Making Chai Citrus Spritzer

I’ve recently begun to realize how important food is to me. Every bite of a familiar food is loaded with nostalgia, accompanied by a dazzling parade of memories. Every recipe comes with a cascading waterfall of linked stories connected to the people in my life. Food brings with it a sense of family, closeness, love, friendship. Even now, far from the commune where I grew up, I dislike eating alone; growing up on the farm, meals and snacks were generally group activities. Someone was always hungry. The rustle of a bag or the soft whooosh of the refrigerator door could draw a crowd even if you started out alone in the roomy kitchen.

[This seems like a good place to mention that if you really just want a recipe, not a long reminiscence, you can scroll way down to the end for instructions.]

So, for me, chai (my preferred method of infusing caffeine into my veins) is a drink fraught with memories. When I took my first life-changing sip, I was nineteen. I was in the dreamy yet awkward stages of undeclared (and, according to the strict rules of the communal college I attended, forbidden) love. Just outside Haines, Alaska, the farm we lived on was a college destination predominately for youngsters like me who’d grown up in a network of communes across the world – mostly in North America, mainly in the North. I had left Ontario the previous year to attend the Christian college for a degree in education.

Now, here we were, a gaggle of sheltered kids freed from the early-morning weekly duty of helping in the commune’s bakery in Haines, basking in the freedom of an unsupervised stroll to a coffeeshop. Mountain Market was dubious territory. It was frequented by the “granola” crowd, modern-day hippies wearing natural fibers, sporting natural body odor, and topped with naturally unwashed hair. We, on the other hand, typically wore modest business-casual attire. Girls in skirts ranging from prim to trendy, but all below the knee, tops carefully buttoned to three fingers below collarbones; boys with shirts neatly tucked; all scrupulously clean. Not a beard, tie-dyed garment, or matted lock of hair in sight.

I’d never had an espresso drink, didn’t care for coffee, had certainly never seen a headful of dreadlocks like the one on our friendly (yet terrifying) barista. “I don’t know what to order,” I whispered to my crush Aaron, who was at the college for just one year “for the experience.”

“You need to get a chai. You’ll love it.”

“A what?” At least espresso was identifiable as coffee. I had no idea what a chai was. It sounded as unfamiliar and scary as the tentacle-headed blond barista behind the counter.

“It’s a spiced tea with steamed milk. It’s really good.”

I wanted to impress Aaron with my willingness to try new things, with my bravery, so I tremulously ordered a chai. I don’t know if he was impressed with my daring, but my first sip drove out all thoughts of wowing the love of my life. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I was hooked.

And now the taste of chai is inextricably intertwined with the painfully agonizing delight of new love.

Fastforward a decade. On a frosty winter weekend morning, baby snugly tucked into his car seat carrier, I was meeting my best friend for coffee and gossip at a cafe in Anchorage, Alaska, exactly seven minutes from my home and two minutes from hers. I usually ordered a chai – why change a perfectly pleasing tradition? But I perused the menu anyway, because I’m a compulsive reader and menus contain words. And there it was. CHAI CITRUS SPRITZER. Made with spiced tea, citrus flavors, and ginger. I ordered. I sipped. I was transported. From then on, I was completely hooked. It was cool, it was spicy, it was fizzy, it was a perfect meld of complementary flavors.

At some point I stopped exclaiming over the amazing taste experience I was having and restrained myself from forcing Gracia to try the new drink, and we went on to our comfortable routine of comparing work stories, discussing politics and philosophy, noting tiny Niko’s milestones, and laughing uproariously together. But secretly, in the back of my mind, I was deconstructing the drink with each sip. A little orange…a little lime…a bit of ginger…I was sure I could recreate this.

And of course I did. And now I’m sharing it with you. Here, for your sipping pleasure, is the flavor of deep and lasting friendship; of Alaskan winter turning so very slowly to spring; of the burdens of new motherhood lightened by the irreverent hilarity of a childfree friend; all laced with that original chai flavor of new love on an Alaskan commune. I give you: Chai Citrus Spritzer.

1. Collect your ingredients: prepared chai, crystallized ginger, orange juice, lime juice, sparkling water, a tall glass. I drink chai routinely; I used to get my Oregon Chai at Costco in packs of three. You can get it at Fred Meyer, a Kroger store, too. Or you can brew your own from tea bags, as I do these days. (You can see my recipe here.) The crystallized ginger is usually available in the bulk section of a grocery store. It adds flavor, but if you can’t find it, don’t let that stop you from enjoying this drink. It’s not crucial. For the carbonated water, I like to use the store brand cans of lemon-lime flavored sparkling water from Fred Meyer. The mild citrus flavor helps merge all the flavors of the drink, and it just happens to be really really inexpensive. If it’s not available, just use any plain seltzer water.

2. Grate, crush, or use a knife to trim small pieces of crystallized ginger into the glass. How you prepare it depends on how big the chunks of ginger are. When I started making it, the crystallized ginger I found in the bulk section at Fred Meyer came in very small pebble-like pieces, and I just crushed them between my fingers as I dropped them into the glass. Now that I’ve moved and get it at a different store, it comes in big 1/2 inch cubes, and I have to cut pieces.

3. Add about two fingers of orange juice and a dash of lime juice.

4. Fill the glass just over half full with the prepared chai.

5. Top with carbonated water.

6. Close your eyes and slowly sip the cool, sparkling, ginger-and-citrus concoction. Breathe deeply. Relax. Ahhhh….DSC03305

Golden Butternut Beet Soup

The honest-to-goodness chilly, rainy fall days we’ve had lately are perfect for a nice hot bowl of soup. I came up with this tasty squash soup last week, when I just couldn’t find a recipe online or in my cookbooks that I liked and was desperate to find a delicious, quick, easy way to turn my gigantic butternut squash into soup. And then I opened my fridge and saw two lonely, lovely little golden beets (so very different in flavor and character than their show-off red cousins) huddling together in the crisper, and was inspired. I love squash soup, but it can be a little bland – the golden beets give it a warm autumn flavor, perfect for a rainy day.

Golden beet. Tender, mild, and so delicious.
Golden beet. Tender, mild, and so delicious.
This soup is dairy-free. I mention that because it’s such a creamy-looking soup that one might assume it’s made with milk, but it’s not. I’ve been avoiding dairy the last 10 months because a screaming baby is not conducive to pleasant evenings or a pleasant mom, so I’ve had to figure out how to substitute different ingredients in even my tried-and-true recipes. In this new recipe, I used coconut oil instead of butter to brown up the onions, and it adds just a hint of coconut taste to the soup. I think it’s delicious, a delicate complement to the mild flavors of squash and beet; however, vegetable oil or butter, if you’re not worried about dairy, should be just fine too. By the way, I use a lot of coconut oil for cooking, so I get mine at Costco for a wayyyyy better value than you’d find it at a grocery store, where it can be a tad pricey.

Optional: Add a dollop of thyme-flavored yogurt to finish off each bowl. If, like me, you’re avoiding dairy, you can get cultured coconut milk to use instead of cow’s milk yogurt – I find mine in the “Non-Dairy” section of my local grocery store. Just stir some thyme and a little honey into it and let it sit at room temperature while you make the soup, then put a generous spoonful into each bowl of soup before eating.

You’ll need a butternut squash (I used about ¼ of a really large one), an onion, a potato, and two golden beets, with 3 cups of chicken broth for liquid. Don’t even think about using red beets. The ghost of my childhood self – forced to endure cold, slippery, sour pickled beets all winter long, their garish juices assaulting the mashed potatoes and meatloaf innocently resting on my plate – will rise up and haunt you if you do. And I don’t even want to think about the color your soup will be if you try a red beet. If you don’t have a golden beet, just use a couple of carrots for the added bulk and a bit of sweetness. For seasoning, you’ll need about 2-3 sprigs of thyme and ¼ teaspoon of cumin powder, which is a great balance for the coconut oil you’ll use to brown the onions.

Slice an onion. You’re going to be pureeing this, so you don’t have to worry about perfection here, but thinner is better for easy blending later on. Melt 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a large pot on medium heat. Be aware that it burns fairly easily and melts very quickly – don’t give it too much time to heat before adding your sliced onion. Cook the onions till they’re soft and just starting to brown. While the onion is browning, quarter your butternut squash and peel the quarter you plan to use right now. Leave the peel on the rest so you can store it without losing its freshness. Cut it into ½ inch cubes until you’ve chopped 1½ cups. Peel your potato and the beets as well, and cube them like the squash. Then, add your chicken broth to the pot – I use Costco’s Better Than Bouillon with water – and turn the heat up to high. Dump in the veggies, add the thyme and cumin, and let it simmer until everything is soft.

Simmer the veggies...
Simmer the veggies…

Now it’s time to puree. If you’re new to blended soups, a few words of advice: Don’t blend the whole thing at once, and have a towel ready to clamp down the lid of the blender. The hot liquid has a tendency to cause pressure buildup, and when the blades start whirling, you’re likely to have a mess at best and a faceful of near-boiling liquid at worst. Do half at a time. Drape your folded towel over the lid and hold it down firmly as you turn it on. The hot-liquid effect can be minimized by starting it at a low speed before going up to the highest speed, but trust me: you’ll still need that towel. (You should have seen my kitchen after my first attempt at broccoli-cheddar soup. Not pretty.) An immersion blender works well, too. 

Blend till the soup is a creamy, rich yellow, and pour the blenderful into a large serving bowl. Do the same for the other half, adjust for salt and pepper, and you’re done.

I like to add a spoonful of honey-thyme yogurt to each bowl. It looks pretty and adds a little bit of unexpected flavor to the soup. I served ours with very basic grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches (no, I didn’t get to have cheese, I just got to inhale while it was cooking), and it was just marvelous. It’s just the right meal to enjoy while leaves are falling and the temperature is slowly dropping.

The flavor of autumn, in a bowl.
The flavor of autumn, in a bowl.
And here is a short-and-sweet format of the recipe:

Golden Butternut Beet Soup

Oat Apple Pancakes

On Sunday, I made one of my new favorite breakfasts: oat apple pancakes. Niko and Sofia both love them, and the apples soften enough while cooking that my toothless wonder won’t choke. I’ve been trying these out on the kids for a few weeks, but this was my first time making them for Aaron, who said with pleased surprise, “These are really good pancakes!” Coming from a man who is a much better cook than I am and a tad picky about his food, that was all the confirmation I needed. These are good. They’re easy, healthy, and dairy-free. You can expect to get about a dozen smallish pancakes from this batch.

Dairy is not typically a concern for me, but we discovered soon after having Sofia that she has a milk protein sensitivity, and I’ve had to cut out milk while we’re nursing. So if you’re avoiding dairy too, these are the pancakes for you. If you’re not, feel free to use ordinary milk instead of coconut milk, and melted butter instead of oil. They’ll be very similar.

Making oat flour
Making oat flour

The first thing you need to do is make some oat flour, unless you have some on hand. I don’t really use it that much, and I find it pretty easy just to make it as I need it. To make a cup of oat flour, just scoop about 1⅛ cups of rolled oats into the blender. Blend it on the highest setting, pausing now and then to shake it down or scrape the sides. You can stop when it feels velvety-soft.

Pause here for a rant on heating your pan. When you read baking recipes, the recipe always says right at the beginning, Preheat your oven to… But no one ever says to preheat your pan for frying. Here’s a secret: You need to preheat. If your pan isn’t hot when you start, you get weird pancakes. They don’t rise properly, they stick, and sometimes they spread too far and fall apart when you try to flip them. Now, I know recipes always say to use a hot pan or griddle, but I find that it takes longer than one would expect to really get it heated properly. There you are, pancakes ready to go, bubbles gently rising in the batter as you slowly lose fluffiness potential, waiting for the griddle to heat. I say, no more! Preheat that pan! I always turn the heat on at this point (as I’m ready to start mixing) at a medium-high temperature, and spray it with cooking oil or coat it with butter. By the time the pancakes are mixed, it will be just the perfect temperature. I turn it down to medium just before I pour the pancakes onto the griddle. And no more tossing the first pancakes of the morning into the trash. End preheating rant.

Combine dry ingredients thoroughly.
Combine dry ingredients thoroughly.

Next, use a medium mixing bowl to thoroughly mix the following dry ingredients: the oat flour (of course), ½ cup of all-purpose flour, 1½ teaspoons of baking powder, 1 teaspoon of baking soda,

Thin slices will cook nicely.
Thin slices will cook nicely.

and ½ teaspoon of salt.

Peel, core, and chop an apple. Aim for thin chunks abut ½ inch square. Too thick, and they won’t cook through.

The next part works best in the blender. You could use a whisk in a bowl instead of the blender, but you already dirtied it making the oat flour, so why not use it one more time before you wash it? It’s always a good idea to beat your eggs when adding them to pancakes – especially oat pancakes, which can be a little on the dense side – because the extra air helps add fluffiness. The blender makes the whipping fast and easy.

DSC03270So. Dump all this into the blender: Two eggs, 1 cup of almond or coconut milk (I suppose you could use soy, but I find the flavor off-putting), 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and 2 tablespoons of white vinegar. Why the vinegar? We’re imitating the effect of buttermilk. Buttermilk (and vinegar) is acidic and will react with baking soda, which is a base. The reaction creates bubbles of carbon dioxide. Translation: fluffy, crisp pancakes. Give it a whirl in the blender till it’s frothy and smooth.

Mix GENTLY so you don't get tough pancakes.
Mix GENTLY so you don’t get tough pancakes.

Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir it gently together. Add the chopped apples, stir gently again, and you’re

The edges should start to look dry when they're ready to flip.
The edges should start to look dry when they’re ready to flip.

ready to cook them. Use a ¼ cup measure or a small ladle to pour the batter onto your preheated, oiled baking surface. Let the pancakes cook until you see that the edges are looking set, almost dry. When you flip them, the backs should be golden brown and crisp. (If they’re not, just let them finish cooking on the second side and then flip them back to finish on the first side. No biggie.)

These are best eaten drizzled with honey. There’s just something about the way the sweet honey complements the nutty oat flavor, and the sweet-but-tart apples bring the flavors together like a bright ribbon binding a bouquet.

Here is a more concise format of this recipe.

Oat Pancakes