31 December 2010

Christmas eve carbohydrate party

You guys, I think the pizza party for christmas eve was the best idea ever. We are definitely going to do this as close to every year as possible. YES.

Dough: I used a pretty standard recipe that I got off the Pioneer Woman, because hey, why not? I used wheat flour, and kneaded the living daylights out of the dough before letting it rise.

We spent all afternoon occasionally stirring a massive pot of excellent sauce. Just imagine it about two feet to the left, ok? Then there was the grating cheese/chopping peppers/slicing mushrooms/dicing onions part of the day. Look at all the cheese! We had mozzarella, parmesan, romano, and asiago. CHEESE.

This pizza was mine and mine alone: A HA HA HA HA. Look at those excellent crispy edges! Thin crust for the win.

Here is my preferred method of eating pizza: smother it in arugula. That's one excellent thing about California: there is still available baby arugula in the farmer's market on December 19th. Nice.

I ate it.

27 December 2010

Serious amounts of baked mac & cheese

I've been craving baked mac and cheese so consistently that I actually made it for two different dinners, with only the slightest of variation. That's right: two instances of awesome!

Mac and cheese bake
Instance 1: all dairy all the time
Instance 2: with greens, tomatoes, and garlic

For both instances:
cheese of choice
chunky pasta
salt, pepper, mustard powder, paprika
breadcrumbs (i.e. a hunk of stale, stale bread and a grater)
a whisk and whiskable (i.e. not nonstick) pan
a sufficient baking dish

For instance 2 only:
olive oil
greens (chard, spinach, kale, even green cabbage)

These two instances are so similar that I'm just writing one recipe with an addendum paragraph. Basic rundown: we're going to make a cream sauce, cook pasta, cook vegetables for instance 2, combine everything, and bake the resulting business until you can stand it no longer.

Preheat the oven to 350F about halfway through the sauce-making process, ok?

Start the cream sauce by making a roux. In your pan, melt a big chunk of butter. Add an equal amount of flour and whisk it together as it bubbles down. I never, ever measure my flour or butter, as I am well on my way to becoming a level seven grandma, but something in the neighborhood of two tablespoons of each should work. Cook together, whisking frequently, for three or four minutes. This cooking time ensures that your finished product will taste like cream sauce, not raw flour. Good?

Next, add your milk. Probably something in the neighborhood of a cup and a half of milk is plenty. Season with a little paprika and mustard powder, whisk it all up, and then continue cooking (and whisking) until your sauce starts to thicken. How long will this take? It depends on the fat content of your milk. Skim will take much longer than whole milk, which will take much longer than cream. My 2% sauce probably took about twenty minutes.

When it's thickened sufficiently (i.e. coats the back of a spoon, looks satiny, etc.), gradually whisk in a bunch of shredded cheese. You can use whatever kind sounds right. (I totally used junky store cheddar, but parmesan etc is clearly better.) As you add the cheese, the sauce will get even creamier. Once everything is amalgamated, the cream sauce is largely done; pepper it heavily and salt it a little. You can keep it on low heat, whisking intermittently, if you need to hold it a little longer.

Instance 2 only: At the same time, heat up a saute pan and soften a handful of chopped garlic in olive oil. Add some chopped/pureed/whatever tomatoes, some basil and oregano, and a big pinch of salt, and let them cook down together into a little second sauce. Also, wash and chop up your greens. They can stay raw for the time being.

While the sauce is finishing up, cook and drain your pasta. Try to time it so it'll be done when your sauce is done. I usually put a pan of water on at the very beginning of cooking, cover it, and turn it off when it boils; this way, once I have some idea when the cream sauce will be done, I can just turn on the heat and bring the business to a cookable heat level right away.

OK! When all the components are done, combine them, preferably in a pot you've already been using. The pasta pot is a good choice. Taste and correct seasonings, and then pour the resulting mass of excellence into a casserole dish. Spread a layer of breadcrumbs over the top and put the whole business in the oven.

Now you have to WAIT. AUGH.

When the whole mass is crispy and bubbling and golden brown on top, you are done. A half hour or so should do it. Check out that crust:

Now you must EAT IT as fast as possible.

Instance 2 was a complete and excellent vegetable-laden meal. However, since my first iteration was just about 100% dairy and grain, I needed some veg to go with it. John was very nice and made me some brussels sprouts sauteed with bacon. These are super easy and an ideal match. The cooked greens really make the whole business seem like a perfect southern dinner. If you don't eat bacon, you could saute your sprouts with olive oil and garlic, with maybe a little hot pepper thrown in.

Brussels sprouts with bacon

salt, pepper

I'd use half a slice of bacon per serving here, and you could get away with less.

Chop your bacon into small squares. Throw the pieces into a pan over medium heat and let them render.

While the bacon cooks, trim your sprouts and slice them up. You want all the layers to start to fall apart before you even get them over the heat. This means the sprouts will cook quickly and produce lots of delicious crispy bits.

When your bacon had given up nearly all its fat (or it's quite close to whatever state you like your bacon; I can't do the uncooked fat, you guys, that's just gross), throw the sprouts into the pan. Salt sparingly, keeping in mind that the bacon was cured/etc and will have some saltiness of its own to contribute.

Mix everything up and let it sit for a few minutes. This will let the sprouts start to brown. While you're waiting, you can crush some peppercorns for the final seasoning. Or you can stand around anxiously watching the pan and trying not to stir. Your call.

After a few minutes, mix it up and let the other side of the sprouts brown. Pepper the finished business, put it on a plate, and eat it with your massive dairy explosion.

PS: I'll talk about holidays later, ok you guys? Ok!

23 December 2010

Isn't breakfast wonderful?

Breakfast is definitely, totally, completely wonderful.

Oatmeal with toasted pecans and dried cranberries: cheap, easy, filling, healthy, delicious, and even vaguely seasonal! It's a six-way win. All we need is some maple syrup to tip it completely over the edge.

21 December 2010

Everyone loves risotto

So here's one thing you can make with your new and exciting pot of veg broth: risotto.

I made this batch of risotto about a month ago, when tomatoes were still plentiful at the farmers' market. Tomatoes are particularly pleasing to use in risotto, as they melt into the finished product, supplying both excellent color and concentrated flavor. Of course, now it is December, and tomatoes are no longer the vegetable of choice. In fact, it's a little difficult to apply winter vegetables to risotto effectively, although a hot exciting bowl of grain is clearly suited to cold weather. The top contenders for winter substitution are 1. winter squash, 2. beets, and 3. hardy greens. Precook any root vegetables--roasting is good--but washed, chopped greens can cook in the risotto itself.

I've talked about using barley in risotto plenty of times, but here's the main rundown: barley tastes just as good as arborio rice, but is cheaper, healthier, and more easily available. Do it!


veg broth
olive oil
dry vermouth/white wine
the last of the good tomatoes (or frozen ones, or winter subs)
thyme (or other herbs to match your subs)
salt, pepper
good grating cheese

I've written about risotto over and over. This iteration is no different.

First, put broth on to boil. Let it simmer constantly throughout the process; add more water as needed.

Next, saute onion with olive oil in a deep pan. When it's softened, add a cup of barley and a cup of cooking alcohol. I use dry vermouth as the standard cooking addition, but a dry white wine will also work. Actually, you can make risotto with red wine if you want, but I prefer white, as it's a lot more subtle.

Stir the barley and wine around, letting the grain slowly absorb the oniony oil and the liquid. Once the mix starts to look dry, add in a cup of stock and a couple branches of thyme (or other study herbs). As each addition gets absorbed, add in another cup of stock. Contrary to popular belief, a risotto does not need to be stirred 100% of the time. Just give it a stir every few minutes to make sure the liquid is being absorbed evenly and the bottom of the pan isn't scorching.

As you add more and more broth, the barley will gradually cook. First, the outer layer of each grain will turn translucent, and you'll be able to see the hard core in the middle. As the barley cooks, its color will become more consistent.

Adding the vegetables: when the grains are about 2/3 of the way cooked, add your tomatoes. Precooked root veg can go in at about this time as well. Add any more tender vegetables (green beans, peas, etc.) near the end of cooking. Really delicate greens, parsley, & etc. can go in off the heat at the very end; they'll wilt in quickly.

You will notice that I am too lazy to skin the tomatoes, and that the skins therefore come off during cooking and curl into little rolls. You may care about this enough to skin your tomatoes (in short: cut a cross in the skin, submerge in boiling water 30 seconds, pull off split skin), or just to use pre-skinned tomatoes out of a can, but I don't.

When your barley is cooked through, take the pan off the heat. Fish the thyme branches out of the pan and add any last-minute ingredients: salt, pepper, and grated parmesan are standard. I put in some extra raw thyme leaves, because I had plenty and they are great. Thyme and tomatoes, by the way, definitely win.

Stir everything together, whack into bowls, and eat.

17 December 2010

Look what I got!

So my friends Joann and Dennis are buying a house! Joann took me over there last week, and we poked around as far as we were able to do while not yet in possession of keys.

There are twelve fruit trees in the yard. TWELVE. Plus, since this is CA, the fruit is actually going to be distributed throughout the entire year. A tree in the front yard, for instance, was dripping with persimmons. The lemon and lime trees were clearly covered with fruit as well. In the summer, there will be peaches and apricots and maybe plums.

I totally foresee jam party in the relatively near future.

14 December 2010

The big veg broth FAQ

I know "make your own broth" is one of the hallmarks of people supposedly much too interested in food. One might use the term "foodie," or even "gourmand." Specifically, one other than I might use those words, as I am neither foodie nor gourmand, and yet make my own broth on a regular basis.

Vegetable broth is stupidly simple, requires little to no effort, and is made from trash. It also has the added benefit of making food taste better.

How to make vegetable broth

The first step is to establish a stockpile. Pun totally intended, BTW.

When you are chopping up vegetables for any reason whatsoever, you will generally end up with a pile of trimmings. Normally these trimmings would go in the garbage, the compost pile, your pet rabbit's bowl--wherever. To establish a stockpile, you instead put the clean trimmings in a container and put it in the freezer. As you make more food, the stockpile grows and grows. If a viable broth vegetable starts to wilt and die in your refrigerator, chuck it into the stockpile as well. After a week or two--assuming you actually cook regularly--you'll have enough (probably far more than enough) scraps for a small pan of stock, perfectly preserved and ready.

It's also totally fine to chop up whole fresh vegetables for broth, but I tend not to, because I am cheap.

Not all vegetables are great for stock. However, this is no problem: just don't save those particular trimmings. Problem vegetables include anything in the brassica family (i.e. broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, kale), heavily flavored vegetables, bell or hot peppers, and dill stems. The cabbage family reeks when boiled, so stay far away. Also, seriously, do not use dill stems unless you want to end up with a pan of pickle brine. You can definitely make broth including some heavily flavored vegetables if you want to; it's just that you aren't going to want beet broth in something like a pan of sauce velouté, so it's not worth keeping beet peels around unless you make a lot of beet soup.

In contrast, onions (including green onions, shallots, and clean onionskins), garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, celery, potatoes, lighter greens such as spinach and chard, bay leaves, and parsley are all great. I personally tend to collect a lot of chard stems, carrot and potato peels, and various onion matter. I also recommend keeping every single scrap of summer tomato flesh you can. Err toward easily adaptable, semi-neutral flavors.

Once you have about two cups of vegetable bits and pieces, it's time for embrothening.

Get out a pot. I usually use a 1.5 or 2-quart pot for broth, since I almost always need my big pot for whatever else I'm cooking. You can use whatever size pot you like.

Stuff your pot with a nice varied assortment of frozen vegetable scraps. You don't need to defrost them; their liquid will all go straight into the broth. Make sure you at least have some onion or garlic in there. I occasionally add a split green onion or a couple cloves of crushed garlic if I don't have enough oniony scraps. You'll find that two cups of vegetables can nearly fill a pot this size, leaving only an inch or so of clearance. This is actually good. More vegetables = more flavor, and it all would've been trash otherwise anyway, right? You aren't wasting it; you're using it. Just cook the broth in a bigger pan if there's actual danger of overflow.

Fill your pan with water to just over the vegetable line. You'll be surprised how much water you can get in there, even if it looks like it's totally filled with vegetables already. My pot usually looks something like this:

Now bring that pot to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about twenty minutes. That is it. Your broth is cooked.

Next step: straining.

This bit is obvious, but I want to say it anyway, because sometimes it's just too easy to let your brain turn off at the end of the day. KEEP THE LIQUID; DISCARD THE VEGETABLES. Do not accidentally pour your broth down the sink, ok?

A few straining methods work well. First, you can strain the traditional way: pour your broth through a strainer into another pot. Alternately, cover the pan mostly with its lid and pour the liquid out through the crack. You could also use a slotted spoon or mesh skimmer to lift the vegetables out. If you happen to have a pasta insert for your pot, you could cook the broth in it and just lift it out afterward. I also occasionally lower a pyrex measuring cup into my pan with the mouth held against the side; this way, liquid gets into the cup but vegetables do not. This last method is most useful when you want to keep cooking the rest of your broth for whatever reason.

For any of these methods, make sure to press the leftover vegetables after draining. Use the back of a spoon or something similar. This will squeeze out all the liquids to give you more broth.

Your broth is now ready for any possible use.


- What if you don't have enough vegetables to make the amount of broth you need?

First, it is totally fine to chop and use fresh vegetables instead of frozen.

Next, make as much broth as you can with the vegetables you have. When the broth is done cooking, strain out maybe half the liquid (which you can then either set aside or put directly into your soup/whatever). Then fill up the pot with more water and let it simmer again. I can usually do two water additions before the broth quality suffers even slightly.

What not to do if you can help it: use a boullion cube or any storebought concentrated stock mix. They are super-salty and often taste tinny or chemical. If you're desperate, use water to make up for your broth deficiency.

- What if I wanted to make, say, broccoli soup--can I use broccoli in the broth?

I wouldn't. Anything in the brassica family smells just awful when boiled too long. It would be better to make a standard broth while you cook your soup base (e.g. onion/carrot/celery in olive oil), add the finished broth to the base, add the broccoli, and simmer until cooked through, about three to five minutes.

- What do you do with broth?

You can cook all kinds of things with broth, although soup is the most obvious answer. Practically any kind of soup is good: chili, tomato, various chowders, potato leek, butternut squash. Or add the broth to softened onion/garlic/various aromatics to make a more liquid soup, and then add cooked pasta, meatballs, or dumplings.

Vegetable broth is a great braising liquid, especially when enhanced with white wine or dry vermouth. Rice, quinoa, barley, and various other grains taste excellent when cooked in strong veg broth. You can also use it to make sauces requiring water; I use mine in enchilada sauce on a regular basis. Finally, you can reduce it to make a glaze or use it in a marinade.

- No, I mean what do you do with the leftover broth?

Pour it into containers, let it cool, and put it in the freezer. It's important to let hot broth cool before you lid and chill it; if you don't, you get fermented broth. Just let your containers sit on the counter for an hour or two before you put them in the freezer.

- What do you do with the frozen broth?

You use it the same way you use liquid broth: put it in soup, grains, sauces, or what have you. I usually run hot water over the back of each container, pop out the frozen broth, and put it directly into whatever I'm cooking. That way it just melts into the soup/whatever. This does depend on what I'm cooking, however. For a risotto, for instance, you need to heat your broth to a boil before using--so I just put the frozen broth in a pan, add a little water, and heat it up.

- How long does vegetable broth keep?

I wouldn't leave it in the refrigerator longer than a week. However, if you freeze your broth, it'll be totally fine for months.

- Do I seriously only need to cook it for twenty minutes?

In my experience, that's plenty of time to make a dark-colored, flavorful vegetable broth, and you can get away with even less time if you're pressed. So: yes. I often put on a pot of broth, start cooking dinner, and use said broth in the dinner fifteen minutes later. You can leave the pot on to simmer a bit longer if you don't need it quite yet, but you aren't trying to extract marrow from bones here, so the long cooking normally associated with broth is just not necessary.


How'd I do? More questions?

10 December 2010

Holiday cookie overload

I got Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar from the library in prep for thanksgiving, and then I made some cookies, and we ate lots of cookies.

Man, what is it with me and the baking lately? I assume it is the "cold weather," although you know today it's supposed to be a high of something like 65F, and that's just wrong, WRONG, even though we live in California again and I have to shut up and get used to it. Anyway.

First I made blackstrap gingersnaps. Changes: I used wheat flour, which was fine and good. These definitely taste like a serious gingersnap, and are worth the minimal effort. They get harder overnight, however, so I suggest eating them all immediately, or maybe freezing some preshaped dough for later impulse baking.

Baking with liquid oil instead of solid butter is surprising at first. I think the sheer liquid quality of early-stage batter could easily scare people who aren't prepared. Of course, once you add the dry ingredients, everything comes together into a totally normal finished dough. No problem.

Annnnd I seriously have no pictures of the gingersnaps. Moving on.

Next up: banana everything cookies.

These were really easy up until the "form into balls" stage, at which point the dough--or, really, the mass of oats stuck together with banana and etc--decided that it would like nothing more than to attach to both of my hands forever and ever. Next time I will be using two teaspoons to drop misshapen oat lumpules onto my cookie sheets. I also left out the nuts, but added a handful of extra chocolate chips. While this tasted great in the end product, it made the dough even more resistant to shaping. Maybe something in the dried fruit area would be a better substitution.

While awful to form, the finished product tasted great. Oats, banana, and chocolate are clearly an excellent match, and the high proportion of grain provides great taste without consequent glurge.

They also kept for a full week without any ill effects--great if you want to eat them for breakfast every morning. I'm just saying.

06 December 2010

Cranberry bread showdown

We've established that I don't like cranberry sauce. However, cranberry bread is another story. In the run-up to thanksgiving, I made two: one with full dairy, and one without. SHOWDOWN.

Cranberry bread 1: based on a Bittman recipe for walnut bread which I found at Emily Blackapple's. I don't do walnuts in baked goods (and we didn't have any anyway) so instead I subbed in lots of dried cranberries. I also used whole wheat flour instead of white.

Result: excellent. The wheat flour gave this a great density and an appealing actual-grain taste. I found it best when cut in massive inch-thick slabs and toasted in the toaster oven, then spread with butter. Peanut butter was also a good choice, especially when eating said bread for breakfast.

Cranberry bread 2: this one was actually meant to be cranberry. I followed the cranberry orange nut bread recipe in Veganomicon, cut out the nuts (again), and used white whole wheat flour, as our straight wheat supply was running low. I hadn't baked anything with fresh cranberries before, so I was curious to see how this turned out.

Result: again, excellent. This bread was lighter-textured due to the finer flour, and sharper due to the fresh cranberries and orange zest. Still, it also worked pretty well with peanut butter.

Both breads were seriously damp; neither succumbed to staleness in over a week. Either would be great for baking in small pans and giving as presents. TASTEABLE.

03 December 2010

Cake cake it is plum cake

So a couple weeks ago, the last of the green plums came through the farmer's market. I, of course, searched out a table of bruised rejects, bought a massive bag, and took them home with a vague eye toward baking.

A few days later, I produced this cake.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I now never want to make any other cake ever again. I've had the recipe sitting around in a huge binder of various internet-sourced recipes for approximately eight to ten years. WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG TO MAKE IT??

Let's get things straight. At our house, pie wins over cake. We don't eat cake, and certainly not layered, decorated, befrostinged monsters. At past office parties with gross storebought sheet cake, I always scraped the frosting layer completely off my dry, cottony, hydrongenated piece (although I was too cheap not to eat any cake at all). My birthday and John's are three days apart, and yet we don't even make one birthday cake to split. We know we would each only eat one sliver, then leave the rest of the cake to rot. No cake.

So the fact that I was considering making a cake at all was...different. It's not as though I couldn't have made a plum pie, or a tart. Hell, storebought puff pastry would've been just fine. But no: I wanted cake. Dense, damp, British teatimey cake. Plums sunk into thick wheaty batter sounded pretty good to me.

Shockingly, the actual blog post in which I found this is still up. Seriously? It's from 2002! I think I'm going to write out my variation here anyway, just in case the original site vanishes and we all cry.

Plum Cake (or Plum Torte, I guess)

1/2 c unsalted butter
3/4 c sugar (turbinado, for excellent crystalline crunchy bits)
1 c flour (wheat, above all things, for a serious grain-tasting teacake)
1 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
2 eggs
6-8 plums, depending on the size of your pan
sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon (I think I left the cinnamon out)
pan: I used an 11x7 inch pyrex casserole dish.

Easy easy.

Preheat the oven to 350F. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar; add the flour, baking powder, salt, and eggs; mix. I used a handheld mixer for optimal mixing, but a big wooden spoon should work fine. Spread the finished batter into a cake pan of your choice. I believe I buttered my pan, but that was about it.

Now it is time to cut up plums. Halve and pit them; if they're big, cut them further into quarters or sixths. Press the plums, cut side down, into the batter, covering as much of the cake surface as possible. Sprinkle the whole business with some sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon, and stick it in the oven.

Bake for one hour, or until the cake surface is nicely crested with brown, the edges have pulled slightly away from the edge of the pan, and the plums have sunk and shriveled into the batter. Voila:

Now, ok. This is not the most impressive-looking cake. However, we've established that frosting and extensive decorating are pretty negative aspects of a cake, yes? This business ignores visuals and goes straight to the punch. Instead of being pretty, it is delicious, with a dense, damp, fruit-ridden interior, and a sugary, crunchy, sweet, brown crust.

Let cool for as long as you can stand, and then eat a slab with a big mug of black tea. In the morning, you can have some more for breakfast.

02 December 2010

Raita, toast, and tea

A litle over a week ago, we had Indian food with Heather and Joann. We made chickpea tomato curry and palak paneer and brown rice and naan bread and raita. Everything was great, except that I eventually burned my hand, and so ended up taking zero pictures. (It's fine now.)

Joann, who among other things is a pie-making genius, brought a perfect towering apple pie. She left us half of it, which we then ate for several consecutive breakfasts. Would you look at that?

We sent the palak paneer and rice leftovers home with Heather. I ate the chickpea tomato curry leftovers one night when we were feeling lazy and didn't want to make dinner. The only thing left was raita.

Raita is perhaps the easiest thing in the world. Get a persian cucumber and dice it up. Mix it with a roughly equal proportion of plain, full-fat yogurt, or, in our case, labneh. Pepper it. Voila: raita.

I ate the leftovers on toasty bread with a big cup of assam tea. Breakfast at our house is truly awesome.