Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pretty Good Hash-Browns

This morning, I feel like I turned a corner in my Sunday morning hash-brown making skills.

For starters, I used a dutch-oven style pan, with a lid. The lid helps keep in the steam, which is important for helping the potatoes get softened up. Add some olive oil, and set the burner to medium heat. I also cooked everything in layers, as opposed to cooking them all mixed up, and this seemed to help a lot.

First thing I did was chop up two onions, and deposit them in the oil to start frying. Previously I just stirred them in with everything else, but leaving them frying in the pan while I cut up the potatoes helped them to caramelize a bit, which helps. When I added the potatoes, I just dumped them on top of the onion layer, and let them there for a while, with the lid on the pan. The downside is that some of the onions on the bottom will burn to the pan. But this is easily fixable. The upside is that those same onions release a bit of sugar into the mix, which definitely helps. They also release a lot of water in the form of steam, which helps cook the potatoes.

Once the potatoes started to soften up, I added some chopped scallions, salt, pepper, and dill, stirred the whole thing up. Cook for a few more minutes with the lid still on, and then it's ready to serve.

If I wanted to add anything to the process, I'd probably add another frying pan, at a higher heat, to brown the potatoes. But that's more to clean up, and it feels like it'd be a better trick to perform on an industrial diner griddle. 

Bits and Pieces, Halloween '10

Today I'm going to put up the first of my bits and pieces series. These will be an ongoing series of little things I've noticed that help make things a little easier in the kitchen. Kinda like the 'tips and tricks' section in various craft magazines.

Cleaning out burnt on crap.

This is something that really eluded me for years. Some recipes, statistically speaking, are just going to burn a bunch of crap on the bottom of the pan, like this morning's hash browns. I know, some more experienced chefs would probably tell me to stir more, or do something else that's more intelligent, to reduce the likelihood of this happening.

This wouldn't be a problem I suppose if I was using industrial pots and pans in a kitchen with an industrial dishwasher, and a steam cleaner. But I'm using nice stuff, and I don't want to blast the crap out of it. I like having a smooth surface that's less likely to stick. (the irony) But still, I used to have to spend hours with abrasive cleaners, metal instruments, or whatever else, because I also wanted that nice smooth surface to be clean.

Most kids learn that hot water helps. What I've learned is that making hot water helps more. Adding water, and boiling it in the dirty pan does a lot to loosen up the worst of the burnt on crud. While it's boiling, use a spatula to help things along. Use the same kind of spatula you'd normally use... don't succumb to using metal, in the hopes that it'll do a better scraping job... it might scrape the crud out, but it'll also scrape up the pan. And not scraping up the pan was the point of using the water trick in the first place.


Spudges and Sponges: a dirty topic.

Sponges are not exactly rocket science. They're more like biology. And maybe a little bit of psychology, too.

Things get dirty all over the kitchen, not just in the sink. In theory, I guess clean is clean, and any sponge will clean anything if you use enough soap and hot water. But it still feels dirty to use the same sponge for everything from the floor to the stove to the dishes. Separate sponges seemed like the answer. But it seemed a little counter-intuitive to use a new, clean sponge as a dedicated floor sponge.

At some point, I had a room-mate who taught me to micro-wave my sponges. I thought he was nuts, but his logic was sound. 20 seconds in a microwave will get the sponge very, very hot. I haven't used a thermometer to measure how hot, but for sure, the sponges I pull out of the nuke-o-mat are too hot to touch for long. And that's hot enough to kill off most of the bacteria.

I understand the science. And in theory, it's great. But this is the psychology part... I know on an intellectual level that I have probably made that sponge safe to use. But I still see a dirty sponge, and I'm not really sure that I like the idea of using that sponge on my dishes.

 It's not really a nice shiny sponge anymore. Instead, I consider it to be a dirty spudge. But as long as the germs have been killed off, it's still good enough to use on the floor and for the grunt work on the stove-top. And I cut off one corner so that I can see its degraded status.

...And then I throw it back in the sink anyway.


Recipe Holding

One more reason why it's good to have a work island right next to the fridge: I can use magnets to hold magazine recipes. That way they're out of the way, they won't get stained or destroyed, and I can still refer to them while I'm making a mess on the work surface.


Happy Halloween, y'all.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Basic Bread, Part Three: A good first loaf

This is a recipe I came across in a book on bread making. It's simple, to the point, and has awesome, abundant flavor. It's also a whole wheat bread, which helps with flavor, and with glycemic load. The ingredient list is a little more involved than basic white bread, but the process is just as simple.

-3 Cups all purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
-3 Cups Whole Wheat Flour
-2 Tsp salt
-1 package (or 2 1/4 Tsp) of quick acting dry yeast
-1-2 Tbsp grated lemon peel
-1/4 Cup Honey
-3 Tbsp Shortening (I use Melted butter... no trans-fat issues.)
-2 Tbsp Brown Sugar (for priming)
-2 1/4 Cup of warm water

The only prep work that really needed to be done to an ingredient was to the lemon peel. I saved the peel from the lemon that I squeezed into last night's dinner for the bread I made today. After a day of drying out a bit, I was able to pull out the seeds and the remaining pulp. I cut out the stem and any other undesirable parts, and tossed the rind into the food processor with the mixing blade. I pulsed it a few times to help break it up, and then just left the machine on. The rind bounced around and got cut into hundreds of pieces. Good enough for me.

The first part of the bread making process is something called priming or proofing the yeast. The process is simple: throw the yeast into a glass of warm water, with the brown sugar. Very soon, if the yeast isn't too old, you should see signs of vigorous activity, in the form of foam on top of the mixture. In this case, it took about 10 minutes to get a small pile of foam going.

While the yeast is proofing, mix up the flour and the salt. I used a whisk to blend the two types of flour and the salt together, to make sure that they were evenly mixed. The other reason to do this is to fluff up the flour a little bit, to help it move around and mix well. It makes for a lighter end product, whether it's bread, cookies, or whatever.

Once the yeast is ready, it's time to make the dough. Pour the yeast mixture, the rest of the (Warm) water, the lemon, honey, and melted butter into the mixing bowl with the flour, and mix with a wooden spoon for a minute or two. The dough should come together pretty quickly, and once it's solid enough to work with, it should be dumped out onto a clean, floured work surface, to be kneaded.

Some bread books will advocate adding ingredients slowly as the dough is being mixed. I don't. Mixing the dry ingredients early on ensures that there won't be lumps and pockets of one thing or another. Kneading the dough will help mix everything else in, and there's nothing wrong with kneading the dough for a while if you feel like it. It's a lot easier, and more rewarding, to work with kneadable dough on the counter than it is to mix a sticky mess in a bowl.

Keep the extra flour handy as you're kneading the dough. Keep the dough from sticking to the work surface. As you knead the dough, if you feel like it's too sticky, add some flour. Throw it on the work surface to add it in: the dough will take up what it needs to get to where it needs to be. If the dough is too dry, add a little bit of water. If you've never handled dough before, it takes a bit of time to get a feel for how it "should" be. It should start to feel slightly elastic after a couple of minutes.

Once the dough has been thoroughly kneaded, (10 minutes or so) roll it into a ball, and cover it with a clean dish towel for the initial rise. I recommend adding a little more flour to the work surface before you do this. Or, if it's cold-ish in your kitchen, (this being October and all) put the dough in a lightly oiled wood or plastic bowl before covering it up. I specify those materials because metal or glass will conduct heat away from the dough and cool it down, which isn't good for bread dough. Let the dough sit for 20 minutes or so. (This is a good opportunity to clean up the tools you used earlier, in particular the mixing bowl, so it doesn't get encrusted with dried out bits of dough.)

After the initial rise, cut the dough in half, knead each piece a little bit, to get out some of the bubbles. This helps mix things up just enough to put the yeast back in touch with new, untapped pockets of food. You may notice that the dough has become more elastic as the gluten chains have formed. Let the dough sit for a minute or two, and then shape each lump into a ball, ("boule," is the bread term) tucking ends and edges underneath. Then set the boules aside, covered, and let them rise at room temperature for an hour or two... the goal is for the dough to double in size. If your kitchen is really warm, keep an eye on the dough; the yeast will be very active, and you don't want the dough to rise too much. Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees towards the end of the rise.

Once the dough has gone through the second rise, put it on a baking sheet, and put it into the oven. Turn the oven down to 400 degrees, and bake for 30-40 minutes. After this, pull the bread out, and move the loaves from the baking sheet to a cooling rack.

Warm, fresh bread is hard to beat. Even bad home-made bread is generally much better than store-bought. But either way, keep practicing. More practice will help you to learn what dough should feel like, how long it should rise, and give you a sense of what 'normal,' bread making should feel like. Gradual refinements will come with experience, and application of the scientific method. I've read of bakers who record everything: kitchen temperature and humidity, oven temps at various stages of baking, weight of the ingredients and the resulting dough, and so on... and in observing all of these variables, they begin to understand more about what's going on, and what contributes to better bread.

Basic Bread, Part Two: The Process

Making bread is a lot different from making most things. There's not much to it, but the process does take a lot of time. It's probably better to make bread when you have something else to do, too.

To give you an idea of what I mean, this was what happened as I made bread tonight:

-I mixed the yeast in with the sugar and water to prime. Then I went to go get laundry.
-I mixed the dough, kneaded it, and covered it for the first rise. Then I made dinner for tonight.
-I cut the dough in half, kneaded it a bit more, and covered it for the final rise. Then I ate dinner, cleaned up a bit, folded laundry, and put laundry away.
-I put the two loaves into the oven, and then went and wrote the first chunk of Basic Bread: part one.
-Finally, I pulled the bread out of the oven, took pictures, and finished part one.

As I mentioned in Part One, the basic science involves yeast reproducing in a pile of dough, which is made of flour and water, yeast, and whatever else you feel like adding in. Sourdough, which is a good traditional way of making bread, starts with something called sourdough starter (or a "mother"), which is basically a container of a flour and water mixture, with active yeast growing in the mix. The basic sourdough recipe calls for flour, water, a little bit of salt, and some sourdough starter. (which, again, is basically just flour and water, with live yeast growing in it.) Kneading the dough helps form gluten, which is the elastic substance that allows bread to rise, as it swells up due to the gases produced internally.

The first step in breads made with store-bought (quick-rising) yeast is to prime (or proof) the yeast. To do this, mix the yeast into a glass of warm water with some sugar. It kick-starts the process of reproduction, so that the yeast is active before it's even mixed into the dough. It also helps to let you know, before you make the dough, if the yeast is any good. If it's too old, and most of the yeast is dead, it won't reproduce, and the bread won't rise.  It's important to know, before you go any further, that your dough is going to rise. If the yeast doesn't start to reproduce, you have time to go get more yeast if you haven't mixed the dough yet. If you just add old yeast to the mix without proofing, you may be waiting a long time for the dough to rise.

Once the yeast is happily reproducing, the bread dough is mixed, and then kneaded for around 15 minutes. Kneading bread dough is a simple thing, but it's pretty frequently misunderstood. Kneading bread helps to mix the ingredients, but it also helps the flour to form gluten chains. Proper kneading stretches the dough out, and helps those chains form, which adds to the elasticity of the dough. Basic kneading is as follows: Flatten and roll the dough up a bit in one direction, and then flatten and roll from the last roll.

I've read advice to slap the dough around, and slam it down on the table, to help really stretch it out. This is good with more elastic doughs, like sourdough. For basic sandwich bread dough, which has a finer texture due to the presence of shortening or butter, is less stretchy, and doesn't really demand such violent handling. But the same source also advised to do all the kneading with one hand, so that the other remained clean enough to handle anything else that requires a clean hand. (Like the phone, or taking pictures. This is helpful advice if you can do it. Proper kneading can be a lot of work. I'm a woodworker with strong meat-hooks for hands, and it's hard for me sometimes. But I can say that it has helped to have a clean hand available from time to time.

After that, it gets covered, and left alone for about 20 minutes, for its initial rise. Put more simply, you give the yeast time to reproduce within the dough. One yeast cell splits into 2 yeast cells, into 4, and so on. The three main products of this reproductive process are carbon dioxide (CO2), alcohol, and more yeast cells. In bread, there's not enough alcohol produced to notice, and it bakes off anyway when the bread goes into the oven. But as the yeast cells multiply in an exponential fashion, and each of them is giving off more and more CO2, the dough begins to grow larger, resulting in gas pockets like these ones, which were produced during the initial 20 minute rise of tonight's loaves.

After the initial rise, the dough is cut in half (for 2 loaves) and then each lump is kneaded a little bit more, before being shaped into a ball, or loaf-shaped lump. The dough gets covered again, and left to rise for a certain amount of time, usually specified in the recipe. Some recipes call for the dough to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours, to help slow the process down and bring out more flavor. Other breads are given an hour or two for the final rise, before going into the oven.

As I said in part one, yeast needs to be kept warm if you want it to reproduce. It will generate some heat of its own in the process, but if it gets cold, it will slow down. That's why the water used to mix the dough should already be warm. For the initial rise, it's normal to cover the bread with a clean dish towel, or proofing cloth, to help insulate it and keep it warm. In cooler weather, I'll also put the rising dough in an oiled plastic bowl of some kind. I specify plastic, because it's a lousy conductor of heat. That means that if the dough is warm, it will stay warm. Metal or glass bowls will conduct the heat away, and cool the dough off, which slows the process down.

Keep the yeast warm and fed, and it will do what it does in its own time. All you have to do is wait.

Basic Bread, Part One: The Science

As with everything else, there are two kinds of people. Those who have made home-made bread, and those who haven't. Those who have can tell you that it's pretty easy. Those who haven't, seem convinced that it's a task requiring skill.

Let's start with something around the level of High School biology. Yeast is a fungus. It likes to eat, and reproduce. In fact, it's a lot like most college students in this regard.

The presence of food and warmth are basically all you need to encourage yeast to engage in reproductive activity. Again, not much different from college students.

During periods of vigorous reproductive activity, a lot of carbon dioxide is generated. And with yeast, this is also true.

Flour and water are the basics of food for yeast, but sugar works very well, too.

This is a measuring cup that has 2 heaping teaspoons of brown sugar, dissolved in warm water, with around 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast stirred in. Watch what happens within 10 minutes.

Note the generation of a huge pile of foam-->

(Evidence of reproductive activity... yours for the viewing on the internet. Again, not unlike some college students.)

Bread is a mixture of flour and water, with yeast inside. And the yeast will continue to happily reproduce within an environment that is almost entirely composed of food.

This is the magic of bread making: Think of yeast as a bunch of college students. Provide food, and adequate warmth, and they're bound to do what comes naturally. The rest is just the process of mixing, waiting, and turning up the heat.

Think of the oven as Spring Break in Mexico. It's hotter, there's a final reproductive blowout, and then everybody gets thoroughly baked.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chick Pea Burgers

Tonight I was digging through the folder of recipes I've cut out of magazines, and found one that came from Eating Well, for chick pea burgers with Tahini yogurt sauce. Among the ingredients: chick peas, lemon juice, tahini, and olive oil. All of these are found in hummus, which is half of Ariel's answer to the "one food for the rest of your life," question.

(Hummus and Tabouleh, mixed together, are Ariel's favoritest thing. Ever.)

So, already it sounded like a winner.

Update, 11/18/10: In the month since this was originally posted, this recipe has become a staple meal in our home. As a result of getting a lot of practice with this recipe, I've learned a few things, and edited the entry to reflect those lessons.

Ingredient list:

Chick Pea Burgers
1- can of chick peas, rinsed and drained. (I used to use 19 oz cans, I've since used 14 ox cans without changing anything else, and it works fine.)
4- scallions, trimmed and sliced
1- large egg
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano. (I used dried from a jar.)
1/2 Tsp ground Cumin. (I love Cumin.)
1/4 Tsp Salt. (Or a heavy pinch, if you don't feel like washing a little pygmy spoon)
2 Tbsp Olive oil. (Bullshit... will explain later)

Tahini Sauce
1/2 Cup- greek style lowfat plain yogurt
2 Tbsp tahini. (Sesame seed paste, you may have to look a bit to find it, but I've been able to find it at supermarkets that I didn't think would have it.)
1 Tbsp Lemon juice. (I just squeezed out a whole lemon.)
1/3 Cup chopped parsley. (More or less. I think mine ended up with a lot more than 1/3 of a cup.)
1/4 Tsp salt. (See above commentary on pygmy spoons.)

2 pita bread pockets, sliced in half lengthwise (Ha... it's circular. You figure out which way is lengthwise...)
1 Beefsteak tomato, sliced

The egg, scallions, salt, flour, cumin, and oregano go into the food processor with the chick peas. Use the pulse feature, and make a coarse mixture that will form patties well.

edit: Having done this a few times, I can say that it's better to mix the egg, scallions, salt, flour, cumin, and oregano first, and then add the chick peas into the food processor. I used to dump all of the other ingredients on top of the chick peas, and it took a lot longer for those other ingredients to stir down into the mix properly. By the time it was all more or less homogeneous, it was halfway to being pureed. This way the other ingredients are mixed to form the glue that holds everything together, and mixing the chick peas from there results in a coarser mix, and better patties that handle more easily.

For the sauce, combine the sauce ingredients in a bowl and mix with a fork. It's not rocket science.

Next step, make patties with the chick pea mixture, and fry them at medium high in a frying pan, in the olive oil. Be careful when flipping them, as they will come apart pretty easily.

In the ingredient list, the quoted quantity of EVOO is 2 tbsp. This is bullshit, and you should pay it no mind. A more liberal application of oil is required, to help conduct the heat to the patties. For those of you who have a cast iron skillet that can handle 4 patties, I suggest you use it, as cast iron holds heat very well. It's a minor thing, really... frying these things up wasn't hard, but I do have a reason for thinking this.

Generally, I find that foods that are allowed to heat up more gradually do not get that crispy-fried crust on the outside. I've had friends that cooked falafel in aluminum pots, or with not enough oil, and the result was a mess. The aluminum conducts some of the heat away, and the falafel dough (if that's the proper term) cools the oil down even more if there's not enough oil in the pot to compensate. So, the oil didn't stay hot enough to make the falafel balls crust over, and the result was lumpy cooked chick pea paste, in oil.

Using a cast iron skillet to fry these up makes a WORLD of difference. Instead of the slowly building sizzle that I'm used to with our old aluminum and stainless frying pans, the patties start to sizzle the instant they hit the pan. And this instant-frying makes a much crispier outer crust. As a result, I've discovered I actually need less oil.

The patties are served up in the pita pockets with the sauce, and a slice of tomato. Extra pita can be used to help clean up the extra sauce that's typically left over.

This was probably one of the fastest, easiest things to make that I've cooked in a while, and it was really, really good. We'll be making this one again.

One very happy nursing student.

Black Bean Hummus

This is a quick and dirty kind of recipe that I stumbled across recently. Ariel's always been a huge fan of hummus, and this was a nice curveball that really got her excited.

I used 2 small (14 oz) cans of black beans, the juice from one lime, 1/4 cup of tahini, and a few peeled cloves of garlic.

Throw the whole mess into the food processor, and add olive oil and garlic until the whole mix makes sense. This is pretty much the delicate part of the process. More olive oil helps thin the mixture, which also helps it mix better. So I add it a bit at a time, because it's important to have a good consistency.

The first time that I made it were in the middle of a hummus making binge for a party we were having at our house, and I got the garlic balance right. Ariel took one bite, and got very excited. This past Saturday I got the garlic balance right, and Ariel was very excited.

The last time I made this hummus, I did NOT get the garlic balance right. I peeled a few garlic cloves, threw them in without thinking, and called it done. Way too much garlic. Ariel was not excited.

Add the cloves in one at a time, let them mix in, taste, and add again as necessary. This is very important. Good hummus has a lot of garlic, and it can approach the limits of what most people consider to be in good taste. So it's important to take things to that limit, but not beyond.

Sunday, October 17, 2010