Yaaaay! I’ve been wanting to write a cookbook for years and I’m finally working on one! I’ve spent the last few months getting more and more deeply enmeshed in another local nonprofit, this one all about kids’ education and sustainability and citizen science and art and basically all things that I love. I got involved through my husband’s cousin, who got me mixed up in the springtime birch sap cooperative, and I’ve been weaseling my way in further ever since. When I pitched the idea of a cookbook using the birch syrups that the nonprofit makes and sells to help fund their program, the program director loved it and send me off with a couple bottles of syrup. Guys, I am having a blast experimenting with recipes and bothering local producers about food. Putting together the proposal packet isn’t the funnest, but for real- THE FOOD. Why did I not get into this sooner???

In addition to these three big projects, I wrote up a couple little mini articles last week for the sports shop that I work at, but I haven’t heard back on those yet. We’ll see how it goes. Mostly, they’re just fun to write, haha. They’re pretty much about the ways I goof up my adventures and hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes before getting lost in the mountains in winter or going on a sea kayaking trip without a rain jacket. You know, really complicated things anyone could get wrong.

I feel like everything is so seasonal here in Alaska. The summer world and the winter world are so wildly different, and that profound different-ness (which is def a word, yep) seems to seep into every aspect of my life, including writing. But this year definitely takes the cake on seasonal shifting between projects. Who knows what July’s Camp NaNo project will be? I sure don’t!

How about you fine readers? Any exciting new projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!