Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Dinner Lesson from Albania

Tonight I saw one of my bosses, who was born and raised in what is now Albania, eat a dinner that made my mouth water for its absolute simplicity: a platter of quartered tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, whole pepperoncinis, and chunks of feta cheese—all served with homemade bread.

What a meal! One of the other waitressess was amazed that he ate the tomatoes that way: "like an apple!" (I don't think she grew up eating many fresh vegetables...) But I craved his dinner.

"Save me some cheese!" I asked him. And instead of giving me a piece off his plate, he went into the kitchen and scooped out a slab of feta for me to take home.

Oh, glorious night! I came home, poured a huge glass of cabernet-shiraz blend, sliced up one of my last yellow beefsteak tomatoes and a cucumber, chunked up the feta cheese, and devoured my divinely simple dinner leisurely as I threw my cat—my "little old man," I call him—bits of cheese.

My lesson in food tonight? Here it is: I don't need to cook all the time.  I can live from the bounty of the earth very, very happily and very, very cheaply. A bit of cucumber, a tomato, a small slab of fresh cheese, a glass of wine...

Living simply makes me simply very happy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Teaching Teenagers to Cook: Michael's First Pizza

The other night Michael requested pizza for dinner.  I made the dough, put it out in the sun to rise for a few hours, and soon it was time to make the pizzas.

We usually make a pepperoni pizza for Michael, and then some kind of supreme or margherita pizza for Chef Reiton and I.  I started working the pepperoni pizza dough first when I looked at the time.  It was getting late, and I needed help.  I called for Michael.

"Would you please make the other pizza for me while I do this one?" I asked.

He shook his head.  "But I don't know how to do it.  I can't make a round circle!"

I laughed.  "You should have seen my first pizzas.  They looked like Wisconsin." (Remember those, dear reader?) "Don't worry, I'll show you how."

I picked up the lump of dough in front of him and showed him how to work it into a ball first, and then how to gently push it into a wider and wider circle.  I told him how to let it rest a few minutes when it didn't seem that it would stretch anymore, and then come back to it and watch it grow even more.

He watched me as I did mine, and then picked up the lump and started working.  In the middle of his dough work he said, "I think we should make each other's pizzas.  You make mine, and I'll make yours."  It was a deal.  As I made his pepperoni pizza with sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese, I told him how to make my margherita pizza: how to dice and salt the tomatoes; how to oil and gently salt the crust; how to layer on the tomatoes, the fresh mozzarella, and the fresh basil.

I wish I would have taken a before and after shot of the pizza he made, but I only took the after.  Look at this first attempt at making a pizza.  I didn't touch it once.

Not only was it beautiful, but it tasted awesome.  Perfectly salted (whereas mine I can sometimes overdo).  And it is ROUND.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Using Homegrown Hops

Aren't they beautiful???

Being only in their first year, our hop babies didn't produce much, so we decided to use the total 3/4 of an ounce that we harvested in a beer we are calling "The Kitchen Sink."  We had a bunch of grain and hops leftover from other batches, so Brewmaster Reiton thought, "Why not just put it all together in one experimental batch and see what happens?" 

We moved "The Kitchen Sink" from primary to secondary fermentation this afternoon and did a mid-fermentation taste test.  I liked it.  It's nicely hoppy. We're debating dry hopping at the end for aroma, which I'm okay with, if it doesn't change the taste.  It's a beautiful color, too.  A rich dark amber.

We'll see how it tastes at the end! My fingers are crossed!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Giant Swiss Cake Roll: A Recipe for the Kid in You

I have a friend at work who loved my sugar cookies that I took in the other day, and he asked me if I would make him his very own batch, so I set aside a morning to do so.  But I find it hard to set aside a day to bake and only make one thing.  Especially when it is something that I'm giving away.  So, on a recent morning, as my buddy's sugar cookies were baking in the oven, I opened up the fridge and looked to see what needed to get used up.  The only thing I could see was whipping cream.


How about...a giant Swiss cake roll?

I'd always wanted to try a cake roll.  Here was my chance to experiment.  I decided to use Hershey's trusty chocolate cake recipe, and, using a mathematical equation or two, I figured that if I halved the recipe, I would be able to make a nice thin sheet cake using a half sheet pan.

I wasn't quite sure how or when to do the rolling, so while the cake baked (only for 20 minutes) I consulted Peterson's book, Cooking, which said to cool the cake, but not too much; cracking could occur if the cake got too cool.  Using a number of flipping maneuvers, I got the cake cooling on a sheet of parchment paper sprinkled with confectioner's sugar and lightly covered with the sheet of parchment that I had lined the pan with (and then peeled off the warm cake).

While the cake had its time-out, I decided to make the filling.  After freezing the bowl and the whip, I whipped about a cup of cream until soft peaks formed, sprinkled in about 1/4 cup of sugar and vanilla to taste, whipped it again until the peaks were almost stiff, and then whipped in about 1/2 cup of sour cream until the mixture was blended and stiff.  Yes, I just said sour cream.  I knew that it would have the same consistency as the whipped cream, so it wouldn't kill it, and it would cut down on the sweet factor of the cake.  Besides, I just needed the volume—so I thought I'd try it.

As soon as the filling was done, I decided to go ahead and spread it on the cake.  I had to chill the whole roll when I was done, anyway, so I didn't see the hurt in the cake being too, too warm before I rolled it.  I flipped the cake again (so the sugar side was on the inside) and spread the filling using an offset spatula (best spreading tool EVER) to within an inch of the borders.  With baited breath I grabbed the short end of the parchment paper and gently lifted... It was rolling!!!  Quite easily, actually! I just kept lifting the paper with one hand to roll the cake and tucking the cake with the other as it rolled to keep the roll tight.

It cracked, anyway.  Not horribly.  But apparently I either could have rolled it even sooner, or I needed more filling to make the roll fuller.  Oh, well.  It didn't affect the taste!  I froze the whole thing on a baking sheet for a few hours to keep it from settling and cracking more.

When it was time to get ready to head into work, I trimmed the ends off to make them nice and neat (rinsing the knife in hot water after each slice to keep the slices clean and perfect).  I really wanted to coat the whole thing with a ganache shell to make it like one giant Swiss cake roll, but I didn't have any more cream.  Rats.  So I just dusted the whole thing with cocoa powder.

Here's a picture before it was sliced:

Ooooh, it was yummy!  It was an experiment that I really wouldn't change at all, ingredient-wise.  BUT, I will make it with the ganache shell next time!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Berry Galette: The Lazy Man's Pie Recipe

Have you ever had one of those dishes that every time you see a picture or recipe of it, you think: "I want to make that someday..." but the day never comes? (It's like reading, and it's the reason why I have a personal library--there is always something waiting to be read--and baked.)

For me, that is true of many recipes, but in the dessert category, it has been a galette.  I'm a sucker for peasant anything.  As a kid I dreamt of living somewhere in the countryside in a little thatched roof cottage, dirt floor and all, and I loved, and still love, what would in the old days be considered peasant food (my mom's shepherd's pie was a favorite).  By their very nature, dishes created by the lower class tend to be remarkably simple, requiring only a pot or two and a few basic ingredients.

A galette wonderfully contains these qualities: it doesn't even require a pan.  It is a pastry dough made of flour, butter, and water rolled into a circle with a heap of fruit dumped in the middle.  The edges of the pastry dough are folded up and pleated around the base of the fruit heap to form the crust, then the whole thing is baked.  Talk about simplicity.

I'm headed to a Memorial Day picnic-y lunch this afternoon, and in my "What do I take???" search, I came across a galette recipe or two, and I finally decided to just DO it.  I read over the recipe in Baking Illustrated for a "Free Form Fruit Tart" and the recipe in The 150 Best American Recipes for "Santa Rosa Plum Galette" and kind-of combined the two to make my own recipe.  Here is what I did:

Dough Ingredients and Prep:
1 cup all-purpose flour
Slightly heaping 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
11 Tblsp. cold unsalted butter, cut up into 1/4-inch slices
3 Tblsp. ice water (you may need more or less, depending on the humidity of the day)

Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse a few times to blend. Add the slices of butter to the bowl.  Pulse in very short bursts until the butter and flour are blended to look the size of tiny peas.  Sprinkle the blend with one tablespoon of ice water then pulse with about 15 bursts.  Add the next tablespoon of ice water and repeat the 15 bursts.  Add the last tablespoon of ice water and pulse until the dough forms a large lump, about another 15 times.  If it seems that the dough is too dry, add another 1/2 tablespoon of ice water and pulse (you just don't want it too wet.). The dough ball should be moist but not sticky.  It should hold together nicely.  Dump the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap.  Shape it into a ball, then cover it with another piece of plastic wrap, flatten it into a disk, then wrap up the disk with the excess plastic and stick it in the fridge for an hour or overnight (I did overnight.).

Line a rimless baking sheet (or the underside of a cookie sheet) with parchment paper and set aside.

Using a lightly floured pastry cloth and a rolling pin sleeve (essential, essential, essential for pastry rolling ease! Go get them!!!), roll the dough disk out to be 12-13 inches in diameter.  Don't worry if the dough isn't in a perfect circle (I suck at perfect circles.).  Using the edge of the pastry mat, flip an edge of the dough over the rolling pin, then spin your rolling pin, wrapping the dough around the cylinder.  Move it over to the parchment-lined baking sheet, place the pin at the edge of the baking sheet, and unroll your dough onto the baking sheet.  Stick the dough in the fridge while you preheat the oven to 400 degrees, with the rack in the middle of your oven.

Filling Ingredients and Prep:
3 heaping cups frozen blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries
3 Tblsp. sugar
2 Tblsp. flour + 1 Tblsp. flour
2 Tblsp. slivered unsalted butter + 1 Tblsp. melted unsalted butter

In a medium bowl, dump the berries, sugar, and 2 tablespoons of flour.  Toss with a fork to coat as best as you can.

Pull the dough out of the fridge.  I trimmed mine into a very rough circle with a rolling pastry trimmer (I told you I'm horrible at circles).  Sprinkle the dough with the 1 tablespoon of flour.  Dump the berries on top of the flour, leaving a 2-inch-ish border.  Smooth the berry mound and rearrange as necessary to make the mound fairly even.

Fold a small section of the pastry edge up over the base of the berry mound with your left hand.  Hold your fold there, then move your right hand to the right a few inches and fold the next section of dough up with your right hand, lightly pressing down the pleat that is formed by the two folds with your thumb.  Fold up the next section of dough to the right with your right hand and press the pleat down, etc.  Continue to work your way around the galette, using your thumbs to help you make and press down pleats as you form them.

Top the berries with the slivers of butter, brush the crust with the melted butter, and sprinkle the edges with sugar.  Slide the baking sheet into the oven for 40-45 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling.

Cool completely on the baking sheet on a wire rack.

And here you go:

The crust is unbelievably flaky, thanks to all the butter.  OMG.  (I just tested a scrap piece sprinkled with cinnamon sugar—thank you, Barb, for that wonderful idea!).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Properly Planting Homegrown Hops

Yesterday, in an amazingly short amount of time, D and I put in the hops.

This is a "hill."  We cut out the sod in four separate circles, then covered each circle with 6-inch tall mounds made of manure and top soil:

After we finished the mounds, we staked each of them with a 6-foot stake.

Next went on a weed mat:

and then we planted the hop rhizomes.  Here's what one looks like:

Each mound then got mulched and labeled.

Here are the four varieties that we are growing:

It is going to be a fascinating summer, watching these come in! We've put them in a bit late, but from what we've read, hops are extremely hardy, so we shouldn't have a problem. And next year they are going to get much taller. We'll see how it goes for Year 1. I'll keep you all posted.

I can't wait to brew with our own hops! Woohoo!!!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Menu for an Indoor Picnic

We had a first anniversary dinner celebration with the family today, and boy, was it a feast! Check out the spread!
You ain't got nothing on us, rain, with family and food like this!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Perfectly Crispy Sweet Potato Fries

My first sweet potato fry tasting was a number of years ago, and if yours was like mine, it was an experience never forgotten.  It was a moment where I was holding in my mind what I thought to be an accurate expectation of what a sweet potato fry would taste like—then took a bite and realized that my expectation was delightfully, horribly wrong.

The shape is about all there is that is similar between regular and sweet potato fries.  The differences, on the other hand, are numerous: the texture is crispy yet smooth; the taste is salty then sweet; the color is flat out beautiful.

Despite my love for these fries, for years I've avoided making them because every time I tried, the result was mediocre at best.

Until the other night...

Once again, Bittman helped out.  I didn't use his recipe, but I did use an element of a recipe of his that I had made a week ago.  In How to Cook Everything he has a recipe for Crispy Chicken Cutlets with something or other.  The "crispy" comes from a very basic batter of 1 cup of flour blended with 1/2 cup water.  I decided to use that batter to coat some sweet potato fries to see if I could get that same wonderful crisp that accompanies only the best s.p. fries.

So, I washed two large sweet potatoes, cut them in half crosswise, then cut those halves into 1/4-inch sticks.  Any really small leftover bits I tossed.  I let the sticks sit on the counter for a good hour to dry out some.  (I'm not sure if it really did anything or not.  Maybe next time I won't let them dry out to see if it changes the result.)

When I was ready to fry I whisked up the batter of 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water with a few heavy dashes of cayenne pepper, divided the sticks into 4 batches, then tossed the sticks in the batter and quickly dropped them one fry at a time (to keep them from sticking together) into a deep fryer at 350 degrees for 4 1/2 minutes.  Each batch was salted with coarse salt immediately after coming out of the fryer and kept hot in the oven.

A word about deep frying: I have found from personal experience that using a deep fryer provides much, MUCH better results than frying in a pot of oil on the stove.  I've had experience with using multiple stoves and found that, with all of them, the oil just doesn't get hot enough, or it takes too long to get hot again after a batch is done frying.  The whole point of deep frying is to get the oil super hot so that when you drop your food into the oil, the water in your food immediately starts to steam, pushing OUT of the food, and creating a type of barrier that keeps the oil from soaking IN. This produces food that is 1) deliciously crisp and 2) not greasy, i.e. the best of fried food.  It is necessary to use a deep-fat/candy thermometer, so be sure to have one on-hand.

The result? OMG.  They were restaurant-quality, not meaning to brag.  The flesh was tender, the batter crispy and golden.  Holy cow, I need to do that again, for SURE.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Krausen Blow-outs and Stuck Carboy Stoppers: Averting a Brewing Disaster

I woke up this morning to what sounded like explosive diarrhea.

For a split second my brain did the half-dazed scramble through every conceivable cause of the sound until it hit what I knew was the correct analysis: the beer.  I had a blow-out.

You may have remembered (ages ago, it seems) that I mentioned that Chef Reiton had taken up brewing.  And I've been meaning to write about this brewing for a long time because it has become a serious part of our lives.  So much so that we have named ourselves.  We are the one-and-only Shirley Street Brewhouse.

ANYWAY.  I seriously digress.  So, the beer woke me up.  This beer, a wit beer, similar to Hoegaarden, is an all-grain single infusion brew.  What the HELL does that mean, you ask? (I know, I know.  I was there once, too...)  Well, it's really a very abbreviated way of describing the process of making the beer.

In a nutshell (and I'm really going to dumb this down—no offense meant), beer wort (the liquid that will become the beer once hops and yeast are added and it has fermented) can be made two ways: the "quick" way by adding extracts to water or the "old-fashioned way" by heating grains in water (how this wit beer was done).  So the first term above, "all grain," tells you that this beer wort was made directly from grain, not an extract.  In this case, we used 9 lbs. of malted barley, flaked wheat and oats, to be exact, to make the grain mash.

The second term, "single infusion," essentially refers to how many times the temperature of the grain mash is raised by adding hot water before it is lautered and sparged (steeped like a tea and then rinsed and drained) to create the wort.

After the wort is made, it is boiled and hops are added.  This wonderful liquid is then placed in a carboy where it is introduced to its delightful companion: yeast.  These two partners, for varying periods of time (depending on the type of beer you are making), will sit in the dark and make wonderful noises together, sometimes loud and boisterous, sometimes soft and slow.  These noises are the carbon dioxide gas they create together being forced out of the carboy through an airlock so the whole damn thing doesn't explode and make your house smell like a frat hall.

These are the noises that woke me this morning.  Only I shouldn't have been hearing spraying sounds.  I should have been hearing belching, bubbling sounds.  Peeking into the dark box that covered the carboy, I saw a mess: krausen (pronounced KROY-sen, with a good German gutteral 'r'!), a foam created by the fermentation process (, had risen up through the airlock and was dripping down over the carboy.  I knew from previous experience that this was not good.  You want air out, not krausen.

A quick text to Chef Reiton had him calling back with directives in 2 minutes flat.  Our best remedy was to remove the airlock and its rubber stopper and replace them with a dense foam stopper and a blow-off hose.  I mixed up a batch of sanitizer and sanitized the stopper, hose, and blow-off jar.  Knowing that oxygen is a serious enemy of beer, I wanted to do the next step quickly: I inserted the blow-off hose into the foam stopper, carefully removed the old stopper and the airlock, and quickly (my often mistake) thrust the new stopper and hose into the carboy neck.

Aaaaaand—I thrust too hard.

The stopper, slippery from the sanitizing solution, slid too far and slipped almost completely down into the neck of the carboy.  A string of expletives flew from my lips.  I wanted to just leave it since I knew I had an airtight fit, but Chef Reiton explained that it was best to remove the stopper now while the stopper was still wet; otherwise it would essentially get glued into the neck and be very difficult to remove later.  He asked if I was able to remove the hose and slip my pinky down through the stopper hole and pull it out.  I easily pulled the hose out of the stopper, but my pinky was too short.  I couldn't latch around the bottom of the stopper to get leverage to remove it.  I decided to just put the hose back in the stopper hole--and in the process shoved the stopper even further down into the neck.

Poor Chef Reiton heard another string of expletives.  Actually, it was just one expletive repeated in a string.  I was about to ruin his beer due to well-intentioned carelessness--classic me.  He calmly asked if I could use a screwdriver to hook around the stopper to pull it out.  I ran down to the basement to his brewing toolbag and grabbed a screwdriver.  And that's when I saw it: some weird-looking tool that looked like a heavy flattened fishhook on a handle.  I grabbed it, too, ran to the sanitizing bucket, swished them both in sanitizer, ran upstairs, shoved the hooky-looking tool into the hole, and pulled.  POP! Out came the stopper, quicker than you could repeat my previous string of expletives.

Oh, thank you, baby Jesus! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I quickly resanitized the stopper and hose end in the blow-off jar, placed the free end of the hose in the jar of sanitizing solution, and very, VERY carefully pushed the stopper into the carboy neck once again.  Bubbles immediately began to burp through the hose.  Oh, wonderful, wonderful tool! I wanted to kiss it, but I didn't know what it was.  Chef Reiton told me it was a beer faucet wrenchI highly recommend one for the removal of stuck carboy blow-off stoppers!

As I sit here and write, I can hear our beer bubbling away.  It's such a pleasant sound—especially knowing what disaster I almost caused but averted!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Learning the Joy of Cooking: A Child's Discovery

A discovery has been made in this household.  A discovery that has, not surprisingly, been made in the kitchen.  And it's a discovery that I could not be happier about: Michael is learning and liking to cook.

It began with that ice cream.  We made a couple batches together: Winter Wonderland (which we really freakily both named individually in our heads and then realized later that we both had thought of the same name for it) we made with Marshmallow Fluff and crushed candy canes and dyed it blue. A few weeks later we made Luther Love, which was basically the same, but it was dyed hot pink and had white chocolate chips, too.

Recently I did something that I don't do anymore: I bought a carton of ice cream.  Michael was so excited, but in the tasting of it (and it has been months since we've had store-bought ice cream in this house), Michael said, "Ours is better."

So the next time he said he wanted ice cream, I told him that he could make it while I made dinner.  I told him what to do, but I let him do the entire thing himself.  And, with my fingers crossed, I told him that since he was in charge, he could put in what he wanted.  He decided to go with a chocolate base, so I talked him through how to make a chocolate mixture to blend into the cream and milk mixture.  Then he asked what else he could put in.  I told him, whatever he wanted.  What he created was chocolate ice cream with bits of Twix and Milky Way and a handful of chopped peanuts blended in, and he colored it with food dye until it looked like mixed concrete. Seriously.  But it was GOOD.

ANYWAY.  Within the past week, Michael has suddenly gotten really into helping with dinner.  And not stirring-the-pot helping.  I'm talking, I-want-to-do-everything-myself helping.  And it has been a joy teaching him how to cook: how to cut potatoes; how to prepare chicken; how to fry food; how to prepare a salad; how to create a sauce; and how to make ice cream.  What is most wonderful is to see him sit down to dinner and look at the food he has helped make, and watch him eat it, and hear him say, "Everything is really good!"

A love is being born.  A love that is good and right in every way.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Calabrian Spaghetti and Meatballs

Tonight was going to be taco night, but in the middle of the grocery store, Michael declared his dislike for tacos, and so we compromised on spaghetti.

In investigating my My Calabria cookbook, I found a recipe for a basic tomato sauce and a recipe for pork meatballs, both of them being rather quick.  As usual, I didn't have everything that the recipes required, so I did some adapting: rosemary in place of parsley and beef in place of pork, both substitutions in the meatballs.

First I made the sauce.  It is quite like Marcella's tomato sauce, but Rosetta asks for fresh torn basil (which I had just enough of) and a halved hot pepper.  It took a whole 10 minutes to get in the pan and simmered down.

fresh tomato sauce

Making the meatballs was a matter of dumping everything in a bowl and mixing it with my hand: ground round, freshly grated Parmesan (instead of pecorino), salt, fresh cracked pepper, chopped fresh rosemary, an egg, and fine breadcrumbs (homemade would be so much better, but I didn't have any).  Here they are, rolled and ready to go in the skillet.  I actually froze most of them for future dinners, since Michael and I would never eat this many (and I cut the recipe by a third).

Calabrian meatballs

After browning the meatballs, I poured the tomato sauce back into the skillet, without draining the olive oil or fat the balls browned in, and simmered it all for about 10 minutes.  I then tossed it all in a pasta bowl, and this is what we got:

Calabrian spaghetti and meatballs served American style

My thoughts? I am truly falling in love with Italy.  And I really want to hang out with Rosetta.  I didn't serve this meal in the Italian style: serving the meatballs separately from the pasta in two different courses.  I was completely American and tossed it all together.  But all the same, it was absolutely fantastic.

My mental notes? I actually really loved the rosemary in the meatballs.  I was a little worried about it competing with the basil, but it worked really well.  A flaw, though, was I should have drained the fat from the meatballs.  I liked the beefy hint that the sauce got from the fat, but there was a little too much of an oily feeling on the tongue.  I think Rosetta said to drain them, but I forgot.  Oops.  Oh, well.  Next time.  Because there definitely will be a next time.  Mmmmmmm...

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