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Easing back into the kitchen

I’ve been extremely busy over the past year, and so have been cooking less. This is bad. There are a lot of reasons; travel is a big one, since the nice folks at the Hilton would not have appreciated it if I’d tried to find a way to cook in the room. Travel can lead to bad choices. The breakfast buffet. The endless happy hour. Anything offered at the Cheesecake Factory, where I think the unsweetened iced tea MIGHT be under 700 calories but nothing else is.

So I’m trying to get back into the habit. It’s better for my health when I cook. Also I’ve bought some cool stuff for the kitchen during the past year and I don’t really appreciate the irony of not using it.

As part of this reboot I’m trying to make more sense of my various blogs. I have four: this one, Recipes of the Yum, Recipes of the Damned, and AmyDStephenson.com.

  • 107 Cookbooks will continue to be about trying new recipes from my collection, as well as from new sources like magazines, the Internet, and new cookbooks I’ve acquired. (You thought I was done buying cookbooks? You are HILARIOUS.)
  • Recipes of the  Yum will be about cooking pretty food, or trying pretty food when I’m out. There is potential overlap with 107 Cookbooks but the basic idea will be that old favorites go on RotY and new efforts go on 107 Cookbooks.
  • Recipes of the Damned will be about scary old recipes, or just plain problematic recipes, as well as about food issues in the news and scary items on the market. I’ll be revising and re-posting some of the old material I had up years ago, which is no longer online due to Internet infrastructure issues that are too stupid and tedious to get into.
  • AmyDStephenson.com will have original writing about whatever strikes my fancy. It will probably be updated the least often, but I’m trying.

As I get things up and running, check out this RotY post about vegan chocolate chip cookies. I suppose I should have posted it here since it’s a new recipe to me, but I’m not OCD enough to change it now. You see what I mean about overlap.

CookiesCoolingCloseup
See? Pretty.

Also, I’ve started a Zazzle store, Little Shop of the Yum, which will offer merchandise using photos from my blogs. If there’s anything you’d like to be able to get in greeting card or coffee mug format, let me know.

More soon!

Shelter from the storm

PlatedSupper

I felt like cooking tonight. I’ve felt like cooking more lately, but haven’t had a lot of time. Still on a heavy schedule of work and travel, with little energy or time left at the end of the day. It’s not smart, because I enjoy cooking and get frustrated and guilt-ridden when I don’t do it. I haven’t been completely idle, but didn’t feel like going to the trouble of photographing old standards and improvisations when I made time for them among the takeout. Tonight, though, I thought I should make time for a post as well as for a home-cooked dinner.

JustOutofOven

You may have heard that a major storm blew through the New York metropolitan area on Monday night. New Jersey took the brunt of former-hurricane Sandy, but New York suffered quite a hit as well. Here at our house, we were fine; we suffered no structural damage, never lost electricity or cable, and simply had to sit through a windy night at home. The next morning, while others not far away were sorting through burned remains of houses or walking scores of blocks to find a place with electricity to charge phones and check in with loved ones, I was logged on to work from my home office and Scott was walking through the neighborhood taking pictures of downed trees.

Collards

We were lucky, and we were a bit stunned. It felt a bit like we’d just had a major explosion blow past us — we were safe but we couldn’t shake the idea that more shrapnel was going to fly through, and we couldn’t stop looking at the footage of those who had suffered enormous losses. We were taking phone calls from a friend who lived just inside the Manhattan “dead zone” without power or heat, helpless to go fetch her because public transportation was suspended while the tunnels were pumped dry of the floodwater that had filled them. We were watching our East Coast friends update Facebook — “Still no electricity, going to stay with a friend in Brooklyn.” “Waited 2 hours in line for gas.” “Still no email at the office, call me at home.” — while at the same time our friends in other parts of the country posted updates on Halloween parties, going to see movies, the mundane things of life. It was surreal to try to keep on working at my normal job, from home — something I’ve done hundreds of times, only now I was doing it because I wasn’t willing to wait 2 hours for a bus into the city, not because I had a vet appointment at midday.

BrowningGarlic

A couple of nights this week we got takeout or went out to eat, partly to support the neighborhood economy, partly because by the time I was done with my work I was ravenous and too impatient to run out for groceries and then cook. But tonight I wanted to make something comforting, something that felt more like normal life. Today was the closest to normal that we’ve had all weel. My Manhattan friend got her electricity back last night (or this morning if you’re picky, 1 a.m.). Our subway line was back in service as if nothing had ever gone wrong. It seemed time to reclaim the normal and everyday. So I made macaroni and cheese and collard greens.

MacAndGooeyCheese

The mac and cheese is a Martha Stewart recipe I’ve made many times before (though I’m a little irritated at Martha’s company right now for sacking the Everyday Food crew, including a friend — but it’s still the best recipe I have). I didn’t have enough whole milk so thinned it out with water. Voila, skim milk, but I didn’t cook the white sauce quite as long as I should have to let it thicken, so the resulting baked dish was a bit liquidy but will set up more as it cools, and will reheat beautifully. And with plenty of cheese, it still tasted fantastic.

CookedCollards2

The collard greens are a simple braise, with garlic, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, and were a nice complement to the rich and gooey mac and cheese.

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If you’d like to help out the Sandy recovery efforts, here are some links. There’s a lot that still needs to be done before residents of the area will be back to normal, especially those in the hard-hit areas of the Rockaways, Staten Island, Lower Manhattan, New Jersey and Long Island.

Improvised pasta with Greenmarket vegetable saute

StirredWithPasta2

August, the month of summer vacations and relaxation. We here at Chez 107 will have some vacation time soon, but for now I’m still in the throes of long work hours and business travel and failing to keep up with the housework. Summer has not particularly brought leisure, though it has brought humidity. And this evening it brought a crazy thunderstorm, which has tempered the heat only a little.

EggplantAndGarlic

With my heavy travel and work schedule I’ve been neglecting the kitchen, even as I’ve added some toys to it. We replaced our skillets, which were chewed-up nonstick — not an especially safe arrangement, but now we have Calphalon. Also nonstick; I must have misread the product description, but we can be more gingerly with them than we were with the old ones, since we didn’t buy them with grocery receipts. We bought a a SodaStream, which we adore. Last week I hauled home a new kitchen garbage can, a robust (and kind of expensive) one with a foot pedal, which so far is performing wonderfully. But cooking? I have been a bit lazy. I did a little baking in June and July, and have made a few pasta dishes. Still, we’ve had more than our fair share of delivery.

EggplantGarlicPeppers

This weekend I did better. I cooked dinner both last night and tonight. Given how hot it’s been I feel like I deserve a freakin’ medal for standing in front of the stove, even if only long enough to saute vegetables and cook pasta.

AddedTomatoesCloseup

Tonight’s dish was improvised, using vegetables I’d gotten at the Greenmarket without a very definite plan for how to use them. I sliced and salted some baby eggplant, then rinsed away the salt and blotted them dry. I threw them into a skillet (one of the new ones) with some olive oil and let them cook a bit, then gradually added garlic; green peppers; a few pinches of oregano, paprika and thyme; about two tablespoons’ worth of basil chiffonade; some chopped tomatoes; about 3/4 cup of red wine; and some baby spinach.

AddedTomatoes2

I kept cooking and stirring around until the eggplant was breaking down nicely and everything seemed to be blending together well.

AddedBasil

In the meantime I cooked a pound of dried rotini, then drained it and tossed the pasta together with the vegetables in the pot, adding a little bit of the pasta water to help the consistency.

CookingDown

I dished it up and grated on some Romano. The mixture was delicious. The flavor of the vegetables blended wonderfully, and the wine gave a nice tone without overwhelming the other ingredients.

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Best of all? Leftovers. This is going to be really good cold.

BowlsWithRomano

Getting back in the groove

I haven’t just been neglecting this blog; I’ve also been neglecting the kitchen. I’ve been out of the habit of regular cooking for a really ridiculous amount of 2012 so far, and it’s a little embarrassing.

There are reasons, of course. Work is a big one. In mid-February I was out of town for several days on a trip to another of our offices — no cooking in the hotel room, oddly enough — and in the course of the trip I took on a big project that’s been dominating my work ever since. It’s a good project, though I really can’t say much about it so will not dribble out information, but it’s meant a lot of late departures from the office and some extra busy weekends, plus two additional business trips, all of which cut into cooking time.

My “Jeopardy!” success is another one, oddly enough. My winnings arrived at the beginning of April, and while the bulk of the funds are in savings, went to Kiva.org (you can join our lending team, Friends of Bob Harris), or were used to pay off credit cards and replace our failing home computers, I did indulge in a little bit of restaurant exploration. (We highly recommend neighborhood restaurant Salt & Fat, by the way.) It’s been fun to try a few places we hadn’t been able to afford before, or to treat guests on a few occasions. But in the bigger picture, having some extra money on hand has made it a little too easy to take the lazy option when work ran late again or I got home tired from a day running errands.

This weekend was my first real respite in some time. Recent travel and deadlines had left me exhausted and a bit out of sorts, and I realized that part of the problem was that I haven’t really cooked in weeks and it was driving me crazy. So tonight I hopped back on the bike, as it were, and made a batch of what I’ve come to call my “sneaky zucchini” chili.

ChiliPot

It’s a recipe I’ve come to love. After browning some onions I add a couple of shredded zucchinis to the pot along with a generous pinch of salt, and let them cook for a while, stirring frequently, until zucchini has given up a lot of its moisture and cooked down significantly. Then I add a little more olive oil if necessary, and start to work in whatever other ingredients I’m working with: sausage, garlic, mushrooms, green peppers, spices, anything else I’m playing with, and finishing up with kidney beans, canned crushed tomatoes, and canned whole tomatoes that I’ve cut into quarters. One other key thing I’ve been doing is soaking a few dried chiles in boiling water for about 10 minutes, then chopping them (discarding the stems and as many of the seeds as I see fit to) and adding the chiles and a bit of the soaking water to the pot. That adds a beautiful smoky flavor, and helps ensure that what little zucchini flavor might still be detectable is pushed far into the background. The zucchini adds fiber and a bit of body but is essentially undetectable. Though I don’t consider it deceptive because I’ve never tried to pass it off as chili without zucchini in it.

ChiliBowl

My work project continues, but I am hoping to get back into more of a cooking habit. I do have some vacation time coming up, which should give me a chance to try new things, and the neighborhood Greenmarket opens in about a month. If nothing else I can get back into the habit of making salad and pasta; tomatoes can’t come in soon enough for me.

Mujadarah, Slap Chop, and a question for you

PlatingCloseUp

Still not back in the groove of trying new recipes yet, but I am cooking. Tonight was mujadarah, with collard greens on the side.

AddingRedLentils

I used red lentils this time, which makes for a slightly creamier and smoother dish. Green lentils keep their shape and texture more distinctly; red lentils melt in a bit.

AddingToRice

I’ve started using whole allspice, cloves and cumin seeds as well as a cinnamon stick. I got curious about how well it would work, and I have all these allspice berries. It can be a bit tricky to dig out the whole spices before serving, but the cloves are the only ones reliably hard to find, and they’re not going to hurt your teeth if you bite down on one.

OnionsInOven

I’ve also taken to using a lot less olive oil for the onions than the original recipe calls for. They still roast quite well. I start out with this amount of onion:

SlicedOnions

And end up with this much at the end.

RoastedOnions

For a green vegetable accompaniment I made collard greens. I start by sauteeing chopped garlic in olive oil, then adding a bit of kosher salt and red pepper flakes. Then I toss in the chopped collard leaves and toss to coat with the oil and mix in the flavorings; after a few minutes of that I add a little bit of water, put on the lid, turn down the heat, and let it steam for about 15 minutes, more or less.

CollardsToSteam

I thought this might be a good opportunity to try out the Slap Chop, which I received at the office holiday white elephant gift party. (I was only a little bitter about losing out on the bottle of Brooklyn bourbon.) I was pretty skeptical about the merits of this device. I’m kind of in Alton Brown’s camp here: if it isn’t a multitasker, I’m not sure there’s room for it in my kitchen. And he has a WAY bigger kitchen than I do.

SlapChop

The Slap Chop promises to be “your all purpose chopper for all your chopping needs.” This is only true if all the items you need to chop can fit beneath the blades — about a two-inch clearance. So if you have something larger to chop, like an onion, you have to cut it down to size, which means for a lot of food you’re already going to have to get out a regular knife.

SlapChop

I decided to try it on some garlic, four cloves of which fit easily within the chopper lid. (You don’t need to use the lid; you could place it right on the cutting board, so you could chop things that are broader than the base of the device but not taller.) I pushed the plunger several times and ended up with well-chopped garlic, not perfectly uniform — but no worse than I usually get it with a knife.

GarlicAfterSlapChop

I think the garlic chopping went more quickly than if I’d used a knife. Of course, then I had to disassemble it to wash. It’s not especially difficult to wash, and I wouldn’t say it’s any less safe to handle than a sharp chef’s knife, but it does take up a lot more space. And a chef’s knife can also be used for chopping larger items, slicing, peeling (well, you do have to be careful with that, other knives are better but it can be done), smashing a clove of garlic, and doing more precise cuts. The Slap Chop can’t do any of that. So if you really like to have lots of gadgets around, you may like this one, but if your space or funds are limited I’d recommend investing in a good kitchen knife and the time it takes to learn to use it skillfully.

SlapChopInDrainer

Anyway, this is a nice hearty meal for a cold night, and it’s totally vegan. Which means you can either enjoy it as part of a vegan lifestyle, or feel virtuous enough to eat half a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for dessert later. Not that I am talking about anybody in particular.

PlatedMujadarah2

So now I have a question for you. Just because I think the Slap Chop is a little silly, that doesn’t mean all kitchen gadgets and tools are silly. In a few months I’ll receive my “Jeopardy!” winnings, and should have a little bit left over from taxes and paying debts to have a little fun. What are your favorite kitchen tools and gadgets? If you had an extra few dollars in your budget — maybe even $100 or $200 — what’s the next kitchen item you’d buy, and why? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

In the midst of a lull

I know I’m not very regular in my postings of late, but the past few weeks I’ve been even more ridiculously distracted than usual. I’ve been cooking somewhat; I’ve had a few parties at which I made soup, rolls and other goodies. My soups are usually improvised, though I did make a Moosewood minestrone for one gathering. The olive rolls are also old standards by now. I haven’t been very inspired to try new recipes, or to photograph what I have been doing.

Some of that is a function of winter. It’s so dark, and that’s not ideal for photography, though it’s not as if I’ve ever let that stop me before. Some is just…I don’t know, a general feeling of juggling too many things.

But I’m starting to feel stirrings of enthusiasm and curiosity again. So maybe next week I’ll be able to put something together, right before I embark on some business travel.

What do you do when you fall into a rut?

Vegemite and acquired taste

No interesting cooking to report lately; at least, I’ve been cooking a little but nothing new, nothing I haven’t blogged about before. But on Friday I got to try Vegemite. One of my co-workers is from Australia and brought in a big tub for Australia Day, along with some bagels and cream cheese. So I tried it, and I kind of liked it.

“Kind of” is the operative term here. Vegemite is clearly an acquired taste, but I think I could acquire it. I spread a thin layer on a bagel; a little goes a long way. Vegemite is a thick, dense spread made from brewer’s yeast and vegetable ingredients. It has a very complex flavor: sour and tart, with a kind of underlying pungency. On the sesame bagel, the flavor was sharp and strong. With a bit of cream cheese, the flavor was less challenging; the cream cheese added a different layer of tartness but also lessened the impact of the sourness, and the creamy texture made the Vegemite taste easier to handle as well. Nichole says that in Australia it’s most common to spread Vegemite on toasted wholemeal bread with butter, and I think the rich flavor and fatty texture of the butter would make the whole thing easier to process as well.

Acquired taste is a funny thing. For most people, some foods are simply not enjoyable at first experience — coffee, for example. But for whatever reason — cultural pressures, a desire to feel grown-up and sophisticated, sheer morbid curiosity — we try the flavor again and become used to it, perhaps mixing in other foods to make the overall flavor more acceptable. Milk and sugar in coffee, soda water in whiskey, lemon juice in oysters. And eventually we acquire the taste.

That said, a lot of our co-workers were not ready to acquire a taste for Vegemite. Which isn’t surprising; the American palate is far readier for sweet food than for bitter and sour ones, and Vegemite isn’t in our mainstream so there’s no cultural incentive to adapt to it the way one would to coffee. But if you have come to enjoy strong dark-roast coffee, or aged whiskey, or kimchi, you can probably bring Vegemite into your repertoire too if you give it a chance.

Vegetable-rich chili, and a personal note

ChiliCooked

So it’s finally really winter in New York. I tend to be very dismissive of New Yorkers and how much they whine about the weather. Ooh, it’s so cold out, they say when it’s 45, and I think, It’s January! It’s supposed to be cold! Get over it! And then we get a day where the temperature never rises above freezing and the wind whips down the avenues and I think, maybe I’m being too mean. And say, doesn’t chili sound good for dinner?

ChiliIngredients2

I need to place a Penzey’s order. The Penzey’s that was in the Grand Central Marketplace has been replaced by some more expensive boutique spice shop, and my days of picking up high-quality spices at a low price on the way home are over. So I’m out of the really good chili powder, but as I browsed through my spice shelf I remembered that I have several dried peppers. Perhaps I could make up the deficit with those. I put a dried cascabel, a dried ancho, and a dried chipotle into my Pyrex measuring cup and poured on some boiling water, and let the peppers sit while I chopped up the rest of the ingredients. When I thought the peppers had soaked long enough I chopped them up; I discarded most of the seeds from the cascabel but kept them from the ancho and chipotle. I saved the soaking water (pouring some over the chopped peppers) in case I needed more liquid later.

CookingZucchiniAndOnions

I browned some onions in olive oil, then added garlic and two small zucchinis, shredded. I sprinkled on some kosher salt and sauteed them for a while, until the zucchini was lightly browned and had cooked down quite a bit. I then began adding my other chunky components: chicken sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, and kidney beans. For chili I like to use one large can of crushed tomatoes and one large can of whole tomatoes; I cut the whole tomatoes into chunks before adding them and their juice to the pot. I added the chopped chiles and a small amount of the soaking water, plus some lesser chili powder, some cumin, some coriander, and some epazote. I brought the pot to a simmer, covered it, and let it cook for about half an hour.

ChiliToSimmer

When I uncovered the pot I steamed up my glasses. Ah, the joys of finally starting to wear glasses full-time at age 44! Once the steam cleared I stirred the pot and saw that the chunks were tender and the liquid had thickened slightly. The chili smelled rich and smoky, but not too spicy; I considered adding a bit of Tabasco but decided not to, thinking it would be fine without the added bite. I stirred in some chopped scallions and spooned up bowls for me and Scott.

ChiliToFreeze

The chili was terrific; the chili peppers had given it a depth of flavor and a smoky tone, but not too much heat. (The chipotle was pretty small; maybe using two or three would have heated things up.) The slow simmering had taken the tart edge off the tomatoes and had allowed the shredded zucchini to effectively disappear into the liquidy base. We couldn’t really see zucchini shreds but we enjoyed the body they gave the chili. I’ll definitely keep using rehydrated dried peppers, perhaps experimenting with a few other varieties. And next summer I want to can some Greenmarket tomatoes for use in winter soups and stews.

I’m probably not doing the cooking again until at least Wednesday. Scott is in charge of homemade pizza tomorrow, and on Tuesday night we’re having a party at the office to watch me compete on “Jeopardy!” That’s right: In November we went out to Los Angeles for taping, and have been sworn to secrecy ever since, but on Tuesday everyone will finally get to find out how my (first?) episode went. So tune in!

Is this the end of Twinkiehenge?

TwinkieHenge

Hostess has declared bankruptcy. It sounds like the company has been struggling with debt, but that in the short term this is not likely to result in any interruption to operations. So you’ll still be able to buy Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other highly processed foodstuffs, assuming you care for that sort of thing. The NYT article strongly hints that labor and pension costs are a big issue, but if you’re getting into debt to the tune of $860 million there’s a lot more wrong with your planning than just paying your workers too well, I think.

A lot of the coverage has been suggesting, possibly tongue in cheek, that consumers may want to stock up on Twinkies just in case the company ends up folding. I can’t get behind that, but use your own judgment. They don’t actually last forever — though I held onto the ones left over from my Twinkiehenge for over a year before finally discarding them and they didn’t look appreciably changed. But I didn’t taste them to find out.

Homemade soup and olive-caper rolls: improvisation

CookedSoup2

Just a short post tonight. Winter seems to finally be taking effect in New York — not like in the Midwest, no snow, only a few truly cold days, but still, cold enough for soup to sound like a good idea.

Soup is also good for when you have a lean grocery budget, when you have a few leftovers you want to use up, and when you feel like you’ve been eating a few too many cookies and a few too many french fries lately.

SoupToSimmer

I think I’ve talked about my improvised vegetable soup here before: start with sauteeing onions and garlic in some olive oil, then keep tossing in vegetables so they are not so much browning in oil as steaming in their own moisture; then add broth and spices, bring to a boil, and let simmer until the biggest, sturdiest vegetables are appropriately tender.

RollsBaked

I thought the soup would go well with olive rolls — baking is also a good excuse to heat the oven on a cold day — but I found I didn’t have enough kalamata olives to make a paste, or enough time to go out and get more. So I dug through the fridge and found a jar of capers, and thought an olive-caper paste would do well enough. I threw in some parmesan that needed to be used up, with enough oil and olive brine and balsamic vinegar to make the mixture most enough to puree in the food processor.

OliveCaperPasteOnDough

I rolled out my standard improvised bread dough — a slightly softer variation of pizza dough — and spread the paste on, then rolled it up in a spiral like cinnamon rolls. Well, sort of. I let the rolls have a short second rise while I preheated the oven and got the soup to the point of simmering, then let them bake for about 25 minutes.

RollsToBake

It made for a nice comforting dinner, with a savory vegetable-rich soup that felt substantial without being heavy. The rolls were a good complement; the filling had a little sharper flavor than the kalamata paste, but the cheese and the capers added a different kind of salty overtone to the olives. Plus I had enough soup left over to put a few servings in the freezer to be ready for a busier cold night.