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....

Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Big, Fat Mexican Dinner

A few weeks back, I did a belated birthday dinner for one of my closest friends.  When I have friends over, it’s usually ALWAYS cook’s choice.  Its my chance to try out new stuff, revisit old favorites, play with new techniques and flavors and, most especially, make those*big ticket* high yield dishes like stews and braises and baked pastas and so on that I normally don’t make just for myself.  That pesty leftover issue, you know (plus the fact I don’t want to have dogs that weigh 300 pounds, because *THEY* would gladly relieve me of my leftover burden).

That changes for Birthday Dinners.  If I’m cooking for you for your birthday, you get to choose the entire menu.  Them’s the rules.  It’s your day, it’s all about you, not me (for once, because usually it IS all about me, all the time, which probably explains a lot, actually…).  Or, when it’s not all about me, it’s all about Rosie.  That Princess thing she’s got goin’ on.  Unless it's your birthday, then it's all about you.  Clear?

So, when presented with the “what do you want me to cook for you for your birthday?” question, Lupe chose Mexican.  Yes, Lupe.  Yes, she’s Mexican.  Talk about performance anxiety !

When I said, “anything in particular…” she said no, but Mexican was it.  OK, so the rules bent a bit, since I still got to choose the particulars.  We were all happy.  I got to play; Lupe got what she wanted for her celebratory feast.

What shook out was pretty damned good, too, especially for a Polish girl from Chicago.  We had carnitas, with two homemade salsas, homemade refried beans, red rice and homemade corn tortillas.  For dessert, we veered away a bit  (OK, a LOT) from Mexico, because I was looking for something light and tangy, since I figured the meal would be a bit on the, shall we say, rich side.  The carnitas, salsas, beans and rice were new recipes (well, new for me to use, they actually came from an 8-year old "Bon Appétit" and have been waiting in the wings ever since….).  The tortillas are my standard, and the dessert I’d made once before and loved.

WARNING:  This is going to be a long, long, looooooooooong, picture intensive post.  But I will give you the complete recipes for everything at the end.  And just so's ya knows, one of the projects I’m working on, and trying to figure out how to accomplish, is to have a separate page with a sorted list of the recipes I’ve posted.  The links will click you back to the original post with the recipe.  I know how annoyed *I* get when I’m blog cruising, and find a great recipe, and have to cut and paste in 45 different steps to get it so I can print it and use it.  But that’s in the Future Machine right now.  So bear with me, there are a couple of gems in here.

Oh, and we had cilantro slaw too, but that won’t be covered here, since we’ve talked about it before.  Basically, shredded cabbage, chopped cucumber, chopped onion and chopped cilantro, dressed with olive oil, lime juice and minced garlic.  It’s good !

Onward to La Fiesta En La Cocina Pequeña!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Anybody Want Some Warm, Soft, Fresh and Fluffy Buns?

A few days ago, I emerged from a run of not cooking (I’d done a HUGE Mexican-inspired feast we’ll see in a few days, and I was tired….really tired…) to find I had some really nice knockwurst in my refrigerator, for which I’d thoughtfully bought some jarred sauerkraut.

Since I still wasn’t mentally (or physically) up to a full-blown cooking extravaganz-o, I figured that was a good start on a dinner that night.  I was going to slowly and gingerly futz around in the little kitchen that day anyway (“futz”, yet another highly technical term from me….hope you’re keeping count), doing some other simple tasks, so I’d be close to the “hearth” all day, and I figured why don’t I throw together some bread, too?

Buns, hot dog (or hottie dawg) buns seemed to fit the bill.  They could be made fairly quickly, they were low stress, they worked with the nice, plump knockwursts and ‘kraut to make krautie dawgs, and, well, it’d been more than a week since I’d made bread, and I was jonesing for the smell of yeast and bread of some ilk browning in my oven.

So, hottie dawg buns it was.  I’d toyed with the idea of making hot dog buns (or hamburger buns, same recipe, different shape) a couple of times before, and for some reason always thought……nah….the stuff from the store’s just fine.

No.  It’s not fine.  Homemade’s better.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Most Delectable Sweet Treat You've Probably Never Heard Of

So….what the heck is that fuhnk-ay lookin’ thing??

Why, glad you asked.  It’s a silicone canelé mold.

What’s a canelé?

Why, glad you asked that as well.

A canelé (or alternatively, a cannelé) (pronounced KAH-nuh-lay), is an absurdly delicious, incredibly rich, creamy yet crispy, custardy yet caramelized, sadly ephemeral “cookie” (or really, I think, but what do I know, more of a tiny, tea-cake type creature) that are originally from the Bordeaux region of France.  Canelés can be eaten for tea, for breakfast, as a dessert, a snack, or what I think is most intriguing….as a nibble with a cocktail or an aperitif wine!  I can so totally see that.

They are typically baked in a tin-lined copper mold, the interior of which is coated with bee’s wax to allow the canelé to slip out.  The batter is essentially a rich crêpe batter, but heavy with sugar, which causes the caramelization of the exterior (which gives you the lovely, crust effect), and without the bee’s wax, you could never remove the canelé from the mold.

Actually, even WITH the bee’s wax, removing the canelé from the mold is a crap shoot.  Thankfully, the culinary gods have given us silicone molds.  Those babies make it a snap to make canelés, and get what the French have coveted for a century or so.

I first heard about canelés on a culinary chat board site I frequent, the eGullet Society Forums.  You’ll also find a link to the main page over to the right.  It’s a cool site, and if you’re not familiar with it, you should check it out.  It’s got a wealth of information from a lot of people who really know their stuff.  At any rate, a while back there was an entire, fairly long, discussion thread about canelés.  And they sure sounded intriguing to me.  Seriously, what’s not to like about a little, two-bite sized nibble of eggy, sugary, custardy goodness, surrounded by that caramelized sugar crust?

Well, except for that whole bee’s wax coated mold and sticking thing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Long Love Affair With Indian Food

I want to go on record RIGHT NOW as saying Indian food, in all of its iterations, in all of its regional variations, in all of its incarnations, is my absolute, drop-dead, stop-everything, hold-the-presses favorite cuisine.

Well…..OK.  Except for maybe Thai.  Or Mexican.  Or Chinese.  Or Cajun/Creole.  Or Vietnamese.  Or Italian.  Or Middle-Eastern.  Or Greek.  Well, you get the drift.

But Indian is really, really, REALLY close to the top.

The fact of the matter is I like Indian food a lot.  A lot.  A whole lot.  I love Moghul food.  I love vindaloos.  I love biriyanis.  I love tandoor-cooked food, like chicken tikka and lamb kebabs.  I love Punjabi food, and Keralan food and Goan food.  I just love Indian food.  From all the ethnic and religious influences and differences comes a marvelous abundance of styles of cooking, flavors and play of spices I don’t think you’ll find in many other “national” cuisines.  Almost every time I eat “Indian” food (and with such a culturally and ethnically and religiously diverse land, it’s almost hard to classify it as a singular cuisine), I am amazed and delighted by the range of flavors presented on my plate.  Indian cooks have such a talent in using spices to bring depth and complexity to their food, I’m in awe with every bite.

I first fell in love with Indian food a bazillion years ago.  I was working for a small biotech company whose owner was Indian, from what region, I sadly never bothered to learn (what can I say, I was a snot-nosed, know-it-all-straight-out-of-college jerk who had no use for “old” folks).  His wife, who was Swedish (an *interesting* relationship to say the least) was an outstanding cook, and also worked at the company.  The chief chemist was also Indian (again, from what region I have no clue…my loss).  Eventually, his wife, who was also from India and a strict vegetarian, also came to work for us.  She too, was an amazing cook…totally from the soul, and totally without recipes.

By that time, my boss had taken my co-worker and me to several “thank-you” lunches at his favorite, local Indian dives.  In the area where the company was located, there was a large number of Indian immigrants.  The first time he took my cohort and me to an Indian lunch, we were a bit…skeptical.  After all, she was from Te-jas, and I was from SoCal.  This was truly foreign territory for us.  But as soon as we smelled the smells, and tasted the naan, and ate the food…..the sputtering tandoori chicken, like the most exotic fajitas you ever ate, and the luxurious pilaf and the creamy dal and the cool, soothing raita, we were hooked.

And then The Swedish Wife and The Indian Wife would bring leftover food in from home for their lunches, and when my counterpart (Hi Judi !) and I would go up to the lunch room, we’d literally be salivating, with our eyeballs rotating around in our heads like a cartoon character over the smells coming from the microwave.   And we’d beg for any small, minute, scanty little sample we could score.

Eventually The Swedish Wife and The Indian Wife both took pity on us greenhorns, and started bringing us lunch on a fairly regular basis.  And those were some of the most spectacular lunches I had in way, too many years of being a working stiff.

Thus began my long love affair with the cuisines of India.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Continuing Evolution of The "Baker"

As I think I’ve mentioned before, this whole journey towards becoming “a baker” is a relatively new chapter of my life.  I’ve been cooking for a long time.  A LONG time.  A very LONG time.  Since dirt was young, if you want to know the truth.  But it wasn’t really until about 4 or 5 years ago that I seriously decided to teach myself to bake.  I’d tried before.  When I was young and snot-nosed and cocky.  And I’d failed pretty spectacularly.  Baking wasn’t something I learned at Granny’s (or Mom’s knee).  Granny, unfortunately, had passed by the time I was 6 months old (otherwise, I’m sure I’d have learned how to make paczki….a long, sorry story perhaps I’ll share one day).  Mom was a great cook, but no baker she.  Cakes were from a box, pies from the freezer.  Bread from the MegaMarts or, back in the day, a real, live, Mom&Pop bakery (pause for a small *sniffff* for corner bakeries, of which there are NONE in my ‘hood).  She did bake a mean cookie, but everything else involving flour, ehhhh, not so much.

And so I thought it was hereditary.  My failure to bake, that is.  At some point, though, I dug in my heels (stubborn, moi??? Why ever would you think so???) and said, possibly channeling Scahhhlettt, “as God is my witness, I *WILL* learn to bake”!!

Or something like that.

In the short amount of time I’ve been serious about “baking”, especially yeasted doughs, I am continually amazed by how much BETTER I’ve gotten at the process.  Not that I’m a superstar yet, far from it.  The folks at Poilane (note that there should be one of those cutesy little "^"s above the "a" in Poilane, but it wouldn't take in inserting the link...) in Paris got nothing to worry about from me.  But I have gotten noticeably, appreciably better.  And I have fewer problems handling “difficult” doughs.  Doughs which, 4 or 5 years ago, consistently ate my lunch and caused me to tear out my hair, rend my clothes and cry bitter tears of frustration.

Doughs much like this one.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Salad Daze

Now that the weather’s turned towards Summer’s warmth, (OK, sorry…..downright, screachin’ miserable hot in most of the country, and I feel for ya, I really do), a lot of people are thinking about salads.

Living in SoCal, I think of salads year ‘round.  We have 100-plus days in October regularly, and I’ve baked Christmas cookies in shorts, a tank top and with all the windows open more than once.  Plus, I’m just not a huge fan of cooked vegetables.  (Unless they’re battered and deep-fried, which may be why I take cholesterol-lowering medications, ya think?)  Some cooked veggies I do love, grilled corn on the cob, oven roasted or grilled asparagus, ARTICHOKES of course, oven roasted Brussels sprouts, maybe some caramelized carrots.  But steamed or boiled green beans, peas (fresh peas I’ll eat raw thankyouverymuch) or broccoli, sautéed zucchini, I’ll pass right by on those.  They just seem so *boring* to me.  I HAVE had some transcendent veggie sides in restaurants….so I know it can be done.  Maybe I just haven’t figured out how to cook them well.  As a component in a dish, like an Asian stir fry, I do OK.  But as a stand-alone dish….eh, not so much.  Maybe I get too distracted by the main, so I can’t give my full attention to the veggie side.  I dunno….in my little kitchen, unless it’s a salad of some ilk, or is the focus of the meal, veggies get short shrift.

But I LOVE the taste of raw veggies.  Raw broccoli, raw zuke, raw cauliflower, they rock my world.  Short of serving them just as crudités though, there’s not a whole lot of creative options out there for veggies au natural.

And of course, I’m always conscious of the ever-looming-now-discarded-and-replaced- by-the-FDA-food-plate, food pyramid.  I KNOW I need to get more fruit and veg into my diet than I currently do….

And so we return to salads.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In Search of "Naan-vana"

One of my favorite things about eating in good Indian restaurants is the basket of naan bread they bring you when you sit down.  Hot, steamy and charred from the tandoor, usually painted with ghee, it’s a savory prologue to the deliciousness of the Indian meal to come.  And it’s so great alongside the meal, to sop up the spicy, flavorful sauces.

I think naan was one of the reasons I fell hard in love with Indian cuisines.  After all, I am, first and foremost, a carb freak.

Naan is a flat bread, and puffs in the middle to form a pocket similar to a pita.  The two are very different animals, though.  I feel the pita is somehow “sturdier”, and the naan a bit more delicate.  Naan typically have dairy in their recipes (usually yogurt, but sometimes milk, or both), and most recipes require an egg, as does this one.  Pita breads don’t use eggs or dairy, hence (hence???  HENCE???? Where the heck did HENCE come from?) the more delicate crumb of the naan.

Naan is difficult to recreate at home because, unless you’re very, very lucky, or very, very dedicated, or more likely, very, very obsessed, you don’t have a tandoor in the backyard.

Confession time….if I win the Lotto tomorrow, I'll *HAVE* a tandoor in the backyard.  And a wood burning pizza oven.  Of course, it won’t be in THIS backyard, but I’ll have them in whatever multi-acre backyard I purchase with my MegaMillions.

Tandoor ovens are cylindrical (usually beehive shaped) clay ovens fueled with a live charcoal or wood fire.  There’s a grill above the fire level.  Tandoors are used to make some of the most iconic Indian dishes, most notably (along with naan), tandoori chicken.  Skewered meats can also be cooked in a tandoor.  The intense heat from the fire below, plus the radiant heat from the clay walls, crusts the outside of the proteins into charry, smoky lusciousness, while keeping the interior moist and juicy because the intense heat cooks so fast.

Naan is “baked” by slapping the dough onto the sides of the oven, then pulling them off with a long hook  Since temperatures in the tandoor can exceed 900°F (yeee-IKES), no matter how we hack our home oven, or how long we preheat it and our baking stone, we’re not gunna achieve that.  But seriously, if Lady Lotto finds me, making authentic naan would be worth the tsuris of installing a tandoor.

So.  What can we do with our feeble home ovens?  Well, it’s not necessarily “authentic”, but it’s pretty darn good, and it did PUFF, so I claim success.

Monday, June 6, 2011

I Blame The Brisket

One of the things I promised myself when I started this little exercise is that I’d be honest.  Honest with myself, and therefore, by extension, honest with all y’all (there’s that N’Awlins past life thing again).  That I’d share not only the successes (of which I’d hoped there’d be many), but the failures (hopefully few and very far between) as well.  We all know, all of us that do this here cookin’ thang on a regular basis know that….well…sometimes the magic happens in the little (or big, or medium-size) kitchen and some days the magic takes a little break and leaves you in the lurch.

Big time.

This here be the outcome of one of those days.  Not that it was a total fail, the meal was edible (‘tho’ not as good as I’d hoped) and the brisket made wonderful leftovers that were more than edible, in fact, they were just groovy.  They made really great pulled BBQ beef sandwiches on soft potato buns and even better soft pulled beef tacos last night (reheated in a bit of Herdez “Salsa Ranchera”, my new favorite product).

But the day of, well.  It wasn’t a happy day in the little kitchen, and I blame the brisket.

‘Cuz, Lord knows, it certainly *wasn’t* me !

Oh, and in the interest of honesty....that be some crappy plating on that leader shot !  Unfortunately, its the only shot of the finished dish I got.

OK-true confessions are over, at least for a bit.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Next Installment in the Continuing Saga...."Tales of the Lost Recipes"

Here’s another favorite old dinner from “The Way Back Machine” files.  "Caramelized Onion Pasta".  It's been so long ago that I first made this dish, I don’t even remember where I found the recipe, though I did remember how good it was (and is).  It’s also a great meal for weeknights, since it can be pulled together in less than a half an hour, yet it still tastes like something that cooked for much, much longer.  Another plus, it reheats fairly well the next day if you have leftovers.  And yet another plus, it’s vegetarian-friendly.  The key to the dish is to take just a bit of time to get a good, deep caramelization on the onions, and of course, to use a wine that you would be willing to drink.

You’re going to need some onions, of course, some red wine (a Cabernet works very well), dried basil and thyme, balsamic vinegar and some pasta.  Any kind of short pasta will work; bow-ties, penne, rotini, even elbows would be fine.  I used orechiette because that’s what was in the pantry.  Sorry, no class photo of the line-up, I think I was in too much of a hurry to eat that night !

Start by peeling and thinly slicing some onions.  You’ll need about a pound and a half for four servings.

Take a look at how I sliced those onions up.  Notice that I went from the top of the onion to the bottom, or what’s called “pole-to-pole”.  For applications like this (or French onion soup), where you want nice, distinct strands of onion, this method works the best.  Get the slices as thin as possible, and you may have to angle the knife in a bit on the bottom edge as you work in order to keep the slices uniform.