Friday, March 28, 2008

Meet Norton

At my house, we have a tendency to name appliances or other inanimate objects as if they were pets. For instance, my little teal green Geo Metro is named Minnow. Lots of people name their cars, but Kent has also named our Kitchen Aid mixer, Trixie. So when, I "birthed" a sourdough starter, the spawn of organic flour, water, and wild Idaho yeasts, it was really no surprise that Kent would want to name it. Our happy, healthy sourdough starter was christened "Norton," after Joshua Norton, emperor of the United States. Joshua Norton lived in San Francisco (also known for its incredible sourdough) and was a bit, shall we say eccentric. His title was entirely self-proclaimed in 1859. The guy even printed his own currency and local store owners loved him enough to honor it. It is exactly this fortuitous sense of entrepreneurship that I want my little blob of flour, water, and micro-organisms to have.

If you want to read more about the original Norton, check out this neat little article:

Our Norton was born in November, and he's still going strong. This may be the last sourdough I'll ever need. Sourdoughs only get better with age. Their flavor become more intense and complex with the longer the yeast is allowed to develop. Legend has it pioneer women traveled the Oregon Trial with their jars of sourdough around their neck. Imagine how lusciously deep and tangy sourdough bread made with a hundred old sourdough culture could be!

Norton lives in an old Miracle Whip Jar with air holes punched in the lid. The French call sourdough starters Le Chef. Chef's can generate so much gas from fermentation that they need to breathe. A metal container would kill Norton. He enjoys spending most of his time in the refrigerator, this way he only needs to eat about once a week. To feed a sourdough culture, you add flour and water to it. Presumably after you've used at least half of the start to bake some delicious bread, like I did yesterday.

It was baguette Nirvana yesterday afternoon and all because of Norton. After Kent's first bite of crisp crusted, light, opened crumbed baguette he said, "You bought this." No sir-ee! I'm afraid I'll never want to make another kind of bread again. But, first things first:

How to Conceive Your Very Own Sourdough Baby
Making a sourdough starter is brain-dead easy. Get a jar with air-holes punched in the lid and add a cup of flour (organic is best) and water (spring water is best because overly chlorinated water can kill wild yeast).

Stir together and let it sit in a warm place (the top of the refrigerator works well) capture yeast. Every day you'll want to dump about half of the starter out and add another 1/2 cup of flour and a 1/2 cup of water. In about three or four or six days, you'll start getting bubbles throughout the mixture. As soon as the mixture becomes frothy, it's done. At this point you can begin baking with it, and you can now keep it in the fridge. If it's refrigerated it only needs to be fed once a week. Don't worry if you start to get a brownish-liquidy sludge on the top, just stir it back in to the starter. However, if the liquid turns rosy-pinkish it means that it's went rancid, and you'll have to start all over.

Some sourdough schools of thought tell you to avoid whole wheat flours as they cause rancidity, but I haven't found this to be the case. However, I've never feed Norton anything over 20% whole wheat flour, and he seems to be happy with that.

*Baguettes were made using Daniel Leader's "Baguette Au Levain" recipe in Bread Alone (1993), which is a must have for any serious bread baker.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

When Fennel Went Funky

The first time I ever cooked with fennel it was in a potato leek soup. The fennel boiled with the potatoes until the whole mass was soft and gummable--then I pureed the bejesus out of it. If you make a lot of soup, I highly recommend getting a stick blender. It's kinda reminiscent of a mini-jack hammer, and it allows you to puree soups right in the pot. No more scalding splashes of soup hitting your hands as you plop it in and out of the blender or food processor. But this isn't about my adventures in Potato Leek Soup making, rather it's about my rejection of the tried and true fail-safe recipe in lieu of the unknown.

I was perusing the meat section of my local Winco, contemplating if I could, on my student budget, rationalize buying $8.98/lb. lamb chops (alas, I could not and settled for ground lamb--which coincidently was significantly fresher than the chops) when a women came up to me.

"Excuse me," she said. "But what is that?!"

She was pointing at the bulb of fennel I had propped against side of the shopping cart. It's fronds waved gently like out of control dread-locks.

"It's fennel," I replied. It has a faint licorice flavor. I put it in potato soup. But you can also use the fronds like any fresh herb. Kinda like dill." Embarrassingly , I babbled on and on about the merits of fennel and different preparation methods. None of which I had actually tried. The woman's smile faded. She backed away from the meat case. Mumbling a quick "Thanks." Before she high-tailed it out of there.

As I finished shopping it occurred to me that I needed to expand my fennel repertoire. I settled on grilling. Yesterday was the official start of baseball season (even if happened in Japan), and my husband Kent, wanted to celebrate by grilling and watching Major League. I made lamb burgers and brushed red bell pepper and fennel slices with olive oil to grill as well.

The fennel was disastrous. Perhaps it was because it was about 40 degrees outside. I was wearing a wool coat because it was so cold. Even though the fennel spent a good 30 minutes on the grill, it was still tough, stringy, and barely chewable.

However, all was not lost. I saved the fennel. Tonight, I made a fennel/ tomato sauce to smother the leftover burgers in. I finished the fennel by caramelizing it over medium heat in a tiny bit of olive oil, then I added a can of diced tomatoes, fennel seed, a bay leaf, and dried oregano and simmered it until it reduced a bit. The uncooked, leftover lamb burgers, I seared in my George Foreman grill (I know, it's a gimmicky, novelty grill. But, in my defense I picked it up for two bucks at a yard sale).

Over the lamb burgers the fennel tomato sauce was wonderful. The fennel had a slight sweet tone in addition to its normal anise pungency. The fresh spices in the burger had intensified after 24hrs. of refrigeration. Because the Foreman grill cooked the burgers so quickly--they had less of that strong, wet wooly-coat flavor lamb gets if it's over cooked.

I'm glad I didn't give up on the fennel. That's the great thing about cooking, though. Because we need to eat so often, we always get another chance to try it all again, to get a do-over. Now, I just need to figure out what to do with the rest of the raw fennel bulb in my crisper drawer.

If anyone has a great way to cook fennel, I'd love to hear about it.

Herbed Lamb Burgers

1lb. ground lamb
fresh oregano, minced
fresh rosemary, minced
fresh Italian parsley, minced*
1 shallot, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
fresh ground black pepper (to taste)
Don't add salt before cooking, as it will make the burgers dry out.

Mix all ingredients. Shape into patties. Grill over charcoal or on counter top grill.
* Cook's Note: For the best flavor, let the ingredients mingle and get to know one another for several hours. Refrigeration intensifies the fresh herbs, so you'll want to use about a T. each if you have time to let your ground lamb and herbs have their own little cocktail hour. If not, then use slightly more.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Dirt on "Prose and Potatoes"

I'm starting this blog as a way to channel both my passion for food and my passion for writing. For me, these two things are inextricably linked.

Why potatoes?

Until I moved to Idaho nearly two years ago, I really hadn't thought much of the starchy little tuber, nor did I cook much with it. Now, I'm more starch enlightened. The variety of potatoes here is still amazing to me. Fingerling potatoes, Yukon gold, Russet, Idaho Blues, Red, Huckleberry potatoes (which have pink flesh). Although the stereotype that Idaho is one big potato patch is unfair, I can't deny how moving from the Midwest to the Northwest has influenced the way I look at food. I am a product of my environment, and my kitchen reflects this. The things I cook and the things I eat change and evolve with my life experience: regionally, ideologically, and historically. Prose and Potatoes will be the tool in which I can plot these evolutions and share what I've learned about food, about myself, and about my world.

Julia Child loved potatoes. In the first season of The French Chef, Julia boasted that she knew 200 French recipes for potatoes. She devoted two entire episodes that season to nothing but potatoes. The vast versatility of the potato makes it a testament of the amazing variety and creativity possible in any kitchen. I want this blog to be a creative inspiration for others and a way for others to explore my creative culinary terrain.

Another endearing thing about potatoes is their utter humility. They are plain, simple, unpretentious. If there ever was a symbol for the everydayness of eating and cooking, it would be the brown, lumpy spud. It speaks of heartiness, comfort, and familiarity. "I'm a meat-and-potatoes type," we hear people say when they proclaim their culinary down-to-earth attitude. While I wouldn't call myself a culinary simpleton by any means, I do appreciate how its simplicity is something to notice in the potato. My hope for this blog, that it causes me to reflect on simplicity, on my daily eating, cooking, and writing life.

Why Prose?

M.F.K. Fischer explained that she wrote about food because "our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others" (The Gastronomical Me). Fischer speaks with deep spiritual knowledge here, which is why this passage is so over quoted! (Please forgive me.) Likewise, I want this blog to be a chronicle of basic human need and desire to be loved, to be nourished, to be comforted whether or not it revolves around food or not. However, that said, in all likeliness, Prose and Potatoes will revolve around food because in the kitchen and around the dinner table is where the stuff of life happens.

Welcome to Prose and Potatoes. I hope you enjoy.