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:

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, 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:

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.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Market Day

While the temperature only made it into the low-to-mid-forties and the wind was blowing fiercely, the sun was shining brightly, and there was still a farmers' market to be found.  Sadly, today was the last "winter market," and the regular summer schedule doesn't start up until mid-June.  On the bright side, most of the farms that I buy from welcome visitors.  It's just that they are a bit spread out, so being able to visit them all at once at a market is much more convenient.

The selection is still a bit limited, but I still came home with a nice bag full, of green things -- spinach and mesclun and something called Tokyo Bekana -- a dozen eggs, aged farmhouse cheddar made from raw goat's milk, and a pound of bacon.

The bacon came from the farmer who sold me my fabulous Thanksgiving turkey last year.  I saw the bacon at the last market, but I was good and bought chicken breasts instead.  This week, however, I decided not to resist and bought a pound when I signed up for this year's Thanksgiving turkey.  It's too bad that I am not more of a fan of meat because he sells all cuts of beef and pork, including whole and half animals butchered and wrapped to the customer's specifications.  It just sounds like such a good idea ... if you have a large family to feed and/or eat a significant amount of meat.

I haven't decided what I am going to do with all of the greens yet, although I think that some of them could be wraps for salad made from the eggs, but I have already eaten a good chunk of the goat's milk cheese.  It tastes like a smooth but tangy blend of cheddar and feta.  Yum.

So start looking around for farmers with spring greens to sell and let your palette know that it is spring!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Bag Lady

I have a thing for bags.  Not fancy handbags or clutches or wristlets made by famous designers.  Not tote bags particularly.  And not even my reusable grocery bags.  The best way I can think of to describe the bags I like are mini-messenger bags -- bags with lots of pockets, preferably with zippers to close them, and a nice long shoulder strap so that I can wear it crosswise.

I have a couple of guide bags from Eddie Bauer (although I may have given the smaller one away), the larger of which was dubbed the "spy bag" by a friend of mine because of how much the relatively small bag could hold.

A regular purse doesn't work for me because I don't really carry regular purse things.  I don't even carry a wallet.  My travel necessities include my journal, at least one book, at least one pen, probably my phone and my iPod, keys if they don't fit in a pocket, and whatever identification and funds I might need to get where I am going.  When I had a netbook, it was nice to be able to carry that as well, along with accessories such as a mouse, flash drive and power cord.  Now I have a nook hd+, which takes up a bit less space, especially if I don't pack the keyboard.  About the only girly things I am likely to have are ChapStick lip balm and some sort of hair restraint.  I carry no make-up, comb/brush or hair products.  Not being a mom, I don't carry child-related and appropriate items.

Around the last holiday shopping extravaganza, I discovered a company called (*)speck.  I discovered them online but have since seen their products in stores.  This bag was right up my alley, and I got a great deal on it.  There is a slot for the tablet, a pocket for the iPod and headphones and other miscellaneous cords, another pocket for money and identification, and another slot for books and the journal.  The strap isn't long enough to wear crosswise, but it fits pretty well all the same.

Today I learned about a company that sells bags and organizers through the party/event plan or model or whatever it is called.  It seems like you can buy (or sell if you are a hostess, er, consultant) just about anything this way.  There have been Tupperware food storage parties and jewelry parties and cookware parties and candle parties, and of course we can't forget those marvelous mavens of make-up, the Mary Kay ladies selling their way to a pink Cadillac.  The company which facilitates the selling of bags is called Thirty-One, and I stopped by a table where the local consultant had samples and catalogs and was not only selling the wares but doing so as part of a fundraiser to benefit the local YMCA.

The company offers many shapes and sizes of duffle bags and tote bags, as well as the sorts of bags which catch my eye, such as the Organizing Shoulder Bag and the Organista Crossbody, but the ones which really intrigued me with the thermal bags.  There were lunchbag shaped and cooler sized bags, including a drawstring pouch which would be perfect for knitting projects, but there were also much smaller options which could hold just a few snacks or heat/cold sensitive medications and easily fit inside a larger, non-insulated bag, purse or tote.  There is even an organizing pack with dividers set in it to keep camera equipment safe and protected from temperatures outside the comfort zone.

The general web site is and the link to the specific event and consultant I met today is

There are, of course, lots of bags and organizing options out there to be had, but I thought these were neat and a little different than anything else I have seen.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cook Your Cupboard

This link is just too much fun not to share: Cook Your Cupboard

My mother sent it to me, along with the accompanying NPR story.

I know that it is kind of cheating, but I think that is going to be my post for the day.  If I get motivated and/or inspired, I may be back.

In the meantime, enjoy.  (And look for the vegetarian haggis.)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

April Bloomfield's Soft Oatmeal Cookies

Baked goods are, shall we say, not my forte.  I usually can't even successfully bake cookies that come right out of a package.  Lately, however, I have had a craving for oatmeal cookies, and I just wasn't willing to buy some from the store.  Long ingredients lists become less appealing all the time.

I searched my library via and was rewarded with an extensive list of possibilities.  I didn't want anything too fancy or complicated, and I was looking for soft and chewy rather than crispy.  The recipe of choice became Soft Oatmeal Cookies from A Girl and Her Pig by April Bloomfield.

The whole cookbook is amazing.  Yes, there is a lot of meat, and there are a lot of dishes I wouldn't be inclined to cook myself, but the author makes them sound so good that I would be willing to try them in her restaurant if the opportunity presented itself.  This unassuming cookie recipe is tucked into the dessert section near the end.

The official ingredient list:
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dark sultanas or golden raisins
1/4 cup dried currants
10 Tbsp butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
large pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups rolled oats

I didn't have sultanas or currants, but I did have golden raisins.  I also had chopped hazelnuts left over from making a green bean, quinoa, hazelnut salad.  So I used half of a cup of raisins and a quarter cup of hazelnuts.

Two notes: The only "complicated" part about this recipe is that the raisins need to be soaked for several hours and the butter needs to be at room temperature.  I would recommend taking the butter out of the fridge or freezer and setting the raisins up to soak the night before.  Secondly, I highly recommend making a double batch.  Unlike so many cookie recipes, this one only makes about 16 cookies, even if they are substantial.  Since they are chewy/cakey rather than crispy, a little bigger is definitely better.

I put my fabulous stand mixer to work, complete with birthday present paddle attachment with a sort of spatula edge to it so that there is less scraping down the sides of the bowl.  Take the eggs out of the fridge.  Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.  I am reasonably sure that I know what light and fluffy looks like now.  The author says about four minutes.  I let mine run a bit longer, just to be sure.  If you can leave your mixer unattended while the creaming is happening, sift the dry ingredients into a bowl and mix together.  (I used a fork.)  Once the butter and sugar are creamed, add the eggs one at a time, beating about thirty seconds in between.  Add the vanilla and the dry ingredients.  Mix until flour is incorporated.  Add raisins, nuts, and oats.  Mix again.  Put the dough in the refrigerator for at least an hour.  I would recommend two.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  (I suppose that you could just grease the pan, but really, parchment paper is the way to go.  The cookies just slide right off, and cleanup is so much easier.  If you have ever had to sandblast cookies off a pan, try the parchment paper.  You won't be sorry.)  Divide the dough in half (if making one batch).  Take one half and divide it into 8 balls.  Put the balls on the paper lined pan.  Bake for ten minutes.  Rotate the pan.  Bake for another ten minutes.  Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cook.  Repeat with remaining dough.

The result should be yummy, not too dense, almost breakfast/granola bar textured cookies.  Enjoy with a tall glass of well chilled milk or a cup of coffee.  Yum!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chicken Soup at the Improv

It is getting to be farmers' market season again, and I think that I am even more excited than I was last year.  I signed up for a CSA program in January, which means I get a discount on everything I buy from a particular farm.  It worked out well last year, even though I didn't sign up as early.  The farmer grows the sorts of things I like to eat.  He has chickens, too, so a couple of weeks ago, I bought a dozen eggs laid by chickens I have actually met.  The eggs were all slightly different colors and sizes, and delicious!

Anyway, with new crops of vegetables on their way, I have been working my way through the last of the frozen vegetables, trying to make sure that nothing gets shifted to the back, hidden and forgotten.

On Sunday, I decided that I should use up the last bits of the Thanksgiving turkey, which I thought were hiding in a corner somewhere, freezer burned and forgotten, and given their state, slow cooked turkey soup sounded like a good plan.  I even considered using the crock pot, but in the end decided I wanted to play a more active roll in the preparation.

When I went searching for said turkey, however, it was nowhere to be found, so someone must have beaten me to it.  Luckily, I had two rather large, locally and organically grown chicken breasts from the same farmer, so turkey soup became chicken soup.

Step one: defrost the chicken.  I was a little concerned about using chicken because raw chicken has a certain squish factor which kind of grosses me out.  Solution: cut up the chicken with a nice sharp nice before it has completely defrosted and then pop the pieces into the microwave for a few minutes to finish the defrosting process.

Step two: start defrosting cubes of turkey stock (made from the carcass of the aforementioned Thanksgiving turkey).

Step three: brown the chicken.  I am not very good a browning meat.  Unless I can do it in one big chunk (like a roast), I don't have the patience to make sure that the small bits are spread out properly so that they brown instead of steam and then turn them in a timely and coordinated manner so that they brown evenly without burning or cooking too much.  I know that everything tastes better if I do it right, but true to form, after two batches, I just dumped the rest in and sauteed until I didn't see any more pink showing on the outside and then piled it all on a plate.

Step four: the fabulous mirepoix -- onion (sweet this time), carrots, celery and garlic.  Sauteed in the little bit of fat from the chicken and a bit of olive oil, adding white wine to deglaze as needed.  Sauteed might not be the correct term as I use lower heat and longer time.  Added a few grinds of salt and pepper somewhere along the line.

Step five: seasonings.  Look in the pantry or on the spice rack.  Shake in a bit of whatever strikes your fancy. I used a couple of different herb mixtures I like to keep on hand.

Step six: more wine.  I poured in what was left in a couple of open bottle which had been in the fridge for a while, probably about a cup and a half.

Step seven: everything else -- a saucepan full of turkey stock (four to six cups), the browned chicken, chopped up green beans (local, organic, frozen at the end of the summer), red potatoes, probably two cups of water to make sure everything was covered and a tablespoon or two or my favorite homemade vegetable bouillon.

Step eight: bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, tasting for seasoning and doneness along the way.

Step nine: enjoy a hearty meal and store the leftovers.  (This recipe makes roughly a vat of soup.  There will be leftovers unless you are feeding many and/or large appetites.)

You could server it over rice or noodles.  You could throw in tiny pasta (or not so tiny pasta, as you like).  Beans would probably work, too.  I am hoping that it freezes well, and I can vouch that it improves as leftovers.

Monday, April 1, 2013

In which "camping" is defined as "spending thirty days working a writing project or two"

And in which the author gets perhaps a little more personal than usual.

I am not much of a fan of New Year's Resolutions because such a specific label is restrictive, as if there is only one day a year when you can resolve to make changes and improvements in your life.  Then, if you don't follow through for some reason, do you have to wait until the next January 1st to start again?

I think not.

Every day is an opportunity to take stock of what you have (or have not) accomplished in previous days and then decide what to do going forward.

I have discovered that goals are more helpful, motivating, and achievable, if they are a combination of general and specific.  For example, I find "get some exercise at least five days a week" to be a more realistic achievement than "run five miles a day."  Sometimes goals evolve from being vague to specific.  After I finished one knitting project which had been lingering for quite some time, "knit more" evolved into "finish these three projects by the end of the year."  I didn't specify an order or hierarchy for the projects, and I am not going to worry about actually having more than three unfinished projects (not to mention other projects I want to start).  Instead, I am going to stick with these three.  I think it helps that they are a bit of a mixed bag.  The largest project is the simplest (no fancy pattern).  The smallest project is the most complicated, and the one in between is, well, in between.  The current order seems to be to finish the middle project first and then alternate between the large, simple project and the small, complicated project, but that may change.  The point is that I keep making progress and even if I don't do any knitting for several days, it is easy to pick up where I left off because I have a plan.

As a contradiction, the specific reading goal of fifty-two books a year is finally working out.  Last year I managed fifty-three, so this year, the goal is to read fifty-five books.  So far, so good, and hopefully it is a long-term trend which I can continue.

Cooking goals remain nebulous beyond "read cookbooks, try new recipes, be mindful of ingredients and where they come from, support local farmers and businesses," but that's okay because I think that it is working well so far.  I eat less processed food, and while my brain occasionally craves a fast food hamburger, my taste buds remember that the food I cook tastes so much better.  I do have a subscription to an online cooking school which I need to work into the schedule somewhere somehow, but I haven't figured out how to make that work just yet.

My favorite accomplishment so far this year is the successful baking of oatmeal cookies, but they deserve their own post, which fits in nicely with the goal I really wanted to discuss in this post: writing.

Writing used to be a necessary cathartic process to quiet the clamoring voices in my head.  As I have made progress on various projects and goals and have generally found a better balance between work and life, the voices have quieted significantly on their own, so that while I still enjoy writing, it is not quite the necessary survival skill that it has been in the past, which means that I often find myself thinking, "I should write about that at some point," but I don't make it to "some point," especially if I am going through a "stay away from the computer while not at work" phase.  (Now *there* is an extreme compound, complex sentence for you.  Watch out Marcel Proust!)

With the advent of the April session of Camp NaNoWriMo, I have decided to set a goal of getting back to writing.  I have given myself the choice of writing a blog post a day for thirty days or finishing a draft of the cookbook.  Obviously, I am starting with the blog, but I think that I will end up doing a combination of the two with the notion that if it takes thirty days to make or break a habit and if I can write every day for thirty days, then at the end of the month, I will have a new good habit.  That's the plan at any rate.  We'll see what happens.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the following story which came in one of the e-mail newsletters I received from the NaNoWriMo folks because I just love the positive power possibilities of the written word.  Enjoy!

Wrimo Spotlight
"My daughter Logan is borderline autistic and deals with extreme anxiety. She struggles significantly when things are not "perfect", and just couldn't get her words on the page. Any more than five sentences was a struggle for her. Still, I decided to try and see what would happen if I signed her up for NaNoWriMo.

By midmonth, she had attended her first write-in with my students and after that was writing non-stop. By the end of the month, she had written more than double her 1,000-word goal. What's more, she had become a completely different child.

She was so excited about her writing, she was carrying her manuscript everywhere, had read her story to the whole class, and was writing like mad. It's been inspiring to see the happiness and ease writing now brings her." — Holly B.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cooking at the Improv

I am a huge fan of applied knowledge.  I love being able to take something I have learned and use it as a frame of reference to learn or figure out something else. If I am really lucky, the knowledge takes on a life of its own, and I don't even recognize the extrapolation right away.  Instead there is just a natural flow from known into the unknown, which then turns into the known.  (Beats the unknown unknown any day of the week, if you ask me.)

That sort of extrapolation is exactly what has happened with my cooking, and I find it exciting.  I have reached the point at which I can think about recipes and techniques I have already used and create something new, or, even better, something familiar.  I think that I am even getting to the point at which I can look at a recipe someone did not care for and see why it did not work.

A couple of weeks ago it was time to make lentil soup again.  I make a lot of lentil soup, especially once the weather begins to turn colder.  I make big batches and then freeze individual portions that I take take to work for lunch.

So the time came to make another batch of lentil soup, and, horror of horrors, I couldn't find the recipe that I usually use (at least as a starting point).  This happened before my discovery of, so I had to search my cookbook collection the old fashioned way.  I checked Moosewood and The Joy of Cooking and Marcella and Julia and a few others.  No luck.  My usual lentil soup recipe was not to be found.

What's a hungry cook to do?

Improvise, of course.

Ingredients waiting to be chopped
I had the ingredients.  I had the skills and the knowledge.  I just had to figure out how to put the two together.  So I did.

I chopped up the magical trifecta that is mirepoix -- celery, onion and carrot -- along with a bit of garlic, added salt and pepper, and sauteed the lot in some olive oil, using Lynne Rosetto-Kasper's recommended method of lower heat and a covered pot for a longer period of time (15 minutes as opposed to about 5).  When things started to stick to the bottom of the pan -- an occurrence which I believe to be caused by my preference of using less than the recommended amount of oil for sauteing -- I deglazed with a generous splash of white wine.

Chopped ingredients
Any excuse to add wine, right?  Not that you really need one.  Wine is just as powerful a flavor enhancer as stock if you ask me, and I think that it helps all of the other flavors get along.  I have also discovered that, at least for white wine, the specific variety of wine isn't all that important, as long as it is something you would like to drink.  I have used Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and even flat Champagne (which can be seen in the corner of the ingredients photo), all to excellent effect.

Returning to the lentil soup at hand, while the magical mirepoix was sauteeing, I finished chopping up the rest of the vegetables -- mushrooms, cabbage, broccoli, zucchini.  Then I added a few tablespoons of tomato paste, paprika and some other herbs to the mirepoix and stirred everything until well mixed.

Sauteeing mirepoix
In went the vegetables, a bag of lentils, more wine, and vegetable broth made from homemade vegetable bouillon which I absolutely adore and is so easy to make (basically blend a bunch of vegetables in a food processor with a bunch of salt to preserve it and then put the lot in mason jars and freeze it).  I brought the whole concoction to a boil, reduced to a simmer and, as the saying goes, cooked until done -- which I have discovered with lentil soup is always longer than you think that it should be.  Trust me on this one -- if you taste the soup and it seems pretty good, tweak the seasoning just a bit more if you want to and the let it simmer another fifteen or twenty minutes before tasting it again.  The result is yummy, hearty, rich, melt in your mouth lentil soup.  Then again, I am not a huge fan of al dente pasta, so if you prefer a bit of toothsomeness to your soup, then you might not be a fan of that extra few minutes which really causes all of the ingredients and flavors to melt together.

So, to sum up: chop up a bunch of ingredients, saute the mirepoix, deglaze with wine, add seasoning, add rest of ingredients and liquid(s) of choice, bring to boil, simmer, sample and season along the way, and voila!  Soup!

P.S.  Just as I did when making the soup, I almost forgot the prosciutto.  I love prosciutto.  It's less fatty and more delicate than bacon.  If I hadn't forgotten it, I would have sauteed it briefly in a pan and then added it toward the end of the mirepoix sauteeing step.  But I did forget it until I was at the bring to boil step, so I tossed it in then, and it worked its salty, savory magic just as well.

If you are a big fan of meat, the piggy, savory sorts work well in this soup -- ham, kielbasa, linguisa, other sausage (though it probably doesn't need to be pork sausage).

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Baked Not Fried

Crab rangoons are one of my favorite not so healthy food vices -- all crispy and crackly and cheesy and salty -- but ever since I learned to make my own fried rice, I don't get Chinese take-out nearly as often as I used to (which, I might add, has the noteworthy side effect that for the first time pretty much ever I have had to purchase a bottle of soy sauce).  While I should certainly be able to learn how to make my own crab rangoons, I am not so good with deep frying.  It's a whole lot of oil, and it seems like so much of it goes to waste if I am only going to make a single batch of something, and having an actual frying appliance is one more thing that either has to be stored or else takes up a bunch of counter space.

I briefly considered the possibilities of an Actifry made by T-fal, but the overabundance of reviews and opinions on the internet offered confusion rather than clarity.  I never know whether to believe internet reviews.  Some people are always going to be ecstatic about a product, and some are always going to think that it is the worst thing ever in the history of everything.  Without knowing any background of the people posting, I can't tell if what they say applies to me.

Besides, while I am not quite willing to cut oil out of my life completely, I do try to be mindful of exactly what I am asking my body to process.  I am looking at food and recipes from different perspectives.  Sometimes the full fat, deep fried, high calorie indulgence is the way to go, but what about people who really have to watch their intake of fat or salt or sugar or have allergies or sensitivities or just plain don't like something?  They have to eat, too, and they should be able to eat tasty food right along with the rest of us.  Given the number of recipes available for almost any dish, there is more than one way to make almost anything, so why not try it?  (And try more than one variation or method, especially if the first attempt didn't turn out quite the way you had hoped it would.)

One of my favorite discoveries of a better way to do something is when I decided to try steaming ravioli rather than boiling them.  I find the pasta in pre-made ravioli to be too thick, and I still haven't gotten quite organized enough to make my own.  Somewhere I came across the recommendation of using wanton wraps instead.  I boiled them the first time.  They turned out pretty well as far as taste and texture, but the ravioli stuck together impressively once they came out of the water and were piled on a plate.  Also, if I punctured one or didn't seal it properly (I have since learned that egg is far more effective than water), all of the filling ended up in the water.

The second time I made them, I decided to try steaming them in my handy dandy double decker bamboo steamer.  Way better.  Punctures and less than perfect seals did not cause any problems, and the ravioli only needed to be steamed for three or four minutes.  An added bonus is that the steamer has two layers, so I could cook more than a few ravioli at once.  The stickiness was still a bit of an issue, but a bit of oil or butter or using a bigger plate or several plates or adding the sauce of choice right away or maybe even a dusting of semolina (though that might interfere with the sauce) helps considerably.

The finished rangoons and egg roll (on a special, snazzy
plate made just for such things)
Returning to the crab rangoons, I recently had a craving for Chinese take-out, but I really wanted to try to do it myself.  It's less expensive that way, and I have far more control over what is in the food, which becomes more important to me the more I cook.  In fact, cooking more of my own food actually means that restaurant food -- especially "junk" food -- doesn't taste nearly as good as it used to.  My brain still occasionally tries to convince me that I want a greasy hamburger, but I just find something else which will taste better and be better for me.

I found this recipe and decided to try it since it called for baking rather than frying.  I improvised heavily -- more cheese, scallions instead of onion powder, no chives -- and ended up with a filling that I probably could have eaten right out of the bowl with a spoon.  I had a little trouble not putting too much filling in each wrap and getting it sealed properly so that the filling didn't ooze out when heated, but I am sure that it is the sort of thing where practice makes better, and even the ruptured rangoons were tasty.

Fried rice in matching snazzy bowl
As an accompaniment, I made these avocado egg rolls, which are probably about as Asian as crab rangoons with all of their cheese, but I am a huge fan of avocados.  Consider these rough chopped guacamole rolled up in egg roll wrappers.  It is one of those great recipes where you just chop everything up and toss it together.  Come to think of it, I probably could have let the fabulous Cuisinart food processor do the chopping, but cleaning one knife and putting one mixing bowl in the dishwasher sound less labor intensive.

The recipe calls for frying, but I brushed them with beaten egg and baked them right along with the rangoons (at four hundred degrees for about 20 minutes), and they were crispy and yummy.  They even reheated nicely the next day for lunch.

P.S. I also tried baking rangoon-shaped ravioli (i.e. using one wrapper per ravioli rather than two), and I think for them, steaming is better.