Saturday, August 30, 2008
I've really been trying to use up all of the food in my kitchen before buying anything else, what with textbook purchases, school supplies, studio art material fees, and all that new year financial rigmarole. This can lead to some odd combos, and, frankly, some boring dishes that aren't very blog-worthy. I'm sure I can rhapsodize about some childhood memory of cold cereal, but I doubt the pictures would turn out very well.
Sometimes, however, necessity is a mother, and really interesting dishes come out of the random things that are left behind in the fridge and pantry. I cranked out a fingerling, edamame, and goat cheese salad with an Asian citrus vinaigrette - and it was anything but boring! This salad definitely started off as a big mix of odds and ends, and - with the help of some strategic condiment use - became a pretty cohesive dish that was really tasty. The leftovers were even tastier - a big plus!
A week ago I purchased some early, sweet fingerling potatoes from the farmers market. I love how the little tubers hold their shape, so I usually reserve them for dishes that require whole potatoes or pieces - saving the big "ugly" guys for mash or bread. While I'm understandably drawn to fingerlings because of their tiny size and creative shapes, not all little potatoes are created equal. New potatoes, the homogeneous little round guys, are actually regular potatoes harvested before they are fully mature - which means they often don't get the chance to develop a full, earthy sweet flavor. Fingerlings, on the other hand, are often heirloom varieties breed especially for their flavor - which, admittedly, makes them kind of strange looking and anything but uniform - but they are so much more flavorful.
Another wonderful thing about fingerling potatoes is how quickly they cook. I threw this dish together during a lunch break on a hectic day - definitely not a time for an elaborate recipe. I roughly chopped the potatoes into pieces and covered with water, and brought them to a boil and let them simmer for ten minutes. While they cooked, I rinsed some frozen organic edamame from a local frozen veggie purveyor - Cascadia Farms - a co-op of farms in the Pacific Northwest.
I chopped some sweet local onion and lemon basil from my garden, and mixed a dressing of rice vinegar, sesame oil, dark soy sauce, and a squeeze of orange juice. After the potatoes cooled, I mixed everything together with some fresh goat cheese from the farmers' market, and drizzled with more dark soy sauce (which is totally different than regular soy sauce - it's thick and sweet - I found mine at a local Asian market) and fleur de sel for an extra crunch and burst of flavor.
This salad was so refreshing, with great contrasts in textures. I loved how the lemon basil created a citrusy kick, similar to lemongrass or lime leaves in Thai cooking, and will be experimenting with the herb in a more traditional Asian dish, maybe a pot of Tom Kha Gai or a noodle stir fry.
I'm about to head out the the farmers market again, and I'll try to restrain myself. The blackberries have been looking SO good this month, and it will be hard to resist. Have a great weekend, and eat well!
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
I've been thinking about these tarts all day. Work is never harder than when you are hungry and distracted by imaginary baked goods. At the end of the day I was finishing up a meeting with my boss, and after a bit of idle chatter, I'd had it. I gathered my laptop and made the cleanest exit possible, but must have seemed a wee bit frantic when I slurred "gottamaketartsseeyatomorrow" on the way out the door.
Ok, so I was dreaming about food in general - which, granted, isn't unusual for me - but I think it's gotten really bad lately with the threat of school starting again. I know I'll still make time to blog, and it's not as if this summer has been full of free time, but I have a feeling that my meals will steadily become a bit more utilitarian and my fantasy cooking sprees a bit less frequent. All day, my stomach grumbled and my mind wandered, and I won't deny indulging in a few recipe searches and food porn gazing, but I managed to be relatively productive. I'm telling you, it was an uphill battle.
I bought a few Valencia oranges at Limbo this morning, and was halfway through my second one when I realized I hadn't blogged a recipe from my kitchen in a while. With the cool air whipping through the window, and the gray clouds making more and more cameo appearances in the Portland sky, I've been trying to grab on to any bit of summer before its gone. What better way to celebrate the sunny season than with a Sunshine tart?
I really love citrus. Growing up in Southern California, the stuff was everywhere, but I never ventured far beyond the peel-and-eat method, save for a few glasses of fresh orange juice. I wanted to do something special with these big Valencias, which brought me back to family trips to orange groves in my sister's red convertible - in December.
I started off with a simple galette dough, a bit of flour, salt, butter, and an ice cold mix of water and... gin! Hendrick's Gin, to be exact. One of my professors told me the secret to great pastry dough is ice-cold alcohol. Gluten doesn't form in alcohol, and the taste doesn't come through, so it makes for a moist, flaky crust. He (as well as other recipes I'm familiar with) recommends vodka, but Casey bought a bottle of Hendricks a few months ago and it was sitting in the freezer today, icy-cold and asking to become pastry. The result was a really buttery crust that peaked out in sun-like rays when I snipped it before baking.
I sliced the oranges into perfect little wedges, by first cutting off the top and bottom ends of the orange, paring the peel away, and cutting out the slices between the white membrane. I finished it off with a sprinkle of sugar, and into the oven they went (375 for about 30 minutes - and the broiler for another two).
A perfect, citrusy end to a long day - definitely a dessert worth daydreaming about.
Monday, August 25, 2008
This Saturday was the last Kid's Cook class at the Portland Farmers' Market, and it was a blast. I'm going to miss these kids and their enthusiasm for making something tasty with fresh, local, ingredients. For a lot of them, the Saturday class wasn't just a chance to get away from their parents and have an excuse to eat far too much sugar at 9 in the morning. Some of these guys really had a passion for ingredients, loved getting their hands messy, and had real pride in the things they made - from crepes to ice cream to nachos. I loved getting to know who hated cilantro and who bakes at home with dad, who goes to three farmers' markets a week and who is trying to convince their parents to eat vegetarian meals a few times a week. I hope I'll see some of my kids at the market on Saturdays, getting excited about some new ingredient picked early that morning.
Ok, enough rhapsodizing about the lost days of youth and summer. The sun's still out and I've got some great photos of the kids making a Rainbow Fiesta. This weekend featured the expertise of Heidi Boyce, former owner of Peanut Butter & Ellie’s, a tremendously popular family and kid friendly restaurant in PDX. She brought a great idea to the Kid's Cook class - using every color of the rainbow to make a healthified kid-approved nacho buffet - featuring blue and red corn chips, fresh guacamole, a few types of local cheese, local fresh salsas, lettuce, and a special taco beef blend with a secret ingredient - zucchini!
We first paraded around the market with our gaggle of 15 kids, gathering everything from three types of onions (to see which color would make us cry), big beefsteak tomatoes, cilantro, a few zucchini, red leaf lettuce, mozzarella, jack, and cheddar cheeses, red and green salsa, and fresh ground beef from Deck Family Farms.
Back at the workstation, the kids had fun mashing avocados, dicing tomatoes (with quite interesting knife techniques - one kid called his the "karate chop of tomato death"), picking apart cilantro leaves, chopping onions using the snazzy ChopMaster 3000 (the purple ones made us cry the most), grating cheese, and mixing grated zucchini with ground beef, enchilada sauce, and seasonings to make a delicious beef mixture that everyone ate up quickly - even the picky eaters who had frowned at the idea of squash in the mix.
At the end of the class, we spread out all of the goodies and made big bowls of nachos, starting with blue corn and red chips colored with beets, then piling high all of our fresh toppings. We had enough of everything for the parents to dig in, and the event turned out to be quite a fiesta, indeed. I don't think we give kids enough credit - some of them are bound to be fantastic cooks, they just need someone to let them use a knife, or to show them the best way to keep guacamole from browning (throw the pits into the mush - and add some lime juice!). I think that's what I loved most about the class this summer. We were able to let the kids take the reins, experiment, make mistakes in a safe environment surrounded by the freshest ingredients and the people who grew them. Truly an unforgettable experience.
The rest of the morning was spent wandering the booths. I had only brought a tiny bit of cash (because I had stocked up at the Eastbank market on Thursday night) but I got a bag of sweet fingerling potatoes and a delicious coconut banana Popsicle from Sol Pops (the market's very own Seasonal, Organic, and Local Popsicle purveyor) that I enjoyed while walking the loop of vendors. The peaches this week were amazing. It seemed like ever vendor could top the last in the quality of juicy, golden samples. I'm really going to miss peach season. Better stock up and freeze some soon.
All in all, another great market day. The sun was out, the harvest was plentiful, and the market was full of smiling faces. The weather may be getting a little cooler, and the breeze is carrying whispers of fall, but it's still very much summer in my kitchen and at the market, and the rainbow fiesta was a great way to end a wonderful series of classes. Speaking of rainbows, check out these gorgeous artichoke flowers! They smelled like fresh corn tortillas.
Eat well, soak up the sun, and I'll see you at the market soon!
Heidi's Special Taco Topping
1 pound local, grass-feed ground beef
1 medium zucchini, grated (about 1 cup)
1 can enchilada sauce
1/4 cup taco seasoning (find it in the bulk section of the natural foods market, and it won't have the additives of the kind in the packet, or experiment with your own blend!)
Brown the beef in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add zucchini, sauce, and seasonings, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Enjoy over nachos or in tacos.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
A few months ago, at the beginning of summer, I moved into a new house, and with the help of my wonderful roommates, we made a vegetable garden. This little plot of land, separated from the lawn by a frame of free wood from our landlords' scrap pile, was responsible for many a quixotic thought of the supposed summer bounty. I had imagined baskets overflowing with squash and more tomatoes than I would know what to do with. I wanted to be forced to finally tackle preserving. We had thought, at the very least, we would not have to shop at the store as much, that we could rely on the Oregon land to fill our bellies as well as our souls.
While this might still be the case in the future, as the tomato plants are heavy with green specimens and the squash is still covered in blossoms, here it is - late August - and we've had a rather meager harvest. Two or three perfect little red tomatoes, a rather ugly but delicious cucumber, a skosh of broccoli, one yellow squash, and a Japanese eggplant. While the precious few fruits of our labor have been met with a good deal of celebration, I'm not sure what to expect from my gorgeous plants. I'm not really complaining, or giving up on the garden by any means, but it makes me wonder about a few things. The Pacific Northwest had such a late winter, and through my work I know that farmers throughout Washington and Oregon have had disappointingly low yields. Is this an anomaly? I hope so - because I know so many farmers who could not survive another year like this, and I plan on farming in the area in the future - but part of me wonders if this is a glimpse of a scary future. Perhaps global climate change has altered my regional agricultural utopia, and my garden is just a small sign of a changing world.
Or maybe I'm just not a great gardener. Either way, I've had to take solace in the bounty of others - the Farmers' Market was as wonderful as ever yesterday - and in the other pleasures I get from the 5 by 7 rectangle of soil and roots. Watering the garden after just waking up in the morning, with the early sun casting full rainbows through the spray, has been a wonderful part of my summer. And as one of my closest friends Terra famously exclaims, the garden shows us that we live on the earth. An earth that is capable of providing us food. To eat. Perhaps I will just have to learn more, experiment more, and feel a lesser harvest in order to reap greater ones in the future. Regardless, my garden has played a large part in my SOLE Food Summer, spiritually, if not astoundingly culinary.
Given the lackluster bounty of this year's garden, I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that the first tomato was met with a celebration. Upon appraising the red beauty's state of ripeness and declaring that it was ready to be picked, I called Terra and asked if she'd come over after work and give thanks to the garden. Later that day, we sat on the patio with a plate of our sliced tomato, the first cucumbers (one from mine and one from Terra's garden), and some local corn, with a touch of fleur de sel. As the sun set, we shared our days and our plans for the rest of summer, savoring every bite. I can only hope our evening together will be repeated in the weeks to come, that both the garden and I will be able to soak up the last weeks of summer, and that the rest of the green tomatoes find their blush.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
First zucchini in chocolate cake, now beets in your brownies.
Yes, I'm slowly taking over the world with my sneak-attack veggies, bastardizing symbols of American cooking with local produce. And don't expect me to stop anytime soon.
I know, I know, brownies are pretty sacred. Adding beets is bound to be a bit of a scandal. When I made these for a group of strangers, who lacked the bulk of my friends' tolerance for my experimental baking, more than a few eyebrows were raised and the plate remained pretty full for a while. And then they tried them. Once the word got out that they were, well, amazing, they didn't last long.
Hey, no one complains about carrot cake or sweet potato pie. If people can put their root-vegetable blinders on for those treats, why shouldn't they be able to do the same for the beet? Besides, beets are a primary source of processed sugar. It seems only natural to add them to a dessert.
(For a snazzy and confusing schematic of the process of turning sugarbeets into sugar, click here!)
Before I get back to the beets, I'll clue you in on what I was doing on the East Coast, feeding a bunch of strangers. My sister, Casey, is getting her PhD at Princeton, and is also a major player in their student-run organic garden, The Garden Project,
It was also my dad's birthday, my little sister's soon-to-be birthday, and a few weeks until the start of school - plenty of reasons to celebrate. In my life, the word "celebration" is pretty much synonymous with food. Cooking food, making a big deal out of presenting food, and eating far too much of it is how my family commemorated any big event. Or small one, for that matter. The element we've added to this ritual of celebration is the search for the best ingredients. The ladies of the family piled in the car and trekked around New Jersey gathering the best of the best the region had to offer.
We stopped at a Pennsylvania Dutch farmers market to sample cheeses and pick up "green pickles" (which were basically really fresh, salty cucumbers), four huge watermelons, and, one of my all-time favorite foods, Amish dilly beans. I adore Amish markets - so many smiling faces, handmade treats, and lots and lots of samples of everything from pickled kielbasa to peaches and cream cheese spread. The watermelons were amazing, definitely at the peak of their season.
Next stop was a farm stand known for its amazing corn. We got four dozen ears of corn, thinking we would be able to roast it on the fire pit Dad built, but we didn't get red-tape approval for an impromptu inferno of flaming doom on Princeton grounds (or something like that). It hardly mattered, though, as the corn was so sweet and creamy, full of just-picked-from-the-stalk flavor, we ate it raw.
After the farm stand, we went to a local farm that is well-known for its plentiful pick-your-own crops. From raspberries and blackberries, to peaches (yes, pick your own peaches!) and cut-your-own flowers, I'd been to this stop a few times before. Last fall, Casey and I found perfect pumpkins and ate hot apple-cider doughnuts before picking loads of raspberries.
This time were on a mission to buy some perfect blueberries, and this was a place to be. Now, for me, pick-your-own trips mean eating as much as I can possibly find, and occasionally tossing a few into the basket. Luckily, the rest of the family had a bit more restraint, and we managed to walk away with a few pints of gorgeous blues. The epitome of local eating, a berry picked off the bush and eaten immediately is, really, a taste of heaven.
Blueberries in tow, we then drove to Casey's favorite local farm (where she is a CSA shareholder, and the source of our local meal's tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, carrots, and beets) to say hello to the happy cows and buy a ridiculous amount of fresh mozzarella. We got caught in the heaviest downpour I'd seen in years, but I managed to snap a shot of the sweetest baby cow before making a mad dash to the car to save my camera before dancing in the rain with my sisters.
We used the mozzarella and a bunch of beautiful tomatoes and fresh basil from Casey's CSA box to make a lovely
In the end, the Great Ingredient Hunt was a smashing success, and was a great way to spend a vacation. I love nothing more than cooking and eating with my family, and we definitely have transitioned to local, sustainable preparation without sacrificing any of our quantity, quality, and taste. This kind of eating, celebrating the season and connecting, quite directly, with where our food comes from, can be so amazingly rewarding. At the party, I looked at our table full of fresh, colorful dishes, and realized we had created memories for every ingredient. That meal was more than a number of calories or a tally of complicated methods, it was a veritable collection of experience. Tasting the cheese, I saw the baby cow and felt the huge raindrops, popping a blueberry I heard the laughter of my sisters and the buzzing of bees. This is what it feels like to connect with our food system, to respect the earth, and celebrate to the fullest. And it went off without a hitch. The trickiest part was cooking everything in Casey's small apartment kitchen, but even that went relatively smoothly, save for a bit of a fiasco with the food processor. Really, who thought it would be a good idea to put an unsealable spout pointing towards the floor? Ah, a bit of beet puree never killed anyone. But it does make killer brownies.
Scarlet Beet Brownies and Fresh Blueberries
*I used dark red and candy-striped beets. I peeled them and then boiled them until they were easily pierced with a fork. I then pureed them in a food processor and measured out the 3/4 cup. The rest of it was delicious with a bit of butter, salt and pepper. Also, the puree is absolutely gorgeous and can be used as a stand-out side dish.
- 3/4 cup of beet puree*
- 4 ounces of good-quality chocolate chips
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- pinch salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 7 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- Heat oven to 350F.
- Melt chocolate over double-boiler. Set aside.
- Whisk flour with baking powder and salt and set aside.
- Cream butter and sugar together. And vanilla and eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is creamy. Add melted chocolate, beet puree, and flour mixture. Mix well.
- Pour batter into 9 x 13 baking pan and bake for 30 minutes.
- Let cool and cut into triangles. Serve with fresh-picked blueberries and share with family.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Some of my dearest friends are, how shall I put this, a bit picky about what they eat. Trying to plan a meal for a group of friends becomes a veritable juggling act - No tomatoes, no mushrooms, no meat, no "fertilized eggs", no gluten, no squash... it can be a bit of a struggle. Now, I genuinely understand certain things - I was a vegan for a hot minute a few lifetimes back, and gluten intolerances are nasty buggers. I won't get on their case about an honest-to-bob allergy, but when people don't like eggplant or squash because, well, just because, I can get sneaky. And sneaky, in this case, can lead to the BEST CHOCOLATE CAKE EVER. No one knew the secret ingredient, except my roommate Weasel, who nervously picked a little fleck of green out of her piece and gave me a suspicious eyebrow raise. Yep, this decadent chocolate layer cake with buttermilk cocoa frosting gets its amazing texture from a super healthy, and incredibly sneaky, garden surplus - 2 cups of grated zucchini to be exact!
This cake wasn't meant to be a sneak-attack of healthy local veggies. I had originally picked the recipe for a casual afternoon of baking, leaving the result for my roommates to pick at, for three reasons:
1. My roommate Dragonfruit had left half a HUGE zucchini in the fridge before she left for a trip, the kind so big that it doesn't really taste like much. Not ideal for a stir-fry, but I needed to use it before it melted into a pool of zucchini-colored goo.
2. I planned to finally break in Julia. It was a crime to keep that beauty of a machine sitting lonely on the counter, staring at me with her big, sad... um... whisk.
3. It's a chocolate cake. Made out of zucchini. Come on, do I need any more reason than that?
As it turned out, after my roommate Greenbriar and I had each polished off a piece, we got a call to attend an impromptu picnic for our friend Dan's birthday, and the cake was bound for bigger and better things. A half hour later, I was walking through the park with 5/6ths of a chocolate cake, with my sneaky face on. My wonderful friends overlooked the missing chunk, and simply noted with gratitude that they were glad to socialize with a girl who bakes cakes "just because it's Monday." I set the cake down, and sat giggling into my hands as the first pieces were sliced. Ha! The picky kids were eating a vegetable cake!
I probably ruined the game with my "just eat a piece of this cake and don't ask questions" routine, but no one spit it out. On the contrary, it was gobbled up even by the most skeptical. Most of my friends actually thought the concept of a zucchini cake was actually pretty exciting, but in one instance I had to shoot around looks of caution when the pickiest of them all picked up a piece with his hands. He never found out the secret ingredient, but he'll probably read this, so the gig is up. Sorry, dude. You know it tasted amazing.
The batter was really simple, aside from the arm workout that was the grating. I thought of bringing out the trusty mandolin, but I'm never satisfied with the grating blade on her, so out came the plain ol' grater. After I had amassed a large pile of zucchini shavings, I turned on the lovely Julia for the first time. Oh, friends, she purrs like a cat. If a cat purred like a perfect, perfect Kitchenaid mixer.
The butter/oil and sugar creamed together perfectly, the eggs mixed in with ease, and rest of the batter came together in seconds. It's a good thing I'm single, because I'd officially be having an affair with my stand mixer. I poured the batter into two twin cake pans, and sent them off to bake while I lovingly cleaned Julia, down to the last detachable piece.
Because the recipe calls for buttermilk, and I have a hard time using a whole pint of buttermilk before it goes bad, I used up some more in a frosting/deliciously gooey glaze (how do you know when buttermilk has really gone bad, anyway? It must take quite a discerning nose to tell between just-spoiled enough and milk that has actually gone bad. I'm not sure about my olfactory prowess, so I stick to the expiration date). I had intended for the frosting to be a bit thicker than it ended up, but the final result was better than I could have desired, because the gooey "frosting" layer seeped into the two cake layers, a serendipitous bit of chocolatey perfection.
(warning: food porn ahead)
The wonderful middle layer.
The original recipe is from King Arthur Flour, which you can find here. I stuck pretty close to the original recipe, but used whole wheat flour, replaced the cloves with more cinnamon, and made a layer cake with two standard cake pans instead of the 9 x 13 recommended, using my own buttermilk cocoa frosting rather than make the suggested chocolate glaze.
Dark Chocolate Buttermilk Frosting
1/2 c. butter
1/2 cup dark chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup buttermilk
5 cups confectioners sugar
Bring butter, chocolate, and buttermilk to boil. Add confectioners sugar and mix well. Pour on cake while still warm. Decorate with powdered sugar.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
I realized this weekend that the next few weeks might be some of the busiest of my life, and I was (ridiculously) attempting to balance all that I had to do in my head. School starts soon, and I'll be balancing over 20 hours of class, two (!) bands, organizing art shows and finishing more illustrations, working three jobs (all of which I adore), taking a new yoga class, and, of course, cooking up a storm and telling all of you fine folk about it.
Sure, I make lists everywhere, random scraps of paper scrawled with to-dos and grocery needs, but nothing that amounted to actual "organization". I amended this today and bought a real grown-up planner. After spending an hour going through my email and plotting out every engagement and party and wedding and meeting I agreed to show up for, I stopped and had to take a breath. Overwhelmed isn't the perfect word, because I'm really loving everything that I'm spending time on. Pleasantly daunted is a bit better. It makes me wonder how I'll find time to breathe. The yoga will probably help with that, but even that feels so scheduled and time-consuming. One of my favorite ways to calm my thoughts is to reach into the fridge, pull out some fresh ingredients, and start chopping. Though I pay enough attention to the knife to keep all ten of my fingers, cooking lets my mind wander, lets new songs find lyrics, lets all of my senses play without asking anything too demanding. The next few months are going to be some of the best - and craziest - of my life, and I know that whenever it gets a bit to much to handle, I can turn on NPR, zone out, and make something tasty.
I found the perfect recipe to let my mind escape - but it's not exactly new. A few weeks ago, I shared how to make hand-rolled ice cream without an ice-cream maker, and I decided to try it at home with some REALLY ripe peaches. If rolling a paint can back and forth for 15 minutes doesn't get you into a zen state of mind, I don't know what will. Here's another way to use up all the stone fruit that is falling into your lap this time of year, and get some meditative down-time in the process.
I peeled, pitted, and chopped about 4 (kind of ugly but DELICIOUS) peaches, and let them simmer with some water, cinnamon, and lemon juice for about an hour. The result was a syrupy sweet, completely natural peach mush - that might be one of the tastiest things I've ever made in a saucepan. Not to mention the fact that the kitchen smelled like an orchard for hours.
After this cooled, I added the puree to the half and half, sugar, and vanilla from the original ice cream recipe (which you can find, along with the method here) into the smaller can, filled the larger can with ice and rock salt, lidded everything (tightly!) and commenced Operation: Ice Cream Roll.
After 15 or 20 minutes, and a lot of daydreaming, the moment of truth. I call down the roommates and pry open the lid, being careful not to let any salt water into the finished batch. Inside was a good amount of creamy, smooth, perfectly peachy ice cream - summer in a can, indeed. And the rolling wasn't the only zen part of the process - eating a cup of the stuff in my hammock wasn't too much of a strain, either.
Wish me luck as I head into the next few weeks. Who knows, this ice cream thing might need to become a regular event. You know, for the sake of my sanity.
Monday, August 11, 2008
This past weekend, my house became a traveler's hostel. Various couches and spare rooms were occupied by singers and guitars and those returning from voyages to the Middle East. Along with shared stories, shared mornings making up songs on the front porch couch, and shared dollar bags of ripe nectarines and dried bananas, we shared kitchen space. Oh, boy, if I thought it was difficult to maneuver around the kitchen and fridge space with the usual suspects, I now know I should appreciate what I've got - and be thankful there aren't eight people around all the time.
I find it amazing how intimate kitchen space is. I don't think twice when there is a new character on the couch in the morning, I'm in my twenties - these things happen. But when there is something unidentified in the fridge, or when four people attempt to make four different meals in our little kitchen, I can get knocked a bit off kilter - and then I just smile and appreciate the opportunity to meet new people (and bake for them, too). Now, however, any and all reservations about the "vagabonds" have completely disappeared, as I came downstairs this morning to a clean kitchen floor. And clean counters. And a cupboard full of clean dishes.
Best. House guests. Ever.
Another great thing about house guests is observing what people choose to fill the fridge with when they are visiting for a few days. All of a sudden, there were fancy dried figs, thick yogurt, mint, cucumbers, and a general Near-East flair to one section of the fridge, and another morning brought (what looked to be sausages) in a candied ginger bag and a hearty amount of couscous and vegetables. What is local food to a person on the road? Should we try to recreate our familiar flavors and spread them to new taste buds, or should we fully immerse ourselves in an area's specialties and allow ourselves to experience new tastes - perhaps the answer is a bit of both. I'm going to be a traveler myself this week, I'm visiting family on the East Coast, and am looking forward to eating locally in a new region. I know it's still America, and still the height of summer, but I'm sure I'll be able to find something exciting. What Farmers' Market gems are unique to the Northeast? I can't wait to find out, but as for now, I've got to use up whats in the fridge before I leave.
The house guests have gone, though they've left behind a few choice ingredients, and I'm back to monopolizing counter space and kitchen time. Summer is truly here: the local watermelons are at their peak. I thought I'd use some of the fresh mint, cucumber, and feta that found their way into my fridge and mix them- like traveling guests mingling with the usual locals- with a champion watermelon. It's just too bad the visiting food can't clean up after itself.
Eat well, I'll send dispatches from the road.
Minted Watermelon and Feta Salad
serves one. with a few bites for curious guests.
1 cup watermelon cubes
1 ounce brined feta, crumbled
1 small Persian cucumber, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh spearmint leaves, finely minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
pinch of sea salt and pepper
Combine all ingredients on a medium plate. Take a lunch-break vacation.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
I'd like to call your attention to the new star of my kitchen.
Introducing... Julia, the Epicurean.
This curvy green beauty can hold a full 6 quarts, purrs with a 475-watt motor, and is pretty much the sexiest thing I've ever owned. Yes, my friends, I have gone from utterly mixer-less to the proud owner of the best Kitchenaid on the market, care of Portland Craigslist. The Epicurean is extra special because, instead of the typical tilt-head design, her bowl raises and lowers to meet the attachment, which is specially fit to make sure no bit of batter or dough stays unmixed at the bottom. I don't know what I did to be so blessed by the gods of the kitchen, but goodness, she was a steal.
I'm sure you'll recall my desperate plea for any scrap of a stand mixer a few days ago, as I've been whisking by hand and making a mess with hand kneading for years. All that is in the past now, and all it took was a drive out to the boonies and a paltry $175. It was meant to be.
I literally get goosebumps when I walk into the kitchen and see this little girl sitting shiny on the counter, just waiting for me to whip some egg whites or knead a hearty wheat dough. All I've been able to do so far is look at her and smile, but I'm in no hurry. She's going to be around for a long time.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
The good: My band recorded a few songs in our friend (and fellow band mate) Dan's basement studio last night, which was a lot of fun. Sitting in a tiny, hot room singing folk songs with some of my best friends for five hours was a lot better than it sounds, and hopefully, our songs will sound even better. Also good, the house still smells like Caramel Apple Crumble Cake! Our esteemed producer Dan is also celebrating a birthday this weekend, and he expressed interest in an apple crumble for the get-together last night. Not being able to settle for something simple (see the related rant below) I whipped up a cake-ier version filled with local apples, caramel sauce, and butterscotch chips. Yum. Wish there were leftovers!
The bad: I woke up this morning in a foul mood, as I knew this would be the first Farmers' Market Saturday I'd miss this year. Last night, while listening to some rough tracks, I felt my lower back seize - and proceeded to lie, immobile, on the floor for fifteen minutes. It does this from time to time, with no warning or provocation of any sort, a sharp, numbing pain that radiates out from my spine like a red-hot poker in my nerves.
I was eventually able to peel myself off the carpet and maneuver home, where I popped a few Aleve and went to bed with a hot compress (a Ziploc bag full of microwaved rice), hoping the pain would be gone by seven this morning, when I'd planned to be up and ready for the kid's cooking class at the market. Unfortunately, as soon as my cell phone alarm went off, vibrating through three pillows and shaking me out of a fitful dream, I felt the dull pain in my back and knew my morning would be spent lying in bed instead of wrangling kids and fresh produce.
A hot shower and a few Advil's later, I'm still in bed (though now I'm lying on top of the covers instead of curled up within them) and feeling crummy, especially because I didn't get my fix of farmers and fresh cheese this morning. Well, there's always next week.
The Hungry: Waking up with serious back pain makes one pretty disinclined to stand in the kitchen for any amount of time, so I've been eating slowly from one pot of "eternal soup" that has been on the stove for three days straight. The upside of my confinement is I've been able to make a bit of a dent in the growing stack of library books that have accumulated in my bedroom. I've been "eating" vicariously through cookbooks and food writing anthologies, and I'm halfway through Nigella Lawson's How to Eat, a really fantastic cookbook/memoir/culinary guide through quality home cooking. I've now got plans to make my own mayonnaise, roast a few chickens, and bake enough bread to last for months - once I get back on my feet.
Nigella (who is absolutely fabulous and is quickly becoming my new idol) makes a point of lamenting the lost tradition of preparing dishes repeatedly until the methods become intuitive. This hit home for me, because I have developed quite the disconnect between the standard, recipe-free cooking of my parents and my recent habit of whipping up something new every day. While I love experimenting in the kitchen (such as the deliciously cake-ier crumble), I think it is valuable to develop a repertoire of go-to dishes. The fact that I don't have this makes me feel really... young. In the scheme of things, I've only been cooking fully independently for (yikes) a few years, but despite my relative inexperience, I feel a lot of pressure to acquire a sense of ease in baking, or to know how to perfectly roast a chicken. Nigella Lawson makes it clear that this comes with repetition - setting aside what is in vogue and establishing a certain comfort with basic preparation - but I'm slipping into this habit of thinking that I need to accomplish all of this instantaneously.
I guess days like today - when my body literally forces me to slow down - exist to show me that I do have time. I have time to gain knowledge, I have time to experiment, I have time to read. I have the rest of my life to stand over a hot oven. Right now, I guess I'll have to settle with lying on my bed, reading and dreaming of the experiences yet to come.
In the mean time, there is this:
Caramel Apple Crumble Cake
1/2 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup oats
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
Preheat oven to 375. Using an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl. When fluffy, add eggs one at a time, then yolk, and finally vanilla, beating continuously until combined. In a separate bowl, mix flour, salt, and baking soda. Mix in flour mixture and milk with a rubber spatula until just combined. Pour cake batter into 9x13 baking dish. Peel and cut apples, toss with cinnamon, and spread over batter. Spread caramel sauce and butterscotch chips over apples and bake for 25 minutes. The cake batter will rise up over and through apple mixture. While cake bakes, combine all ingredients for crumble in a food processor. Pulse until small clumps form. After 25 minutes, remove cake from oven and sprinkle with crumble mixture. Bake for another 15 minutes. Remove and let cool. This cake actually tastes much better at room temperature a few hours later, if you can wait!
Thursday, August 7, 2008
A few weeks ago, Angie from Three Sisters Organic Farm and Are We There Yet? asked me if I had a recipe for lemon basil bread that I could share. At the time I didn't, but I've been known to rise to the occasion for a food request (ah, that angel food "castle cake" - tip: don't try to frost an angel food cake. Really, try to avoid it. Especially at midnight the night before a nine year old's birthday party).
Part of my insistence on following through with Bread Tuesday on one of the hottest days of the year was experimenting with a bread recipe for Angie, adapted from the amazing Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible. I only have one cookbook dedicated exclusively to bread baking, but, at this point, it has served me well enough to keep it that way. I used her recipe for Basil Bread, and substituted lemon basil and pine nuts (which are optional, but give a great buttery nut crunch), as well as a good amount of lemon zest. The result was a hearty, flavorful, savory bread... so good... hey, will you wait a second while I go grab some right now? Thanks.
Ok, I'm back. (note: this bread really wants to be toasted and dressed in salted butter. I only have unsalted at the moment, and the first bite was a bit uninspiring. Sprinkled a bit of sea salt and WHAM, there's the lemon basil flavor and pine nutty goodness. So salt it, friends.)
This dough requires a bit of kneading, and mine was on the sticky side. One of these days I'm going to have to cowboy up and buy a stand mixer. The amount of time I spend whisking and kneading everything by hand really adds up. Anybody have an old one you're not using? I'll be happy to take it off your hands.
Enjoy this bread, it would go really well with a tomato based pasta sauce - basil, tomato, and pine nuts... a holy trinity indeed.
Eat well, and stay cool!
Whole-Wheat Lemon Basil Bread
Adapted from Beth Hensperger's The Bread Bible
Makes two 9-by-5 loaves
1/2 cup warm water (105° to 115°F)
1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
1 cup warm buttermilk (105° to 115°F)
1 cup warm water (105°to 115°F)
1/4 cup honey
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
5 to 5-1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup minced fresh lemon basiI
1/2 cup pine nuts, chopped
2 tablespoons lemon zest
2-1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon dried basil
1. Pour the warm water in a small bowl. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the surface of the water. Stir to dissolve and let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl using a whisk, combine the buttermilk and water. Stir in the honey and melted butter. Place 2 cups flour, the basil, zest, nuts, and salt in a large bowl. Add the milk and the yeast mixtures and beat until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, with a wooden spoon until a soft dough that just clears the sides of the bowl is formed.
3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until soft, slightly sticky, and very pliable, about 5 minutes, dusting with the flour only 1 tablespoon at a time as needed.
4. Put the dough in a greased deep bowl. Turn the dough once to grease the top and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Don't let this dough rise more than double in volume. Gently deflate the dough and let it rise again, if you have time. It will take only half the time to rise the second time.
5. Gently deflate the dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Grease two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Divide the dough into 2 equal portions. Shape each portion into a loaf and put in the pans. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise again until doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes.
6. Brush the loaves with the olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and dried basil.
7. Twenty minutes before baking preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the pans on the rack in the center of the oven and bake 50 to 60 minutes, or until the loaves are brown and sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Transfer the loaves immediately to a cooling rack. Cool completely before slicing.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
While I fully believe farm fresh, local, organic food is tastier, more nutritious, better for the world, and more nurturing for our bodies and souls, there exists a fact that might be considered a downside to turning away from conventional early picking and gassing to ripeness - some fresh produce doesn't last as long as it's supermarket cousin.
This makes sense when you consider what it takes to get a factory-farmed tomato to stay pretty and red in a pile in the produce section, weeks after being picked. A tomato bound for the big-box store is harvested while still green. In order to "force ripen" them, they are loaded into large "gas houses" and exposed to large quantities of ethylene gas - which, in its natural state, is produced by the fruit itself to facilitate ripening. Basically, the gas tricks the tomato into blushing red - but does nothing to mimic that fresh-off the vine juiciness and flavor. Gonna eat that rock hard Roma? Might as well be eating a green one.
The process is roughly the same for a lot of fruits and veggies - stone fruits like peaches and apricots are so juicy when ripe that they are picked weeks before they're ready. If you haven't had the chance to eat a peach from the farmers' market lately, you're in for a surprise - the peaches at the store could be considered "stone" fruits in more ways than one.
This "downside" should in fact be appreciated. From observing how local, fresh food lasts (or, at times, doesn't) we can gain an understanding about the natural process of ripening and increase our skepticism towards those tasteless supermarket finds. Of course, through all of this, the obvious fact is that fruit and veggies are best eaten right away.
But sometimes, Limbo has giant bags of local apricots for a dollar. And they aren't pretty. But they are local, plentiful, delicious, and a dollar. And so you find yourself buying FAR TOO MANY APRICOTS. The first few are ambrosial - sweet, juicy, melt-in-your mouth amazing - but then I realized that I'm stuck with a lot of ugly fruit that won't be getting much prettier.
The truth is, while rock hard fruit might stand the test of time and win a beauty contest, and can withstand countless "squeeze tests" in the story - the ugly fruit just plain tastes better. Cooks Illustrated recently featured a story about how to make your "hard, mealy super-market peaches" into a passable shortcake. Um, thanks anyway, but I'll stick with my ugly fruit.
So begins my attempts to bite my thumb at mass-market false-ripened fruits and make the most of the summer bounty. I'm talkin' jams, tarts, ice cream sauces, ICE CREAMS, and, yesterday, the best smoothie I've had in a while.
It might not have been the best choice to declare the birth of Bread Tuesday on the second hottest day of the summer. Going out and watering the garden in the 97 degree heat was a relief after standing over a 350 degree oven. Yeah, I know, not the best planning. But I had my productive pants on! You can't just postpone bread-making plans! So bake I did.
While the results were great, I needed to escape the kitchen. I looked over at the fruit bowl (which - for all the overflowing - might as well be the fruit counter top) and spied my bag of ugly fruit. Ah, poor little apricots, you are so tasty, but how will I use you up? Looking back toward the butcher block where my bread was rising, I see my blender peaking up over the big stainless-steel bowl, virtually screaming at me to make a smoothie.
Eager to blend up something cold and hightail it out of the baking inferno, I pitted about six of the apricots and a big peach that was hidden in the dollar bag - even uglier than the apricots - and threw them in the blender with some blueberries and a handful of mint. A few ice cubes and a minute of shrieking from the blender and there it was - a minty ugly fruit smoothie - my ticket to paradise.
Though the situation might have made me a bit biased - hot kitchens on hot days make anything cold seem godly - but this smoothie was AMAZING. Falling-apart-ripe fruit is meant for this kind of thing. I'm going to pit the rest of the apricots and freeze them so I don't need to use ice next time. Or maybe I'll make ice cream... or a tart... or jam... oh goodness, I think another trip to Limbo is in order... Need more ugly fruit!
This is a submission to A Southern Grace's Beat the Heat event. Check it out!
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
I woke up early this morning and declared it Bread Tuesday. I thought I'd better get to work using up the HUNDRED pounds of flour I bought this week, and set aside a few hours to make a lot of whole wheat bread - some to eat, some to freeze for later, some to bribe my loved ones with...
After a lovely morning of crossword puzzles, eggs benedict, and a whirlwind of spontaneous laundry sorting, I tied on my apron, turned on the radio, and got to work. Only one problem - the kitchen was a disaster zone. I live with my best friends, and none of us are especially messy individuals, but with the combined kitchen clutter output of my thrice daily cooking adventures and the sheer volume of kitchen usage between the five of us - it's bound to get pretty hectic. Oh, and how.
Luckily, I had my productive pants on and I happily got to work scrubbing, rinsing, drying, organizing, and sweeping up the accumulated kitchen lives of five twenty-somethings. I don't know when I became one of those people that loves doing dishes, but surely enough, I geek out over steel wool and soap bubbles. I was just about to settle into scraping the gunk from around the electric stove burners, when I realized I was having too much fun and it was time to get to work. Leaving the less-than-perfect stove top, I pulled out the big canister of whole wheat flour from the cupboard, snatched the yeast from the freezer, and was just about the heat some water to between 105 and 115 degrees, when I noticed something looking at me.
There, on the counter next to the garlic, were five brown, spotty bananas. My roommate Dragonfruit has this habit of buying weekly dollar bags of dozens of bananas from Limbo, and uses them as her primary source of nutrition until they run out. The promise of making banana bread with the mushiest of them floats in and out of actualization, but most of the time they disappear one by one as D gets hungry, their sad, brown peels lying in the compost next to the beet greens. Setting my yeast back in the freezer for a few more hours, I decide to make the dream a reality - it was Bread Tuesday after all - and banana bread there would be.
Here's where the family bit comes in. Growing up, my family used cookbooks even less than I do now - we had a series of truly reliable dishes in a relatively constant rotation, and if it was anything other than baked chicken thighs or spaghetti, my parents didn't need a recipe to whip up something new. The Joy of Cooking came out once in a while for cookies or cakes, but for the most part, we got along fine without help. Because of this, the few cookbooks we owned sat in the dining room closet dubbed the Liquor Cabinet - a full-sized shelved closet filled with homeopathic remedies, a bunch of random serving platters, the ice bucket for parties, and the same twelve bottles of liquor we only used when my grandparents came over. On the highest shelf of this random collection sat the cookbooks, lined up and gathering dust - save for the previously mentioned Joy and one other: My First Cookbook by Rena Coyle.
This was officially my older sister Casey's cookbook, and we would use it for after school snacks and the occasional breakfast in bed we'd make for our parents birthdays, anniversaries, sick days and such. Casey still waxes poetic about a certain recipe we made, spending an entire afternoon assembling a fancy chicken dinner of chicken thighs, canned cream soup, frozen mixed vegetables, and tubed biscuit dough (the tops of the biscuits would get all brown and the bottoms would stay gooey and doughy - which was a delight, believe it or not).
As I'm mixing up the bread - which gets its amazing tenderness from sour cream - I get two emails from Casey and my mom, simultaneously. Casey's says,
"Subject: my first cookbookand Mom's reads,
its called my first cookbook by rena coyle. mom says the page is covered in flour, banana and dough"
"Subject: I just smelled the bear recipe of banana bread...
It does smell, even tastes like banana bread. Bob tasted some of the crumbs of dough on the page. Will be looking for the blog about it."
This is my family. Spread across the country, but united by the internet and a recipe. Three separate kitchens, in three corners of the nation, will smell like banana bread today. You should join us, and have a fantastic Bread Tuesday.
It doesn't surprise me that my dad tasted dough that has been smooshed between the pages of a children's cookbook for what must have been years, but you will be surprised by how good this banana bread is. As much as this story is about the original Banana Nut Bread, I just had to tweak it a bit. I'm me, afterall. I used 100% whole wheat flour, a bit of cocoa, some dried cranberries, and replaced the walnuts with sunflower seeds. Here's the recipe for my version of the Perfect Banana Bread.
Seedy Cocoa-Cranberry Banana Bread
adapted from Rena Coyle's My First Cookbook, 1985
1/2 cup butter plus 1 Tbs for greasing pan
2 cups whole wheat flour
3 Tbs unsweetened cocoa
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar
3 very ripe bananas
2 Tbs sour cream
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup raw, shelled sunflower seeds
Preheat oven to 350. Grease a loaf pan with butter. Mix flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. Cream together butter and sugar with hand mixer until creamy. Add eggs and beat until incorporated. Add cocoa/flour mixture and beat until smooth. USING YOUR HANDS, mush bananas into batter, leaving some large chunks. Add sour cream, seeds, and cranberries and mix until evenly distributed. Pour batter into loaf pan, scraping bowl with a rubber spatula. Bake for one hour and 10 minutes, or until the bread pulls away from the sides of the pan. Let cool, slice, and enjoy with family.
Save a few crumbs for future memories.