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First taste of the pickles

I came back to the office on Tuesday; I’d worked from home Monday because my subway line was still on limited service Monday morning, as the MTA cleaned up after the hurricane, and I opted not to fight the crowds. I thought I’d mark the occasion by bringing in most of the cookies I’d made on Sunday, and also brought in two jars of my pickles: one jar of regular dills and one jar of hot-pepper dills.

OfficeSnacks3

I opened the regular jar and ate one of the pickles before announcing their presence to my co-workers, just to make sure something hadn’t gone horribly awry. (“Are they supposed to taste like oven cleaner? Is that a thing?”) They’re very sour; it’s only been three weeks since I canned them, and I think they might mellow slightly in the next few weeks as the flavors continue to blend. But they’re dilly with a pepper and cumin undertone, and reasonably crunchy except for the seedy middle part. You can taste the garlic. I was pleased.

OfficeSnacks7

Later in the day I thought I’d snap the pictures here, and used the fork to hold one of the hot-pepper dills out of the brine. Once I’d finished shooting, I ate that pickle, my first taste of that variety. Wow. That is a pickle that challenges you. That is a pickle that walks up to you and thumps you on the chest to get your attention. It’s got all the sour punch of the regular dills, with a slow-burning fire coming in after the initial taste. If you don’t like hot or sour food you’d probably hate it, but I was thrilled.

OfficeSnacks2

A number of my co-workers were pleased too; I may have converted at least two to pickling. (There’s still time! There are still cucumbers and celery and other good things in the Greenmarket!) Those who weren’t into pickles enjoyed the cookies. Judging from the paucity of crumbs left by late afternoon, nobody was bothered about the fact that the cookies weren’t magazine-pretty.

Hurricanes and cookies

chocolate chip cookies

I live in New York. If you’ve been following the news you know that Hurricane Irene passed through here in the early hours of this morning. More accurately, it was Tropical Storm Irene by the time it reached us, and not as big and awful as it might have been. It was still big and awful enough for plenty of people in the area; there are numerous reports of downed power lines, flooding, and fallen trees, as well as a few deaths. Here at Chez 107 we were lucky to come through virtually unscathed; the only problems we encountered were a minor leak in the skylight above the hall stairs, the possibly coincidental death of our cable box/DVR, and serious disruption to our sleep.

We were not so confident that it would be this easy in the days leading up to the storm. Forecasts suggested it could be a Category 2 when it hit the city, which could cause serious damage. We don’t live in one of the evacuation zones so we prepared to shelter in place, and that included stocking up on food we could eat if the power went out. We’ve never lost power here in a storm before but a Category 2 hurricane seemed like a good candidate for the first time. So I went to our regular grocery store on Friday night, not sure what would be left. Bread was almost cleaned out, but I found a number of other things: peanut butter, crackers, hummus (one package, which we could finish off in short order if the power went out), salsa (ditto), chips, cereal, and a few other little things. I was pretty sure that if we did lose power we wouldn’t be without it for very long, so I made sure to only get things that we would use anyway.

I understand not everyone kept that in mind when preparing for the storm. If you’re someone who stocked up on non-perishable food that you no longer thrill to now that the crisis has passed, you might donate your excess to a local food bank (such as Food Bank for New York City).

We had completed our preparations by midday Saturday, and then we were left to wait. The storm was moving slowly, and it had an entourage in the form of massive TV coverage, a pretty well-mixed blend of the informative and the sensational. Waves of rain washed through, all a prelude for what was to come. The worst of it passed through overnight; we tried to get some sleep but were repeatedly awakened by alerts and our own anxiety. By this afternoon, when it was mostly through except for some intermittent showers and gusts of wind, I was ready for things to be normal again.

Cookies

Which is probably why I made chocolate chip cookies. My original plan was to make chili for dinner as well, but I seem to be out of beans. (Well, I suppose they wouldn’t have been high on my list of things to make without refrigeration or a stove.) So we foraged on room-temperature food for another night and I’ll be making a pot of chili for tomorrow’s dinner. But I found comfort in the process and the taste of cookies. I was a little imprecise with the soda and salt measurements, so they’re a bit flat, but you know what? They still taste good. They taste like normality, and comfort, and safety from disaster.

Join Me: Take the Slow Food $5 Challenge

I’m a big believer in home cooking. That’s probably no secret if you’ve been reading this blog. I can be as lazy or inattentive or self-indulgent as anyone — I am not averse to the occasional takeout empanada or sandwich — but I also really enjoy the process of cooking. I like the fact that most of the time, what I end up making is better than something I would buy. And I especially enjoy the fact that for just about anything I make, I end up spending a lot less money than I would if I went out and ordered the same thing at a restaurant, or got home delivery.

There are people who don’t believe this, though. Really. There are people who argue that cooking at home is much too expensive for anyone to do. This mentality gives rise to ridiculous blog posts like “The $84 Stir-Fry,” in which an inexperienced cook demonstrates that she also doesn’t understand the concept of amortization by assuming that the amounts she shelled out for a pepper grinder, a cutting board and a “totally unnecessary” (her term) food scale deserve to be included in the cost of this single meal. (Seriously, did she throw away the scale and cutting board after she ate?) I have a feeling these are also people who don’t actually do the math to compare the costs of a week’s worth of deli sandwiches with the costs of getting the equivalent amount of bread, meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato at the supermarket. The data set may not be valid.

OK, it’s true that if you don’t know what you’re doing or how to do it you may make the mistake of buying the wrong ingredients, in the wrong quantities, for the wrong price. You may make rookie mistakes that result in waste and mess. You may take longer than you think is reasonable because you don’t have the skills to work efficiently. But that doesn’t mean cooking is inherently expensive, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to learn how to do it at all. Smart cooking enables you to make use of the best-priced fresh ingredients you can find, to take advantage of seasonal availability (and the fact that a vegetable at its prime in the market is often at a great price as well — supply and demand in action), and to make smart substitutions that save you money.

Of course there are also a lot of people who can’t find affordable ingredients. They live in food deserts — areas where there are no grocery stores, produce markets, or other sources of reasonably priced fresh food to use for cooking. They have easy access to overpriced bodegas, fast-food outlets galore, and 99-cent stores with dubiously sourced packaged foodstuffs, but not to fresh tomatoes or whole-grain bread or frozen spinach. If you don’t have a car or can’t afford gas, and your nearest supermarket is two bus rides and a 25-minute wait at the transfer point away, you aren’t going to make a habit of grocery shopping; you’re going to get whatever you can find most cheaply near you, no matter how bad for you it is in the long run. This is a big problem, but it won’t help matters if we blithely accept the assumption that cooking at home is expensive and thus isn’t a realistic goal.

Slow Food USA is trying to help spotlight the real value of home cooking. On Saturday, Sept. 17, they’re presenting the $5 Challenge. Participants will either cook or participate in a meal — a slow food meal, cooked with real ingredients by real people — that costs no more than $5 per person. (That applies to ingredients, not to extraneous purchases like “totally unnecessary” scales.) The goal here will not simply be to cobble together cheap ingredients; the goal will be to create a delicious, nourishing meal at a low cost.

Who’s in? I’m in. I’m not planning to host a public event — though those who would like to do so are invited to host an event or attend a hosted event or potluck — but I am planning to cook, photograph and write up a meal, including a detailed accounting of the per-serving cost. I think this is a great chance to demonstrate a few fundamentals of home cooking:

  • Real food doesn’t have to be costly.
  • Real food tastes great.
  • Food that you share with people you care about is nourishing in ways that go beyond vitamins and fiber.
  • You don’t have to be a trained chef to cook something that people will enjoy.

So why don’t you join me? If you know me in real life, get in touch about coming over for dinner. Otherwise, please feel free to dive in and host an event or join one that’s already set up, and come back here to post about it in the comments.

Recipe tool and random thoughts

I didn’t do a big cooking project this weekend, but I have decided to try to get back to a regular publishing schedule. So I will aim to post every Monday, regardless of how intensive my cooking efforts have been, and to post more if I can manage it.

This isn’t to say that I have not done any cooking. I’ve made a few pasta dishes, and froze some pesto for the winter. (I haven’t actually done that before, but I understand one is supposed to omit the parmesan before freezing because the consistency doesn’t work out so well upon thawing. I’ll report how that worked when the time comes.) The night of my canning I made a basic pasta-tomato-basil dish to accompany sauteed chicken breast, but I didn’t photograph it. I’ve been out of the habit of photographing if it’s not a special recipe. I may have to rethink this so I can show off a few nifty-looking but not difficult dishes.

Here’s a pasta dish I cobbled together a while back, for example:
PastaReadytoServe

I boiled pasta and combined it with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, chickpeas, lemon zest, salt and pepper, parmesan, and asparagus. I tossed the asparagus bits into the pasta water a few minutes before the end of the boiling and drained it all together.

That’s typical of a lot of the cooking I do: I like to improvise. Or sometimes I have little choice but to improvise, if the hour is late and my foot is sore (that flipping plantar fasciitis) and I can’t find it in me to make a run to the store. I could just sigh and lament the long-lost days of living above a Zupan’s, or spend even more of our disposable income on delivery, but far better to rummage the shelves and figure out a clever combination.

A recent Techlicious article spotlights several sites that help you do this kind of improvisation more easily. I’ve signed up for SuperCook.com, which lets you store pantry items and add other ingredients on hand to see what you might be able to throw together. I’ve populated most of my staples, and before adding anything from the fridge or freezer I was already seeing a lot of pasta and garlic dishes; adding mint and lemon significantly expanded the options. Unsurprisingly, I seem to be able to make just about any kind of cake or cookie if I’m so inclined.

Though as it happens, I have not been willing to turn on the oven. We’ve had a hot summer. Yesterday was the first relatively cool day in weeks, as my electric bill can attest, and if we had stayed home I’d have thought about making chili and maybe baking a batch of cookies. But instead we went out to a tavern where our neighbor works; at his insistence we tried the fried dill pickles, and now I am going to have to make some for myself. But not tonight. Today was my first day back at work, and frying will have to wait.

Pickling Party, or What I Did on My Summer Vacation

dill pickles with garlic; tomato sauce; spicy peach jam

Pickles8Last fall, I laid plans for a four-week vacation this summer. We get generous leave benefits where I work. We also have a sabbatical program, but I’m still a few years away from qualifying for my second one; however, I realized at some point that I could use my accumulated personal leave to get a nice long break without waiting until 2014. So I made the appropriate PicklesToBerequests and got approval and got the time onto the calendars. I had second thoughts about the wisdom of this plan back in April, when I was overloaded with projects at work and busy with volunteering and other obligations outside the office, and no days off in sight. But I held fast, and soon the glorious day arrived: July 18, my first weekday of liberty.

MoreWhereThoseCameFromThat’s right: This is my fourth week of vacation. I haven’t been blogging during that time because I’ve been more focused on a different writing project. I was hoping I’d finish a solid draft of that by this Friday, which admittedly was always an unrealistic goal; however, unrealistic goals are useful motivators sometimes, and I have FoodForCanninga much better framework in place for the project itself now. I’m better prepared to make regular progress once I’m back at work and have a solid draft done in the next few months. End of September, perhaps? Just the right end of unrealistic to shoot for, I think.

This week, however, I’ve turned my attention to food. You may PicklingMaterialsremember back in July, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef collaborated with friends to organize a virtual pie party. It was a smashing success: thousands of people made pies and posted pictures and comments on Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs. So Shauna and her friends thought a new party was in order, and today is Pickling Party day.

PeeledChoppedTomatoesI’ve made pickles before. Back in Portland it was simple: Get some jars, get some goodies from the farmers’ market, check your recipes, do lots of cleaning, boil a lot of water, and ta-da! It’s some work but nothing complicated. In New York it’s similar, but with one twist: finding canning jars at a reasonable price. New York is an expensive place to live, and most of its retailers are serving people PeachJamwho don’t have a lot of space and so aren’t buying in bulk. In Portland I could walk into just about any hardware store and find 12-jar cases of pints or quarts for around $10; in New York you can buy single jars for $1.75 apiece, or more. The first year we were here, one hardware store a few blocks away from my home attempted to sell me a box of pints for $30. Twelve jars. I walked out in a huff.

TomatoSauceThe growth of the whole and homemade foods movement has prompted more New York retailers to stock cases instead of singles. However, those cases are still $16 and $17, reflecting the higher cost of doing business here. And those retailers are far away from me, leaving the challenge of getting a heavy load of glass jars home on the subway without breakage or other disaster. I’d JarsBeforeBrine2looked for jars on Amazon and other online outlets, but the savings in per-case charges were always more than offset by shipping fees for heavy glass. However, I kept poking around in forums and question threads, and finally found a pointer to FreshPreserving.com, the official online distributor for Ball jars. I did the math: even with shipping charges, the cases cost less than JarsBeforeBrine3they would in the Brooklyn or Manhattan stores. And they came fast, via overnight shipping (after a day or two for the order to be processed).

Now I was ready to hit the Greenmarket. As with any big project, I started by dreaming big. How many kinds of pickles could I make? Maybe I could do several jams, since I might as JarsBeforeBrinewell do other canning while I had the water boiling. Hey, this could be the year I make tomato sauce! What about chutneys and relishes? A leisurely browse through my main canning cookbook and some websites filled my mind with visions of pickled brussels sprouts, ginger jam, pickled garlic, habanero jelly. Then I let reality creep back in. There are only so many hours FillingJarsin a day and only so many jars in a dozen. Brussels sprouts aren’t in yet; those may fill a Sunday this September but won’t do for the August pickling party. Berries are kind of expensive here, even at the Greenmarket; New York is not the berry wonderland that the Northwest is. And to me pickles start and end with cucumber: crisp, dilly, with a hint of garlic and maybe a hot-pepper bite.

FillingJars2I decided to do three categories of canning: pickles, the bulk of the effort; tomato sauce, my first foray into preserving the Greenmarket’s red jewels for cold weather; and peach jam, an easy old standby. (I had to remind myself that I don’t actually eat nearly as much jam as all that, not enough to stock up jars and jars of the stuff.) I hit the market on Monday with my rolling cart SealedAndCoolingand a list in my mind. I trundled away some time later sweaty, my foot aching (I’m recovering from plantar fasciitis), and laden with fresh produce destined for the jar, the freezer or that night’s dinner. Once home, I set aside the things for the next day’s work, used some of the tomatoes for a pasta dish for dinner, did some necessary housecleaning, and took a few minutes to start PicklesInJarsmacerating fruit and herbs for soda syrup (another Gluten Free Girl offering; I followed her recipe to make cherry-basil, and followed the basic proportions to make peach-mint).  Then I rested for the evening, knowing I’d be busy the next day.

And so I was. Once I’d finished breakfast and caught up with my Facebook Scrabble games, I got PeepingAtSlicesto work. I started by getting the soda syrups out of the way, pureeing the macerated fruit and herbs and then filtering out the solids. Then I got the leftover dishes done and put away, dug out the few odd leftover canning jars and lids, and figured out my game plan. The jam and the sauce would require cooking before canning, so I’d get started on those. I boiled water so I could Pickles3dunk scored peaches and tomatoes to peel them; chopped the peaches and got them cooking with sugar, lemon juice, nutmeg and cinnamon; chopped the tomatoes and set them aside until I had a burner free for the tomato sauce; and started washing canning jars while the jam cooked.

I pulled out my tall stock pot — Pickles4that would be my hot-water-bath canner, tall enough to accommodate the quart jars. I washed away the dust, found the tidy round rack that goes in the bottom, poured in water, and started it heating on a back burner. I pulled out my pressure cooker, which is essentially an enormous pot since I don’t have a complete pressure gauge for it and so don’t feel comfortable Pickles7using it for canning. That would be my pot for sterilizing the jars. I filled it with water and started that boiling as well. I pulled out a smaller saucepan to keep hot but not boiling for the lids.

While the jam cooked, I washed and sterilized jars, laid out towels on the counters, and chopped onions and garlic for the tomato sauce. When the jam had hit its PartOfADaysCanningtemperature target I used a canning funnel to ladle it into jars, carefully laid on the clean lids with tongs, tightened up the rings, and lowered the jars into the hot-water bath. Then it was time to start the tomato sauce: I sauteed onions, garlic and herbs in olive oil, added the chopped tomatoes and their bright-red liquid, and let the works simmer for about half an hour. While those were in process Pickles8I moved now-sealed jam jars aside to cool, washed and sterilized more jars, and started to pull together my pickling materials.

I love dill pickles in nearly any form, so I decided to do several, and I washed and sorted my cucumbers accordingly. A medium-sized bowl of little cucumbers to pickle whole. Two SpearsAndSlicesbowls of spears, some thicker and some fatter. A bowl of nice round chips. (I have a crinkle-cutter, but I opted for smooth slices this year for a cleaner look.) I mixed up a pickling spice dominated by peppercorns, mustard seed and cumin seeds. I filled a small bowl with promising-looking dried chiles. I peeled clove after clove of fresh garlic. I trimmed the largest stalks out of the dill, JarsInRowsleaving individual tufts of the feathery fronds. And when the tomato sauce was done and in jars, I used that burner to prepare my brine: a ratio of 1 cup vinegar to 1 cup water to 1 tablespoon of plain salt.

I filled my jars: whole pickles in the widest-mouth jars I had, spears in the quarts or pints as their length allowed. I dropped in Pickles7garlic, spice, dill. Some jars got chiles. The individual jars are going to have subtle variations in flavor; the spice mixture didn’t want to stay uniform, and some jars have more mustard seed while others have more peppercorn. That’s OK. I also added a sprinkle of alum powder, which I was advised to do years ago by a friend who knows a lot more about pickling than I do; I’m not sure exactly what it does but my pickles have always been good so it can’t hurt.

Finally it was time to add brine. I had to keep mixing more, but it doesn’t take long for the salt to dissolve and the mixture to reach a boil again, and my batches of brine kept pace with my batches of jars going into and out of the hot-water bath. While pickles sealed and jars sat waiting their turn, I set aside the jars I hadn’t used, washed the pots and utensils, and got the rest of the kitchen in order. At about 6 pm I was pulling out the last 7 jars of pickles; I’d managed to produce 6 quarts and 14 pints, along with the 5 pints of tomato sauce and 3 1/2 pints of jam. I was ready for a shower and a drink.

I’m looking forward to eating pickles. Spears alongside a salad. Slices in a sandwich. Little whole pickles crunched down in two or three bites.

Cherry Pie for the Fifth of July

cherry pie, from How to Cook Everything

PieWithCreamThis has been a busy year. I’ve made no progress on the remaining cookbooks from my collection, and I’ve done rather less original or interesting cooking in general than I’ve wanted to. There have been a lot of simple stir-fries and sandwiches, rather too much take-out, and more pizza than I should admit to. (Homemade pizza, at least, but not exactly health food.)

Cherries3There are a few reasons. I’ve been working a lot. I will be taking four weeks of vacation starting later this month, during which I expect to cook a lot more (among other things; I have a writing project to work on most of my time), and so I haven’t really taken more than one or two days off since December. This sounded like a much better idea last fall, when I scheduled the four-week AddingButterleave, than it did this April, when I found myself three writing projects deep and no leave time in sight. And work has been busy, as I’ve taken on some new projects, including several things that are new kinds of work for me. It’s all been very rewarding, and I am glad of what I’ve had a chance to do; but I’ve had an awful lot of evenings where I got home later than I meant to and PittingCherrieswas in more of a mood for take-out empanadas than for chopping and sauteeing something for myself. Normally I’d pick up the slack on the weekends, but I’ve also taken on a Saturday volunteer teaching project that’s extremely rewarding in its own right but doesn’t leave as much time for weekend grocery roundups and cooking ahead.

CherriesInCrust2Still, I get the bug once in a while, especially when there’s a good call to action, and Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef sent out a good one recently: a Pie Party. The idea is to make, photograph and post about pie in time to put up the posts and pictures on July 5. My pie isn’t gluten-free, but I don’t think that was a stipulation.

FirstCrustI got it into my head to make a cherry pie. I haven’t made a cherry pie before, unless perhaps I’ve made one with canned filling, though since it’s been at least 25 years since I’ve made pie with canned filling I kind of doubt that counts. I had seen that cherries had arrived in the Greenmarket near my work last Wednesday, though I didn’t buy any because I was going to be out right after work and didn’t want to haul them around. So yesterday I got up a bit earlier than I might have on a holiday and went to the Greenmarket at Union Square, which was mercifully quiet — usually the place is a mob scene — and found cherries as well as a few other goodies for the week. Once home, I skimmed through my cookbooks and settled on a straightforward recipe from How to Cook Everything, a longtime favorite.

TopCrustOn3I started with the crusts, so they’d have time to chill. I killed our food processor some time last year and haven’t had a chance to replace it, but the hand mixer has a little food processor attachment, and it’s just big enough to do one crust at a time, which is perfect; I’m not that great at evenly dividing a doubled amount. I whirred together flour, salt and sugar, then added butter and processed it briefly into coarse powder. I then turned the mixture into a bowl and added just enough ice water to form a ball (more or less), which I patted into a flat disk and wrapped in wax paper to chill, then did the whole thing again for the second crust.

BakedPieShauna talks in her blog about how people are often afraid of pie crust. I’m not, really, though I can see why people get intimidated. Things can go wrong. It takes practice to get the proportions exactly as you want them — and without practice it’s easy to forget that it’s probably still going to be good if things aren’t exactly as you intended. Then too, we’ve been exposed to a lot of really bad pie crusts, and we have conflicted expectations. It should be light and flaky, yes, but also rigid enough to hold a perfect wedge shape when you cut it? How does that work? No. The edges should be artfully crimped? If you like that sort of thing, sure, but the pie will still taste good if you’re a bit less picky about the shape of the crimping. Cooking is an ongoing practice, not a pass-fail exam, and unless you psych yourself out so badly that you can’t manage to do anything right you will still probably get a good result even if it isn’t picture-book perfect.

SliceOfPieWhile the crust chilled I pitted the cherries. I don’t actually have a cherry pitter, and in fact have never used one. I started out by halving the cherries with a knife to pop out the pits, but then discovered by accident that if I just pressed gently on the bottom the pit would pop pretty easily out of the top without losing that pretty whole-cherry look. So I pitted and got pretty little cherries. This surprised me, which then struck me as odd. I thought, these look like cherries should look. And then I thought, of course they do, you nitwit, they’re cherries. They’re not cherry-flavored bits, or Cherry Brand Imitation Whatsit; they’re actual cherries.

PieWithCream3I realized that while I’m not intimidated by cooking, I do get intimidated by food images. In one sense, by the good blog photography, such as you find in What Katie Ate; I can’t hope to match that level of exposure and staging, though I’m sure I could make good enough versions of the food if I gave the recipes a shot. But I also get cowed by the marketing images. I’ve gotten used to assuming that the pictures on the restaurant menus and advertising, and on the processed-food packages, are Platonic ideals of the food you might actually get. But there I was pitting cherries, and because they were cherries, they were turning out right. I was then reminded of a recent Mark Bittman column in which he talks about the advantages of cooking over eating out; he says, “When I cook, though, everything seems to go right.” The “though” is part of a comparison to dining out, which he considers a gamble; sometimes it’s satisfactory and sometimes it isn’t. And while I wouldn’t always say everything I cook goes right (I am still a bit haunted by that carrot cake), I can point to very few dishes I’ve cooked using real food and simple techniques that have truly disappointed me.

Before too long, I had a bowl full of pitted cherries, plus a spattered countertop and a mess in the sink. I wiped the counter right away to prevent staining but then returned to the pie filling, combining some sugar, cornstarch, almond flavoring and nutmeg, which I mixed with the cherries.

Then I rolled out the crusts, keeping the disks between waxed paper to avoid having to add more flour. I pressed the bottom crust into the pan, poured in the cherry filling, then rolled out the second crust and laid it over the pie. (I realized much later — like, after the pie was out of the oven — that I had forgotten to dot in a bit of butter before putting on the top crust, but the crusts were very buttery, so I crossed my fingers that would save things.) The pie went into the oven for 10 minutes at 450, then baked for 350 for another 50 minutes, and then I had to let it cool for a few hours.

So after dinner I whipped some cream, then sliced the pie and plated it. Nervously, I lifted the spoon. Would it taste good? Had I used enough sugar? Too much? Was the crust too tough? But it was great. The cherries were tart but balanced well with the sweet sauce and the rich crust. The crust was flaky, not tough or doughy, and it seemed to have lent butter enough to the filling after all. The cream was a nice complement as well. And the cherries were very pretty.

Verdict: Success. And that’s my contribution to the pie party: One cherry pie, not gluten-free and not perfect but darn good.

Cooking Light March 2011: Hearty Pasta for a Dreary Night

baked pasta with spinach, lemon, and cheese

PastaPlated2One of my goals with the blog as I finish up the cookbooks in my collection is to start catching up with the cooking magazines that I’ve been neglecting for nearly two years now. (Yikes, really? Really.) On Sunday I was getting ready to go out for brunch and run a few other errands, and realized that I wanted to try a new recipe for dinner but hadn’t picked anything out. I didn’t want WeighingPastato load a heavy cookbook into my bag, so I grabbed the most recent issue of Cooking Light and headed out the door.

Later, after a terrific brunch of eggs Benedict and mimosas, I began leafing through the magazine. One of the things I like about Cooking Light is that the recipes don’t usually rely too much on things like low-fat WeighingParmesancheese to keep the fat and calories down. This is good for me because I don’t think you can find low-fat cheese in my neighborhood. I despair of trying to explain the concept to our deli man. He would just laugh at me and tell me to eat more feta and olives. And you know what? He’d be right.

But anyway, the recipes in the AddingSpinachToPastamagazine use a number of tricks to keep foods light: baking instead of frying, using 1% milk instead of whole milk, using a smaller amount of a more flavorful cheese. For this recipe for baked pasta with spinach, lemon and cheese, one of the tricks is building flavor by browning onions as the base of the pasta sauce. It sounded like it would be hearty but not heavy, DrainingSpinachPasta2and I thought that might be nice for a gray, rainy evening.

I started by prepping my ingredients. Well, I didn’t have to prep the spinach: I bought a package of 5 ounces of baby spinach, exactly the amount called for, so I didn’t have to measure that. I did have to measure the pasta, though, since the recipe calls for 10 ounces and CookingOnions3I only had 16-ounce packages. But I have a scale, so I didn’t have to guess. I also used the scale for the parmesan (4 ounces from an 8-ounce wedge — and if I had just eyeballed it I would have gotten it wrong) and for the flour. I chopped onions, 4 cups’ worth, poured out the right amounts of milk and white wine for the sauce, and zested a lemon just enough to get 1/4 teaspoon of LemonZest2zest. While I prepped, rain lashed against the windows. I was particularly glad we weren’t going out, or expecting a delivery person to come out in the downpour.

Then I started cooking. I boiled the pasta for about 8 minutes until it was almost al dente, then pulled the pan off the heat, stirred in the baby spinach and let MakingSauce2it sit for 2 minutes, until the spinach wilted. Then I drained the pasta and spinach. In the meantime, I heated a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet and began to cook the onions, keeping them going until they were nice and brown. Then I added some flour and garlic powder (the recipe actually called for garlic, but I didn’t have any, which may be unprecedented in my household), MakingSauce3then added milk and a bit of white wine and let the sauce cook and thicken. I stirred in some of the parmesan, some salt and pepper, and the lemon zest. Then I poured the pasta and spinach into a baking pan, poured on the sauce, and mixed it all up.

Now it was time to top the dish: I sprinkled on a layer of panko (Japanese bread crumbs), topped SaucePastaSpinachthat with the rest of the parmesan, and then added another layer of panko. I think the trick here was to let the cheese add a minimal amount of fat to make the crumb topping just the right texture, without butter. I baked the pasta at 350 for 50 minutes, which gave me time to wash dishes, play along with a recorded game of “Jeopardy,” and catch up on my AddingParmesan2Scrabble games on Facebook. (I have 8 going. What?)

The crumb topping gave a nice, crispy texture to contrast with the creaminess of the sauce and noodles. I have to admit, I’ve never bothered with a crumb topping for baked macaroni and cheese, but I see the light now. It’s part of that play of contrast and texture that helps elevate a ServedOutFromPan3dish from good to great. This dish was terrific; the tang of the parmesan and lemon balanced nicely with the smoothness of the milk and the savory richness of the long-cooked onions. The spinach made it feel virtuous and added a nice resistant texture as well.

Verdict: Success. I’d make this one again.

Off-Book Post: Chicken Soup, Breadsticks and Cookies

chicken soup with stars, garlic breadsticks, chocolate chip cookies

SoupSimmeredI’ve had a pretty hectic few weeks. Months. I lose track. Work has been reasonably busy, plus I’m volunteering, I’m writing, I’m trying to get any number of other things done. And I have been slacking off on the blog. Last Sunday on Oscar night, I knew I wasn’t going to get through any blog recipes, but I did want to cook. So I turned to some of the SticksBakeddishes I can make without using a recipe.

I started with dessert, chocolate chip cookies. I do this one by ear now, loosely basing it on the recipe from the bag. Having it memorized is handy when you buy a bag that doesn’t have a recipe printed on it. Blend flour with salt and baking soda, cream butter with sugars and add eggs ChocolateChipCookies4and vanilla, mix it all together, stir in chips, scoop and bake. I think this was the first batch of standard chocolate chip cookies that I’ve made with the Kitchen Aid. It saves quite a bit of work. I didn’t think to take pictures before baking, but then there’s probably nothing that new to show about chocolate chip cookies.

LilPotatoesOnce the last of the cookies were in the oven, I washed the mixer bowl and started a simple pizza dough for breadsticks, throwing in a bit of basil and oregano to liven it up. I let the dough rise for an hour, shaped it into twelve sticks, let those rise for about half an hour, then brushed them with garlic butter and baked them for 15 minutes.

ParsleyOnce the breadstick dough was rising I began chopping vegetables for soup, then chopped up some chicken breast, and then began to cook. I sauteed onions in olive oil, added the chicken chunks and browned them, and then began adding items in turn. I follow a sort of loose order, starting with things that either will benefit from close-to-the-pan sauteeing SoupInProcess(like mushrooms) or need longer cooking (like potato chunks), and adding things until the pot is basically full of vegetables steaming in their own vapors. Finally I add broth, bring it all to a boil, and let it simmer until I’m ready to add the pasta. It’s never quite the same soup twice, but it’s always good.

I wasn’t trying to make a AddingSpicescomplicated meal; I was going for simple, really. Hearty and basic. Comfort food. It still took a fair bit of effort: chopping vegetables, stirring, cooking, and washing dish after dish after dish. I will never have a dishwasher in this apartment; the lease and the building structure ensure that. But some day…

I swear I really did not think SoupBowlsabout the fact that chicken soup with stars would be appropriate for Oscar night until I was ladling it into bowls. Everything was great, and it was nice to be cooking.

12 Dozen Time-Saving Recipes: Pie, and Adjustments

plain pastry

SliceOfPieHello, strangers! I have been a dreadfully inconstant blogger. I could write it all off to an overcrowded schedule — and indeed, with two new volunteer commitments and the logistical adjustments that one has to make to daily life when the weather is bad, I have been really busy — but there’s been another factor at work too. I have been Apples3letting some of the remaining cookbooks get to me.

No doubt you remember the debacle of Miss Leslie’s Secrets, when the jelly puffs were rather short on puff. Two tomes from Victorian cookbook queen Isabella Beeton promised nothing but further defeat. I paged through the thick volumes, repeatedly, searching in vain for anything I SlicingApplesAction2might be able to do. Once I’d ruled out ingredients I didn’t think I could find (isinglass?), recipes that looked logistically impossible (fireplace-size roasts), and foods I was not going to abuse that badly even for the sake of morbid curiosity (good vegetables boiled to death), I was left with vague instructions and imprecise measurements. I fretted. I worried. And finally, I gave up. I SlicingApplesam removing the two Mrs. Beeton volumes from the project.

But as it happens, this does not make my project 105 Cookbooks now. I also found a folder in which I had saved several recipe booklets when I was working on a book proposal for Recipes of the Damned. The booklets, like the proposal, have languished on the sidelines, and they didn’t make it ApplesAndSpiceinto the census back in June 2009, but I am adding them to the project now. Macaroni, Minute Rice, baking soda, and Knox Unflavored Gelatine (assuming I can find it or an equivalent) all lie ahead. There’s also a glorious new cookbook I got for Christmas, Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home, and I am not going to be so unreasonable as to insist I must cook Jell-O and canned ScoopingCriscopineapple before I can start to play with it.

I have given up on the idea of a finishing date. I’m going to try to schedule these more often, but I’m also going to give myself a chance to try other recipes — for example, from my massive backlog of cooking magazines — and to work at my own pace. They’ll all get done, yes, but PieCrustLumpswithout the maddening effects of deadline pressure.

And look, here’s one now. Sunday was National Pie Day (not to be confused with Pi Day, which is of course on 3/14). A made-up holiday, yes, but one after my own heart, and why not make pie? I wanted to improvise the filling, but decided to try a Crisco-based crust from the RollingPiecrustpamphlet 12 Dozen Time-Saving Recipes. This slim 1927 booklet from Procter & Gamble has a lot of offerings that don’t seem all that speedy, but the pie crust turned out to be nearly as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. I combined 2 cups of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (aka half a tablespoon), and 3/4 cup of Crisco, and stirred with a fork until the mixture was crumbly and PieCrustInPanmealy. Then I added just enough ice water to hold it together in a dough, divided it in two, and shaped each half into a ball to roll flat. The rolling went easily enough but I kept tearing the rolled crust, so finally I rolled the dough between two pieces of waxed paper so I could lay the crust in place and then peel off the paper.

CaramelInPieI filled the pie with apple slices — Granny Smiths that I had tossed with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and a bit of flour. I then drizzled on some salted caramel bourbon sauce that I’d picked up at a craft show, and dotted on some butter. I was hoping for an effect similar to that of the salted caramel apple pie at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, which is a glorious thing. I laid on the top ToppingThePiecrust, pinched it closed as best I could, cut vents, and put it into the oven. The baked pie was a beauty; as it happened, we were too full from dinner to have dessert that night so the pie had plenty of time to cool, which meant that when I sliced into it the next night it didn’t collapse into a heap of apple slices.

The pie was tasty. The crust was PieBaked2flaky and light, and while it wasn’t at all buttery it provided a good neutral foundation for the more distinctively flavored elements. The salt and apple flavors balanced well. The apples were a bit more tart than I had expected, though I should have realized that in winter they might be; I could have added more sugar to the filling, but it would also work to add a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream to add the necessary complementary taste. Which I may do shortly. We have lots of pie left.

Verdict: Success. Good crust, good pie, and one more down.

The Cutco Cookbook, Meat and Poultry Cookery: Comfort Food

beef stew

StewInBowl2I made this recipe a few weeks ago, but have been too distracted by other things to get the post written and published. Nothing big, you understand, nothing dramatic. Just the effluvia of holidays and working and trying (and failing) to catch up with the million other things I have going on.

I had a day free enough that I StewBeefMoreChoppedwas able to go to Whole Foods to look for meat. (Whole Foods is a bit of a trek for me to get to, and it’s usually full of crazed people so I really have to psych myself up for the trip.) I was originally hoping for something to roast, but I saw that stew meat was on sale and I thought I’d make beef stew. So after I got home I paged through the remaining cookbooks for promising recipes. There were BrowningBeef2a few for beef carbonnade that looked good, but I opted for a more basic hearty beef stew with potatoes and carrots, and found a good recipe for that in the Cutco Cookbook.

Cutco is a knife manufacturer based in Olean, NY; it’s been in business for about 50 years. The cookbook I have was published in 1956, and offers a lot of StartingToStewclassically middle-American meat dishes: roasts, chops, stews, braises, grilled cuts, and “variety meats.” There are also illustrated guides for using the full range of Cutco knives — clear, professional illustrations — and then odd little cartoons throughout the recipes. I got this book for Recipes of the Damned and wrote about brains, but many of the recipes outside the “variety meats” chapter seem RedPotatoesfairly reasonable.

The beef stew was a straightforward affair. I cut the stew beef into smaller chunks, tossed it with some seasoned flour to coat, and browned it in hot vegetable oil. I then added some diced onion and garlic, sauteed that for a few minutes, and then poured in some boiling water and a can of diced Carrotstomatoes, plus a bit of salt and about half a teaspoon of worcestershire sauce. I covered the pot, brought the contents to a simmer, lowered the heat, and let it cook for about an hour and a half. While it cooked I halved some small boiling potatoes, chopped some carrots into chunks, and peeled a dozen white pearl onions. When the timer went off I added those vegetables AddingVegsto the pot, covered it again, and let them cook 20 minutes; then I added 1 cup of frozen peas and let it cook another 15 minutes. And that was it.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the stew tasted great: very hearty and simple, and the flavor of the beef was good. It was a nice meal for a chilly winter BeefStewevening, and the leftovers were terrific reheated.

Verdict: Success. So that’s one more cookbook off the list. I’m going to have to bite the bullet and make some scary recipes in the coming weeks, if only so I can start trying other new recipes without feeling guilt about the project. In the meantime, I may have to make some more of the beef stew.