Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Visions of Dutch Babies Danced In My Head

I dream about food.  Not only do I have waking daydreams of lentil stews and fresh baked bread and kale and a million other foods I love.  Not only does my mind wander to delicious meals when I'm driving or trying to meditate, but my sleeping dreams are also quite often invaded by visions of sugar plums and other such fancies.

Last night, well, last night I dreamt about Dutch Babies.  It was delightful waking up and realizing that I could turn this dream into a reality with relative ease and that I had the perfect excuse to do so as well.  E., my brother-in-law, has been our houseguest for the past few days.  Today, before he departed for Chicago, I wanted to give him a proper breakfast as a send off.  

E. is an enthusiastic, voracious eater, with an excellent palate and a sense of adventure.  (Apparently, these traits are not inheritable as Kent, E.'s younger brother, does not share the same appetite for culinary novelty.)  Among E's other admirable qualities is the fact that he's a breakfast eater.  I haven't cooked breakfast for someone in years because Kent did not inherit the breakfast-eater gene either.

Enter Dutch Babies.

Dutch Babies are in the pancake family, but are much less fussy to execute than an average flapjack.  They are eggy like French toast, custardy like bread pudding, and puffy like a souffle, but start with a batter that resembles a crepe batter.  Somehow, though, a Dutch Baby does not suffer an identity crisis, and the whole is greater than the sum of its separate virtues.  The Dutch Babies are light and tender, but still satisfyingly cakey.  Traditionally, Dutch Babies are served with lemon and powdered sugar.  I do not recommend that you skimp on this step.  As E. said after his first bite, "The lemon really ties everything together."  I feel that same.  The contrast of lemon and sugar punctuate the rich-eggy 'pancake' in a complimentary way, that without which, the Babies would feel naked.   

In a pre-coffee, dreamy state, I managed to cobble together two recipes for Dutch Babies with the ingredients I had on hand.  Making Dutch Babies was simple, homey, yet also special enough for company.  The results so good that even avowed breakfast avoider, Kent, couldn't resist one.  However, he refused the lemons and sugar and preferred a heavy dose of maple syrup with his, which was almost as good.

Dutch Babies (slightly adapted from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life and Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Cookbook).
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup all purpose flour
3 eggs, room temperature *
1/2 teaspoon salt
fresh lemon 
powdered sugar
*If using eggs straight from the refrigerator, place eggs in a bowl and cover with very hot tap water until ready to use.  

Preheat oven to 425.

Melt butter in 10 inch, cast iron skillet, or similar vessel that can go from stove top to oven.  Swirl butter to insure sides of skillet are well coated with butter. Set aside.

In small mixing bowl combine milk, flour, eggs, salt, and melted butter.  Blend with immersion blender until well mixed and slightly frothy. (Alternately, you could use a regular blender or a whisk and lots of upper body strength.)

Pour into prepared skillet and bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until golden brown around the edges.  (The middle will also puff slightly.)

Squirt with fresh lemon juice and sprinkle with powdered sugar just before serving.
Add a fried egg (from the backyard chickens) and toast with mulberry jam (from the neighbor's mulberry tree) if you're feeling particularly decadent.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pumpkins with a story to tell...

We like backstory around here.  I don't know if it's just because Kent and I both have degrees in creative writing, or if it's just a way to be playful, either way, we like to tell stories around here.  Mostly, the backstory involves the chickens or Mattie, Kent's cat.  For instance, before Mattie came to us, she was a lounge singer in New York City.  She had a bit of a problem with drinking too many martinis, so when she hit rock bottom --she doesn't like to talk about it--she somehow made it to the Omaha Nebraska Humane Society where Kent adopted her.
Mattie after her lounge singer days.

I guess backstory is a way of making sense of things and a way of letting your imagination run wild.  For local foodists, for people that care about where their food comes from and if animals or people or the environment were harmed along the way, then backstory becomes important, an inextricable part of the eating experience.

We made pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving that had quite a backstory.  The organic, heirloom sugar pie pumpkin seeds I bought in spring of 2009 online from Heirloom Seeds. But in 2009 the pumpkins all succumbed to squash vine borers.  This year, I planted the squash in a new location, slightly sandier soil on the south side of my garden.  We dug out a new garden bed in the spring, and had to dig out huge chunks of limestone and add lots of compost and horse manure to make the area friable. I wised up to the vine borers, too.  I squelched the glutinous little worms with an organic canola oil based bug spray.  While I was on the road teaching reading classes all summer, Kent watered the squash, keeping them alive.  In the early fall, the new neighbor kids, the four-year-old and I in particular, had a lot of conversations about pumpkins.  Finally in late October, harvest 2010: 7 gorgeous pie pumpkins.

Pumpkin Pie making is chaotic.
These pumpkins had to make our obligatory Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.  Since I was out of town the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Kent was also put on the job as sole pumpkin puree-er.  The problem was that Kent was a little too over zealous in his pumpkin pureeing.  We made two lovely pumpkins, one a traditional, the other based off of this recipe from Bon Appetit, but we still had pumpkin puree left. 
On left: Pumpkin Pie with Pepita, Nut, and Ginger Topping
But this blog post is not about pie, it's about what to do with 3 1/2 cups of pumpkin puree that has a backstory, and therefore is too precious to just feed to the chickens.  Perhaps you have a can of pumpkin puree moldering about your cupboard that you don't know what to to with.  This soup would put it too perfect use.
Pumpkin Curry Soup with Mark Bittman's Chickpea Flatbread

Pumpkin Curry Soup

2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 small onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced2 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 T. brown sugar
1 can full-fat coconut milk (15 oz.)
3 1/2 cups pumpkin puree
1 to 2 cups vegetable broth (if you use sodium-free broth, you'll need to add about a teaspoon of salt)
1 Tablespoon lime juice

Heat olive oil in large soup pot over medium heat.  Add onion and saute until soft and translucent.  Add garlic and cook for several minutes.  Have coconut milk close at hand.  Add spices, quickly, and saute until they begin to release their fragrance.  Cook for just a minute or so, you want them to be slightly toasted, but not burnt.  Then quickly pour in coconut milk to deglaze the pot.  Add pumpkin puree.  Add vegetable broth, starting with a cup, until soup is desired consistency.  Simmer for about 20 minutes.  Taste, adjust seasonings.  Finish with lime juice.  Serve with chopped cilantro on top, if desired.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Leftovers: Henry's Last Meal

Friday morning we buried our cat Henry under the forsythia bush on the south side of our house.  I cried a lot. 

Henry had simple, but fine tastes.  He couldn't resist roast chicken of any kind, and he loved a good head cheese. 

 And when I cooked pissy beef kidneys for an authentic medieval feast, that turned out inedible to humans, Henry was the only one that would touch them.

He also, Kent argues, had good taste in beer, as well as a bit of sweet tooth for fresh pears.

In his last few days, he was so weak and sick that he could barely eat, so we nursed him with syringes full of homemade chicken stock and maple syrup.

If there was ever an important reason to make chicken stock, this was it.  Luckily, I had a chicken carcass in the freezer, which I had froze several weeks ago when I didn't have time to make stock.   More than anything I wanted this food to heal my dear, feline companion of eight years.  But sadly, he was just too sick.  Now that he's gone, I am left with an empty spot on the comfy chair that was Henry's favorite napping spot, and 2 quarts of homemade, organic, free range chicken stock.

I also understand now why it's a cultural practice to bring casseroles and pies to the bereaved.  While I didn't expect any condolences, friends leaving messages on Facebook have been incredibly kind. I know the next time someone in my life has a major upheaval, I'll be the first to bring food.  I went nearly a whole five days without cooking a single thing except Henry's chicken stock.  There were nights of greasy General Tso's Tofu, nights of even greasier leftover General Tso's Tofu and even a night when, after spending several hours at the vet, we stopped by Kroger on our way home for hotdogs, buns, and a can of chili for dinner.  We have not had a pleasant week.

But finally, yesterday, I picked up my chef's knife and a few pots and pans and got back into the rhythm of the kitchen.  I wanted to do something with the leftovers from Henry's last meal.  Grief makes me feel like I'm moving through my life in slow motion, but the routine of cooking was a relief, a familiar pattern that I could lose myself in.

Every time I roast a chicken, I make a stock, and then soup.  While chicken noodle or chicken dumpling is a traditional standby, it seemed too much like sick food.  Instead, I made Thai Coconut Soup.  This soup is rich and complex, and overall, deeply satisfying.  I think that this is in part because of the contrast of flavors.  The sweetness of the coconut milk hits the front of your tongue, while the sourness from the lime tickles the sides, and deeper in your throat you feel the power of the chiles.  The fish sauce and mushrooms add unami to contrast with the sharp, bright zing of fresh cilantro.  This soup has a lot going on, but it's incredibly simple to make.

Thai Coconut Soup

A couple of notes. First, I am not picky about stock making techniques as long as it's homemade and is a true stock, which means it must be made with bones.  I just covered the entire chicken carcass with water (which I did not salt), brought it to a boil, and simmered for about an hour or so.  Then I removed the carcass, chilled the stock, and skimmed some of the solidified fat off the top.  If you boil the stock hard, it will become cloudy, but here that doesn't matter as the coconut milk hides any imperfection in the stock.

Second, I used dried lemongrass, which I found in a specialty Asian market. It is worth seeking out because it is so much cheaper than fresh lemongrass, and it's easier to work with. If you can't find it though, a 4-inch  piece of fresh lemongrass would work.  Simmer it whole, and then remove before serving.

Finally, do not even think about substituting light coconut milk here.  If you do, you'll be terribly disappointed in the flat flavor.

2 quarts chicken stock
1 t. dried lemongrass
3 (1-inch) pieces lime peel
4 (1-inch diameter) pieces thinly sliced fresh ginger
2 hot chiles (thai chilis, serrano, or similar), seeded and halved
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (15 oz.) can coconut milk
4 to 5 thinly sliced crimini (baby bella) mushrooms
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into 1 inch strips
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1 inch strips
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup diced cook chicken
4 limes, juiced
handful of chopped, fresh cilantro

Bring the stock to a boil in a large soup pot.  Add the lemongrass, lime peel, ginger, chiles, and garlic. Simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, mushrooms, bell peppers, fish sauce, sugar, and chicken and continue to simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until mushrooms are cooked through.

Remove from heat stir in lime juice.  Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more sugar or lime juice as needed.
Garnish with cilantro.  Warn diners of the lime peel and ginger coins, as they won't want to eat them.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Scary Things for Halloween

I hate being scared.  The thought of sitting through a horror movie makes my skin crawl and those little hairs on the back on my neck cringe.  The last thing I want to do as recreation is feel tense and anxious about seeing violent, gory things.  However, I like Halloween because I love coming up with creative costumes and eating fun size candy bars.  I also realize that scary is a relative term.  There is gross-scary, politically correct-scary, and just plain nail biting-scary.  Here are some scary things from today that are horrifying for completely different reasons.
Gnarly mold attacking 50% of my heirloom Potimarrion squash harvest. (Squash Vine Boers attacked the other half.)
My Halloween costume, which is the scariest food I know, factory farmed ground beef, tainted with e.coli.

A very sick (possibly diabetic) Henry Miller cat on heavy sedatives.

Approximately 50 lbs. of winter squash from Friendship Farms' CSA Program this season.
 Okay, so the last thing isn't really that scary unless you have a serious phobia regarding pumpkins, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, and butternut squash.  So for the next few weeks, I'll need to try to use these beauties up before they go the way of the gnarly mold.

Here's a round up of some of the recipes I may be using:

Squash Boats with Quinoa from Sprouted Kitchen.  With a filling that has basil, spinach, and pears to complement the nutty, earthy flavor of quinoa, this is at the top of my to-make list.

 Adzuki Butternut Squash Soup from 101 Cookbooks.  This hearty soup calls for one of my favorite flavor boosters: chipotle peppers in adobe sauce.  These little babies pack spice and smokiness.

Pumpkin Soup in a Pumpkin from Savuer.  I'm a sucker for lavish presentations, and this one, as soup baked and served in the pumpkin shell is no doubt impressive. The last time I tried this, however, we used a jack-o-lantern pumpkin and NOT a pie pumpkin--and in this case bigger was not better.  Big pumpkins are watery and flavorless.  So, if I make this it will be redemption.

So as I plot my squash attack plan and nurse my cat back to health, please let me know, what's your favorite way to use winter squash?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tomato Season: The Twilight Days

If tomato soup were an article of my wardrobe, it would be like a ratty T-shirt from college that I keep only for sentimental value.  Tomato soup held a special place in my life in my early twenties, particularly when I lived off of a college meal plan.  Tomato soup--the generic Campbell's kind straight from a number 10 can with a side of grilled cheese--was one of the most consistent and reliable meals offered at the cafeteria.  Even after I moved out of the dorms, canned tomato soup was in heavy rotation during my undergrad years.  And, then I forgot about, figuratively shoved it to the back of the closet.

But October tomatoes got me thinking about tomato soup again because these are exactly the type of tomatoes that need to be simmered slowly because fall tomatoes are ugly.  They crack and wrinkle.  Their bottoms get soggy, and their shoulders stay green.  These aren't the gorgeous slicers of August. October tomatoes are not trendy now at the farmers market by any means.  In the local food scheme of things, they should be shoved aside this time of year for butternut squash and sage and hearty fall brassicas like brussel sprouts and cabbage.  Yet my 24 tomato plants keep on slowly producing fruit, too little to justify canning but too many for straight eating, and I can't bear to euthanize them before the first killing frost.  By now, though, the tomatoes are cantankerous geriatrics, they have all the intense wisdom of the taste of a tomato, but they've lost the beauty of youth with its firm, unblemished wrinkle free skin and firm, hard bodies.  These are soup tomatoes.

I took 8 lbs. of ugly, cracked tomatoes and made a lovely simple soup, and I realize I've come a long way since my Campbell soup days, just as these tomato plants have come a long way since May.  And, I'm still not willing to throw out any memorabilia, ratty or otherwise.

Simple Tomato Soup

This recipe calls for Better than Bouillon Vegetable Base, but feel free to substitute your favorite bouillon or even straight table salt. I like Better than Bouillon because it doesn't contain any MSG, and it's cheaper than buying straight vegetable stock.  It yields a quality flavor, and it lasts indefinitely in the refrigerator.  In my dream world, bouillon concentrate wouldn't be necessary because I'd have a troop of Ommpa Loompa kitchen helpers (but without that whole indentured servant thing) that would make stock for me from scratch while I slept at night.  But I don't feel too guilty because many of the upscale kitchens I've worked at over the years have "cheated" with commercial soup bases from time to time.  Here, the bouillon actually works to boost flavor without diluting the tomato essence like a straight vegetable stock would.

8 lbs of geratric tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 T. olive oil
1 t. dried oregano (or more to taste)
1 t. dried basil (or more to taste)
1 t. Better than Bullion Vegetable Base

To peel tomatoes, in batches of two or three, blanch in boiling water until skins loosen (about 30 seconds), and then plunge in cold water.  After this, skins should slip right off.  To seed, cut tomatoes around their equator and squeeze seeds out into a fine mesh strainer, reserving the liquid for the soup pot.

In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium high heat and saute onion until translucent.

Add tomatoes, oregano, basil, and Better than Bullion, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until tomatoes are cooked down.

Puree with immersion blender for a smooth soup or leave chunky for a more rustic style.

Makes One Big Pot of Soup (ample for several days of lunches)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Simplicity Itself: Rice and Lentils

Life has gotten more complicated than I would like.  School started, and six weeks passed in a flurry of lesson plans, lecture notes, and term papers to grade.  The last two days, I've been on fall break and recovering from a previous week of 90 individual student conferences and grading 90 essays, not to mention a week chock full of obligations: individual reading tutoring, gardening tending, and dinner making.

Now midterms are done.  I look up and life has gone by fast.  Too quickly to savor, too quickly to be calm, grounded, or centered.  So swiftly, that it felt like I wasn't even present.

My bookshelf is littered with books like The Simple Living Guide and The 50 Best Ways to Simplify Your LifeAlthough I read them, and they do make a lot of sense, I have trouble executing a truly simple life.  It's because I just want to DO so much.  The piles of books to read, the piles of fabrics to sew, the piles of vegetables to cook sitting at the bottom of the fridge.  How does it become too much so quickly?

Systematically weeding the categories of my life down to the essential seems to be the best way for me to balance.  So lately, I've been thinking about the complexity and chaos of my kitchen.  The piles of veggies get canned or frozen or turned into vegetable soups and eaten.  But the urgency of it all is stressful.  I have to remind myself that it is okay of some of those piles of veggies get turned into eggs.  The chickens don't mind eating wilted, soggy-around-the-edges lettuce.  I also remind myself that this vegetable anxiety is seasonal.  This week is the last week we'll receive our CSA box for the year, so the stream of local veggies will ebb to a trickle.  We haven't had a frost yet, so my garden is still producing, but as the days get shorter, it takes the tomatoes longer to ripen. I welcome the slower pace the winter will bring.

My other problem with kitchen complexity is in what I choose to cook in the first place.  Somehow my cooking repertoire has revolved around the 2 hour, 20 ingredient recipe for far too long.  Now I'm concentrating on simpler, easier recipes for awhile.  I don't want to dabble in the occultish realm of recipes requiring frozen tater tots, Miracle Whip, and cream of mushroom soup though.  Instead, I want to focus on quality ingredients (not too many) prepared in just a few simple steps.

The simplest dish that I make on a regular basis is mujadara.  Mujadara came on my radar in two different places last winter.  First, a local coffee shop served it on its lunch menu, and second, Orangette wrote about it here.  While I like the Orangette version just fine, I've simplified it even further.  Rather than cook the onions, then the lentils, and then the rice, clocking in at about an hour and a half of attentive stove time, I cook it all at once in three separate pans.  This dirties more dishes.  (But like Kent says, my greatest talent is dirtying a large amount of dishes in a short amount of time.)  The problem with cooking it all in one pot is that it becomes a finicky, nearly risotto like dish.  And, I have had issues with risotto trying my patience in the past.

I'm not going to give you a recipe here because you don't even need one.  Cook a pot of basmati rice.  Cook a pot of lentils.  (You'll be fine following the directions on the packages of both.)  And, then caramelize 3 or 4 large onions in olive oil.  Mix all together and salt to taste.

Do not be deceived by the simplicity of this dish.  With only 5 ingredients including salt and oil, it seems as if the flavor would be blah, but it's not. The secret is in the onions.  Caramelized onions make this dish spectacular because they are the perfect fall flavor: rich and hearty but still sweet, with a calm mellowness.  Sort of like the weather right now, sunny but punctuated by a chill in the air.  The caramelized onions also play off of the other flavors here: the bright, slightly fruity, nuttiness of the basmati rice, and the deeper, earthier taste of the lentils.

Caramelized Onions

4 to 5 large onions, chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Chop onions and cook in oil over medium heat until they begin to brown.  The goal is to brown them to a deep caramel color without burning them.  So, if they start to brown too quickly, or blacken around the edges, you need to turn the heat down.  Stir occasionally.  Depending on the natural sugar level in your onions this could take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes.

I have come to enjoy the soothing patience that these onions require.  They don't need as much attention as a risotto, (I can still do dishes while caramelizing onions without disaster, which is important in my household!)  I only have to focus on one pan, while the rice and lentils cook away on their own.   

Here's the finished dish, which is great eaten hot, cold, or even at room temperature.  The caramelized onions are incredibly versatile as well.  They are great on sandwiches or tossed with pasta.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"What to Drink with What you Eat" or Becoming my own Sommelier

There are lots of things I like about living in a small college town, but the dining options are not one of them.  It seems that most restaurants in Bowling Green cater to the beer-drinking, fried-food and pizza loving undergrad, frat boy.  Not that there is any thing wrong with any of those things, especially when the pizza front is highly competitive in this town.   However, when Kent and I want to celebrate with a SERIOUS dinner, say for our 5th wedding anniversary, our choices are restricted.

Luckily for us, there is Revolver.  Revolver is 25 miles down the interstate, but worth the 50 mile drive round trip for sure.  Locally owned by Chef Michael Bulkowski, Revolver is the closest restaurant I know that takes culinary skill seriously.  You won't find anything that comes premade and frozen in a box, for instance.  What you will find is local, seasonal, freshly prepared food--from the inventive-- squash blossoms stuffed with zucchini bread --to the comfortable--a grass-fed strip steak with a big bowl of creamy, cheesy polenta.

We made our rezzy and were looking forward to dinner at Revolver all week.  When I got home after class, I found that a copy of What to Drink with What you Eat arrived in the mail.*  I was thrilled.  What to Drink with What you Eat by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page is the 2006 prequel to The Flavor Bible, which as you know I love.  Like The Flavor Bible, What to Drink with What you Eat, is a reference book.  The first four chapters of the book introduce the concept of pairing food and wine (or other beverages). I particularly liked the how Dornenburg and Page emphasize that "enjoying good food and drink goes hand in hand with living a pleasant life." They also encourage readers to think of the beverage as the final seasoning or condiment that elevates the dish to something magical.

So, I showed up to dinner with the hardcover book under my arm, and Kent humored me.  (Although I agreed not to take pictures of each course--as it is his pet peeve--and I tried to be on my best behavior for our anniversary.)  While I don't recommend making a habit of bringing reference books to dinner, I felt okay about it for a couple of reasons.  Revolver's waitstaff is familiar with us.  Plus, even though it's the closest thing you can get to fine dining around here, it's still a small, laid-back restaurant.  I referenced WtDwWyE as I perused the menu and the wine list.  I wanted to see if the book could replace a sommelier, and it did.  Revolver does not have a sommelier on staff, although their waitstaff is generally knowledgeable about wine recommendations, and its wine list is small but serviceable.

Usually, my pairing method is brash--even after the years of wine seminars I had when I was a server working in fine dining--I stuck to the basic conventions of red wine with red meat and white wine with chicken and fish.  When I created pairings for myself, that's what I would follow.  I also knew what MY palate liked, and usually didn't deviate from it.  I was in a bit of a rut, or as Donrenburg and Page would say I've been a "comfort seeker" rather than an "adventure seeker" with my wine choices.

I've put a lot of faith in The Flavor Bible in the past, so I had no trouble giving WtDwWyE my trust.  Rather than order a large entree, I created my own tasting menu by only ordering first course dishes.  I began with the Sweet Corn Bisque topped with crispy, fried pancetta, ricotta, and drizzled with white truffle oil.  I knew the bisque would be rich and a bit sweet.  I looked up both CORN and CREAM and cross referenced.  Champagne and sparkling wine both came up--so I started with a glass of Cristalino, Brut Cava from Spain.  The Cava was dry with a yeasty, fresh bread bouquet.  This pairing worked because the soup was so rich it was like velvet, so the dryness and bubbles from the Cava refreshed the palate after every bite of soup without fighting with it.

My second course was the most difficult to pair.  I ordered the Pickled Cow's Tongue served with a soft boiled egg, arugula, and roasted beets.  In the past, I would have rashly ordered a softer, lighter red to go with it, but I was worried about pairing a red wine with egg.  When I cross referenced EGGS and BEETS, I found a Riesling would work with both.  I was convinced because in hierarchy of references (determined by bold fonts and capital letters, under beets the listing said, "RIESLING, ESP. GERMAN, ESP. WITH ROASTED BEETS."  Normally, I would not have ordered a reisling because I feel they can be too sweet.  The Loosen Bros., "Dr. L." Riesling from Mosel, Germany was no exception.  Alone, I would have regretted this choice, but with the roasted beets, it truly was dynamic.  The sweetness in the beets and the sweetness in the wine seemed to mingle to create a richer, and earthier taste in the beets.  The rich custard of the soft boiled egg yolk further helped the synergy.  I was shocked at what a surprising and delightful combination this was.  The beef tongue, which is rich and succulent, didn't suffer at all from being made to consort with a white wine.

My third and final course, was a Housemade Duck Sausage with a Buttermilk Biscuit, Cinnamon Poached Pears, and Milk Foam.  By now, getting a bit tipsy, I had less finesse. I only looked up DUCK, saw PINOT NOIR, and went for it.  The Rascal Pinot from Willamette Valley, Oregon, was amazing.  After my first sip, I was enchanted by the flavor of vanilla and maple syrup.  This also turned out to be a perfect pairing because the duck sausage and biscuit was incredible reminiscent of breakfast, so the hints of maple in the wine made me very happy.

Kent and I went on a wine tasting tour of Sonoma on our honeymoon, and brought back a case of wine, one bottle to open for every anniversary up to our twelve.  For our fifth anniversary, we had squirreled away a bottle of 2003 Seghesio Aglianico from Alexander Valley, California.  Because liquor laws in Ohio do not allow outside liquor on premise, we decided to pop the Aglianico the next night.  This time instead of looking up food and finding wine to match, I looked up wine first. Aglianico is a full-bodied wine.  This particular vintage was rich in tobacco notes.  At the end of the listing, it read: "TIP: Aglianico goes perfectly with a spicy sausage pizza."  So we ordered in from the best pizza place, Myles Pizza Pub, in Bowling Green.  Kent was more impressed with the pairing than I was, but after trying the combination, it made sense pair a robust wine with fatty, spicy pie.  They were equally matched.

I highly recommend What to Drink with What you Eat because it offers a pragmatic, yet non pretentious approach to wine pairings.  Even though it's sophisticated, it's never snobby.  In fact, it even recommends pairings for Doritos and Big Macs just in case you're interested.

 *Full Disclosure: I received What to Drink with What you Eat as a free review copy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kale Butter Step 1: Admitting I Have a Problem

I am obsessed with kale.  I'm slightly worried that perhaps like a drug addiction, I'll wake up one morning, semi-clothed in a strange bathtub with a bottle of cheap olive oil, a butcher knife, and a new tattoo that says: Eat More Kale, and wonder how did I get here?

Lacinato Kale (aka dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale, or Cavolo Nero)
Without even realizing it, my addiction for kale has caused me to wake up from a peaceful slumber, in my own bed (no stranger's bathtub, yet) with a jonesing for kale so strong that even before coffee was made I was out in the garden picking kale to eat for breakfast.  Without being fully awake, I did not notice all the tiny aphid-eating white spiders that I was bringing into the house on the kale leaves, but even with the spider infestation, it was worth it.  (As a kale kale addict I only cared about getting my next fix, so I could care less that the spiders all drowned in the sink when I washed off the kale leaves.)

Lovely field of kale in my front yard.
If I look back, I'm not even sure how I got to this point.  I don't even clearly remember the first time I ever ate kale.  I do remember that it first came on my radar when we lived in Boise.  The brother of our neighbor across the street would stop by our house when he visited his sister.  He was a bit earthy-crunchy, and he had a lot of experience with organic vegetable gardening.  He'd come by with extra seeds, take a look at our garden, and offer advice.  He was raving about the dinosaur kale he grew, how it wouldn't get bitter or bolt in the heat like other greens, and how it produced like crazy.  So somewhere between the summer of 2008 and the late 2009, I have developed this kale "problem".

Kale addiction sneaks up on you because that's the thing about kale, it goes from being benign, vapid, non impressive, even to something you need to eat immediately, right this second, can't get enough of, have eaten so much of in the past 48 hours your poop turns green, obsession.

That's exactly what happened with my newest method of getting high on kale: kale butter.  At first it was eh, nothing special.  But then, I ate a whole batch by myself in a matter of hours and had to make another batch the next day, which I also polished off in less than 48 hours.  Then, two days later, my friend AMR, made invited me over and had made a batch, which I also put quite a dent in.

Kale Butter

I'd like to think that if I can't seem to get enough of  such a super powerhouse of nutritional density that it's my body simply telling me what I need.  Surprisingly, 1 cup of steamed kale has nearly the same amount of calcium as a cup of whole milk. Kale is also choke full of Iron, Fiber, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Folate, Magnesium and Phosphorus, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, Potassium, Copper and Manganese, and even Protein.

But who cares about the nutriton when kale just tastes good? 

Kale Butter
This kale butter recipe came to me via my CSA weekly newsletter, along with a big baggie of Russian Red Kale.  Although I hate reprinting other recipes here, I'm going to give my interpretation of it.  Originally, this recipe came from Rip Esselstyn's The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter's 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plane that Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds.  I highly recommend this book.  Not only is it a compelling story of a group of firefighters that went vegan when their cholesterol levels were dangerously high (and as a result their levels dramatically dropped), but it is full of delicious, healthy, and easy to make recipes.  So, go make this kale butter and then get your hands on a copy of The Engine 2 Diet.  

This is hardly a recipe, but a technique for mainlining more kale.  Here's my intrepretation of it:

Steam a big bunch of chopped kale (don't even worry about destemming it) in a metal steamer basket for about 5 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, toast a handful of walnuts on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes or until golden brown.

Puree steamed kale and walnuts in food processor, adding the green steamer water if the mixture is too dry.

Add salt to taste.

Eat massive amounts on crackers, crostini, pita, sandwich bread, rice cakes, or straight from the bowl.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Rottenly Written Recipe, but Deliciously Roasted Potato Dish

I've had some crabby, rotten, no good days lately.  This is normal for me this time of year.  As a bit of a control freak, I do not do well when my schedule changes.  Even if it is a good schedule change.  The new fall semester has brought a new, nearly ideal, job (one with benefits and without a commute-- I walk to work most days!)  But I've found myself reeling from the low level stress of adjusting to new bed times and alarm times, new students, and new department policies.  This leaves me exhausted and cranky.  Oh, I'll snap out of it in about another week.  This always happens.

But, since I'm talking about things that make me feel crabby and rotten, like adjusting to a completely new schedule...I might as tell you my big pet peeve: poorly written recipes.

Now some poorly written recipes are benign.  They are so terribly conceived that a simple glace warns away any cook. Those are not the recipes I want to talk about.  I want to talk about the more dangerous, more subtle poor recipe.

 A couple of days ago, I began stalking the internet for a way to use up some CSA fennel.  I stumbled upon this recipe for Garlic-Roasted Potatoes and Fennel. It looked perfect.  Roasted potatoes, fennel, garlic seasoned with fennel seeds, coriander seeds, Spanish smoke paprika, and saffron.  I felt it would go well with a tomato/bean casserole I had leftover.  (And I must say, the flavor combination was dynamic.) 

What should have been as simple as throwing everything in a roasting pan and baking became an annoying, illogical progression of steps.  First, the recipe said to prep the fennel, but the fennel was used last.  Second, instead of starting by heating the broth and steeping the saffron (which takes at least 15 minutes), the recipe has the cook complete that step AFTER all the other chopping, mincing, and seasoning took place.  So, I found myself, with all my veggies chopped, waiting while the saffron steeped all while the temperature in my kitchen climbed as my preheating oven rumbled away.

But, I finally got everything in the oven, the final straw was imprecise cooking times.  After 30 minutes, the recipe says to add the fennel.  (Which makes no sense because fennel is the hardest, densest ingredient, with the longest cooking time.  But, I was obviously too tired from new early alarm clock times to think this through, so I followed the directions, and my fennel was undercooked and rubbery.)  Not only that, but the recipe said to bake an initial 50 minutes after the fennel went in OR until the broth mixture evaporates.  My broth mixture evaporated in 15 more minutes NOT 50, which seems like a significant difference.  But, as the potatoes were browned nicely, I didn't want to cook any longer to risk burning the other ingredients.

I think the reason that I'm so pissed off about this terribly written is because it was such a tasty dish.  I even ate leftovers straight cold, and they were delicious.  The broth makes the potatoes taste rich.  The fennel seed and coriander give the whole dish the spicy savoriness of sausage without any of the fat or cholesterol.  Add the subtle smokiness from the smoked paprika, and the dish comes together in an elegant way.  You could do away with the fennel bulb here all together and not be dissapointed, I'd just add more peppers instead.

I want to make this dish again, but it is just down right idiotic in it's methodology. So here's how I would re-write it for an easy, stress free assembly:

Garlic-Roasted Saffron Potatoes and Fennel 
*rewritten from, originally a Cooking Light recipe.

1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
 2 pounds small red potatoes, halved
2 large green bell peppers, cut into 1/2 inch strips
2 fennel bulbs, core removed and thinly sliced
10-12 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed in mortar and pestle
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly crushed in mortar and pestle
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat vegetable broth in saucepan until warm.  Remove from heat.  Stir in saffron.  Let stand 10 minutes.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, arrange potatoes in a single layer in a large roasting pan coated with olive oil; drizzle with more oil. Finely chop 1 garlic clove; sprinkle over potatoes. Add peeled garlic cloves, pepper strips, fennel, fennel seeds, coriander, paprika, salt, and black pepper to potatoes; toss well to combine.

Stir in vinegar into saffron broth; drizzle broth mixture over potato mixture. Bake at 375° for 30 minutes.  Stir mixture.  Return to oven; cook an additional 15 minutes or until the broth mixture almost evaporates and potatoes begin to brown.

I get a lot of recipes online, but have found that I need to be incredible judicious about which ones I'll try.  The that end, I avoid and like the plague.  How about you do you have any recipe sites you avoid or sites that you always trust for good recipes?  Do share!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Garlic in my Garden is Barbara Kingsolver's Fault

Books hypnotize me.  If I read a book that I like, I am susceptible to any idea that I come across on the page.

At the Institute of Reading Development (my summer teaching gig), we talk about how kids need to acquire absorption, that is the ability to be so immersed in the world of the book that it's as if the child becomes the character that they are reading about, and there's no conscious thought of "I'm reading this."  If a kid can become absorbed, then they will most likely become a lifelong reader.  Absorption is that lightening strike experience that turns a reluctant reader into bibliophile.  Absorption gives literature its brilliant power.  As for myself, I can't remember a time that I didn't ever love books.  I do, however, remember the first time that I was susceptible to the suggests in a book.

But perhaps at first I aimed for emulation rather than absorption.  When I was 4 or 5 years old, certainly before I was reading on my own, I wanted to do everything possible in my play world to act and dress like the characters from my picture books.  The name of the book and character that I first emulated eludes me, probably because I felt mislead by the character in the end.  But I do remember that the main character had a doll.  At one point in the story, she mistreats the doll.  A mud puddle was involved.  In a stunt of pure immitation, I dressed my best doll up (in purple gingham) and then dashed her directly into a giant mud puddle.  The stains didn't wash out later when I tired, and I felt bitterly betrayed by the character because in the book the mud stains on her dolly's dress washed out, and she evades punishment.  I did not.

This is just a really long way to say that Barbara Kingsolver is the reason why I plant garlic.  I may be older and wiser now, but I still want emulate those that I admire when I read them on the page.  When people talk about life-changing books, they usually say something along the lines of:  it was exactly the right book at exactly the right time.  There is serendipity if life's journey coincides perfectly with the ideas, knowledge, and creativity contained on the pages of the right book. Barabara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a life-changing book, but serendipitous it was not. I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle at completely the wrong time.

This book chronicles Kingsolver's year-long experiment to only eat local food, most of it home-grown.  I read this book in the fall, at the end of the growing season, right before gardening was ending for the entire year, at at time when it would be at least a good six months before I could start my own garden in Ohio when the only thing I wanted to do was plant a garden *sigh*

2010 Garlic Harvest

Toward the end of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Kingsolver and her husband are about to embark on a trip to Italy in just a few hours, but rather than packing, she contemplates planting garlic bulbs before they leave.  I admire this impulse to tie up loose ends before traveling.  (As my itinerant reading teacher schedule has made for strange mid-week "weekends" in which I spend 12 or 14 hours in the kitchen canning veggies and performing other such produce triage as the garden's harvest threatens to over-ripen and expire.)

Garlic Braid: No vampires here!

So I found myself imitating Barbara Kingsolver. That late September when I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I realized I could plant garlic to harvest the next summer. So that's why garlic was the first thing I ever planted in Ohio.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chinese Noodle Making Adventure

A recipe is its own language.  With a reliable standardized set of precise measurements and concise directions a recipe will yield a consistent result, if applied accurately.  This terrifies some people.

This perhaps is why there are 3 types of people in this world: those that follow recipes, those that don't, and those that don't cook at all.  Changing the way I make food is just far enough out of my comfort zone to feel thrillingly adventurous.

I am a recipe cook.  It's a cliche to admit learning cooking "at grandmother's knee."  But I really wonder how many people really do learn how to cook from an older relative. (Which I should mention that most of my grandparents' and great grandparents' generation never used a recipe, and as a consequence, took the secret code of their dishes with them to the grave.)  I didn't learn much about cooking from the older relatives. 

My mom did, however, teach me how to read a recipe through a 4-H project.  The first cooking project that I took was called "The Road to Good Cooking."  The manual explained good cooking habits, especially measuring and food safety by using traffic sign metaphors.

This is why I am a recipe cook.  (Perhaps this is also why I'm a good driver.)

Even when I'm creating my own dish, the urge to write it down, to record the precision of how the ingredients merge and emerge into a coherent dish is strong.  So, when Chen told me that there is no recipe for Chinese noodles, that you only mix together water and flour, I was skeptical.  When he explained that the technique to make them involved hand stretching, as he gestured a stretching motion with his hands I thought that I'd never be able to master noodle making.  If you can't write it down into a recipe, how can I translate it?  Sometimes a word by word recipe isn't strong enough to convey the technique.  Sometimes you need hands or practice by the side of a master.

Chen started the Chinese noodles by adding water to all purpose flour.  With incredible dexterity, he mixed the dough with chop sticks until a stiff dough formed.

Then, we kneaded the dough for about 20 minutes.  This is the stiffest dough that I have ever worked with.  The kneading the dough though develops the strands of gluten, which allows the dough to stretch with the elasticity of a fat rubber band.

This dough is about twice as stiff as an average bread dough. It begins rough, but as it's worked developed a smooth solidity.  Here is Chen and me getting a bit of a workout kneading the dough.

 Next we patted the dough into flat disks about 1 inch thick and 8 inches in diameter.

Then, the Chen cut the dough into 1 inch wide batons.

Next, he coated the dough batons in vegetable oil, then wrapped then in plastic wrap.  It is important to let the dough sit for at least two hours, so we had plenty of time to sit and drink tea and eat silver ear mushroom soup.

Finally, we patted each baton flat with our fingers, and then rolled it out with a special Chinese-style rolling pin.

From there, the dough stretched and snapped like elastic as Chen pulled both ends.

Then the noodles were cooked.  Instead of timing the cooking Chen showed me how to let the noodles come to a boil, and then add cold water until it stopped boiling.  Repeat this twice, and then by the third time to pot of noodles comes to a boil, they are ready.

The noodles were fresh, pleasantly chewy, and readily absorbed the spicy/salty toppings both Lan and Chen had made.

From top, clockwise: pork and peppers; ground beef, potato, onion mushroom; fried tomato and egg with ginger.

My Chinese noodle-making adventure showed me a new way to learn a recipe.  And, I am richer for the experience because not only did Chen share food, but knowledge of how to make that food which will stick with me long after I've eaten.

How about you?  How have you learned to cook?  Do you know any special techniques that can't be learned by a recipe?  Who taught them to you?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Garden Grows Friendships

It started when I planted garlic in my front yard.  You see, my backyard is full of shade trees, so the only logical place to plant vegetables on my rental property is the front yard.  Luckily, I live in a college town, on the student side of the railroad tracks, so ripping up front lawns to grow food goes over well.  No homeowner's association is going to be suing me.

When you grow vegetables in your front yard, though, your gardening is on display for the whole neighborhood.  This openness, this crack of vulnerability, has created a space for me to build bonds, to build my little community.  People walking by stop to chat about vegetables, about a favorite grandma/uncle/cousin who used to garden.  People stop to ask questions about what is growing or want advice about how to grow their own.  Friendships, like the plants, are nurtured in this green, growing space between my front door and the sidewalk.

In the fourth grade reading classes I teach this summer, we read The Cricket in Times Square.  This classic children's novel is all about forming unlikely friendships.  In one class period, I ask students how did you meet one of your friends?  Then, I share this story.

One day Chen, who lives in my neighborhood walked by my house and saw my garden.  "Very nice garden," he said.  The next day he walked by again and this time he noticed the garlic growing in my yard.  "No can buy here," he said pointing to the garlic.  "We have in China, but you can't buy it here in the stores."  The garlic was young, still green.  It was the size of gigantic scallions.  The bulbs hadn't formed yet.  He was so interested in the garden, I gave him a tour (it's not hard to convince a gardener to show off her labors.)  I also sent him home with a bag of green garlic.

A few days later, Chen was back with his friend Lan.  They stopped by on their evening walk to admire my garden.  Perhaps it reminded them of China, or perhaps they, like me, have a passionate love for all vegetables.  From this, a friendship was formed as we began talking about food.  It was decided that Chen would teach me to make Chinese style noodles.

From my garden, I have harvested an unexpected and delightful new friendship with two generous fellow food lovers.  This week I spent an afternoon with Chen and Lan making Chinese noodles (will post the details soon) and drinking tea.  And, if you've read The Cricket in Times Square, know that I was in as much awe over the Chinese food Lan and Chen made for me as Mario was when he and Chester Cricket visit Sai Fong for dinner! I'm sure this is just the beginning of the many food adventures we'll share together.  All of this came from a few cloves of garlic and some vegetables seeds planted where most people just have lawns.

I started my garden because I care deeply about the food I eat.  I want my food to be organic, not grown with dangerous chemicals that could harm me or the animals, soil, air, and water around me.  And I don't want my food to have traveled more miles than I have in the past week.  I want food that is fresh, flavorful, and fits my budget.  I want the pride that comes with turning a seed into a carrot or watermelon. I want to be outside and watch how the garden unfolds, grows, changes, and dies a little bit each day.  I wanted all of these things when I began this garden this spring, but I didn't realize that I would get so much more than that.

This garden has rooted me, quite literally, in place.  I have met my neighbors and have had meaningful exchanges because of this garden.  I have built a small community of food lovers, gardeners, and curious passerbys because of a shared interest in this garden.  I have inspired neighbors to plant a few vegetables of their own.  And, I've had the opportunity to share the bounty of the garden.  As it produces copious vegetables, I am delighted to pass the abundance forward.

Sure, it's just a vegetable garden, but it's also a whole lot more.