Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Crouton Manifesto

As the dog days of summer swiftly approach, I am finding myself more and more reluctant to do anything in the kitchen that requires heat. I have been eating a disproportionate amount of cold foods from pasta to leftover enchiladas, they all reach my mouth still chilled.

When we get to that point in the year, when it's so hot we just want to subsist on green salads alone, we must not forget the humble crouton. Even though making croutons requires--Gasp!--the use of the oven, at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, it is worth it. I promise.

You should NEVER, EVER, EVER, even consider buying croutons. Not only are store bought croutons a rip off, they're like eating small, dried chunks of particle board. Plus, if you use the heels of the loaf, like I do, you won't feel guilty about wasting anything. Because honestly, how many of us really do use the heel of the bread of sandwiches?

Simple Croutons
3 cups stale bread, preferably heels, cut into 1 in cubes
olive oil
1/2 t. dried oregano
1/4 t. garlic powder
fresh ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350. Drizzle olive oil over bread cubes. Toss to coat. They shouldn't be drenched, but they should have a nice olive oily sheen. Sprinkle with oregano, garlic powder, and salt and pepper. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Stirring ever 5 minutes until done.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries...

If there is one recipe that screams summer, it is Grandma Bauhard's chocolate covered cherry recipe. I was in 3rd grade the first time Grandma and I made it together. I come from a family that just doesn't travel, but every summer I made the circuit from Grandma's to an assortment of aunts and uncles' houses, vacationing a week at a time, giving my parents a much needed break from me. Sometimes I stayed by myself, other times my cousin Erin or my sister Holly joined me. Every foodie looks back at formative experiences cooking on "grandma's knee" and correlates them to their love of all things culinary, so much so, that it's become rather trite.

STILL, I have fond memories of making this with Grandma in early June. Staying at the Bauhard farmhouse was always an adventure. It was a sagging, rather decrepit house, bursting at the seams with the memorabilia and detritus that 50+ years of marriage and the rearing of 9 kids brings. My Grandpa "B" was even born in that house. The whole house was a mysterious, cluttered archive of my mom's side of the family. The house smelled of dust, mothballs, old wood, and the earthy smell of old fashioned plater-coated walls in the cool morning air. There was a giant maple tree just outside the back door, off the kitchen. Grandma and I would begin cooking in the morning, while it was still cool. The maple leaves of the maple tree to the east, created dappled sunshine as the sun rose. Grandpa believed in buying summer fruit, apricots, peaches, and cherries in flats and lugs so Grandma could preserve them.

I still remember the sweet, stickiness of chocolate and cherry juice, and spitting out pits. With a surplus of bing cherries, Grandma chose the perfect recipe for me to make. Something that didn't require heating the house up with the oven, and that was simple enough for a child. Delicious, slightly messy, and utterly stress-free. This truly is a summer dessert.

Grandma B's Chocolate Covered Cherries

2 dozen, fresh Bing cherries washed and dried with stems attached
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 teaspoons butter-flavored Crisco

Melt chocolate chips and Crisco together on stove in a double boiler. Remove from heat. Dip cherries by their stems and let set on wax paper. Refrigerate until firm.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pizza, Thyme with Swiss Chard

I love having a garden because it gives me the ability to stroll through my own private produce section whenever I wish without having to leave home. This leads to serendipitous, spontaneous cooking. Serendipity, spontaneity, and a good dose of laziness are true marks of summertime. (Which, as Holly so kindly pointed out, led to me missing my scheduled Wednesday post.)

Last night for dinner I planned on making pizza, simply because I had leftover red sauce in the fridge and could not bring myself to eat anymore pasta for awhile. Kent was overjoyed. After working several years at Roman Coin Pizza in Omaha, and having become quite used to diet of 'za nearly everyday, he begins to feel deprived if he doesn't get pizza often enough.

One of my favorite pizza topping is fresh basil. The basil in my garden has not taken off to the point that harvesting a good handful of leaves was possible, but when I got to WinCo, they were entirely sold out of fresh basil. So I improvised. There are few dishes that adapt themselves so well to whatever is on hand as pizza does. Pizza thrives by the inspiration of the heat of the moment. After all, pizza is like sex, there's never a bad slice.

Perusing the garden at dusk, I decided to improvise with fresh thyme. But the Swiss Chard caught my eye, too. In the last couple of days, it has had a major growth spurt. It's a beautiful chartreuse color, with bubbled, dimpled leaves. The taste is of concentrated fresh, green earthiness. Crisper, my far, than that of fresh spinach.

I added some thinly sliced button mushrooms, and chevre, and I had quite a sensuous, lusty pizza on my hands.

After much trial and error, I finally have perfected a wonderful sourdough pizza dough. Here's the recipe I made with my starter, Norton. Norton seems to be mellowing as he gets older. His aroma is deeper. This dough will provide a fine crumb and a slightly sweet finish. Sourdough takes longer to rise than dough with commercial yeast, but cheating by adding yeast will make the dough too poufy and focaccia-like.

Sourdough Pizza Dough
1 cup sourdough starter (use liquid measuring cup)
1/2 cup warm water (between 105-115 degrees, no warmer)
3 cups all purpose flour
1 t. salt
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil

Combine starter and warm water. Stir well. Add flour, salt and oil. Stir until rough mass forms. Knead by hand or with stand mixer and dough hook attachment for about 10 to 15 minutes or until dough is elastic and springs back quickly when pinched. Let raise, covered with plastic wrap for 2 hours. Punch down and let raise for at least another 1 more hour, but not more than 3 hours.

Thyme Pizza with Mushroom and Swiss Chard

1 sourdough pizza dough recipe
1 cup pizza sauce (I used straight bottled spaghetti sauce. So, truly, any red sauce/pizza sauce that you like will work!)
12 button mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 cups Swiss Chard, de-stemmed and cut into chiffonade
4-6 sprigs of thyme, stems removed
2 oz. chevre
grated Pecorino
olive oil
fresh ground pepper

Makes 3, 10 -inch, thin crust pizzas.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Roll out or hand toss dough very thin. Spread with sauce. Top with mushrooms, chard, thyme, and cheeses. Drizzle chard with olive oil and top with fresh ground black pepper. Bake directly on a pre-heated pizza stone or on stone hearth* for 10 to 12 minutes or until bottom crust is slightly brown.

* You can turn any conventional oven into a stone hearth. Simply measure your oven, and go to any hardware store and buy enough unglazed porcelain tiles to cover one oven rack. Set tiles directly on middle rack. In my oven, 8, six inch square tiles fit perfectly, side to side. I bake everything on them. The even, direct heat from the tiles is the only way to get a perfectly crisp pizza crust, and at about 5 dollars they are much more economical than the gourmet pizza stones for sale at Williams-Sonoma.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Dangers of Faux Risotto

Last January, I swore off risottos. Not eating them, mind you. I solemnly swore I would never make another risotto again. The problem is, I love risottos. I love the way each individual rice grain is so creamy it's as if it melted just slightly before reaching my mouth. As much as I love risotto, it's just not worth it to me to stand over a hot stove for an hour, stirring until my arm goes numb. I am not normally one to take short cuts in the kitchen, but risottos are the one thing I believe the input in effort is not worth the output in taste. That's why, I will always order the foie gras with porcini risotto EVERY TIME I eat at Andre's in downtown Boise.

Even though I had made the no-more-risotto-making rule, when I saw a recipe for "Artichoke, Asparagus, and Mushroom Quinoa Risotto" in the July issue of Bon Apettit, I added the ingredients to my shopping list without hesitation. It wasn't a true risotto, I thought, and besides, quinoa cooks quicker than aborio rice, this will be a breeze. It turned out to be a breeze with a tornado in the middle.

This recipe is problematic for several reasons. Let's start with the ingredients. It calls for an 8oz package of frozen artichoke hearts, which WinCo does not carry. This called for a trip to the evil empire known as Albertsons in these parts. For $3.89 I bought a square block of frozen artichoke hearts. The best part about this whole dish, in fact, came from the back of the box of artichokes. I quote from the frozen vegetable company: "we believe passionately in Quality and that Quality of Life, Family and Friendships are the only reasons for our existence."

Unfortunately, pukishly pale green artichoke hearts with a plastic-like, flavor akin to those wax lips I used to get as a kid around Halloween time did not make me believe my quality of life had improved. I would have been better off buying a can of marinated artichoke hearts for half the price. Then there was the Manchego cheese the recipe calls for. My discretionary cheese fund for the next six months has been tapped out by a rather extravagant imported cheese tray we had during our graduation celebration last month. I couldn't bring myself to pay $20.99/lb. for Manchego. I substituted Pecrino, which might have been a tad sharper and salter than Manchego, but still had the good muskiness of a sheep's milk cheese.

So, now let's get down to the cooking disaster. I sauteed oyster mushrooms in butter and olive oil with garlic without incident and set them aside. The mushrooms were sitting innocently on the counter, and as I opened the cupboard above them to grab the quinoa, somehow, the bag had come open. Quinoa exploded over the counters, floor, sink and into the reserved mushrooms. Quinoa, for those of you who haven't cooked with it, is really quite good. It's about the size of couscous and has a nutty flavor and a texture similar to tapioca, but firmer and less slippery. But, when a bag of quinoa gets loose in your kitchen, it looks like some one grabbed a GIANT bean bag, gutted it in the middle of your kitchen and decided to throw its entrails around like confetti. Not pretty. I have swept the kitchen floor three times and vacuumed the entire house, and we are still crunching grains of uncooked quinoa under our feet.

So, I had no choice but to cook the mushrooms with the rest of quinoa to the skillet. Instead of adding them at the end. Did you say skillet? That's another problem with this recipe, it calls for using "a heavy large skillet." I used my 10-inch saute pan that is deep enough to hold two quarts. And it nearly overflowed, making all the strenuous stirring even more difficult. Loose globs of quinoa kept flying over my stove and floor as a stirred. If you boil quinoa, like rice, it'll take about 20 minutes to cook. If you try to turn it into faux risotto, expect it to take forever, somewhere around 45 minutes. It was also quite angry at me by this time. As soon as the liquid got low, the quinoa would spit and hiss like a phone line full of static.
The moral of the story is this don't be fooled by faux risottos. They are every bit as time consuming and arm-wrenching as the real deal.

But, the thing is, the dish was actually quite good. The asparagus and artichokes added a hint of sweetness to the pungency of the cheese and the earthy nuttiness of the mushrooms and grain. Also, it's quite healthy, and it will be perfect for frumpy teacher lunches. The recipe called for 1/2 a cup of dry white wine and I, of course, drank the rest of the bottle during the 45 minutes I was stirring. Maybe my judgment was skewed. (And no, I was not intoxicated before the quinoa exploded.)

With a faux risotto such as this, nothing would have been lost had I simmered the quinoa in broth and wine like rice. There would have been no texture compromise, and it would have been a hell of a lot easier. So while I like this combination of ingredients, the technique can be simplified.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Summer Salad for the Grill Weary

Summer cuisine in America seems to be synonymous with grilling. Bon apetit, Gourmet, the Food Network are all in the throes of American BBQ fever, and I am sick of it. Now, I do enjoy a good grilled burger or kabob as well as the next guy. But frankly, grilling out is a pain in the ass. Perhaps if I had a quick-light, shiny new, top-'o-the-line grill, I would feel differently. Perhaps when it really starts feeling like summer around here, and I don't want to add a single degree of heat to my house by turning on even a small electric burner, then I'll be ready.

For now, I want to talk about the real, unsung hero of cookout cuisine, the salad. Not a finicky, wilty green salad. Not the tired old stand-by of mayo drenched coleslaw. Not the potato salad with a dull yellow sheen of prepared mustard (although these kitschy dishes do have strong nostalgic power). I want to talk about the type of salad that can be made a day ahead, gets better in fact by mellowing overnight, and tastes great whether it came straight from the fridge or sat on a picnic table for a few hours. This is the type of salad that may take a little bit of prep time, but it's worth it in the end. Not only because it offers up great variety in the midst of requisite grilled meat, but because the leftovers are fabulous too.

This week, I created Pesto Pasta Salad with Tofu. I made it on my day off, and then I ate it all week for my frumpy teacher lunches. It kept wonderfully in my lunch box, and it made an entire balanced meal all on its own, and in the early morning rush to get out the door it was a cinch to toss in a Tupperware container. This will not be the last of my summer salad experiments.

Someone recently mentioned in passing that they hate tofu because of its flavorless, blah texture. I'd bet that person has had a really poorly prepared piece of tofu. Like so many foods people don't like, it's not the food itself, but the way it's cooked. The secret to good tofu is to parboil it if you want an extremely firm texture. Parboiling will make even extra firm tofu firmer, causing it to release its extra liquid, and it's a lot quicker than weighting and draining it. The second secret is to use aggressive seasons which tofu will suck up with the vigor of a bone dry sponge. Here I used roasted roasted garlic, pesto, kalamata olives, red wine vinegar, and fresh basil to create assertive, bold flavors, that mellowed nicely with the gentleness of the tofu and the sweetness of the asparagus and red bell pepper.

Pesto Pasta Salad with Tofu

14oz firm, water packed tofu, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 lbs. pasta (small shapes, I used shells)
1 lbs. asparagus
12 cloves garlic, peeled, and slivered
2 t. olive oil
1 t. dried oregano
1/2 cup prepared pesto
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 large red bell pepper
1/4 cup kalamata olives, finely diced
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, finely torn
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
Asiago cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 400. Bring two pots of salted water to boil. Add tofu to one pot and boil for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, add pasta to other pot, and cook until al dente. Drain, rinse, and set aside. While the pasta cooks, trim asparagus of tough bottoms and cut into 1 inch pieces. Toss asparagus, olive oil, oregano, and garlic slivers together in baking dish. Roast for 10 minutes, or until tender, stirring once, halfway through cooking time. Garlic will become golden brown--don't be alarmed. Set asparagus and garlic aside.

In large serving bowl, wisk together pesto and vinegar. Toss pesto vinegar mixture together with remaining ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste, and top with freshly grated Asiago cheese.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Summer School

So, I'm teaching summer school. Technically it's not summer school for grade equivalence, but still I teach reading classes to angsty middle schoolers and high schoolers and even some elementary schoolers. (While I think it is wonderful discussing literature, there are only so many times I can sound out C-A-T phonetically before I begin to question my own grasp of phonics.) It occurred to me today that I am in danger of becoming that frumpy teacher. You know the one. Everyone has had a frumpy, beige-ish teacher. This frumpy quotient is not related so much to how I teach or how I dress; although, I suppose those are factors. No, it boils down to what I eat. I'm haunted by a line from the miniseries My So Called Life. If you were going through puberty in the mid-to-late-nineties, I'm sure you've heard of it. The main character, Angela was Clare Daines's breakout role. At one point, Angela has a meeting with her English teacher, while the teacher is trying to bolt a limp, soggy sandwich at her desk between classes. And Angela's inner monologue, voice over tells us: "It's just too depressing, to not only think about the fact that teachers eat, but to have to see them eat."

This is what I think about when I bolt my lunch right before I spend two and a half hours teaching Lord of The Rings. Well, that and why I'm not a hobbit.

Anyway, this was a long way to explain that my summer teaching schedule is finally solidified, and my life is back to a steady, albeit, frumpy routine. With that said, for the rest of the summer, I'm going to have an official blog schedule. Look for postings on Wednesdays and Fridays. Find out what I'm actually packing in my lunch box.