Thursday, January 27, 2011

Leftover Soup for a snowy day

This is  a narrative of how this afternoon's soup came together... there are times when I'm a serious improvisational cook, (well, maybe serious isn't quite the word for it) and while it's not clear how the decisions are made, the results can be remarkably... not bad. In this case, it's a Cream of mushroom soup, with pan fried pieces of basil pesto chicken sausage.

We were supposed to get 8-12" of snow last and into this morning, so I'd penciled in today as a snow day, figuring I'd stay home from the shop, and get some writing done. Looking out the window, I think I woke up at 10 to blue skies, and looked out the window to find that we got some of that 8", and then the wind carried the rest away. I got the subtle feeling that I was starting the day as a slacker... this is not un-drivable weather. So, I started reveling in the slacker feeling, and hoping that this weekend's snowstorm won't keep me from being productive. Anyway, around lunchtime, I was looking at food blogs (what else) and got the urge to make soup... again.

"Baby, we HAVE soup... you made some the other night, remember? Not to mention all the other leftovers?"

Of course I remembered that we still had soup. But all I could think about was NEW soup. I'm not saying it's logical, but either way, smitten kitchen had a gorgeous picture up of a whole head of garlic that had been used to flavor a pot of soup, and I was damned if I was going to let Sunday night's leftover soup get in the way of trying this out. My impulse control around food when I'm spending the day at home isn't the best... but in this case, the impulse is healthier than normal. I'm cooking healthy soup, not binging on cheese and crackers and chocolate milk. What could be bad about that? I WANT GARLIC!!!

Did I mention that I'd been up for 2 and a half hours and was already on my third cup of coffee?

I started with chopped onions, celery, and scallions, and sent them off to cook in a puddle of olive oil, while I rummaged around for more ingredients. We had leftover mushrooms from making spaghetti sauce... that sounded good. And potatoes... potatoes are good. And garlic... oh, garlic.

I chopped the top off of a small head of garlic. I didn't quite slice off as much as I'd intended, so I had to slice again. I put the rest of the head to one side, and the tips and slices of garlic clove got minced up, thrown in with the sliced mushrooms, and that all went into the pot on top of the bed of onions and scallions and celery. I let it sit that way until I could smell the mushrooms cooking, and then stirred the mushrooms in. With the veggies cooked, it was time to add broth, and chopped up potatoes, 2 bay leaves, and the head of garlic, which had been washed and mostly de-skinned. And a tablespoon of whole-grain dijon mustard, because, well... why not?

In the meantime, I started poking around for more raw ingredients, I found a pair of basil pesto chicken sausages that, after 2 days, were already starting to get freezer burn. So I figured I'd add those in, but the question was when? At this point, everything jelled in my mind. I got the mental image of a nice cream of mushroom and potato soup, with sliced up pieces of pan fried sausage floating in it. That sounds good!

So, once the soup had simmered for 30 minutes, I fired up the skillet, added the slices of sausage, and started dumping the now-cooked soup into the blender. Once blended, I strained the result through the steam basket into the pot below, and added the sausage.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Soup and Sandwiches for grown-ups

I love making soup. It's just so... easy. (Thanks to the availability of good pre-made broth at the store. I plan to tackle making broth sometime this year, but one thing at a time.)

The basics are simple. Cook the veggies, add the broth, and whatever grains. If you're going to use spices, put them in a tea ball so you can get keep them separate. This last one is pretty important, especially if you plan on storing the leftovers. Things like black pepper can continue to add flavor to the soup, and while it's not necessarily going to taste bad after stewing in the fridge for a day or two, it's not necessarily going to taste good, either, so being able to take the flavoring spices out as part of the process is key.

In this case, I thin sliced a few stalks of celery, sliced some leeks lengthwise and then chopped 1/4" pieces from there, and cut up an onion. Sizzle sizzle sizzle for about 8 minues on medium heat in some oil, and we're ready to go. I poured in a quart and a half of chicken broth, 1/2 cup of wild rice, 1/2 cup of a brown rice medley from Trader Joes, and 1/3 of a cup of barley. No salt, no seasoning, just the veggies, grains and broth. For the vegetarian crowd, you can use veggie broth instead... the rest of this improv dish is veggie friendly, and it's basic enough to be easy.

Bring to a simmer, and keep it there for 35-40 minutes.

I was using an oval roasting pot that my little sister bought me a few years ago, and one of the interesting things about the shape is that you can rotate the lid to vent off as little or as much of the steam as you want, unlike a regular circular pot. I don't think it's really a precise adjustment for maintaining a slow simmer, but it's nice to be able to vent just enough steam that the whole thing doesn't start boiling over.

Other trivia about this particular pot, Ariel loves teasing me about it. Why? Because it's Rachel Ray branded cookware. Why is that funny? Well... once upon a time, I'd put Rachel Ray on my list of 5. Ariel just couldn't wrap her mind around that one, and laughed at me about it for days. Shortly thereafter, I received this pot. So, to this day, it still puts a smirk on A's face.

Another benefit of making soup... there's time to stop, clean up a bit, and diminish the pile of after dinner dishes. (note the finished meal sitting on a CLEAN butcher block...) Once I was done with the cleaning, I still had time to get going on the sandwiches part. The general idea is an open-face grilled cheese... or maybe it's just over-grown crostini. Either way, it was mighty fine, and the salty savory crunchy cheese and toast thing went very well with the soup.

I grated some gouda and some other cheese, (gruyere is also wonderful for this) and packed it onto the top of some store-bought 'tuscan' bread. (Basically, fancy white bread with rubbery gluten and bog holes for the cheese to melt through.) I put that on the top rack in the oven with the broiler on high. You have to pay attention while the broiler is on, though. The first couple of minutes are pretty uneventful: the cheese starts to melt and bubble, and the grease puddles on top. Yum. The next minute or so the grease soaks into the bread, the bubbling picks up a bit. After that, things start to settle down, and it's important to grab the tray just after the cheese begins to brown. It's possible to actually watch the brown parts form and start to spread... and if you're not watching, it's possible to miss all of this completely, and end up with burned cheese on burned bread.

By the way, if you look closely at the picture, you can see that the back left corner of the cookie sheet is warping upwards, and the whole thing is starting to look like a pringle. It's not a trick of the light, that's actually what was happening. Don't be alarmed if this happens to you... there's something about being that close to the heating element that makes for some interesting thermal expansion issues. Once it cooled off it settles back down.

I still had time after this to clean up the stuff I used to make the grilled cheese before serving dinner. So all we had left to wash were two bowls, two plates, and the soup pot. Not too bad.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Date Night! Red pepper and Goat Cheese Frittata

So, I'd never made a frittata before. I'm going to be making more of them, though. Score one more for the cast iron skillet.

Basic ingredients:
-1 Cup sliced up red bell peppers
-1 bunch of scallions, chopped
-8 Eggs
-1/2 Tsp salt
-1/2 Tsp finely chopped Oregano
-1/2 Tsp freshly ground pepper
-1 Tsp Extra Light Olive Oil
-1 Cup crumbled Goat Cheese
-1/2 Cup Robust Gouda

Do all of the prep work before you put anything in the pan. Things happen pretty fast after that.

Pre-heat the Cast iron Skillet to the high side of medium. Turn on the broiler and let that go for a while. Put the rack close to the top of the oven.

Mix up the salt, pepper, oregano, and eggs.

Put in the oil. Put in the vegetables. Fry the veggies until they're starting to feel cooked. (3-4 minutes)

Add the egg, dump the 2 cheeses on top. Then throw the whole skillet into the oven/broiler for 3 or 4 minutes, until the gouda just starts to brown.

Pull the skillet back out, and let it cool for 3-4 minutes more. The skillet will continue to lightly cook the eggs, so the finished product is moist, but not wet or runny. After it's cooled a bit, and has started to pull away from the pan, flip the whole thing over onto a platter or dish that's large enough.

The finished product is a thing of beauty, but I really wanted to have one more part to the meal, so I baked some sweet potato fries to serve with the frittata.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Variations on a theme

I read an article by Mark Bittman recently that talked about an easy way for people to start getting more into the kitchen. The article said, basically, that there are three basic types of recipes that make for a good start. The first recipe should be a stir fry recipe. The second should be some sort of chopped salad. And the third should be a rice and lentil dish.

I like this concept. It's basic, and to the point, and I think it's really how most people start out anyway. Maybe not those three particular recipes, but I think most people get a few basic things that they can do, they perfect those recipes, and then they move on, either experimenting with the meals they do understand, or moving on to similar things. That's basically how I got started... pasta for a week, featuring hamburger, onions, and Cream of Something soup, plus as much garlic as I could stomach. Eventually that evolved into rice, with a mix of minced onions, peppers, kidney and black beans, chili powder, and ground turkey, and into other dishes, too.

I also like the recipes mentioned, because they cover some of the basic skills: knife handling, frying pan, and boiling things. A meat and pasta dish, for instance, isn't fundamentally different in preparation from a lentil and rice recipe: Boil the starch, cook the other part, and find a sauce you like to go with the combination. Voila... result could be anything from Indian food to Spaghetti and meatballs. Go figure.

So, on that note, I started playing around with the chick pea burger recipe tonight, using a mixture of chick peas and black beans. And as Ariel and I started talking about the result, and what improvements, substitutions, and omissions could be made, it was pretty clear that bean burgers are destined to become part of the repertoire. I'll post new recipes as they get perfected.

There are other skills that I think are worth learning, like how to make pancakes, bread, soup, or a really good cheeseburger. But either way... like any other skill that's productive, learning to cook is really just a matter of baby steps.

So go start walking...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sunday morning pancakes

So, this is one of those posts that's really been a long time coming. Among my friends, I've become pretty well known for my pancakes. It all started with a sourdough pancake recipe that I found, that was simply amazing. Then the word got out, and people started coming by for breakfast on Sundays. And by the way, for those of you with dating lives, I can testify for the record that when guests wake up to the smell of pancakes cooking, it makes a good impression.

But, as with all things, there was a hitch.

Ariel is hypo-glycemic. Not radically so, but it's a periodic concern. And it's a family thing, too. All of her siblings' significant others have stories about the day they were introduced to Hulk-Smash Persing. When the blood sugars drop below a certain threshold, things can take a turn. And so, it's wise to keep too much processed sugar and white flour out of the mix. This goes for pancakes, too. As her brother Eli put it, "Pancakes for me usually involve a temper tantrum and a nap." So, sourdough pancakes, lovely as they are, were out. So, I decided to experiment a bit.

I'll probably play around with other recipes as I find them, but the version I've settled on for now is, in essence, the basic pancake recipe from the Joy of Cooking, but I substitute different whole-grain flours to fill in some of the white flour content. I also use natural maple syrup instead of sugar. The sugars in maple syrup are different, and more balanced somehow, in a way that I don't understand. I think it has something to do with the fact that maple syrup is just boiled down, and not refined like white sugar.

The first time I made this particular recipe, they were fantastic. And Ariel looked up at me later in the day, smiled, and said "Wow... I still haven't crashed from your pancakes!"

'nuf said.

Ingredient List
Dry Ingredients:
1/2 Cup white flour
1/2 Cup rye flour
1/2 Cup oat flour
2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
Small handfuls of things like chocolate chips, craisins, finely chopped apple, oatmeal, wheat bran, etc. I've been using oatmeal, chocolate chips and craisins for a while, and I like the flavor.

Wet ingredients:
1 Cup Milk
2 Eggs
2 tbsp light oil (canola, corn, or something else with little or no flavor)
3-4 tbsp maple syrup
Splash of Vanilla or Kahlua

This is for a batch of pancakes that will feed either 4 adults or 2 teenagers.  For just us 2, I've been making half-batches.

Start preparing by pre-heating the griddle or frying pan you plan to use. If the pan isn't fully heated when you pour the batter into the pan, the batter won't crisp as well, and will gradually heat up with the pan, instead of being heated quickly by the pan. There's a noticeable difference in texture otherwise.

Mix dry ingredients together, separately from wet ingredients. I do this because it's easier to get everything consistently mixed this way, and because it fluffs up the flour, which helps prevent clumps.

I fry pancakes in butter. I see no reason not to, as people who are so health conscious as to avoid butter, should also avoid pancakes, or frying pans in general. Also, the butter gives me a good indication that the pan is hot enough. If the heat is right, the butter will sizzle on the surface of the pan. If it's too cold, it will melt but not sizzle. If it's too hot, the butter will sizzle and then turn brown. I'm sure this still gives a very approximate temperature range. I'm also sure that pancakes are forgiving enough to still work out just fine. On my current electric stove, this is around medium heat. I've made pancakes on 4 or 5 different stoves in memorable pancake history, and medium is a good place to start experimenting, but every stove is different. That's why I rely on the butter to tell me what's going on.

Ladle the batter into the pan. When the edges start to lift, flip the pancakes. If I'm cooking for a crowd, I'll keep the oven on at 220, and flip finished pancakes onto a cookie sheet in the oven to keep them warm... if the kitchen isn't being overrun.

I pour pancakes 4 at a time in the griddle I have. If I'm down to the point where it's not going to be an even 4, I pour whatever batter remains into the griddle into one big pancake. I then announce to any interested parties that the harbinger of breakfast is upon us, and that they should get ready to eat.

Typically, they're already ready.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Kitchen refinements and recent additions

Another bits and pieces post...


Foil-wrapped stove pans

This is something I used to do years ago, before I got into kitchens that had gas stoves, and didn't have to/ couldn't do this.

It seems that it's almost inevitable that the pans underneath the electrical elements on the stove will get full of burnt on crap. And it's pretty much a given that they'll never, ever look good again. Even Tolkien couldn't adequately convey the heartbreak and despair.

(That could be a mild overstatement. You'll have to forgive me, we just watched the LOTR movies this weekend.)

So, rather than go through the Shakespearean tragedy that is the cleaning in vain of the stove pans, I wrap mine in aluminum foil before the mess renews itself. Not only does the nice new foil look a lot better than the carbon-scored surface that was there before, it allows you to cover the hole in the bottom that drains more crap into the space underneath the stove top, thus saving you from even more cleaning. And cleaning them out next time is a simple process of throwing out the aluminum foil, and re-wrapping.


The Zen of the 3-tier hanging basket.

I've hated these damned things for years. Hung normally, they never really sit at the right height, so one tier is always just out of reach... or in the way. But I was also getting really tired of the top of the work island looking like this:

I never really found a good place to store non-refrigerated perishables like onions, potatoes, garlic, citrus fruits, and so on. Bread also needed a place to hang out, etc... and the end result was that my work space had become the default crap catcher. It was a real problem. At one point I added a rectangular tray to the rear right corner to try to corral everything, but that ended up holding the bottom layer of what turned into an ever-growing pile of crap. And after a while, I wasn't really cognizant of what was going on in the tray, I was only aware of the visible layers. I'm sure you can all see where this is going.

So, I revisited the idea of the hanging baskets. I found a set at the hardware store. They cost a little more than I wanted to pay, and a little harder than the regular collapsible ones I'm used to seeing. I'm not convinced that I like them yet, but they'll work, and that's really all that's required.

To deal with my primary cause of frustration, (awkward height of the baskets, or the whole thing being in the way) I put in a small pulley system to raise and lower the baskets, so I can get to them when I want, and get them out of the way when I want. The 4 primary points of contact are, the ceiling where one end of the cord is fastened, the pulley on the top of the baskets, the ring near the ceiling that the cord goes through, and the cleat I mounted on the window to tie everything off. I also made a loop in the end of the cord that would hold the basket at a comfortable height, and tied that off around the cleat, to provide a point at which the basket will lower no further... I don't want it to bottom out and dump everything.

I'm not saying this is ideal for every kitchen. And our high ceilings definitely help with vertical room for them to go away. But I think that even in a kitchen with normal ceiling height, mounting the baskets this way would probably be helpful.


One recent addition to our stable of kitchen equipment is a Kitchen Aid Pro-Line coffee grinder. I'm an amateur coffee snob. I haven't gotten into espresso making, and I'm not too obsessive, I don't think. But I do enjoy a good cup of coffee, and I'm getting more and more discerning, I think.

My old grinder was a Mr Coffee burr grinder that had been with me for 5 or 6 years, and it worked well enough, but it was incredibly hard to clean well. Recently we started using coffee beans from Trader Joe's, and they're more oily than the scoopable beans I've picked up elsewhere in the past. The result was a cement of coffee dust and coffee oil that was clogging the other grinder up on a weekly basis, to the point of serious frustration. Cleaning the old one out meant taking it to the work area, dumping the beans out of the hopper, and digging around with a metal pick around the sides of the burr, which was mounted in the very bottom of the hopper. It was really difficult, and the density of the cement that had been produced was surprising.  So, one of our registry items was a new grinder.

The Kitchen Aid grinder is superb. We're still getting used to it, but so far, there's a smoother taste to the coffee. The old one did have a dial to adjust quantity of coffee ground, which made it easier to the right amount... which is something this new grinder lacks. I haven't used it for espresso, or for french press, (yet) but I will say that I think the slower grind speed has something to do with the different taste. For starters, slower cutting means less dust generation, and a better grind. But slow speed grinders are also known for not burning the beans, which can be an issue with high speed grinders. The last real factor that I can think of is cleanliness. And after cleaning the new one this morning, I can say for sure that it's a hell of a lot easier to clean. Rather than fishing around in the bottom of a hopper, the front of the machine opens up, the front burr comes out, and the rear burr is very easy to get to. And, the mess dumps right down into the hopper, so the whole machine doesn't need to be moved somewhere else for a serious procedure. That part alone makes me VERY happy. Machines need periodic maintenance, and I get that. So it's nice when the manufacturer designs them to be easily maintained.

Lastly, the grinder comes with an instruction manual that actually makes sense, and has a lot of helpful advice on brewing coffee. It's helpful.


Kitchen Expansion

So, the kitchen remains too small for two people to effectively work, unless one of them is working on dishes. Simultaneously, I was clearing off a high table that I've been using, in theory, as a desk. But in general it's been nothing but a crap-catcher. So, it's been re-purposed as a work table that's just outside the doorway of the kitchen.