Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Chard is Dead, but Bugs Bunny Envies Me

It is winter...finally.

This morning when I let the chickens out of their coop, there were slivers of ice cracking across the surface of their water. Next, I went to check the garden. I knew the gang busting run that my Swiss Chard had this year had to come to an end. The leaves had a pleather texture. Frost killed. This did not, of course, deter the chickens from eating the frozen, stiff leaves. In fact, if their reaction was any indication, this might be the chicken equivalent of gelato.

The kale, like the chard, seemed similarly synthetic in texture. The Red Squire Kale has all but given up its ghost. Later this morning, I took kitchen shears and my bright red vegetable colander to harvest the last bit of lacinato kale. It had snow puddling in its dimples. I wasn't sure if it was salvageable or not. Happily, it revived in the kitchen, and was quickly dispatched in a pan of hot butter and olive oil. I ate a big plate of kale for lunch AND for dinner. I'm telling you, a girl's craving iron. If you like kale, you'll have to try it the way Molly Wizenburg suggests in this Bon Appetit article. Saute on high heat, finish with salt and lemon. That's it.

I also dug my entire carrot harvest, over 5 lbs. Since they seemed small earlier in the season (although they ARE Danver's Half-Long), and since I've heard that carrots get sweeter after a frost, I've waited for as long as possible to harvest them. It's true. Carrots do, indeed, get sweeter with a frost. They were practically carrot candy sticks. The entire time I was digging carrots in the snow (just flurries, but still). I kept thinking of Bugs Bunny. But, I suppose now I can understand his addiction.

This carrots were gorgeous. Luminescent even. Their smell was intoxicating. Bear with me here, but really fresh carrots smell like earth and soap. Yes, soap. Their aroma is deliciously clean, like crisp sheets that have been dried on a clothesline.

I blanched and froze most of the carrots. That was my big afternoon project today. I suppose most of them will be made into soup. I seem to have an addiction to soup that rivals Bugs's addiction to carrots.

But, I'm open to suggestions. What would you do with 17 cups of carrots in your freezer?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Autumn Means Soup

I went to several workshop discussions at Winter Wheat. The most amazing, though, was a poetry-based writing workshop which explored visual imagery as a prompt for writing. During part of the workshop, the facilitators handed out abstract black and white images. I loved how my subconscious was drawn to create meaning from meaningless black and white swirls. The image I fixated on was a circle. It reminded me of our dented, beat-up tea pot or a deep pot of soup. During the writing, here's roughly what I wrote based on an abstract image:

I tell him, "It's soup season."

He says, "There's a soup season?" a bit startled like he was unaware that we were supposed to celebrate a national holiday.

I put the garden to bed in November, poke little thumb-shaped nubbins of garlic into the deep, brown earth. It smells like moldy leaves, and the sun glows with a peculiar slant. I wonder, where do the earthworms go in
December when the earth is hard like stone?

I take the teapot out of the cupboard. Like so many of our kitchen things, it has outlived it's original owner, but the stainless steel reflects us. In January, as the trees get brittle and grayer than the sky, my life feels narrow. I make Chamomile tea every night. I stare into the tea pot's chrome, the shiny glare, and try to imagine a world outside this bleakness. Beyond us. Beyond this kitchen with the stained, green striped dish towel. The kitchen is sunny, but cold. Crystals of ice like trapped, lost snowflakes coat the windowpanes. The tea kettle is an orb, a globe. It contains warm, rotund comfort.

As winter approaches, I find myself drawn to soup and tea. Liquid warmth that my very pores can soak up. Soon I'll tell you about all the fabulous soups I've been subsisting off of these past few weeks. But you tell me, what foods do you crave when it gets cold?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pawpaw Adventure Part Three: Pawpaw Faux Pas

In theory, community cookbooks are a brilliant concept. Community groups, like the Ladies’ Auxiliary, the St. Francis Catholic Church, the Helping Hands 4-H club are all respectable groups that sometimes need to raise money. To raise funds, they just might compile a spiral bound cookbook for resale.

At its best, a community cookbooks is a contest of one-up-manship. Betty’s brownies are better than Mavis’s. But, man can Mavis bake a mean muffin. For years, my go-to cookbook for any baked good was the local 4-H club’s cookbook. Its cover was yellowed, and the green comb-tooth binding had a bit of a jack-o-lantern look from missing teeth, and the pages were splattered with batter stains, grease, and residual powdered sugar. That, my friend, is the sign of a good cookbook. A rare find indeed. Dozens of cookbooks later, I have Grandma B to thank for this wisdom.

Grandma B had a cookbook buying habit. This habit was fed solely by Morrispress Cookbooks. Morrispress is the country’s largest publisher of community cookbooks. Their corporate headquarters are in Kearney, Nebraska, a 45 minute drive from where my grandmother lived. Anytime any sort of significant shopping needed to be done, my grandparents drove to Kearney. It also just so happens that Morrispress has a discount show room that sells remainder copies of community cookbooks. Coincidently, this cookbook show room also happens to be next door to Cabela’s Outdoor Outfitters. So, grandpa would drop grandma and me off at the cookbook store, while he shopped for hunting gear. This was dangerous.

Sure, the {insert ridiculous club name here} cookbook was only $2.00! But, the thing is, without any connection to the community or the people who wrote the cookbook, you were usually left with a book of sub-par, plebian recipes. It was hit or miss. Cooking through amateur cookbooks like these was a veritable landmine of fallen cakes and dry cookies.

Still, I have a soft spot for these cookbooks, perhaps because the first cookbook I ever owned was a three-ring bound United Methodist’s Women’s Club cookbook, straight from Morrispress, compliments of my grandmother.

So, when I Dave Reese of Kaleidoscope Farms, handed me a spiral bound copy of the Pawpaw Grower’s Association Cookbook, it had all the appeal of a Morrispress cookbook. But, instead of being judiciously cautious, I dove headlong, quickly agonizing over which of the pawpaw bread recipes I should make. There were 4 of them, named simply Pawpaw Bread One, Pawpaw Bread Two, and so on. The Pawpaw Buckwheat Bread recipe called to me. Pawpaws united with a bag of local, stone ground buckwheat flour, and eggs from Franny and Zooey, would be a true testament to the grand heights of localvorism I sought.

Instead, I baked three brown loaves that smelled like burnt fruit loops and tasted even worse. When I tried to feed the loaves to the Franny and Zooey (and Kent’s chicken Scrambly) they only looked at me out of the corner of their eyes with distrust, as if I were trying to poison them. I knew when my chickens, those garbage disposals covered in feathers, who eat out rotten produce out of the compost heap wouldn’t touch it that I had failed.

I was bitterly disappointed.

In my excitement, I forgot discretion and a critical eye. I should have know that a bread made with 100% buckwheat would not rise well or be light enough for the flavor of pawpaws to shine through. I was more angry at myself than the Pawpaw Grower’s Association Cookbook. I knew the risks involved when cooking from community cookbooks, but I was reckless anyway. And after two or three days stewing over my failure I realized one of my favorite things about cooking is that, as Judith Jones wrote, “Food has the tact to disappear, leaving room and opportunity for masterpieces to come. The mistakes don't hang on the walls or stand on shelves to reproach you forever.”

So somewhere in my compost pile are three loaves of pawpaw buckwheat bread quietly becoming worm food.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Winter Wheat Festival

Yesterday, I was part of a panel presentation discussing food writing with Amanda and Karen. It was exciting to meet other writers who were interested in writing about food, and it was also enjoyable to create a brief moment of community over shared food.

Part of our presentation included a writing prompt based on food we shared. The menu included:

Homemade Ricotta Cheese with Fresh Thyme
served on Garlic Crostini or Baguette

Zucchini Bread

Marscarpone served on Crackers
with Tomato Preserves or Love Apple Jelly

Roasted Red Squire Kale Chips

Local, Organic Apples, Assorted Varieties

So, I'm really curious. If you attended our panel, what inspired you? Did you discover anything by writing about these foods?

Please share your writing exercise by commenting on this post. I can't wait to read it!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bone Marrow--"Light of my life, fire of my loins."

For fall break Kent and I went to Cleveland solely to eat. First and foremost, we wanted to eat at Micheal Symon's Lolita. Our expectations were high, and after rereading Micheal Ruhlman's write up of Symon in "The Soul of a Chef," I was ready to visit a place I'd only read about in a book before.*

I believe that a truly incredible restaurant experience should expose you to something new and inspiring. You might also say it should be innovative. Of course Revolver delivered that with the pawpaw creme brulee. And when I went to Lolita tonight, there was also a revelation, in the form of Bone Marrow.

The first thing to remember when going to a restaurant, is that you must know how to order correctly. For me, ordering correctly involves being slightly daring, but also knowing what fits my mood. Luckily, I ordered well. I was torn between two appetizers: the fried chicken livers with oyster mushrooms and polenta, or the bone marrow with grilled baguette.

Usually in these situations, it is wise to defer to the server. As a former server, I know that I was always honest with guests, and that I developed a good palate because of the exposure to new dishes I had at the restaurants I worked at. My server, who was impeccable by the way, was ecstatic about the bone marrow when I asked. Sure, I've had sauces infused with bone marrow. It's a classic French technique, one that Julia Child herself was proud of. But to have it served straight, when it's known mostly for it's gelatinous qualities, intrigued me.

In this particular presentation my server explained to me, the bone marrow was served in the bone, split. The marrow is to be eaten "like tapanade" but without the olives. So, I ordered it.

Another part of ordering well, is rationalizing against the dishes you don't order. I began stacking up the cons list for the chicken livers. First, one of the only decent dishes Easy Street restaurant back home in Bowling Green makes is fried chicken livers. I order it all the time, so I supposed I could forgo livers this time. Plus, I need to make chicken livers for Amanda soon to make up for the chicken feet disappointment.

The bone marrow was delightful. Marrow is incredibly rich and really fatty. It's also sort of sludgy and gray. Like I told Kent, the secret of a good chef is finding a way to make pure unadulterated fat palatable. Think pork belly, think duck confit, absorbing impossible amounts of fat as it poaches. Or now, think of bone marrow.

It arrived at the table as promised, an eight inch long bone, split in half. The marrow was sprinkled lightly with a salsa verde: a mixture of poblano chilis, green onions, cilantro, and tomatillos. The result was a dish that was carnal, and as barbaric as digging marrow from the bone can be, but also refined, by digging it out with a demitasse spoon. The salsa verde, with its bright acids balanced and rounded the richness of the marrow, and the baguette, scored with black grill marks, and which was slavered with olive oil and rubbed down with garlic, lent a spicy smokiness to the dish as well. As a garnish, slices of sweet pickled onion further played with the slight spiciness of the salsa verde. It was bone sucking good.

* "The Soul of a Chef" is the best place to read about old school Symon. This was back before Lola, Symon's first restaurant, moved downtown, and Lolita took its place. So, technically they're not the same restauarant, but Lolita today is closer to the Lola that Rhulman writes about.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pawpaw Adventure Part Two: Hoopla

A little information is a dangerous thing, as any dilettante can tell you. Being a neophyte pawpaw enthusiast, my first stop for information was, of course, Wikipedia's entry for pawpaws.

After reading about pawpaws, I was even more smitten than before. I suppose it's like having a great date, and then looking for your date's profile on Facebook. When you see your date's Facebook profile it only makes you fall a little bit harder for them. So it was with the pawpaws.

First, I admired their tenacity. Pawpaw is the only member of the family Annonaceae that can hack it outside of the tropics. They think nothing of harsh Ohio winters.

However, they are a little finicky. Pawpaws cannot self-pollinate, and their blooms are vapid and weakly perfumed. So they have trouble attracting pollinators. Pawpaws' main pollinator is the fruit fly. This made me feel a bit better about super race of fruit flies I have been inadvertently breeding in my kitchen--fruit flies that are impervious to traps of any kind. I should have bottled my fruit flies and taken them to the pawpaw grove when the trees were blooming. I also found out that some pawpaw growers place road kill under blooming pawpaw trees to attract pollinating insects or hang chicken necks from the branches, which rot and attract flies, to insure good cross pollination.

Even after imagining rotten meat swinging from the boughs of pawpaw trees, I was mostly in shock that I had never heard about pawpaws before. My first theory was that pawpaws simply aren't suited to industrialized agriculture like apples and oranges. According to Wikipedia, "the shelf life of the ripe fruit is almost non-existent, for it soon ripens to the point of fermentation." Slow food international seems to confirm this when they inducted the pawpaw to the US Ark of Taste in 2004.
As the US Slow Food website explains, "To qualify for the US Ark of Taste, food products must be:

"Outstanding in terms of taste
—as defined in the context of local traditions and uses" (Check: pawpaws have a hauntingly tropic flavor-somewhere between a mango, pineapple, avocado, and melon.)

"At risk
biologically or as culinary traditions" (Check: Who the hell has even heard of a pawpaw?)

"Sustainably produced "
(Check: Most pawpaws in Ohio are wild, and pawpaws have few to no pests and require NO pesticides to grow well. In fact, a safe, organic pesticide can be made from pawpaw seeds.)

"Culturally or historically linked
to a specific region, locality, ethnicity or traditional production practice" (Check: Pawpaws only grow in specific parts of the US. Including Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio.)

"Produced in limited quantities
, by farms or by small-scale processing companies" (Check: Pawpaws particularly short window of peak ripeness and rather soft, delicate fruit make it impossible to ship it thousands of miles.)

Armed with an amateur's knowledge of pawpaws, I decided to call Dave Reese at
Kaleidoscope Farms.

(Now I have extensive experience locating things outside of the formal economy. A few phone calls, some Internet networking, and miraculously, the universe responds to my wants and whims. For instance, I've found free chicken wire, whole fresh hogs heads, raw goat's milk, chicken feet, and pure-bred Border Collies, to name a few. Because of this, I'm used to calling up complete strangers and meeting them in remote locations. {Sometimes they have shotguns, as in the case of procuring the pig's head.}

Dave was generous and friendly, and I instantly knew I had a good connection for local pawpaws. He offered to get me a copy the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association cookbook, entitled "The Edible Pawpaw, and I gladly took him up on the offer. We arranged for an evening to meet and go pawpaw picking on his gorgeous property, about 10 miles outside of Findlay.

If you want the whole account, click over to AMR's Everyday Palate.

Stay tuned. For Part Three: Pawpaw Adventure Faux Pas.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pawpaw Adventure. Part One: Awe

It started with an anniversary dinner. To celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary, Kent and I went to Revolver in Findlay, OH. For those living in the fine-dining desert of Northwest Ohio, Revolver is an oasis. It is by far the only place I know within an hour drive of B.G. that takes the food they serve seriously.

What this means is that when you go to Revolver, you'll get food that is not only prepared perfectly, but in most cases is also local organic, sustainable, and ethical. And this is not merely lip-service to the trendiness of the local food movement. On Revolver's website, co-owner Debi Bulkowski explains their philosophy, “We are in the heartland and have access to some of the most gorgeous produce available. We have been warmly received by the organic farming community and there really is something special about meeting the individuals who are responsible for the perfect arugula.” Revolver prints the name and location of the local farms whose products they are serving that night on the menu, and the servers, when asked, will specifically tell you where everything on your plate came from. Some of the places where our meal came from: Dickman Farms (Fostoria), Luginbill Farms (Pandora), Daisyfield Farms (Sandusky), Garden Spirit Farms (Mount Blanchard), Miller’s Meats (Findlay) and Wolfe’s Nuts (Findlay).

While every part of the meal was perfect executed down to the last detail (I'll spare you the bite-by-bite details), it was the dessert that blew me away in a excuse-me-while-I-pick-up-my-jaw-off-the-table sort of way. Pawpaw creme brulee.

When our server, Jonah, gave us the evening's dessert selections. He said, "We have paw paw creme brulee. You know about pawpaws, right?"

(This is also something to appreciate about Revolver, they are not the least bit pretentious, which means they'll graciously explain, in detail, everything you eat and drink there, if you so desire. But I digress...)

My little ears perked up because I never knew such a fruit existed. Being a dedicated gastronome is a lot like falling in love over and over again. But after awhile, it's easy to get jaded. However, when you really appreciate GOOD food, the first bite of something truly incredible is a lot like a first kiss. You never forget it. You remember that moment forever. Forget the diamond advertisements because that first slab of unctuous fois gras was orgasmically earth-shaking, or that first perfectly ripe, just plucked from the vine heirloom tomato. Or that first briny-sweet komomoto oyster. Or that first bite of sashimi tuna. And, then, there was the first taste of a pawpaw.

A pawpaw tastes a little like this: Imagine if a pear and a mango procreated, and their offspring mated with honeydew melons and pistachios.

Now, back to this creme brulee, it had whispers of citrus, hints of almond and pistachio, and a haunting afterglow of honeydew melon. Add those flavors to a perfectly caramelized sugar crust, sprinkled with just a few flakes of Maldon sea salt, and well, my eyes were practically rolling back in my head.

When I explained to Jonah how incredible an experience eating this dessert was, he told me about their pastry chef that had went to Kaleidoscope Farms, about ten miles from Findlay, to pick pawpaws. And, before Jonah dropped off our check (which was incredibly reasonable. Read: three courses with wine for two just under $100), he handed me a ticket from his server's notepad that had the name and number of the pawpaw grower scribbled across it.

Stay tuned for Part Two and pictures.

P.S. To ensure a blissful anniversary celebration, I respected Kent's wishes and left the camera home.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Obscene Fist-Full of Basil

This time of year my time spent in the kitchen is an emotional roller coaster. On one hand, I get overwhelmed at daily harvests well beyond the appetite of my two person household. (Even though the chickens are picking up the slack nicely. They LOVE cucumber.) But then, on the other hand, the sickening out-of-control feeling ends quickly. I have a couple quiet days at work, or I spend a whole weekend at home without getting called up to substitute teach out of state. Or perhaps the weather decides to cloud over for several days straight and without so much sun the zucchinis and tomatoes, for the briefest moment, have decided to stop falling of the vine in voluptuous ripeness.

This is the time, then, when I can finally catch my breath and catch up with the bounty of the garden. This is the exhilarating side of the roller coaster. This is when having such a wonderful garden feels like cheating.

I've said before that I am a gardener because I am an eater. I am a hedonist of culinary delights. I am a taster, so a plain flowerbed just doesn't do it for me. I am an artist, whose medium just happens to be edible. So, just to be clear here, I am a lot like a painter. A painter, who just happens use most exquisite, bright, succulent, paints and expansive canvases, and who just has to pick them up from her front yard to begin creating with them.

Today, I realized my basil plants were dangerously close to going to seed again. So I judiciously pruned them back until they looked fat and bushy, just as a healthy basil plant should. Which, just to be clear, means that they looked like I hadn't even touched them, even after I harvested this much basil:

This is 1 lbs. 3 oz of sweet Italian basil. This much basil has a street value of $37.81. (Anyway, that's the going rate at the local grocery store before sales tax).

This much basil can only mean that I desperately needed to make pesto. The aroma of basil alone makes me swoon. How can I even begin to describe how seductive it is? It is sultry. Basil is not quite earthy, not quite forestry, not quite sweet, and not quite peppery though it evokes all of these. No, basil is more like getting a whiff of an old lover's cologne, but not not being able to remember the name (of the cologne, not necessarily the lover).

Making pesto in bulk is like stretching and priming a canvas. Although fresh pesto tossed with al dente pasta and a few sun dried tomatoes is a dish everyone should have in their repertoire, today's creation was more about preserving pesto for later, for having pesto on hand as a base or for a subtle flavoring in other recipes. This pesto is for using in the dead of winter when fresh basil at the grocery store is $31.84/lb.

Pesto is super-easy. Basil. Garlic. Pinenuts. Olive oil. Parmesan. Salt. Pepper. In that order. I'm not going to give you a recipe because the amounts are fairly flexible, and honestly, it's easy to find a good pesto recipe anywhere. I like Mollie Katzen's from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.

When it's all pureed together, I simple freeze the pesto in ice cube trays, and once they're frozen transfer them to a freezer bag. (Some advise against freezing pesto with Parmesan in it, but I've never had a problem.) Then, all winter I can grab pesto from the freezer by the cubed tablespoonful. And when I do, I'll remember this day in July. This day when I was throwing an obscene amount of basil leaves around like fist fulls of waded up cash.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On Over-ripening...

Phew! So far July has been a crazy month. For the past five weeks, I've been living the life on an itinerant reading teacher, which has meant that for I've been on the road more than I'd like. And not in the Kerouacian sense either, more like the Seussian sense of teaching kids about The Cat in the Hat.

So when I have been in the kitchen this month, it's been more about adverting over-ripening disasters and damage control than actually lingering over the aromas and textures of all this glorious produce that's coming my way, from every direction. Which is to say, I have not been playing around with new recipes.

Somehow, my garden when from this:

To this:

And from this:

To this:

Monday, July 6, 2009

Berry Pavlova with Rhubarb-Lime Custard Filling

Ever since smoke bombs, sparklers, and those black tablets that turn into little writhing snakes lost their childish appeal , I haven't been one to celebrate the Fourth of July much. It's a wild and reckless holiday. Noisy and violent.

This Fourth of July, however, I celebrated in a fittingly low-key way. First, I should mention that it turns out that of all my neighbors that live within ear-shot distance of bottle rocket launching, not a single one actually launched a bottle rocket or similar firework devise. (Again, I'm finding the benefits of living on the wrong side of the tracks. Neighbors don't give a damn about their garbage blowing on to my lawn, but they also don't give a damn about the chickens in my backyard either. And since, this isn't really the family friendly side of Bowling Green--no kids = no fireworks.)

Kent and I went to a party a couple of friends hosted. They served sweet/spicy vegetarian sloppy joes, baked sweet potato french fries, and real-deal made from scratch coleslaw. (Since they live in apartment, we didn't have to do any stereotypical grilling out). I was asked to bring dessert.

I managed to whip up this pavlova:

Another reason, I don't like the Fourth of July is because it's an excuse for tacky people to have a tacky theme party--mainly by drenching a meal and its acutriments with anything red, white, and blue or anything that resembles the stars and stripes. However, strawberries and blueberries are in season and I just couldn't resist using them.

I recently discovered pavlovas, thanks to Martha Stewart. I found a recipe this winter for a chocolate pavlova that was a crowning achievement and was the start of my recent meringue obsession.
Now, it seems that pavlovas are everywhere. For instance, Gourmet has ran a pavlova recipe in both its April and July issues this year. The pavlova I made, I adapted from Gourmet's July issue. At its core a pavlova is a meringue nest, into which a layer of custardy-type filling is nestled, and then topped with whip cream, and traditionally garnished with fruit, particularly tart berries. Giving my angsty attitude toward gaudy displays of patriotism, I was pleased to find that pavlovas are not American at all.

It isn't clear where the dessert was invented. New Zealand and Australia fight over the title of first pavlova makers. It is clear, though, that pavlovas were named after Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova when she toured both New Zealand and Australia in 1926. Putting dubious food folklore aside, pavlovas are amazing because they are such a delicate artistry of contrasts. Not unlike Anna's dancing, I guess. The meringue is crisp on the outside and gooey marshmallow on the inside. The pudding-thick rhubarb custard is assertively tart, but soothed by sweet, fluffy billows of whip cream and then the slight crunch of strawberry seeds and the gentle pop of blueberries make gentle explosions between your teeth. This slightly wild dessert seems an appropriate match to roman candles.

(And we did go to see the public display of fireworks after dinner.)

Berry Pavlova with Rhubarb Custard Filling

For Meringue Nest:
1 cup sugar
1 T. cornstarch
3 large egg whites at room temperture
3 T. cold water
1 t. distilled white vinegar

For Rhubarb Filling:
2 cups rhubarb, in small dice
1/8 t. salt
juice of 1 small lime
4 T. unsalted butter
3 large egg yolks

For Topping:
freshly whipped cream (sweetened) made from about 1 cup of heavy whipping cream
berries of your choice

Preheat oven to 300 degrees with rack in the middle. On parchment paper, trace a 7-in circle (I like to use a pie pan) in pencil. Turn parchment over and place on baking sheet.

Whisk together sugar and cornstarch.

Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt using a stand mixer at medium speed until they hold soft peaks, then add the water and keep beating until they hold soft peaks again.

Increase speed to medium-high and add sugar mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Add vinegar and beat at high speed until meringue is glossy and holds stiff peaks, about 5 minutes.

Gently spread meringue inside the circle, making a slight nest for the filling with the back of a spoon.

Bake for 45 minutes until meringue is pale golden and has a crust. Turn oven off, and let meringue cool in oven for at least one hour, or up to overnight.

Meanwhile, make the custard. Stir rhubarb, sugar, and salt together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Once sugar is dissolved and rhubarb begins to let off its juice, adjust heat to high and cook until rhubarb is the consistency of baby pap.

(If you want a really smooth filling you can blend the cooked rhubarb with an immersion blender.)

Add butter and lime juice and whisk until dissolved.

In a separate bowl, lightly beat egg yolks. Add about 1/4 cup of hot rhubarb mixture to the eggs to temper, and whisk well. Then add egg/rhubarb mixture to the saucepan with the rest of the rhubarb mixture.

Reduce heat to low and cook, whisking constantly, until custard is thickened about 2 minutes, but do not let mixture boil.

Transfer to a bowl, cover with parchment, and let cool in fridge, at least 1 1/2 hours.

Just Before Serving:

Whip the cream. Assemble. If you assemble it too far in advance, the meringue will get soggy. Mine sat for about two hours before we ate it and it was fine. But, I imagine the relative humidity could effect it quite a bit.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ikea + Chicken Coop Design

There is no definitive chicken coop design, but if there were, well wouldn't you expect Ikea to have a hand in it? (Yes--I realize how ridiculous it sound to link modern Swedish design with well, the barnyard, of course it's ludicrous to even begin a standardization of backyard chicken coops.) But, it just so happens that if you troll the web long enough, you will run into every conceivable chicken coop design.

This one, well, this one takes the cake. Imagine this: using a pre-fab Ikea bunkbed to construct a poultry palace. Now this is just brilliant. Go see it right now at Ikea Hacker.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The only reason to go to Ikea...

Trips to Ikea have taken on mythical proportions among my kith and kin. This is saying something as we've only made two pilgrimages in the past 5 years. Ikea's online presence can only to do so much to prepare you for the real-life experience. But let me tell you, Ikea had me at its creative storage units and particle board bookcases that don't look like particle board.

As a young twenty-something who has an acute nesting-instinct, my first visit to Ikea was like visiting a museum or a chapel. For Kent, however, it was like becoming an experimental lab animal, a rat trapped in a cage. For those who have yet to trek to the mecca of Swedish modern design, be warned. The Ikea visit begins with a guide explaining how to shop. You will be given a map. You take a escalator to the second floor showroom, which will deposit you at the start of a maze of stylish rooms, which you wander through, marking item numbers with a tiny golf pencil on your Ikea showroom map, so that hours later when you descend from the heavenly realms of design, you can actually find the items you want to purchase.

On particular trip to Ikea though, I felt more like a rat. My eyes quickly glazed over before I was even through the living rooms and I still had wall units, media storage, work ikea, kitchens, dining, bedroom, and children's ikea yet to explore. All of this makes a person extremely hungry.

And, quite brilliantly, the marketing team at Ikea knows that if you can refresh yourself with a bit of delish Swedish food before you have to face the first floor maze of the marketplace, you'll probably buy a lot more and be a lot happier in the long run.

Kent has been saying this since his first trip to Ikea, "The only reason to go to Ikea is to eat Swedish meatballs." And in a cafeteria miracle, Ikea Cafe's meatballs are gloriously light, yet swathed in rich, creamy gravy, served with a dab of ligonberry preserves to round it out. The gravlax was also ethereal, a perfect balance of sweet and salty had inundated the salmon flesh, which was perfect dipped in a dill mustard sauce. And since I really can't cram any more furniture into my tiny little house...(Especially when we keep finding incredible free pieces of furniture set out on the curb for the garbage collectors. Solid oak table anyone?)...I too, realize that maybe I just went to Ikea for the food.

However, the first section of the first floor marketplace is cooking & eating. And, I couldn't resist picking up a wok ($7.99) and a black marble mortar and pestle ($9.99). Did I mention that Ikea's prices are incredibly reasonable?

Then, just when I thought I was safe, done scuttling through thousands and thousands of square feet of merchandise, even beyond the checkouts...there lay the Swedish Market and Bistro. Yes, you probably will be hungry by the time you actually exit the store. So I bought jars of pickled herring (which I don't have to share!), ligonberry jam, and apple ligonberry vinegar.

I'll let you know about my experiments with Swedish food, and the mortar and pestle has already been put to use muddling mint for Mojitos.

How about you? Where do you shop for cool, affordable kitchen stuff? What is your weakness when it comes to specialty food stores?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Butterfly Effect

Wikipedia defines the Butterfly Effect as "small variations of the initial condition of a dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system."

It appears that this chaos theory has been working itself out in my kitchen over the course of the last week.

It's sort of like that children's book "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie..." The premise of the book is that by engaging in one initial action of giving a mouse a cookie, a chain of complicated reactions snowballs into an afternoon adventure with a very demanding mouse. Because of course... If you give a mouse a cookie, then he'll probably ask for a glass of milk, then he'll want to take a bath to clean off his milk mustache, and so on and on and on.

So enter the one thing that has produced large variations in the behavior of my kitchen system: the electric ice cream maker.

The first tiny fluttering of butterfly wings happened several weeks ago, when Frivolous Diane happened to mention making her own ice cream. I was intrigued.

"Would it be worth it to get an ice cream maker?" I asked.

"For you, yes," she replied. "Because the point of making your own ice cream is making flavors you can't buy in the store."

If you tell a foodie she should have an ice cream maker, and garage sale season in Bowling Green happens to be in full swing, and she see a mint condition, used Krups model#358 electrice ice cream maker for sale, and she happen to talk the seller down in price by $5, and gets the seller to throw in the "Willam Sonoma Kitchen Library Ice Creams and Sorbets" cookbook for free, then she'll probably bring home an ice cream maker.

If she brings an ice cream maker home, her husband will probably want to make his own dark chocolate gelato, an incredibly rich and creamy gelato that requires an excessive amount of cream and egg yolks. If her husband tries to make dark chocolate gelato, (from the "Ice Creams and Sorbets" Cookbook) he'll probably use the Kitchen Aid mixer to beat the 5 egg yolks and sugar together. This, of course, will result in over-beaten, frothy and ruined gelato mix and a surplus of 5 egg whites just laying around.

If her husband messes up the recipe once, he'll probably want to try it again, just to prove he can get it right. So, he'll make it a second time, but this time, after NOT over beating the egg yolks, he'll overcook the gelato mix, and it will separate into a gloopy, curdled mess, and raise the number of surplus egg whites laying around to 10.

If her husband messes up the recipe twice, he'll probably say to himself, "third time's a charm," and try again. So, he'll make it a third time. But this time it will come out perfect.

But this still does not make up for the fact that there are now 15(!) egg whites laying around that this foodie must find a use for.

"What's a foodie to do?" I asked myself.

These were local, free-range eggs. Eggs bought from local egg lady, eggs that came from happy, healthy chickens that I have met personally. I couldn't bear to throw them away.

I made ersatz coconut macaroons, which were delicious, but only used up 2 egg whites. Egg white count: 13.

Then, I made Orangette's amazing Chocolate Featherweight Cookies, but still that only depleted my egg white stock by 4. Egg white count: 9.

So finally, I sucked it up and made French-style Meringues. I have had an aversion to meringues ever since I ate a store bought one. The experience was akin to eating sugared cardboard balls. And like my husband, I had a couple of culinary failures under my belt. Mine involved meringues though and not gelato. But, I had come to my wit's end trying to get creative with egg white use. So, I gave it a whirl...

And, honestly, those meringues were one the best confections that have come out of my kitchen in a long time. Meringues are finicky though. I knew that, so I proceeded with caution. First of all, meringues do not like humidity. If you make them on a rainy day, you are asking for failure. Next, they really can't be rushed. They like to take their sweet little time, which means baking them for 1 hour, and then turning off the oven and letting them rest for at least another 6 hours, or overnight.

So perhaps, it was the Christmas-morning-like anticipation that made me fall in love with these cookies because really, there is nothing better than going to sleep to the smell of vanilla and sugar and waking up to a cold oven full of meringues, and promptly eating, say half and dozen or so of them for breakfast.

The meringues, I found, are surprisingly addictive. They have a pleasing, crisp crunch on the outside, and a seductive, slightly chewy interior. And their sweet vanilla flavor is nothing short of haunting. Next time you have some egg whites lying around, I highly recommend making meringues.

Meringues adapted from Fannie Farmer (1990)

Start with room temperature egg whites. For each egg white you have, you'll need 4 T. sugar, and 1/2 t. vanilla. You must use PURE vanilla extract for this, and of the highest quality you can afford.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and prepare a large baking sheet with parchment paper, or as I did, recycle a brown-paper grocery bag.

Using a stand mixer, like my faithful Kitchen Aid, Trixie, beat the egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Then, start beating in the sugar, gradually adding one tablespoon at a time, and pausing to add the next, until the first is fully incorporated. If you add the sugar too quickly, it will deflate the egg whites. Then, add the vanilla and mix throughly. The egg white mixture should be glossy and thick.

If you want, you can put the meringues in a pastry bag and pipe them in "kisses" onto the parchment paper. But honestly, I found that they look just as nice if you spoon them onto the paper and smooth them a bit with the back of the spoon. It's quicker, less messy, and less clean up work.

Then, bake for 1 hour. Turn off the oven, and leave to rest for at least 6 hours
You should be able to yield approximately 6 small cookies for each egg white used.

And, should you happen to have some dark chocolate gelato lying around, these meringues make an excellent accompaniment, just don't give any to a mouse.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Poultry Palace

The poultry palace is done. (Well, except for a few cosmetic painting the outside of it, and adding handles to make the wheeling around the yard bit easier.)

Part of me still thinks this whole chicken experiment is surreal. I really have chickens. In. MY. Backyard. But, I'm not the only one that seems to be in disbelief. Friends have dropped by to see the ladies, saying things like, "I thought this was a joke," or "I had to see it with my own eyes." CHICKENS!
Honestly, the chickens seemed a bit dumbfounded about being in my backyard as well at least until they got used to it. Now, they stampede out of the coop every morning when I unlock them so they can gobble grass. Could you imagine if your living space was carpeted with edible flooring? If instead of shag, your living room was carpeted with an assorted salad bar?

These feathered ones have quite the life.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chicken Update

Imagine a dandelion just as it's going into seed. Imagine it the day before it completely turns white and the seeds blow away and scatter everywhere. Can you see it? The small spikes of the seeds with pale pieces of fluff on the ends. Now, imagine that dandelion is trying to sprout feathers.

That is exactly what my chicks look like right now. Apparently, adolescence is awkward for humans and birds alike.

Many things have happened with the chickens lately, but perhaps the most dramatic was when one of them tried to escape from the cardboard box. One day I came home from work to find the one yellow chick in the corner of the room, outside of the box. She was terrified. A terrified chick makes a shrill, piercing chirp, the chicken equivalent of yelling "help, help, help." I told Kent about it, and he said, "Which chick?" I said, "The yellow one." He said, "Oh, you mean Franny?"

He was being spontaneously cute, and he caught me off guard, but I got to thinking...Franny is a really good chicken name, and it fits.

So, my chickens now have names! Franny, Zooey, and Boo Boo* and then Kent--insisting that he would feel more invested in these chicks if he could name one-- named the runt, Scrambly. As in I can't wait to make scrambly eggs. [* Do you know why three of these names belong together?]

Obviously, it's a problem if the chickens begin running rampant in the laundry room. Part of my solution was to give them more space. I have added an entire wing to their box, with a little chicken sized door between the two areas.

Alas, it did no good. Now that the chicks have enough feathers on their wings to see some actual air time, they just want to perch on the edge of the cardboard box. However, we seem to have an understanding. The "ladies" don't ever jump off the box or out of the box, save for Franny's one mishap. So perhaps Franny has warned the others of the horror of getting lost outside of the box.

In the meantime I am ramping up production on the poultry palace. I now have perches that I salvaged from the woodpile in my back yard.

In the photo below are all the chickens from left to right: Boo Boo, Zooey, Scrambly, and Franny. They grow so fast, though that I have to keep a constant watch on who's who. Poor Kent, who has been very busy with the end of semester finals, papers, and portfolio grading didn't see the chicks for a couple of days, and he then couldn't even tell which one was Scrambly.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I Know I'm a Ceasar Salad Addict

When do you finally admit I am powerless over my addiction.?

For me, it's when I found myself at 10 o'clock at night, desperately clutching a tube of anchovy paste, scraping at it with a butter knife, trying to get every last little bit of salty, fishy goodness out of the tube--and realizing that I have consumed an ENTIRE tube of anchovy paste in only one week. You see,

I am powerless over Caesar salads.

I suppose this is a side effect of eating seasonally. I haven't had a Caesar salad in months. In fact, I haven't even wanted one in months. But, when the weather kicked it up to something like balminess last week I craved raw, leafy greens. Now I've made Caesar salad my dinner for the last three nights in a row, and even as I write this, I'm contemplating a midnight snack of Caesar salad--I mean someone needs to christen the brand-new, never been squeezed tube of Reese's anchovy paste that I bought today to replenish my severely depleted stock.

All of this gorging on Caesar salad has a perfectly rational explanation. This is what happens when you have too many outdoor projects going on. I have been: amending garden soil with composted manure, rearranging large swaths of sod in my front lawn to make room for said garden and to cover dead spots (with Laura's help), mowing the lawn for the first time (with my new mower)* and working on the poultry palace (against the wire as the lovely lady hens are rapidly outgrowing their cardboard boxes).* What this means, is haven't had much time to do any cooking except literally throwing a salad together.

This is where Caesar salad, with a made-from-pantry-staples, dressing comes in handy.
Caesar dressing is so alluring because of the complexity of flavors. Tartness of lemon juice, coupled with the creamy fruitiness of a quality Mediterranean olive oil, balanced by the spicy bite of fresh garlic, slivers of aged Parmesan hidden amongst the sweet, yet slightly pepper crunch of romaine leaves. This salad has it going on, not to mention the addition of anchovy paste!

Anchovy loathers, you need to get over yourselves. Anchovy paste is know for it's umami properties. Umami is simply the recently discovered fifth taste, ranking right up there with salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. Umami comes from the Japanese word meaning "yummy, keen, or nice." Most Americans describe the flavor as "meatiness," "relish," or "savoriness." Umami--which is the flavor receptor that MSG makes ring bells and whistles--is simple a response to the amino acids or glutamates in foods, which not suprisingly reside in salty, aged, and or fermented foods like anchovies.

Ceasar Salad

(this is an adaptation from Fannie Farmer, and I've made it so many times I make it now by eyeballing it)

For the Dressing:
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil (splurge in the most expensive you can afford)
juice of half a lemon
2 inches of anchovy paste (or to taste)
fresh ground black pepper

Mince the garlic. I use a mini food processor for this and then add each ingredient in one after another, blending at each addition. Lacking a food processor, you could mince the garlic by hand, and the whisk in all the other ingredients until emulsified.

For the Salad:
Romain Lettuce (buy full heads or hearts, DO NOT used bagged lettuce, you'll regret it because it tastes stale.)
Parmesean cheese (or other hard, aged cheese. For instance, I used Pecrino early this week when I ran out of Parmesean, and it worked quite well.)

Wash and dry lettuce. Tear in bite size pieces or leave leaves whole, your choice. Toss with dressing. Then, grate cheese over salad. Depending on my mood, I either use a microplaner, or my vegetable peeler to grate the cheese.

If you want you could also add capers or croutons, or small pieces of leftover roast chicken.

*Blog Posts Coming Soon!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Which Comes First...

When I sent Kent off to Ohio to find us a place to live I wanted two things: the space to garden, and the space to raise laying chickens. I imagined an old farmhouse somewhere in the Ohio country side. Instead, Kent found us a cozy little Craftsman house on the south side of Bowling Green. The property has narrow, but long grassy yards open on all four sides of the house. The front lawn in it's entirety will make a sizable garden (the back and side lawns are too shady). When I saw the property, I momentarily gave up my dream of chickens. We are in town, we have no fence, we have neighbors on all sides of us. It seemed hopeless.

One should not be so quick to give up dreams or so unimaginative.

In the last two weeks circumstances have transpired rather quickly when these pieces came together:

1. It is legal to keep chickens within the city limits of Bowling Green as long as they do not "run at large."

2. Chickens, especially Buff Orpingtons, do not need a huge amount of space. I'm figuring 4 square feet per bird.

3. Chicken tractors, essentially a chicken coop and chicken run on wheels, are ideal for backyard chicken keepers as they allow you to wheel the chickens to fresh grass everyday. This means the chickens constantly get new forage and new bugs to eat, they evenly fertilize your lawn so chicken manure smells are significantly less, and they won't kill the lawn as they would if they were left in one spot.

Even though I knew all of this, I was still reluctant to start. Chicken tractors are expensive. I saw many for sale over $500. But then, I started trawling Craigslist. I found this:

For $15 dollars I purchased this old rabbit hutch, and am currently in the process of remodeling it into the "Poultry Palace" for these four lovely, ladies:

Chickens are incredibly low-tech. For now, the chicks reside in my laundry room, in a cardboard box lined with wood shavings. They are under a heat lamp, to simulate the heat of being nested on by a mother hen. Apparently, the ideal temperature under a chicken's butt is 95 degrees. I bought a red tinted heat-light bulb at the feed store, because it's supposed to be easier on the chicks' eyes. But, it also makes them look evil:

So far, the chicks have been a fascinating project. First of all, they are a bit narcoleptic. They have the tendency to nod of instantly, sometimes this means they'll fall asleep face down in their food. It also amazes me to think the chicks were only 2 days old when I got them, meaning that if a fertilized chicken egg takes 21 days to mature, 23 days ago these chicks were simply a freshly layed egg.

I'm also a bit astonished by how fast they grow. Out of nowhere, overnight, they have sprouted wing feathers! Here you can see how much faster the yellow chick's wing feathers have grown compared to the buff colored chick's:
We have yet to name the chicks. It is apparent that chickens aren't pets in the traditional way. It's not about the companionship; it's about the delicious, organic, free-range eggs. The 20 dozen eggs each chicken will hopefully lay in the next year. However, as they grow older--and each lays unique eggs-- we'll need names to distinguish them, so let me know if you have any ideas for names.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hot Cross Buns

Earlier this week I was asked what my Easter menu was going to be and honestly, as I thought about indispensable Easter foods, I'd rather forgo the ham or the lamb and just focus on sweets.

Spring, among the women in my family, is usually marked by the arrival of Cadbury Mini Eggs in the store. There seems to be an unwritten agreement that the first person to acquire the first bag of mini eggs of the year is "the winner." (Kent happened to win this year, beating Holly by about 18 hours.) The Easter ritual of mini eggs (and Russell Stover's Chocolate Coconut Nests) simply involves consuming as much of said candies as one can without getting sick or gaining a pants size until they disappear altogether for another year. Being from an entirely Protestant family, it could be argued that rather than celebrating the denial of lent, we celebrate the opposite: the splurge of sugar gorging.

Easter would not be complete, however, without one homemade sweet: the hot cross bun. My mom has made hot cross buns for every Easter I can remember. They are a rich yeast bun. Their dough is fortified with a whole stick of butter, several eggs, and studded with dried currents. The bread is barely sweet and the additions of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg give the slightest perfume of spice to the buns. But really, these buns are nothing without a healthy, fat, criss-cross of vanilla butter cream frosting.

Growing up we were taught the the cross on the buns symbolizes the cross Christ died on; however, the tradition of hot cross buns may in fact pre-date Christiandom, and may have been merely adapted to a Christianized tradition. Food Timeline states, "The pagans worshipped the goddess Eostre (after whom Easter was named) by serving tiny cakes, often decorated with a cross, at their annual spring festival. When archaeologists excavated the ancient city of Herculaneum in southwestern Italy, which had been buried under volcanic ask and lava since 79 C.E., they found two small loaves, each with a cross on it, among the ruins." Other theories imply that the cross symbolizes the four quarters of the moon, important in pagan ritual.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the stigma surrounding these hot little buns. At one time, protestant England tried to ban hot cross buns because they were too much like Catholic communion wafers and considered a threat to the church; however, the buns were just too good to be excommunicated entirely, and instead the church of England relegated their consumption to Eastertime (and Chrsitmastime) only.

Superstitions involving hot cross buns are many, but perhaps the most fascinating is that by "
hanging a hot cross bun in the house on [Good Friday] offers protection from bad luck in the coming year. It's not unusual to see Good Friday buns or cakes hanging on a rack or in a wire basket for years, gathering dust and growing black with mold--although some people believe that if the ingredients are mixed, the dough prepared, and the buns baked on Good Friday itself, they will never get moldy."

If you do make a batch of these hot cross buns, don't do it for good luck because in all likeliness you won't be able to help yourself from eating every last one...long before they gather dust.

Hot Cross Buns

5 1/2 cups flour, divided
2/3 cup sugar
2 packages dry yeast (approximately 5 t.)
1 1/2 t. salt

2/3 cup whole milk
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup butter, cut in chunks
2 eggs (+ 1 egg for egg wash)
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup dried currants (take the time to hunt up dried currants...raisins will work if the situation is dire, but the results won't be nearly as good--you want the delicate texture and flavor of currants here.)

In mixer fitted with dough hook, mix together 2 cups of flour, surgar, yeast, and salt.

Heat milk, water, and butter until very warm, but not hotter than 120 degrees or you will kill the yeast.

Gradually beat liquid mixture into flour. Add two eggs and gradually add the rest of the flour. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and currants. Mix until dough is elastic.

Let rise, covered in a warm place 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Then, roll dough into 2" balls and place 2" apart on parchment lined cookie sheets. Pre-heat oven to 375. Let dough rise a second time, for about 30 minutes.

Just before baking brush buns with 1 egg beaten with 2 T. water.

Bake ate 375 for 15 minutes.

When cooled, make iced crosses with vanilla butter cream frosting. Makes about 24 hot cross buns.

P.S. What indispensable Easter candy was in your basket this year?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Prose and Potatoes's First Year Anniversary

Prose and Potatoes turned one year old this week! In this past year, as a result of starting Prose and Potatoes I've cooked and written and read so much, met so many people, experienced so many new and familiar and delicious tastes. Wow! Yet, here I am, the same person, (maybe older-with a few more gray hairs- maybe wiser with the experience of some failures) but still me, nonetheless.

It seems appropriate, then to point out that March, too, is an anniversary month: one year since we've had in-season spring foods. The cyclical motion of the year has revolved again to familiarity, much like welcoming back old friends from a 12-month-long journey. Achingly sweet, seed-studded strawberries, erect stalks of asparagus, and armor-studded artichokes have arrived! How I've missed them all. How I am comforted by the same garlic-roasted asparagus I made last March and the March before and the March before that. How I remember my delight at finding this amazing sauce from Orangette for artichokes, and making it again, scrapping my teeth against the leather artichoke leaves until the surrender their exquisite flesh.

The old adage, "the more things change, the more they remain the same," echoes in my mind today. By focusing on the food that revolves around the seasons, I am able to remind myself about change and predictability simultaneously. I am able to embrace the paradox in my everyday life. I am able to live and enjoy both the moment and the history that proceeds that moment. I am able to live fully.

In the year I've been writing Prose and Potatoes, not much has changed ideologically. Here's an excerpt from my very first post, that explains how I came by the name, Prose and Potatoes:

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. The variety of potatoes amazes 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 [and now, surprisingly back to the Midwest] 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. 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. In the kitchen and around the dinner table is where the stuff of life happens.

Thanks for reading.

Here are some of the highlights from the past year of culinary experiments:

Head Cheese

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bread Baking Simplified

Sometimes I think I only like to cook the way some people garden. I'm thinking of the type of gardener that grows some rare Zimbawbian passion flower that takes 18 months to germinate, and then only blooms for 1 hour before it expires. Fussy, prima donna type things that must be coddled, and coaxed or else they flop.

Sometimes I think I'm only in it for the challenge. If it's a recipe that's so complex, so challenging, so antiquated that no one I know, no one in their right mind would make such a thing, well, then I've probably tried it. This attitude has aided and abetted me through 26 ingredient recipes, through 12 hour sourdough baguettes, through 3 trials of spun sugar in one afternoon.

The problem is, after awhile, this becomes exhausting. As my New Years' Culinary Adventure list languishes, it's not because of lack of desire. It's lack of time and of financing. Another glitch to this is that time consuming and difficult are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So, with this skewed mentality, I sometimes scoff when I see an easy recipe. It bores me. I'm unimpressed.

This, I regretfully,admit, is what happened with Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread. I gladly made Lahey's Panettone this Christams. Going to 3 different grocery stores for candied citron, spending over an hour making handmade origami molds for the bread, rigging up a system to suspend the baked loves upside down while they cooled with chairs and broom handles--so the oh so finicky loaves wouldn't collapse on themselves. This clearly, was my type of recipe. A recipe that gives you, upon successful completion, bragging rights. (And upon unsuccessful execution crumbles of shattered panettone that leapped to their deaths from their broom handle perches, and which Henry the cat gladly ate.)

So-when proselytizers exhalted the glory of no-knead bread. (And honestly, there's been no end to the proselytizers. I feel almost guilty about writing yet another blog post on this fricking bread). However, this is a bread that has essentially no hands on time. When they said it just might be the greatest bread innovation since sliced bread...well, I was still skeptical albeit, a bit curious.

I had printed of the article and recipe from the NY times website on at least 3 different occasions, months lapsing between each. I just couldn't do it. Until my friend Diane asked me if this bread was worth the hype. She wanted to make it part of her New Year's food resolutions--and then her handsome, oh-so-handsome bulldog, Levi, got terribly sick and passed away. In those weeks, I had Diane in my thoughts, and as a result I finally tried No-Knead Bread, just so I could give a full report to a grieving friend thousands of miles away in Idaho. And, Diane, this bread is handsomely good.
This bread has even taught me about myself. I'm trying to learn how to let my life be less complicated. As I'm in the midst of starting a brand-new garden in a new place, I have to remind myself that sometimes less is more. That sometimes the easiest way is the best way (even if it's not so impressive). And that sometimes, a bread that you can make while working in the garden is quite delightful.

I started the bread the night before by mixing togehter flour, water, a tiny amount of yeast and some salt.
Then, the dough does it thing for about eighteen hours, cloacked in a layer of saran wrap. The next afternoon, I gathered the dough up into a ball, dusted it with flour and let it raise once more for 2 hours, nestled happily between two tea towels.
Meanwhile with the help of my friend, Laura, we proceeded to dig up 100 square feet of sod in my front yard:

Then after preheating the oven, and baking the loaf, we were rewarded with this:

which we promptly slathered with butter and apricot jam. As you can see, the crust is crackly, the crumb open, yet soft, simple the easiest and tastiest artisanal loaf of bread you could ever make. Find the recipe here.