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December, 2011:

Big batch cooking: food for the freezer

penne and cheese; chicken green curry

ChardPenneCheese3

One of the difficulties with being a home cook is that it takes time, and on weeknights especially, time is at a premium. I often don’t get home until 7:30 or later; some nights the prospect of then chopping food, cooking and dishing up can be daunting enough to make me want to run out for empanadas instead. But that adds up. So when I had a few days off for the holidays, I decided to cook a few things to put in the freezer so Scott or I could reheat them for fairly quick dinners.

GratedCheeses3

I started by making mac and cheese — more accurately, penne and cheese, since you can use pretty much any tubular pasta for good results. The recipe I use comes from Martha Stewart’s Comfort Food, and it certainly is that. It’s not as simple as mixing powder from a box, but it’s so much better than the packaged stuff that it’s worth the effort. Anyway, it’s not that hard, though maybe I just have enough practice to have gotten good at it.

SaltNutmegPepperCayenne

I cooked a pound of dry pasta until it was not quite done — the noodles cook a bit more in the sauce while baking. I divided the cooked pasta into a few foil containers that I could put directly into the freezer later. While the pasta cooked, I grated cheese: about 4 1/2 cups of cheddar and 1 1/4 cups of Parmesan (Martha’s recipe calls for Gruyere or Romano but Parmesan works as well). I also measured out 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne, then grated what looked like 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg.

PenneNCheeseToBake2

I heated 5 1/2 cups of milk until it was not quite bubbling. In a large pan I melted 6 tablespoons of butter, then added half a cup of flour and whisked it together for 1 minute to form a roux. I poured in the warm milk and whisked and cooked the mixture until it was bubbling and had thickened a fair bit, then removed the pan from the heat and added the spices and most of the two cheeses, whisking until the cheese was melted and the mixture smooth. I poured it into the pans with the pasta and sprinkled the remaining cheese on top, and put them into a 375-degree oven for half an hour.

PenneNCheese

You’re supposed to let the cooked pasta cool 5 minutes before serving. I let ours cool a bit longer, because once I’d gotten the pasta into the oven I started working on the chicken green curry and it took more time than I’d intended. I chopped up chicken breast, onions, zucchini, red potatoes and mushrooms; I lightly cooked the chicken pieces in some olive oil, then added the onions and mushrooms. Then I added a can of light coconut milk and stirred in a couple of tablespoons of green curry paste (from a jar, not my own, though that will be on my list to do). You’re also supposed to add some fish sauce, but I didn’t have any and couldn’t find any at my regular supermarket, so I improvised a substitution: soy sauce plus a little Worcestershire sauce and some salt. Not perfect, but close enough for my purposes. I added the rest of the vegetables and another can of coconut milk, though in hindsight I think I should have stuck with one can and just added a small amount of broth or water. The final curry was good but more liquidy than I intended. I brought the mixture to a simmer and let it cook for about half an hour.

AddingCurryPasteToPan

We had one of the containers of penne and cheese for dinner, with some braised red chard. I froze the rest of the food when it was cool: six meals into the freezer. Not too bad for one long evening’s work.

CurryReadyToFreeze

Christmas dinner: chicken, candles and company

roast chicken with herb butter

RoastedChicken

For Christmas we had a friend come over, and I wanted to make a meal that would be nice but not overly demanding. I settled on roast chicken, along with roasted potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts (our friend brought some cold appetizers plus truffles for dessert and some vodka), and leafed through my books for a good recipe.

HerbsInButter

You would think roasting a chicken would be part of my basic skills now, but I’ve tried out a number of different approaches trying to find the best one for me. For years I used a technique from Cook’s Illustrated that involved starting at very high heat and with the chicken breast-side down, then turning the bird breast-side up partway through and maintaining the high heat until the skin had browned, then turning down the temperature to finish, plus basting every 8 minutes or so. It was pretty labor-intensive, and I quickly lost enthusiasm for repeatedly reaching into a 500-degree oven. When I got fed up with that one I tried versions with a lower starting heat, more or less basting, some with the bird starting breast-side down and some not, but all fairly fiddly. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything promises simple roast chicken in one recipe title, but I have to say that his roast chicken with herb butter is equally simple during the roasting process itself, which is what matters to me and my oven-heat-warmed face.

PreppingTheBird

The recipe is much like the simple version: starting the bird hotter than the final cooking temperature (450 instead of 500), starting it breast-side down and turning it over partway through (to help ensure that the breast is moist), and basting sparingly. The difference is that first I mashed together half a stick of butter with a tablespoon of minced fresh herbs (I used thyme and chives) plus some salt and pepper, then rubbed the butter mixture all over the bird, loosening pockets of skin and rubbing butter between skin and flesh as well. (This is easier than it sounds.) I also put two quarters of a lemon, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a couple of chunks of ginger root into the bird’s cavity. I melted the other half stick of butter in the roasting pan, then added some water and put the chicken on a roasting rack atop it all, and into the oven it went. I cooked it breast-side down for about 20 minutes; then I basted with pan juices, turned the bird over, basted some more, and returned it to the oven for another 8 minutes or so. At this point I basted it once more, turned the temperature down to 325, and inserted my probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh so it could track the temperature up to the desired 160-165 range without my having to repeatedly stab the hot chicken. At this point Bittman lets you stop basting, which takes away a lot of the fuss factor that you find in other recipes, though I did give it one more wash about 20 minutes later when I was turning the roasted vegetables anyway.

PanSauce

When the temperature was in the right zone — I forget just how long that took, though it was a little longer than the suggested time of an hour total because my chicken was kind of large — I tipped the bird up to pour the juices out of the cavity and confirm they were clear. (This also helps make carving less of a catastrophe later, though for me that is frankly a lost cause and always will be.) I let the bird rest about 5 minutes, and in the meantime I poured the pan juices into a saucepan and added some wine and cooked the mixture until it reduced by about half, whisking periodically. This was not technically a gravy, since I didn’t thicken it, but it was a nice flavor complement to the bird, though the meat was very moist and didn’t need gravy to help in that respect. I carved the chicken as best I could, which is not that great considering I only do this a few times a year. But I wasn’t trying for a magazine spread, I just wanted to have light and dark meat easy to choose from the platter, and I did manage that.

RoastedSprouts

The roasted vegetable sides were very easy. I made the Brussels sprouts as I usually do: trim the stems, cut in half, toss with olive oil, pepper and salt — in this case, paprika salt. For the potatoes I mixed together Yukon golds and purple potatoes, cutting the larger ones to try to get reasonably uniform chunks, and tossed those with olive oil and salt and pepper as well. (By the way, yes, those purple potatoes are purple all the way through. And if you rinse and blot them dry on a towel they’ll bleed a little purple onto the cloth. Heh.) Those I put in the cast-iron skillet to ensure a good crispy crust. I put them into the oven when the chicken went in; the sprouts came out a little earlier than the bird and the potatoes did.

PotatoesToRoast4

I didn’t get any photos of the dining table because we had it candlelit, with votives in the holders that we had made the night before using cheap glassware and Mod Podge and tissue paper. I don’t like the effect of my camera’s flash, and there was nowhere near enough light to go without it, so I didn’t record the moment but let us simply experience it. That was the point anyway, right? To enjoy good friends and a holiday meal, to celebrate in the now, to be fully present.

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Stephen Colbert Americone Dream Cake

melted ice cream cake from The Cake Mix Doctor

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This post will just make it look like all I do is bake sweets, which isn’t true. I sometimes cook them on the stovetop, like peanut brittle. More seriously, I have been cooking some savory food, but it’s the holiday season and that means parties and festivity, and that means that like as not my contribution will be dessert.

IngredientsForCake

Oh, by the way, holiday party? That’s not an accidental phrasing. I support the secularized holiday season because it lets all of us revel in light as the dark nights draw in, not just a select few. I believe in the open, inclusive approach to this time of the year, when several holidays are taking place (one starting this very night). I think the fact that a wide variety of cultural traditions converge on the idea of a festive season of light and giving says a lot about our common humanity. I don’t give much credit to the idea of a war on Christmas, though the commercialization of it is a real if not especially new problem.

BatterInPan

As it happens, I was invited to a holiday party largely made up of humanists and skeptics, and we had a marvelous time full of good will and good cheer. I wanted to contribute something that would be fun and memorable but also easy to prepare, so I turned to The Cake Mix Doctor and flipped quickly to the recipe for Melted Ice Cream Cake. It’s very simple indeed: in a mixing bowl combine a box of white cake mix, three eggs, and a melted pint of superpremium ice cream of your choice. I considered New York Super Fudge Chunk but thought the chunks might be a problem for the mixer; I considered chocolate but wasn’t sure it would be distinctive. Then I spotted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream, and thought, hey! I am cake and so can you!

CakeCooling4

I mixed the ingredients together and poured them into a greased, floured Bundt pan, which went into the oven for about 50 minutes. I let it cool for 20 minutes, as instructed, then turned the cake out, which was tricky and didn’t go perfectly; I ended up with a small bit sticking to the pan, leaving a little divot on the top. Well, that’s what frosting is for.

MixedFrosting

The frosting recipe is from this cookbook as well: chocolate cream cheese frosting. It’s also easy: powdered sugar, vanilla, butter, cream cheese, cocoa. I spread it on the cake, using my offset spatula to try to shape and sculpt it a bit, then sprinkled on some gold dragees for a festive look.

SlicingTheCake

People liked it. It was most and tasty. My only complaint was that I ate way too much at the party, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own.

Chickpeas and Cheap Cookery

golden “chicken” patties

DinnerPlate2

My plan is to set up a twice-a-week blogging schedule: A post early in the week about something I cook over the weekend, and a post later in the week about either a cooking experience or a food-related subject, such as things in the news or weird products I come across. (Rejoice: There is a SlapChop review in our future.) I meant to kick off that schedule last week with the chickpea patties, but am in catch-up mode. Better late than never.

ChickpeaPuree

I made the chickpea patties because, quite frankly, I was broke and needed something I could do cheaply with few new ingredients to buy. I’m in catch-up mode financially as well; we had to squeeze in an unexpected trip to Los Angeles in November and it was what is euphemistically known as “off-budget,” and then I had to do my holiday baking, which involved stocking up on butter and nuts and some other non-cheap ingredients. So I looked at my dwindling store of canned beans and thought, veggie burger, there’s got to be an easy one I haven’t made yet.

ChickpeaPatties

I was surprised to discover that there aren’t that many veggie burger recipes in my vegetarian cookbooks. Or maybe I was just having trouble finding them; not all indexes are created equal, and a cookbook may class a bean burger under “beans” but not “burgers” or “sandwiches.” I tried as many terms as seemed reasonable and ended up with three choices: a bean burger I’ve made many times, a lentil burger that lacked a certain appeal, and a chickpea patty that I think I made once about 10 years ago. The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook recipe called for few ingredients: canned chickpeas, some of the reserved liquid, oats, garlic, salt, pepper, and oil with which to cook it.

TurningPatties

It’s a simple recipe. You drain the chickpeas and reserve the liquid, puree the chickpeas in a food processor with just enough of the liquid to make a smooth paste, mix it up with some oats and minced garlic, season to taste, and cook in a lightly oiled pan for about 8-10 minutes per side.The patties were a little fragile, shedding chunks when I turned them, but held together well enough for a slightly sloppy dinner. It’s possible I needed to make the chickpea paste a little wetter, or add a bit less of the oats. But they tasted good, with a nutty chickpea flavor and aroma. I served them on basic hamburger buns with a bit of mustard, and if I’d had mayonnaise on hand it would probably have been a nice complement.

FriesToBake3

I had some russet potatoes on hand too, so I made oven fries to go with the chickpea patties. I scrubbed the potatoes and sliced them into fairly thick fries (skin still on, of course), tossed them with olive oil and some salt and pepper, and baked them in a 450-degree oven for a bit less than half an hour, turning them a couple of times for even browning. They were yummy, with a strong potato taste and no oily overtones. There were crispy edges and rich, smooth interiors. Nice.

DinnerPlate

I rounded out the dinner with some corn and a few of my homemade pickles, which were as close to a green vegetable as we were going to find in the house until payday. (I know. Shut up.) These were the hot-pepper pickles, which continue to pack a serious punch.

Holiday baking and catching up

BagsOfCookies

I’m not one of those people who goes bonkers for Christmas; I don’t string the entire apartment with lights or wear comical red-and-green sweaters or collect creche figures. We’ve put up a tree exactly once in our marriage, the one year we were in an apartment that was large enough to accommodate it (and we were as surprised as anyone that the cats didn’t knock it over; we were quite proud of them). But I do enjoy a lot of the more social, friendly aspects of the season, and my own little annual tradition is my cookie baking extravaganza.

PecanCookiesToBake

Yes, the thing I like best about the holidays involves cooking. Don’t act so surprised.

Brittles2

For the past several years I’ve been shipping cookies to distant co-workers. I have a lot of the key details figured out now. The optimal plan is to bake on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and get my boxes into the mail on Monday; I had to juggle my plans a bit this year and ended up baking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then getting the boxes into the mail Wednesday afternoon. It turns out that if you can get the Priority Mail boxes dispatched by the Wednesday after Thanksgiving you can still hit the two-day delivery target. (Possibly you can on Thursday and Friday as well but they’ll spend the weekend sitting somewhere in transit.) I’ve found in the past that the two-day promise becomes very elastic the further you get into December. One year I sent cookies that took a good 10 days to arrive; I started getting emails raving about the goodies, and was about to hit send on a message saying “took them long enough” before it occurred to me that the recipients didn’t want to know that. So I just said thank you, and then shut up.

BagsOfCaramelCorn2

But anyway, the week after Thanksgiving, things are in motion. I take that week as vacation every year, so it’s a fine time to spend the better part of a day in the kitchen. This year was my first baking marathon while still recovering from plantar fasciitis, of which I can say: ouch. Maybe a few other words. I won’t repeat them here. It turns out that standing all day is not optimal for the still-sore plantar fascia. So if you’re my podiatrist and you’re reading this — well, you already know I’m not very good at taking care of my feet, so you won’t be surprised.

GatheringIngredients

This is the kind of project for which a little planning goes a long way. When I was in junior high and we took home ec, we had to write cooking plans, which seemed laughable when we were doing single-dish projects through which we were already being coached. A friend and I lampooned the cooking plan concept for after-school snacking. “3:31: Open the freezer door. 3:32 — no, better make that 3:31:30 — remove ice cream carton and put on counter. Wait, did we say when to get out bowls? Oh, god, this is going to be a DISASTER.” But it turns out that when you’re trying to do, say, five cookies, two nut brittles and caramel corn, a cooking plan helps you save a lot of time and difficulty. If you’re smart, by the second or third year you’re making sure that you mix your doughs that need to chill the night before, and you plan to bake the cookies in ascending order of baking temperature, and you think about how much parchment you need before you go to the store.

CranberryPecanChocCookieDough

I have several favorite recipes, but I wanted to try a new one this year for the sake of the blog. I picked one from the Martha Stewart Cookies special magazine, a cherry and chocolate chunk cookie with toffee pieces that sounded yummy. Of course that meant that I couldn’t find toffee pieces at the store, and dried cherries cost the earth, and I thought, the hell with this. I already have pecans and dried cranberries, I’ll do my own chunk cookie. So I mixed up the regular base dough that I use for chocolate chip cookies and stirred in dried cranberries, pecans, and chocolate chunks. And they were good. Fragile, but good.

ChocolateCookiesBeforeAndAfter

The same Martha Stewart magazine is the source of two of my other favorites, Grammy’s Chocolate Cookies and Cranberry-Oatmeal Cookies. They’re molded in much the same way — you shape them into balls — and they bake at the same temperature. They’re very easy and they taste great.

CaramelCornBaked

That magazine is also where I get the caramel corn. No major spillage of caramel this year, and only one small caramel burn on my hand! A success!

SugarCookiesBaked2

I ran out of time this year, and so I decided to throw the undecorated sugar cookies into the freezer instead of delaying the mail shipments while I frosted and sugared. I’ll decorate those later this week and perhaps make another batch of cookies or a pan of brownies, and bring them into my own office.

BagsOfBrittle5

It’s actually a lot of fun to turn out large quantities of goodies like this, assembly-line style, lining up the unbaked nuggets of dough, lifting the cooling cookies onto the second rack, stuffing the baggies. And it’s a blessing to have people to mail them to; we’d be eating cookies until Fourth of July if we didn’t get them out of the house.