Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year - Welcome to 2014

2013 was a busy year for me.  And an expensive year.  I did less of some things (reading and writing) and more of others (canning and knitting).  My activities were generally more, well, active, except maybe the knitting.  Knitting is a sedentary activity for sure, but I spent a lot of time knitting at the local yarn and fabric shop where I perhaps bordered on social, getting encouragement and soaking up inspiration and creativity from fellow knitters, which does wonderful things for the energy level.  But canning and cooking are decidedly physical activities.  And getting rid of stuff, which I managed to do a bit of, tends to be a physical activity.  Most physical of all is going to the gym and working with a trainer on a regular basis.  One of the handier side effects of going to the gym has been impressive relief for the muscular issues associated with the tendonitis in my right elbow.  Those issues kept me from knitting much at all in the last several years

The things I did more of have inspired me to continue to broaden my horizons in those directions.  The success of Project Homemade Homegrown Christmas has me plotting what to knit for gifts in the coming year (and they may not all be Christmas gifts).  I discovered that there are nieces with interest in knitting and cooking, so I am back to thinking about the family recipe cookbook project which has been dormant for quite a while.

I pickled eggplant as well as cucumbers, and there are jars of red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar fermenting in my basement.  The cucumber pickles are getting rave reviews, so I wonder what else I can/should pickle and ferment.

I added applesauce, tomato jam, carmelized red onion relish, and apple butter to my repertoire.  While I plan to make all of those again this year, the books those recipes came from have plenty of others which I want to try.

I dabbled a bit in baking -- oatmeal cookies, sea salted toffee chocolate chip cookies, and cheddar cheese scones.  Take note: warm cheddar cheese scones spread with homemade apple butter are the stuff of pure happiness.

The next few months will be about planning as well as doing, but I definitely want to keep up with the more active pursuits, so I don't know yet what will become of this blog.  It always seems like a good idea to record recipe adventures, but once I get caught up in the process, I have to pay enough attention to what I am actually doing that I don't take notes or pictures.  Once I am finished, I am often too tired to sit down and write about it right away, and the aforementioned lack of notes and pictures makes it difficult to do later.  I have considered a voice recorder, but electronics and food preparation don't necessarily get along too well, especially if there is a lot of liquid and steam involved.  Then there is the matter of transcription.  Maybe shorter posts.  I'll have to keep thinking about it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Happy 101st birthday, Julia Child!

“Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile, and learn from her mistakes.”

― Julia ChildMy Life in France

More Julia quotes here: http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3465.Julia_Child

Monday, August 5, 2013

More Improvisational Cooking

If you are going to try cooking without a net (or written recipe), now is the time to do it.  Or at least now is the time to do it in the parts of the world where it is summer and there is abundant, fresh, local produce to be had.

Marketing departments want you to believe that summer is almost over so that you will stock up on school supplies and buy new fall (or even winter) wardrobes, but there are still almost seven weeks of official summer left.  Seven weeks!  And the end of summer actually means the height of harvest for some crops.

One of my favorite summer dishes is the delectably simple insalata caprese: layers of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, and leaves of fresh basil drizzled with a little something -- usually balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but I tend to just go with Kalamata olive oil and skip the vinegar, but each to his own.  I slice the tomatoes, grind just a little bit of high quality salt over the slices, and let them sit for a few minutes before I add the basil and mozzarella.  Tomatoes *love* salt, but just a touch.  Fresh, ripe tomatoes are delicious on their own, it's true, but a hint of salt really opens up the flavor without making them taste salty.  (Reading Salted by Mark Bitterman opened up a world of salt possibilities.  It's amazing how varied one little compound can be.)

I wasn't quite organized enough to make the mozzarella myself, so I bought it at the grocery store, but the basil and tomatoes came from local farmers.  As I was eating, all I could think was "When real food tastes this good, why did I ever eat processed junk?"  Sure, the industrial food is convenient, and I am quite certain that it is specifically designed to be addictive, but I also believe that real, fresh food (even if it is not necessarily local -- I do love avocados, which definitely don't grow around here) has the power to break that addiction.

But I digress.

This past weekend it was finally cool enough to do some canning, so on Saturday I stopped at a roadside stand selling pickling cucumbers, and yesterday I made pickles.  I had a good handful of fresh dill left over, and I bought a bulb of fennel at a farmers' market, so I decided to try an improvisational version of what I refer to as "green soup."  "Official" green soup is actually split pea, fennel, and spinach soup from Vegetarian Times.  I didn't have split peas or spinach, but I had a bunch of frozen summer squash I have been wanting to use up, so the recipe went something like this:

2 small leeks, halved, rinsed, and sliced crosswise, about 1 cup, maybe a little less
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
10 or so grinds each of salt and pepper
1 medium bulb of fennel, leafy fronds removed, but stalks included, 1 - 1 1/2 cups
4 containers mixed frozen summer squash, probably 5 or 6 cups
The handful of fresh dill left over from making pickles, chopped
Some other miscellaneous seasonings I thought would be a good idea - Sunny Paris and Pasta Sprinkle
Enough homemade turkey stock to cover the lot, somewhere in the vicinity of 4 to 6 cups

I used to be obsessed with measurements, but the more that I cook, the more I learn that it is about proportions and balancing flavors -- not to mention adjusting to taste.

I sauteed the leeks and garlic in a little olive oil for a few minutes over medium heat, adding the salt and pepper along the way.  The fennel went in next, and a few minutes later the squash.  I heated the turkey stock to a simmer before adding it to the pot along with the dill and other seasonings.  Then I brought everything to a boil and lowered to a simmer.  After about 30 minutes of simmering, I pureed the whole batch with the fabulous immersion blender and let it simmer another 30 minutes or so.

At the risk of sounding synesthetic, it *tastes* green -- fresh and summery and bright and naturally sweet.

After dinner last night, I have just enough to cover lunches for the entire week, and I think that I will try a different sort of topping or additive each day and see what happens.  Last night -- a few dabs of sour cream.  Today - magic cheese.  Tomorrow -- perhaps a squirt of citrus or some fresh tomatoes.  From there -- who knows?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Baked Potato Chips - A Moderate Success

I'm pretty upset by the defeat of proposition 37 in California, although given the legislative backlash I have been seeing, maybe proposition 37 had to be defeated in order to raise awareness and pave the way for successful legislation in other states.  I just hope that it comes back around to California, one of the biggest food producing states in the country, if not the biggest.  Where else would it be more important to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients?

Reading about how much money some giant corporations spent to keep people from knowing what kind of food goes into their food was the incentive I needed to finally kick some of my more tenacious junk food habits.  I have managed, at least in the short term, to give up two of my great loves: Coca-Cola and potato chips.

For the time being, the soda has been replaced by Poland Spring sparkling water with fruit essence.  It has zero calories and zero artificial sweetener.  I shudder a bit to think what has to be done to obtain "fruit essence," and Poland Spring is owned by Nestle, which actually spent more money than Coca-Cola to defeat proposition 37, so this is not a long-term solution.

Which brings me to one of the more alarming part about large corporations spending piles of money to defeat legislation which would hold them more accountable to their customers: brands that you think are at least close to doing the right thing are owned by these conglomerates.  For example, Kashi, a popular earthy-crunchy brand, is owned by Kelloggs, which spent more than half a million dollars in the campaign against proposition 37.  The fallout was unpleasant to say the least.  I used to use Muir Glen organic tomatoes on the recommendation of a source I trusted.  Turns out that Muir Glen is owned by General Mills, another heavy hitter opposed to proposition 37.

I now read labels not only for ingredients but also for corporate relationships.

Returning to my original point which was supposed to be about finding replacements for junk foods, I recently came across a recipe for baked potato chips, so tonight I decided to use what I remembered from the blog post I read (note to self: go back and find the source to give credit where credit is due) to try my own variation.

I chopped up two cloves of garlic and two shallots and combined them in a bowl with some olive oil and salt.  If you like pepper, add fresh ground pepper.  I sliced up two russet potatoes as thinly and equally as I could (which turned out to be not very equal and sometimes not very thin but was probably excellent knife practice all the same), rinsed and dried them.  Then I tossed them in the olive oil mixture until well coated and spread them out on two baking sheets.

As I recall, the recipe I read suggested about 15 minutes in a 400 degree oven, and here is where I ran into problems.  Since it has been a day somewhat fraught with user error, I probably should have known better than to try a cooking experiment.  I was clever enough to put the thicker slices together on one pan and the thinner slices on another, but I was not clever enough to remember that I put the thick slices on the rack above the thin slices, so when I would peek in the oven to check on the baking progress, I was somewhat mystified that the potato slices did not seem to be crisping, so I cooked them quite a bit longer than expected.  Well, the thin slices were crisping up just fine ... on the lower rack where I couldn't see them.  Needless to say, I ended up with some burned chips, but even most of the thin slices were still edible, and the thick slices were cooked all the way through.

I recommend upping the oven temperature to 425 or even 450 and make sure to check *all* of the pans in the oven when you think the chips are getting close to done.

Drain briefly on paper towels, sprinkle with topping of choice -- a bit more salt if needed, green herbs, or Parmesan cheese come to mind -- and enjoy!  I don't know how much healthier they are than their fried brethren, but at least this way you have more control over the ingredients.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Craving Summer, or Not Every Meal Can Be DIY

Even though it is not my favorite season, I think that I must be craving summer because lately I have been wanting to eat hot dogs and ice cream -- foods I associate with baseball, cookouts, and warm days.

Hot dogs are generally pretty far down the list of "natural" and "healthy" foods, and they certainly aren't something that is usually homemade, although they do give me ideas of making my own ketchup and relish, but sometimes happiness trumps healthiness, so off I went to the grocery store last night for hot dogs, buns, relish, and shredded cheddar cheese.  (Ketchup and mustard supplies were already adequate.)  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), since hot dogs and buns both come in packages of eight, there is no longer a need for me to do my George Banks impersonation.

While I was there, I decided to pick up some of the new frozen Greek yogurt from Ben & Jerry's.  I didn't even look at the ingredient list or nutritional information.  Just plunked two pints -- one vanilla-honey-caramel and one raspberry-fudge-chunk -- into my basket and walked to the register without a backward glance.

The hot dogs were a thing of unnatural beauty.  While two heated up in the microwave, I lined two buns with a sprinkling of shredded triple cheddar cheese.  Once the hot dogs were nestled into their buns, I added a stripe each of dill relish, ketchup, and pub style Dijon mustard and chowed down while listening to the baseball game on the radio (one which had not been postponed due to snow).

I only tried the vanilla-honey-caramel flavor of the frozen yogurt.  It was okay -- a little tangy, a little sweet and not too much of either.  It certainly won't languish indefinitely in the freezer, but I continue to not understand the addicting attraction to Ben & Jerry's products.

It may still be chilly and gray outside, but last night I had a tasty moment of summer.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On the collecting of music

I love music.  I grew up in a house of music.  I live in a house of music (sometimes very loud music).

I need to make another donation to the local classical music station because during the recent episode in Boston, the morning host promised to provide news updates when there was actual news but said that it was okay if we didn't want to listen to the constant barrage of coverage and offered a safe haven where we could listen to beautiful music.

Yesterday was Record Store Day, so I went to a local music store to see what collectible treasures there were to be had.  Mostly I was hoping for a copy of the Grateful Dead release to give to the other music listener in the house, but they were all claimed before I could find one.  (Hopefully, none of them are included in the hundred or so eBay listings which have since shown up.)  Luckily, the release will be available to the general public on cd at some point, and I find plenty of other fun things such as a Newport Jazz Festival recording and previously unreleased demos by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

The classical cd section in the store isn't very big, and the last few times I have looked there hasn't been much of interest, so I wasn't expecting much yesterday either.  Turns out I was in for a surprise.  There was a far better selection than usual, including numerous recordings and artists on my wish list.  And used CDs were buy two, get one free.  Not surprisingly, I came home with a bag full and, after the baseball game was over, spent most of the rest of my day in headphones.

The variety and intricacy and history of classical music never ceases to amaze me, not to mention the fact that a lot of it has survived hundreds of years, as have some of the instruments.

Did you know that Scarlatti composed 555 keyboard sonatas?  He didn't get started until he had turned forty, and he wrote them in twenty years.

Did you know that J.S. Bach, so famous for religious choral music, played in coffee houses?

Mistlav Rostropovich played the Duport Stradivarius cello made in 1711 and scarred by Napoleon Bonaparte when it was a mere century old.  Jacqueline Du Pre's Davidov Stradivarius, made a year after the Duport, is now played by Yo-Yo Ma.

And so on and so forth.  So many stories; so many pieces; so many performances and recordings.  Which to choose?

The digital age has done wonders for classical music, preserving aging recordings which only exist in libraries of one sort or another.  Sometimes the preservation is faithful to the original, and sometimes a remastering process is applied, with varying degrees of success.  The result is a list of choices which can be overwhelming.

While I am a huge fan of reading as research, in this case, I don't think that a book is really going to do it.  Sure, an expert can tell you which are the most famous or most loved or "best" pieces and performances, but everyone's musical palette is different.  You have to get in there and listen.  Find a good classical music station.  If you don't have one locally, there are many which stream live online (99.5 WCRB out of Boston is my favorite -- see above reference to the fabulous morning host) and make programs available after the fact. If you hear something you like, chances are there is a schedule online which will tell you the exact name of the piece, composer and performer.  There might even be a link to a recording you can download or purchase on cd (or even the treasured vinyl).

If you choose to go wandering through the online offerings, many at astonishingly low prices (for example, the voluminous "box sets" put out by http://www.thebachguild.com/), I don't recommend reading too many reviews.  Classical music enthusiasts tend to be vehemently opinionated and can get carried away harping on details which may not be apparent to a more casual listener.

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself.  Keep listening and trying new (to you) composers and performers, and you will learn what you like.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sure, this stuff will kill you, but what a way to go!

Bacon.  Every once in a while, you've just gotta have it.  Well, I've just gotta have it.  Therefore, for lunch today, I had this meal:



I finally cooked some of the fabulous bacon I bought at the farmers' market from the guy who sold me my Thanksgiving turkey.

I like my bacon well done but not overly crispy (and then there is my perennial fear of high heat), so I start it out on medium high heat for not very long (maybe thirty seconds or a minute) and then turn down the flame to cook it, relatively speaking, low and slow.  More of the fat renders before the meat is cooked all the way through.

While the bacon drained on paper towels, I spooned out most of the fat before cracking in two organic eggs -- smaller than the others in the dozen, so probably not as good for recipes.  Yes, eggs fried in bacon fat.  Say it with me ... Mmmmmmm.

Bacon and eggs like hash browns, but I am not so good at making hash browns, at least not quickly, so I tend to stick with mashed potatoes, which I find to be more versatile anyway (and which can always be fried a bit after the fact if you must have crunch).  I boiled up some red potatoes, tossed in a bunch of butter -- go big or go home, right? -- and herbed soft French cheese, and mashed with a fork.

It was worth every calorie and every gram of fat.

You can't eat like this every day and be healthy, but I think that part of what makes a meal like this taste so fantastically good is that it is an occasional indulgence.  I chose to indulge today and will compensate accordingly for the next several days with lots of steamed vegetables.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Power of Poppy Pendle

Poppy Pendle was born in a bakery -- literally and much to the embarrassment of her parents, especially her mother. Poppy Pendle was also born a witch -- an extremely gifted witch -- much to the delight of her parents, especially her mother.

The problem is that the only kind of magic that Poppy likes is the magic of baking. She doesn't want to be a witch. She doesn't want to go to the exclusive magical academy for young witches. All she wants to do is bake and share her creations.

Conflict and struggle, adventures and mishaps, anger and sorrow, bravery and resourcefulness ensue. With recipes!! Almost all of which I want to bake.

Highly recommended for imaginative little girls (or not so little girls) who eschew the EasyBake oven for the real thing ... or who have an uncertain relationship with the baking of tasty treats.

As mentioned on at least one previous occasion in this blog, baking and I do not get along terribly well, although as evidenced by the oatmeal cookie success, there is hope for the relationship.  Before I made the oatmeal cookies, however, I made lemon bars -- Charlie's Favorite Lemon Bars as made by Poppy Pendle to be exact.

I know that she is an imaginary character, but this little girl's enthusiasm about baking (and sharing) and confidence in the kitchen are contagious.  The recipes are broken down into easy steps with clear instructions and plenty of encouragement.  She recommends the use of conveniences such as food processors and stand mixers (with the help of an adult), but if such appliances are not available, or you simply prefer to do things by hand, there are details instructions for that method as well.  She even explains measurements and calculations for making half batches of recipes.  As I read them, I found myself thinking, "If a twelve year-old can do it, then surely I can too, as long as I pay attention to the details of what I am doing."

Now, I won't say that the lemon bars turned out perfectly -- I probably should have mixed the crust a bit longer in the food processor and baked it a bit longer before adding the filling, which was a bit too lemony for my taste -- but they were most certainly edible, especially with a generous dusting of confectioners' sugar over the top.  Hence I was sufficiently encouraged to try April Bloomfield's recipe for oatmeal cookies.

Since the lemon bar recipe is several pages long, I don't know that I can reproduce it here without infringing on copyright, and summarizing would lose some of the, ahem, flavor, but the author's website is here: http://www.natashalowe.com/index.html.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Simple Pleasures

The best thing about truly fresh, local ingredients is that they require so little garnish or dressing.  Tonight I made a simple egg salad with fresh, local eggs, some diced red onion, a diced celery stalk, and due to the quality of the eggs, I only needed about a teaspoon of mustard and a tablespoon of mayonnaise to hold it all together.  I didn't even add salt and pepper.  Then I piled on baby mesclun greens purchased at the farmers' market on Saturday.  I prefer to put the greens on top and dig my way down to the salad because I get more greens that way, and they aren't soggy from being under the salad.  Alfalfa or bean sprouts work well, too.  Delicious.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Healthy Mac & Cheese?

Thus began an e-mail conversation with a co-worker when she sent me this link to a macaroni and cheese recipe containing a significant amount of cauliflower and squash, allegedly to reduce the fat and calorie content of this comfort food favorite.  Her plan was to see if she could get her son, who loves mac & cheese and detests squash, to eat it.

With its glorious, feel-good trifecta of fat, salt and carbs, macaroni and cheese is something of a sacred institution, but it is one of those dishes which everyone else seems to love and I just find gross, even though I do love both pasta and cheese, even together.


I think that it is because my mother didn’t make it from scratch, and my friends ate Kraft macaroni and cheese out of a box, which I find to be utterly disgusting.  (It’s NOT cheese!!)  Many years later someone convinced me to try Annie’s brand of macaroni and cheese out of a box, and I was still disgusted.

I replied with a few problems I saw with the above recipe.

Even with the cheese and margarine (really?? margarine? to make the roux? Hmmm), half a teaspoon of salt (especially nasty iodized Morton salt – I have become a salt snob since reading Salted by Mark Bitterman) is so not going to cut it against 8 ounces of pasta, a cup of cauliflower and a cup of squash.  One way to counteract the potential for blandness without just adding more salt to the dish is to make sure that the boiling water for the pasta is nice and salty.  I also suggested adding some other herbs and spices (unless her son objects to such things ... which, it turns out, he is).

Also, unless the skim milk is of the high quality organic variety, skim milk is probably not going to thicken up very well, or maybe it will just take longer than milk with a higher fat content.  A little cream cheese or low fat sour cream or plain Greek yogurt might help.  (This co-worker is also lactose intolerant, so I asked what she planned to do about all of the cheese.  She responded that a combination of nutritional yeast, garlic powder and salt are her cheese substitute of choice but that she would use at least half real cheese for the initial offering.  She did plan to use butter instead of margarine and almond milk instead of the skim milk called for in the recipe.)

I would think that the relatively high water content of squash and cauliflower would dilute the taste in  a serious way.  If you cut up the squash and sprinkle it with salt and let it sit for about half an hour, it will give up a bunch of its moisture, which you can then drain off, if you can spare the waiting time (i.e. don't have a dramatic seven year-old telling you that he is dying of starvation).  Overcooking it would do it too, so I advised against the “cook them well” direction because the vegetables were going to cook a bunch more when they spend over half an hour in a 350 degree oven.  I voted for steaming over boiling.

My final recommendation, based on a childhood memory of someone else I know, was to add sliced up hot dogs.

The result, in her words: IT WAS A TOTAL WIN!!!  (And she liked it, too, which was a helpful bonus.)

I have not been inspired to make the dish myself, or even this recipe which I found in the comments section of the first recipe which I thought sounded more promising, but it's kind of fun to know that there is another sneaky way to get kids to eat vegetables.