Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The "You Know You Love It" Rosemary-Olive Oil Bread From *THAT* Restaurant Chain

Even though I love the flavor of the so-called “artisan” breads that have long, slow, usually overnight rises or ferments, they don’t always fit into my schedule to make.  More realistically, (not to mention more truthfully….) I usually don’t get my act together in enough time to make them when I decide I want bread.  So I’m always on the lookout for bread recipes with a great taste, but that can be put together in a half-a-day or so.

A couple of months back, I found one of those type of recipes in, of all places, the “Food Network Magazine”.  Yes, I know.  The Food Network.  I’m ashamed to even type those words, because in other places out there in the cyber ‘scape, I’ve been one of the most vocal critics of the turn that FN’s programming has taken in the last five or so years.  I’m tired of watching other people eat, I want to watch people actually cook.  I *know* how to eat, and I’m pretty good at it.  Cooking tips, them I’m always in the market for.  I’m tired of challenge shows.  I’m tired of endless shots of whirring assembly lines, with admittedly cool machinery, churning out candy and potato chips.  I’m especially tired of watching people eat grossly huge amounts of food (lookin’ at you Guy Fieri).  I realize I’m not in FN’s demographic, nowhere near it.  But still…..

That said (and rant over), the “FN Magazine” is surprisingly very, very good.  I’ve got to give them props for it and credit where it’s due.  I got an issue as a freebie about a year ago, and liked it, so picked up a copy or three off the newsstands.  Liked them too, so I subscribed (see, I truly am a dinosaur….I subscribe to paper magazines !).

According to “FN Magazine”, this is a copy-cat recipe for a “famous Italian chain restaurant’s” rosemary-olive oil bread.  You know the chain….it has a “Grill” in the name, and a “Mac” on the front end.  While I think that the chain’s food quality has really declined in recent years (day-um, I’m cranky today aren’t I?  Or at least hyper-critical…sorry, I’ll go get another glass of wine and see if I can’t lighten up a bit), I do think that their bread is every bit as stellar as it was when they started out.

And this…?  This is a pretty damn good clone.  It certainly was, as they say, “close enough for government work”.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Red Beans and Ricely Yours

I am completely convinced that, in a past life, I lived in Southern Louisiana.  Actually, I lived in New Orleans.  The first time I visited that magnificent city, I had the most overwhelming sense of déjà vu I’ve ever experienced in my life (and I’ve had several, knock-me-on-my-butt déjà vu trips….).  I just *knew*, somehow, I’d been there before (and not just *been*, but *BEEN*), even though I clearly hadn’t.

Well, unless you count the trip my mother took to The Big Easy when she was pregnant with me….

Every street I walked down, every corner I turned, every building I saw, I somehow felt in my bones (and soul) that “I’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE”.  It was spooky, and odd, and bizarre, and yet, at the same time, comforting.

And then I started to taste the food.  And I was even more certain that this place, and this cuisine, was not foreign to me.  I can honestly say I’ve never had a bad meal in New Orleans.  Ever.  That includes the usually-nasty-complimentary-hotel-breakfast service and room service.  I could eat New Orleans’ food (both Cajun and Creole) happily every week for the rest of my life.

I’m not going to attempt to address the subtle (and not-so subtle) differences between “Cajun” food and “Creole” food.  I’m not an expert, but an avid fan.  I’d be in way over my head to try to educate anyone about them.  As I understand it, in its most simplistic terms…“Cajun” is more “country” and “Creole” is more “city”.  Creole food uses a lot of tomatoes, Cajun, not so much.  Cajun food is more slow-cooked (stewed, braised, etc.) while Creole is often sautéed or pan-fried.

Duddn’t matter much to me.  I love it all, no matter the label.  Muffalettas, gumbos, etouffees, jambalayas, po’ boys, sauce piquants, I can eat them any day, any time.  And I especially loves me my red beans and rice.  As did the legendary Louis Armstrong, whose signature line I stole for the title of this article.  Seriously, Pops signed all of his letters “Red Beans and Ricely Yours,”.  Gotta love it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Coffee-Chocolate Layer Cake with Mocha-Mascarpone Frosting

Hellllllo, tall, dark and velvety….where have you been all my life, gorgeous?  Come on in and stay a while.

Lord help me.  I tried to come up with a sassy, snappy title for this post, but I just couldn't.  Because nothing says it as well as "Coffee-Chocolate Layer Cake with Mocha-Mascarpone Frosting".  I mean, really, just look at that cake, and then look at its name….”Coffee”…”Chocolate”…”Mocha”...”Mascarpone”…is that a lovely little symphony of lusciousness or what?

In the great debate over dessert, custard or ice cream, pie or cake, I fall firmly into the cake camp.  Pie just doesn’t float my boat the way gooey, velvety goodies do.  And a beautiful, delicate layer cake, with creamy, silky frosting is just about the best of the best.  And I’m not talkin’ about those serviceable, but mundane boxed mix cakes, (and never, EVER about frosting in a can) or those industrial sheet cakes from the MegaMarts.  A homemade cake, with a light, tender crumb, and a rich, creamy butter cream frosting.  Wow, that’s Heaven on Earth as far as I’m concerned.

And a treat that, until recently, I hadn’t been able to achieve in the little kitchen.  It’s all about that pesky patience thing, and learning to work methodically and carefully, and taking your time with the ingredients and the process.  I’d tried “scratch” cakes before, and never had success.  They were tough, they didn’t rise evenly, the frosting was heavy and greasy, they were just…*not good*.  Not hideous really, but not worth the effort, and not anything I was proud of.  So I kept the “scratch” cake on the list of “Culinary Things I Really Can’t Do Well”.

Like bread.  After all, “I’m not a baker”.

That didn’t keep me from ripping out recipes though, for cakes that sounded yummy (yes, my recipe clipping compulsion is a sickness.  I fully expect to star in a reality show one day about recipe junkies).  And for the past few months, I’d been thinking I really wanted to give the whole cake baking thing another go.  After all, I had conquered bread, and biscuits, and even pie crusts.  I had learned to not fear the flour.  It was time to climb the Layer Cake Mountain.

So, let’s make this glorious example of the pastry arts, shall we?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's Not That Hard to Love Swiss Chard

Over the Winter and early Spring, one of the staples of my CSA box each week has been Swiss chard.  Now, up until the time I joined the CSA last Fall, I’d never eaten Swiss chard in my life, and certainly had never thought about purchasing it or cooking with it.

“The Growing Experience” changed all that.  That’s the name of my CSA, and I love them, and the food they provide to me.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a CSA (which stands for “C”ommunity “S”upported “A”griculture), it’s very similar to a food co-op, only based on a farm, or farms.  Subscribers (the consumer) pay a set rate for a “share” each period of time (mine offers weekly, bi-weekly or monthly shares).  You can also choose how large you’d like your share to be.  Every subscription period, you go to the farm, or to a collection spot, and pick up your share.  You don’t get a say in what will be in your box, but you do have a rough idea, based on where you’re located, and what crops are grown in your climate zone.

The vast, overwhelming majority of CSA’s are based at commercial, for-profit farms.  In many cases, the CSA is a side-business for the farmer, a way to plant and grow smaller, non-commercially viable crops, and also give local consumers an option for purchasing quality produce.  Most, but not all, CSA’s are organic.  “The Growing Experience” is a bit, well, a lot, different from the average CSA (if there is such a thing).  It’s not an offshoot of a commercial farm.  It actually began as a community garden in a low-income, County-run housing project in my city.  There was spare, abandoned land on the property that was overrun with weeds and debris.  The County had decided to turn the abandoned lot into a tree farm for municipal plantings (median trees, highway groundcover, etc.) when the bottom fell out of governmental budgets, and there was no longer any money left for those types of plantings.  But they’d already hired, and budgeted for, the project manager.  He, a passionate gardener, and amateur farmer, somehow convinced the County suits to convert the land into a community garden for the residents, to help them have access to cheap, healthy food.  He also instituted an after-school and summer work program for the project’s youths.  It was so successful, they were able to start selling excess produce to local restaurants, and eventually to offer produce to the community-at-large as a CSA.  They are strictly organic, although not certified (which costs $$$).  They use no sprays, and only non-chemical fertilizers.  They currently farm 7 acres in a heavily urban area of Southern California.  It’s such a cool feeling to know that the food in my fridge was produced less than 10 miles from my door !

Joining a CSA, though, does take a bit of courage (yes, again, Mrs. Child, the “courage of your convictions”), since you don’t know for sure what produce you’ll be cooking with until you pick up your share.  AAACCKKK !!  For a non-intuitive, training-wheels-on cook such as myself, that was a HUGE leap of faith.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What once was lost, is now found, or the return of the prodigal pizza

One of the downsides of being an inveterate recipe collector is that I'm always captivated by the NEWEST, BESTEST, HOTTEST, TRENDIEST recipes.  And so, naturally, some of the old favorites fall by the wayside, cast away in search of The Next Best Thing.  That's too bad, really, because I have a huge stash of older recipes, both clipped from newspapers and magazines (back in the Old Times before the interwebs...), and also what I guess you'd call "vintage" cookbooks.  And some of those sources have some real gems, that deserve to be revisited.  Every so often, I'll have a thought (always a scary time for me...), and think, hey, I should make "that dish from XYZ again".  And I'll pull out the book, or the magazine, and realize that by the time I've found the recipe I was actually looking for, I've re-read the entire publication, and also found a bunch of other things that sound good and interesting.  And then I wonder, why don't I cook from this book any more?  Never do have a good answer, other than there's so much good stuff out there, it's simply impossible to get to it all.

So, I've been trying (trying being the operative word here) to remember to include some of the old favorites, or untried recipes from the neglected books and files, with the new ones I've found in my recent recipe forages, when I plan my menus.  And sometimes, I do get that thought about an old favorite, and rummage through the collection to resurrect it.

Which led, last weekend, to Asparagus Pizza...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What' s "nu" with you? How about katsu??

One of my favorite, relatively quick, stress free meals is katsu curry.  Katsu (also known as tonkatsu or, when made with pork, katsudon), is a Japanese dish made of thinly sliced pieces of meat or poultry.  It's usually made with pork or chicken, but can also be made with beef or ham.  The thin sliced protein is pounded out to further tenderize and flatten it, floured, dipped in an egg wash and breaded with panko .  Panko, if you aren't familiar with it, is a coarse, dry, flaky bread crumb, made from untoasted bread.  The crumbs are larger and lighter than Western style bread crumbs.  It's pretty commonly available in most grocery stores these days, and really gives a superlative crust to fried foods.

The breaded protein cutlets are then pan-fried in shallow oil (they can also be deep-fried, but, well *I* don't deep-fry) until they achieve the beloved "golden brown deliciousness" you see above.

At that point, there's an endless variety of things you can do with the little gems.  You can eat them as is, with some rice, and maybe a veg.  They're pretty darn good that way.  You can make them into a sandwich called a katsu-sando and pack it for lunch.  You can serve them with a tonkatsu sauce to dip the cutlets in, and to drizzle over the rice.  Well-stocked grocery stores should have tonkatsu sauce in their Asian food aisle.  If you can't find it, a good approximation is 1/2C ketchup mixed with 2 tablespoons each Worcestershire and soy sauces.  Tonkatsu served with this sauce is usually served with finely shredded cabbage and carrot alongside.  Or, you can make a more elaborate sauce that I'll give you the recipe for below.  You could, if you wanted to be really authentic, turn the cutlets into a full-blown katsudon, which is a bowl of rice, topped with the katsu cutlet, which is then topped with a fried or poached egg.  The katsu sauce is then drizzled over all, along with scallions or peas.

Or....you can make katsu curry, or Japanese curry (or curry rice).  Yum.  Trust me, you'll want to make katsu curry.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The incredible, morphing menu...or, how to keep leftovers from haunting your refrigerator, not to mention your dreams

As I think I've mentioned, I'm single, and usually cooking just for myself.  OK, myself and the fuzz bombs.  (Lest you get the wrong idea about how I feed my dogs, they really don't get a whole lot of people food.  I will, occasionally, give them some of the leftover protein, if it's lean, or leftover rice mixed in with their canned food.  And raw veggies, they love raw veggies...*ALL* raw veggies.  I give them a lot of raw veggies.  And cooked veggies.)  So, over the years, I've gotten very skilled at cutting down and adopting recipes so that I'm not over run with leftovers.  Because, you see....I really don't love leftovers.

Once I've filled a craving for something (and I'm usually very driven in my menu plannings by, "geeeee, I have a taste for....."), then I don't want it again for a good long while.  I certainly don't want it the next night again for dinner.  When I was working, I would take leftovers for lunch later in the week, or the next week, happily.  That never bothered me.  But having the same entree more than once in a week, or month even, just doesn't make me a happy girl.

Since I now have no outlet for "reusing" leftover, completed dishes, I've become very familiar with my freezer.  I have nice, labeled (!) and inventory-listed (!!) plastic containers with single-servings of gumbo, short ribs with a lovely gravy, lasagna, chili, and other goodies, waiting for that craving to strike again.  Baggies of cooked meat too, portioned out into one- or two-meal, amounts, also labeled and listed, live in the deep freeze, waiting to be called into action at a later date.  I also have trained myself to freeze the unused portion of a package of uncooked meat or poultry, if I'm not going to use it before it goes bad, again divided into amounts that I'll likely use at one time.

Sometimes though, as the saying goes, the best laid plans don't always work out.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Brioche, lovely, lovely brioche

When I posted a while back about using up leftover Easter ham, I gave you all a recipe for ham salad, and said it would be good on croissants.  As I was writing the post, I realized brioche would be equally as yummy as the croissants.

Since I really *didn't* want to go to the store last weekend, and since I'm not about to make croissants (scared...yeah....no counter space for the folding and rolling....even more so !) (some things really are better left to the pros), I thought I'd make a loaf of brioche to hold my ham salad when I finally made it.

I'd made brioche once before.  Last Easter, as a matter of fact, and it was dynamite.  But lacking the traditional, fluted pan, I'd instead made it in a loaf pan.  While the taste rocked, I wanted to prove to myself that I could form the traditional, rounded-with-a-top-knot brioche shape.  On one of my thrift-store crawls a while later, I found an actual brioche pan for a whole $0.99 !  A run through my dishwasher and it was in fine shape.

And then summer came, and bread-baking got put on hold (no AC in the little kitchen), and when the weather cooled, other breads beckoned.  But the ham salad got me thinking about, and craving the rich, yeasty, buttery, eggy goodness that is brioche.

Last weekend was it.  Brioche was on my mind, and in my oven.  THIS time, a traditionally-shaped, fluted loaf.  Here's how you do it....

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The world's easiest oven-roast beef

A while back, after ruining one too many expensive pieces of beef trying to dry-roast it in the oven, I set out to do some research on the "Interwebs" to see if I could find a consensus about the best technique.

Oh.  Such conflicting theories. 

Start it low, then blast it on the highest heat you can get.

No.  NOT *that* way !  Start it in a jet engine-hot oven, then turn it way down and let it coast.

WHAT ?!?!  Heresy !  NOT *THAT* WAY !  Sear the roast first, then put it in a hot oven, then turn it down.

NO, dude !  Put the roast in a canvas bag, bury it under a full moon, chant over it for 3 nights, then dig it up and roast for a while.  Or a little longer.

OK.  I made that last one up.  But only by a little.

Now.  Just to be clear, I can cook a mean pot roast.  I've got the moist-heat/flavorful broth/long slow braise thing down just fine.

But the dry-roasted, well-seasoned, crusty, but still rare roast of my dreams eluded me.

Methods?  I tried all yer steenkin' methods.  I got, in various iterations, beef jerky, shoe leather, warm, bloody, mooing beef that, while The Girls appreciated it, their Mommydog, not so much.  What I was aiming for was nothing short of (drum roll please)...."The Perfect Prime Rib" (or sirloin, or tenderloin, or whatever...).  What I got, over and over again, was disappointment.

You know the feeling.  The "meet nice" first-date euphoria that fades into the realization that the guy lives with his grandmother and collects belly-button lint.  The "I love this new car smell" goes south rapidly into "crimeny....I'm spending $150 a week on gas".  The "day-um but these shoes make my legs look good" morphs into "I'll do anything to get these "*&$~+&#^" shoes off my feet....NOW".

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A word about food...

Since this is a blog about food -- the cooking, sourcing, and enjoyment of it, and the creativity we can all find in its preparation, and especially about the appreciation of the beauty of the ingredients and the finished product, it seems only fitting that we take a moment to think about those in this Country, possibly even our neighbors, who don't have enough of it.

This month, the United States Postal Service, in conjunction with the National Association of Letter Carriers, Feeding America and several corporate sponsors, will be holding their annual "Stamp Out Hunger" food drive.  As you can see, Saturday, May 14 is the day.  This is the 18th year that the USPS and their carriers have participated in this project.  Last year, over 77 MILLION pounds of food were collected by USPS carriers, and delivered to local food banks all over the country.  That's a lot of food, but there's also a lot of need.

We can all help by leaving bags or boxes of non-perishable food items by our mail box on the morning of May 14, 2011.  Make sure that the donation is placed there before your mail is delivered.  Items donated should be things like canned meat, fish, soups, vegetables, fruits, juices pasta, cereals, dried beans and grains.  Items that are shelf-stable and do not need refrigeration.  Also, no glass packaging, and no expired products (this is not an excuse to clean out your pantry).  I would take it a step further, and hope that the food you choose to donate is also nutritionally sound....salt free, or low sodium, fruits in natural juices, not heavy syrup, and no sugar bomb cereals.  My bag has some rice, some dried pinto beans, some no-salt canned peas and corn, tuna in water, canned milk, etc.

I'm giving you enough notice so you can do what I did.  In these economic times, I fully understand it can be tough to get our own food budget stretched far enough to cover our own needs, let alone the needs of others.  But, by taking a dollar here, and a dollar there, over the next couple of weeks, most of us can fit in a few "extras" to help those in need.

Here's a link to the official  "Stamp Out Hunger" website.  You can get more facts and information there, as well as some downloads to get your kids involved.

I hope you'll join me in this effort.  You'll feel good about yourself, and you'll fill a need (not to mention some tummies) that is far greater than we all know.

Thank you.