29 June 2012

Plums II: caking harder

plum yogurt cake

After I started my two batches of plum-infused liquor and gave a bunch of the non-liquor-drenched plums away, I still had about 80 plums left. That is, I had 80 left from that one broken branch. I haven't even started harvesting the REST of the tree.

This is one of those times when I really wish I liked jam more. Oh well.

Instead, I decided to bake a plum yogurt cake. I made this almost exactly as written, only substituting wheat flour for all-purpose.

plum yogurt cake batter

Wheaty teacakes with lots of summer stone fruit are a pretty classic choice at our house. This time I crammed in as much fruit as I possibly could: 21 chopped plums in an 8x8 square. I actually threw a bunch of chopped plums into the cake pan before pouring in the batter, and then added even more plums to the top.

plum yogurt cake batter

Notice the abundant plum juice all over the counter.

Plum yogurt cake

1 1/2 c wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 c sugar
1/2 c plain yogurt
3 large eggs
1/2 t vanilla
1/2 c oil
and all the plums you can get your hands on.

Preheat your oven to 350F/175C; oil and flour your cake pan. I used an 8x8 square, but a loaf pan or round 8 or 9-inch pan should also work.

Traditional cake recipes want you to sift all your dry ingredients together in one bowl, mix or cream the wet ingredients in another, and then fold the dry into the wet. I usually go the other direction, so I mixed the sugar, yogurt, eggs and vanilla, stirred in the baking powder and salt, and then added the flour 1/2 c at a time. I added the oil last, per the linked recipe, but I don't see any reason why you couldn't add it to the initial wet mix.

Wash & chop your plums, leaving the skins on. Strew a layer of plum pieces in your prepared pan. Pour your batter evenly into the pan. Then add all the rest of your plums to the top of the batter. I recommend sinking them as much as possible, because poking the fruit down into the batter ensures many, many pockets of delicious plum goo. Just look!

plum yogurt cake

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the top is golden brown. Test with a toothpick like you'd test any cake.

Cool on a rack in the pan for at least 15-20 minutes before removing. I left my cake in the pan, largely because we're out of parchment paper. Oh no! That's ok, though; it's still delicious cake.

Voila! Cake!

Each piece of plum added a burst of sour flavor from the skin, while the cake provided a medium-sweet backdrop. A not-too-sweet cake you can eat with coffee or for breakfast? Yes, please!

I think this cake is especially good with a whack of plain tart labneh--Middle Eastern strained yogurt--or Greek yogurt on top of each serving. Hey, there's already yogurt in the batter--why not put some more on top? If you are more into the sweet, you could always sift some powdered sugar over the finished cake instead.

plum yogurt cake

Now all I need to do is find something to do with the 60 or so plums we still have chilling on the kitchen counter. I have a feeling more schnapps is in our future.

ETA: Hey, guess what? Noelle just made the same cake, minus plums! Hooray!

28 June 2012

Plums: the boozening

plum tree with broken branch

So the other day I went outside to water the garden only to discover that a full branch of our plum tree had snapped under its burgeoning weight of almost-ripe fruit.


I immediately dragged a chair outside and started stripping all the plums off the dangling branch. When I was done, I came inside and counted them. 155.

plum harvest

What am I supposed to do with 155 plums?

Well, I immediately put twelve or fourteen of them in a quart jar and covered them with all the vodka in the house. One batch of plum schnapps done.

After a run to the store, I did it all again, except with bourbon. I decided to make a pint and taste it in a week or so, just in case I hate it. Experimentation for the win!

I already know ordinary vodka-based plum schnapps is great, so I wasn't worried about just going for the huge batch of that one. Actually, I probably should get another handle of vodka so I can start several more jars of it. Mental note.

Both schnapps and infused bourbon need awhile to steep, so complex flavors have a chance to develop.

plum schnapps in process

Plum schnapps
Inspired by Danish Schnapps Recipes.

firm, ripe plums
a clean pin
a clean jar with a lid

Wash enough plums to fill up your jar of choice by about 2/3. Stab each individual plum all over with a pin, making sure to penetrate down to the pit. This will let the plum juice actually permeate your liquor.

Put all your plums in your jar. Pour in vodka to fill. Lid the jar and put it somewhere dark to age for 3-6 months. During the steeping period, shake the jar every few days, or whenever it occurs to you to do so.

After the 3 month mark, start tasting your schnapps. When the flavor is to your liking, strain out the plums and bottle the resulting schnapps. Keep in mind that you're going to have a young flavor at first, ok? The flavor will continue to develop as it ages.

Keep the finished schnapps in a dark cupboard and drink it at your leisure, either by itself (in which case, skål, yo) or in a cocktail of your choosing. I'm thinking it'll make a great vodka tonic, at the very least.

infusing bourbon with plums

Plum-infused bourbon
Inspired by Boozed & Infused's prune bourbon & brandy.

firm, ripe plums
a clean pin
a clean jar with a lid

Do the exact same thing as above, except using bourbon instead of vodka.

I'm not sure about infusion times for plums in bourbon. I don't think it will hurt to leave your plums in the bourbon for months, but I may want to pull mine out earlier. This is my first batch, so I'm not sure. However, tasting is always a good idea.


I mean, except for the broken branch. Otherwise, hooray.

plum tree with broken branch

27 June 2012

Macaroni and lamb casserole with red wine tomato sauce

macaroni casserole with browned ground lamb in red wine tomato sauce

It's summer! It's hot! Let's talk about making hearty, rib-sticking casseroles, ok?

HA HA HA oh I'm actually serious. You can take the girl out of the midwest, I guess.

I work at home, so I frequently end up actually stopping work and cooking lunch in the middle of the day. While this is ok--breaks generally help with work--it can definitely become a major intrusion if I'm in the middle of something but realize I need to eat ASAP. So I decided it would be a good plan to freeze a batch of casseroles that I can just stick in the oven (or, better yet, the toaster oven) to cook while I work.

I decided on the ultimate heritagenous comfort food: macaroni casserole. When I was growing up, this consisted of browned ground beef and tomato sauce mixed with macaroni and mozzarella cheese and baked. This time, for a little more interest and a little less ground beef, I decided to go for ground lamb in a red wine sauce with fennel seed and oregano. A good deal all around.

I made about enough pasta to fill an ordinary 9x13 casserole dish, but split everything into three smaller dishes. If you want to have a larger freezer stash, or bake half and eat it now, feel free to make as much as you please.

Macaroni and lamb casserole with red wine tomato sauce

ground lamb
olive oil
onion & garlic
mushrooms, red pepper, whatever other veg you want
tomato puree/sauce/whatev
dry red wine of your choice
fennel seeds, oregano, basil, red pepper flake, salt, pepper
macaroni/chunky pasta of choice
mozzarella/other cheeses of choice

Game plan: Brown lamb. Make sauce. Cook pasta. Combine everything into a selection of casserole dishes. Bake or freeze according to your current priorities.

Ok! Start by heating up a wide & deep saute pan, adding a small slug of olive oil, and crumbling in half a pound (or more) of lamb. You could also use a deeper sauce pot, since you'll be cooking the sauce in this pan, but I like the wide pan for faster liquid evaporation. Season with some salt, pepper, and fennel seed, and stir to mix, breaking up any larger chunks of lamb as you go. Cook until browned, stirring frequently. Then drain off and discard most of the fat, leaving just enough to saute your vegetables, and remove the lamb to a plate.

Chop up an onion and a handful of garlic cloves and add them to your saute pan. Cook to soften while you chop up whatever other vegetables you want. I used mushrooms and red pepper, but hearty greens, summer squash, or eggplant would all work too. Add your veg to the pan in order of necessary cooking time, starting with those that take longer. Season with salt, pepper, oregano, basil, and some red pepper flake to taste; cook to soften. This is also a good time to put on the water for your pasta.

Next, add your tomato puree, stirring to mix & deglaze. Bring to a simmer before adding the cooked lamb and a glassful of red wine of your choice. You could also use dry vermouth (or no alcohol at all) if you don't want to deal with an open bottle of red wine. Stir well and bring back to a simmer. Reduce the heat and cook slowly for about ten minutes, or until the sauce reaches your preferred consistency.

red wine marinara with browned ground lamb

Don't you just want to get in there and swim around? No? It's just me?

Ok. While your sauce is simmering, cook your pasta. Any chunky pasta should work here; I used a ridged macaroni. You can also shred or chop the cheese of your choice while you're waiting. I used mozzarella for ultimate heritagenousness, but various grating cheeses, provolone, or more highly flavored oozy-melting cheeses like fontina should all work. It just depends on your tastes.

When your pasta is done, drain it. Taste your sauce and correct any seasonings. Add your drained pasta to the sauce, stirring well.

Your pan should look like this, complete with unruly steam curling up into every picture.

macaroni casserole with browned ground lamb in red wine tomato sauce

Everything is cooked; now it's time to assemble. Add an even layer of the pasta and sauce to your casserole dish(es), filling it a bit less than halfway. Add a layer of the cheese of your choice. Cover with another layer of pasta and sauce. Finish with a second layer of cheese.

Now you can either bake your casserole or cover it and put it in the freezer for future application. I froze all of mine, personally.

When you want to bake, take your casserole out of the freezer and let defrost a bit while you preheat the oven to 350F/175C. If you're using Pyrex or other ovenproof glass, it's important to bring the glass up to room temperature before you put it in the oven. I usually run them under warm tap water if I don't have enough time to defrost them for real. This is not a big deal as long as your casserole dishes have lids. If you're using ordinary tins, it's fine to just put them straight into the oven.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until hot through and bubbling.

Hooray! Low-effort, hearty, & serious food!

25 June 2012

Dry ice cocktails!

mai tai with dry ice smoke. pic by Wondergus.

Guess what Veronica, Gus (to whom I am indebted for the above pic), Cookie and I did this Friday! If you said "made use of a huge block of dry ice in several over-the-top smoking cocktails," you win.

Dry ice keeps your drinks super-cold and makes a constant bubbling noise. It settles at the bottom of the glass, where the temperature contrast engenders a massive amount of frost and makes it painful to hold. We decided it was probably best to serve dry ice drinks in a hurricane glass, since the stem keeps the ice from sticking to the table and the upper curve of the glass makes for a non-freezing handhold. Check it out:

dry ice mai tai in hurricane glass

The entire business is SUPER ENTERTAINING.

We had Mai Tais and Zombies, each with a small chunk or two of dry ice in place of ordinary ice. I wasn't the one mixing these cocktails, so I'm just going to refer you guys to the recipe links. However, Cookie and I did make cinnamon-infused simple syrup for the Zombies, so I can tell you all about that!

Cinnamon-infused simple syrup

equal amounts sugar and water
(OR a premade batch of simple syrup)
cinnamon sticks

Make simple syrup by heating water and sugar together until the sugar dissolves. If you already have simple syrup, just heat it up; we used a finished cup. Add a couple roughly crushed cinnamon sticks and continue to heat gently for a few minutes. Then take the pan off the heat and let steep. The original Zombie recipe calls for a 2-hour infusion, but we ended up straining out our cinnamon a bit earlier.

If you are making Zombies, you mix this simple syrup with grapefruit juice to create "Donn's mix." All right then!

dry ice mai tai

These were entertaining but also extremely alcoholic. You won't want to drink anything else after having a Zombie. However, they are definitely very good--and a much better solution to "what do we do with all this dry ice?" than chucking it out on the back porch to slowly melt.

Happy Monday!

22 June 2012

Garden update: potato and green bean vinaigrette

homegrown fingerling potatoes

I planted some fingerling potatoes this March. The tender vines and leaves ended up being a total magnet for small gnawing pests, but I managed to keep one plant alive. When that last vine started to die back, I figured it was a loss--until I pulled it up and found a bunch of tiny baby potatoes! Further scrabbling revealed an increasing number of tiny marble-like fingerlings. I ended up with a good handful. Hooray!

I didn't really have enough potatoes to eat by themselves, so I combined them with with a few farmer's market yukon golds and made them into one of my favorite summer salads: potato and green bean vinaigrette.

Potato and green bean vinaigrette

boiling potatoes
green beans
white wine vinegar
dijon mustard
olive oil
salt, pepper

Start by bringing a large pot of salted water to the boil.

Scrub your potatoes well, removing any eyes and peeling off any green skin or flesh. You can peel off all the skin if you prefer; I like to eat the skin, personally. Dice them into chunks roughly an inch square.

Put your potatoes in the pot of water, slap on the lid, bring the water back up to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through and tender.

While your potatoes are cooking, wash, top and tail, and chop your green beans into inch-long chunks.

Also, make your vinaigrette. Crush and finely mince a clove of garlic. Whisk with a couple teaspoons of white wine vinegar, a big spoonful of dijon mustard, and some salt and pepper. If you want to add chopped fresh herbs to this mix, feel free; fresh oregano is particularly good. Next, add olive oil to your dressing in a thin, gradual stream, whisking the entire time. The oil will emulsify with the vinegar and mustard mix to create a creamy dressing. Maybe 1/4 to 1/3 cup of olive oil should do it.

When your dressing looks good, taste and it correct any seasonings. Vinaigrette is really personal--some people love lots of garlic or mustard, or can't stand too much vinegar--so adjust it according to your tastes.

When your potatoes are tender, cook your green beans. You can do this in a couple ways. First, you can steam your beans in a basket that fits over your potato pot. This is a good option if you want to keep the beans separate, so you can shock them in cold water to set the color when they're finished cooking. Second, you can simply put all the beans into the boiling water with the potatoes. This is a good option if, like me, you don't want to bother washing two pans. In either case, cook your beans for about five minutes, or until done to your taste.

Drain your finished potatoes and beans well. Give your vinaigrette a final whisk and pour it over the hot vegetables. Gently fold to distribute the dressing before you taste and correct the seasonings. The hot potatoes and beans will soak up some of the liquids, so you may need to add an extra drizzle of olive oil if things look too dry.

This salad is good either hot or cold, and it's certainly filling. It can take an amazing amount of additions: cooked crumbled bacon, diced hard-boiled egg, scallions, radishes, practically any herb you desire, and dots of sriracha sauce or sambal oelek will all work well. You can mix up the dressing with different vinegars, buttermilk, or big spoonfuls of yogurt. You can eat it by itself, on top of a whack of salad greens, with a grilled cheese sandwich, or as a side at a barbecue. And, of course, the leftovers are excellent straight out of the fridge for a summer morning's breakfast.

19 June 2012

Egg salad in butter lettuce boats

egg salad in lettuce boats

The main themes of this weekend were heat and hunger. We really needed a full meal, but we also needed to keep our house as cool as possible. Egg salad seemed like the perfect solution.

Clearly, there are hundreds of egg salad variations out there. My main requirement is that there be plenty of dill and a good amount of mustard for a spicy kick. Seriously, dill is by far the best herb ever with eggs. If you haven't tried it, you are definitely in for a treat.

egg salad with radishes and dill

Egg salad with radish and dill

green onion
fresh dill
dijon mustard
salt, pepper
lettuce leaves

Hard-boil eggs by your method of choice. Since it was on the verge of too hot in our house, I used the "let the eggs sit there" method--I put my eggs in a pot, covered them with water, threw on the pot's lid, brought everything to a boil, turned off the heat, and let the whole shebang sit for ten minutes. When the time was up, I poured off the water and covered the finished eggs in cold water. Voila--perfectly hard-boiled eggs with less heat suffusing the kitchen!

Assemble your egg salad. The proportions are up to you and your tastes. I used six eggs, four French breakfast radishes, one green onion, an entire 8-inch Armenian cucumber, maybe 1/3 cup of mayo, and a good tablespoon of mustard, plus as much dill as I could stand to chop--probably 1/3 of a standard bunch. Simply chop everything up, mix it all together in a large bowl, and check for seasonings.

red butter lettuce

When you're ready to eat, core a head of butter lettuce and separate the leaves. Wash and dry well. Try not to just eat all the lettuce leaves out of the sink by yourself, ok?

Serve your egg salad and lettuce boats with a couple spoons, and let everyone stuff individual leaves with as much salad as they like. If you have kids, you should probably make the boats yourself, to avoid massive egg salad drips--but otherwise, I think it's the most fun to just hang out and make your food as you eat it.

egg salad and butter lettuce

Fresh, perfect lettuce is clearly an ideal boat for egg salad, but you can use all kinds of other vegetables as well. Red, orange, or yellow pepper wedges taste great with creamy egg salad; radish or daikon slices provide a spicy contrast, while cucumber slices create a more neutral background; darker greens like chard or collard leaves can create a full, intense, and iron-rich wrap. It's all good.

Eat with a pitcher of iced tea or a bottle of chilled rosé, and a couple bowls of whatever fruit is freshest. Hooray! Summer!

14 June 2012

Summertime and the cooking is practically nonexistent

Well, it hit 90F. We are officially mired in the depths of summer.

What do you guys want to eat when it's hot outside? I tend to do a lot of quick pastas, sandwiches, cold salads, and, of course, ice-laden beverages.

Israeli couscous with chickpeas and Mediterranean vegetables

For starters, I've been eating pot upon pot of Israeli couscous with chickpeas and veg. This is especially great because I don't get sick of it (yet--cross your fingers), so I can make one big batch and eat it for five lunches in a row.

I like it cold out of the fridge, which is clearly optimal for summer. It can also take raw vegetable additions, so I can mix it up a little if I need to forcibly shovel more vegetables into my system, or if I do start to get sick of it at any time. Perfect.

fitzgerald cocktail

Gin is always the top liquor for me in summer, so I mixed up a batch of simple syrup and started making Fitzgerald cocktails. The Fitzgerald is essentially a gin sour with bitters--and lots of bitters, if you share my tastes. If you're on the vodka train instead of the gin train, you could probably achieve excellent results by subbing vodka for the gin. I should try this, but we just aren't vodka people. Besides, I transformed most of my vodka into various schnappses months ago.

Simple syrup

Take equal amounts of sugar and water, put them in a pot, and gently heat, swirling occasionally, until the sugar is all melted. Cool the finished syrup before you make cocktails with it. I tend to use brown or muscovado sugar, because that's how we roll. Store finished syrup in the fridge.

The Fitzgerald cocktail

2 oz gin
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
a few large dashes of bitters

Combine everything in a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake and strain into a short glass. Or, if you're me, don't strain out the ice; just pour everything into a short glass together.

turkey mushrooms and chard on rye

Sandwiches are the easiest meal when it's hot out. They require no cooking, can be stuffed with practically anything your heart desires, and take only a few minutes from idea to completion.

This sandwich is turkey, mushroom, mozzarella, chard, and honey mustard on rye: perfect. Fresh summer apricot on the side is a clear bonus. I had a variation for lunch yesterday: turkey, spinach, shredded carrot salad, and honey mustard wrapped in a slightly warmed tortilla, with several handfuls of grape tomatoes on the side.

I'm definitely going to start going for more wraps--although I think I'll have to find some lavash first. Something like this black lentil and carrot salad would be great stuffed into a wrap. A lentil-yogurt salad would be perfect with the addition of some extra greens. Or maybe an all-veg version with yogurt dressing. The possibilities are clearly endless.

So that's what been happening in my neck of the land of it's-hot-I-don't-wanna-cook. What have you guys been up to in your summer kitchens?

13 June 2012

Iced mint tea for all & sundry

The dried mint experiment is a total success. I stuffed a tin to bursting with dried mint leaves, mostly whole. So far, all I'm using them for is tea. It's wonderful.

iced mint tea

Using whole leaves to brew tea may not be standard practice--but why not? Were hundreds of years' worth of shipments of tea leaves from China and India compressed and crushed in ship holds? Did merchants crush their tea leaves purposely to pack shipping containers more fully, or to conceal any substandard characteristics? Or is there some brewing purpose--do crushed leaves release more flavor than whole?

Whatever the case, I'm more than happy to brew my mint tea with whole leaves.

dried mint leaves

So I make big pitchers of iced tea. I throw a big handful of dried mint leaves into a tea strainer, put it in my squat little pitcher--or, if the pitcher is already full of iced green tea, into a warmed quart jar--and drench it with a teapot's worth of just-boiled water. After steeping, I put it in the refrigerator, lidless and still steaming, to cool down. A couple hours later, I have enough tea to last the afternoon.

Now I just have to keep from drinking gallons of mint tea at a time.

Oh, wait, no, I don't. Mint tea has no caffeine! It's just mint and water! I can drink it late into the night and go to sleep with no problems whatsoever! Ha ha!

iced mint tea

12 June 2012

Peeling ginger with the spoon trick

peeling fresh ginger with a spoon

It has come to my attention that many of you guys are using vegetable peelers or even knives to peel your fresh ginger.

You don't need anything even vaguely sharp to peel ginger easily. All you need is an ordinary spoon.

First, cut a piece of ginger to the size you need.

peeling fresh ginger with a spoon

Then scrape the side of the spoon's bowl down your piece of ginger root, using a moderate amount of pressure. The skin will come right off.

Keep scraping until you've removed all the skin.

peeling fresh ginger with a spoon

Notice how much easier it is to tackle curves and crevices with the spoon's rounded edge than with a straight peeler. And check out the results--unlike vegetable peelers, which strip off gashes of edible ginger along with the skin, spoons only remove the skin itself.

When you're done peeling, you can use a knife to trim off any dried-out broken edges.

peeling fresh ginger with a spoon

Voila--perfectly peeled ginger!

Now make your ginger cake or delicious curry in good health and good conscience.

08 June 2012

Massive freezer burrito stash!

bean and cheese burritos

Ideally, we'd make and eat a delicious, healthy, quick, easy, and mood-targeted dinner every single night. However, sometimes you just need to eat but don't have the time/energy/desire to make the effort to cook. Why else does the frozen entree industry exist?

So. To circumvent the impulse to buy packages of frozen burritos--one of our favorite ridiculous convenience foods--I decided to make my own.

The first step was making a gigantic batch of refried beans. I soaked a whole bunch of pinto beans overnight, drained and rinsed them, and boiled them until tender with a couple of bay leaves and twice their depth of water in my biggest pot. This gave me not just a whole lot of perfectly soft and tender pinto beans, but also five--count them, five--containers of pinto bean broth to pop in the freezer for future soup enrichment. That's ten cups of broth! Hooray!

To make the refried beans, I warmed some olive oil in a big pot and added an onion, a handful of garlic cloves, half a serrano, a whole jalapeño, and a couple of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, all of which were chopped. I seasoned everything with cumin, oregano, salt, and more chipotle in the form of powder. When all the vegetables were softened and super-fragrant, I added ALL THE BEANS IN THE WORLD and their remaining broth. I mixed it all together and let it cook for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, to give the beans a chance to absorb some more flavor. To get the beans to ultimate smoothness, I took the pot off the heat, let it cool slightly, and pureed with an immersion blender.

bean and cheese burritos

Voila! A massive pan of refried beans!

To set up my burrito-making station, I cooked some brown rice in the rice cooker. I cut up some green onions. I sliced up some cheese. I found a bottle of hot sauce. I took the beans and tortillas out of the fridge to warm up enough to use. Then it was just a matter of starting the assembly line.

Lay out tortillas. Add beans, rice, onions, cheese, and a little dribble of hot sauce. Fold. Repeat.

bean and cheese burritos

I ended up with a massive batch of eighteen bean, cheese, and rice burritos. Hooray!

To freeze, lay your finished burritos on a cookie sheet, seam side down (so they won't unroll). Stick the entire sheet in the freezer for maybe half a day, or until everything is frozen. Then remove the pan, stick your brozen burritos in a resealable bag or other container, and stick them back in the freezer. You could also wrap them each in foil if you're planning to take them to work for lunch. This process ensures that your burritos won't freeze together, so you can actually get out one at a time without having to defrost the entire bag.

bean and cheese burritos

To heat frozen burritos, we bake them in the oven or toaster oven at 350F/175C for twenty minutes, or until hot through and beginning to brown. You can use the microwave if you have one. Since microwave power can vary, I'd start with one minute and heat for longer as needed.

These are obviously pretty standard burritos, but the method would work for practically any filling you want to try. I'd shy away from more liquid ingredients--raw chopped tomatoes come to mind--but otherwise, the sky's the limit. I think a black bean, sweet potato, corn, and kale burrito may be next on the list, or maybe a black bean, rice, garlic-seared summer squash, cotija, and cilantro burrito. I may even test out freezing a refried bean and sour cream burrito, for an ultimate sleepytime feast on nights when I want to do nothing whatsoever.


06 June 2012

Sole meunière & green bean almondine

Sole meunière & green bean almondine

At the grocery store this weekend, the fish case beckoned. It especially beckoned when we realized that sole was on sale for $3.99/lb. Oh, really?

So John made me a feast this Sunday afternoon. Classical French food for brunch! Butter for all!

This type of brunch combination is by far my favorite. Perfectly cooked fish or eggs with an equal or greater amount of beautifully contrasting green vegetables? Yes, please.

Sole meunière

olive oil
sole filet
salt, pepper
lemon wedges

Since fish cooks quickly, get all your ingredients ready before you start cooking.

Prep your sole by patting it dry, salting and peppering each side, and coating it in a thin layer of flour, knocking off any excess. Finely chop a shallot and a handful of parsley (or two of each, if you're making green beans as well). Have your butter out and a knife ready to cut it. That's about all the prep you need to do, actually. Simple.

Sole meunière

Heat a frying pan of your choice on medium to medium-high. When hot, add a bit of olive oil, swirl it around to coat, and lay in your piece of fish. Let it cook without moving for about three to four minutes, or until golden brown and beginning to curl around the edges. Carefully flip your filet with an adequately large spatula, and cook the other side for another three to four minutes.

Put the finished sole filet on a warmed plate and stick it in a low oven to keep warm. Put your fish pan back on the heat and add a generous pat of butter. As soon as it melts, tip in your shallots and stir to mix. Since your pan will be hot, the butter will begin to turn brown and the shallot will cook almost immediately. Don't let the butter burn! You want a medium hazelnut color, aka beurre noisette. Cook for a scant minute before you pull the pan off the heat. Immediately squeeze in some lemon juice--its cooler temperature will stop the butter's cooking--and mix in the parsley.

Pull your plate of sole out of the oven, pour the sauce over it, and serve with your finished beans and a lemon wedge.

Sole meunière & green bean almondine

Green bean almondine

green beans
lemon wedge
salt; pepper

Start by trimming and blanching as many green beans as you want to eat. Simply drop your beans into a pot of boiling water and simmer for 3-5 minutes, or until the beans are cooked through but still tender. Shock the finished beans in cold water, drain them, and set them aside.

In the meantime, chop up a handful of almonds. Don't worry too much about making all the pieces uniform; irregular bits are more interesting to eat anyway. Toast the almonds in a little pan over medium heat, watching closely and stirring occasionally. When they begin to get fragrant and turn just barely golden, take them off the heat and set them aside.

If you haven't already done it with the fish prep, finely chop a shallot and cut up a handful of fresh parsley.

Now we're ready for the final stage of cooking. You'll want to start this at just about the same time you put your fish on to cook.

Put a frying pan of your choice on medium heat. We used the pan in which we toasted the almonds. Melt a chunk of butter and slowly sauté the chopped shallot in it. After about two minutes, during which the shallot will start to sweat and turn translucent, add the green beans and almonds, and squeeze the juice of your lemon wedge into the pan. Season lightly with salt and pepper, stir everything together, and let cook, turning the heat down a touch if necessary, for about five minutes.

When your beans (and fish) are done, turn off the heat and stir in the chopped parsley. Correct any seasonings and serve.

05 June 2012

Garden update: trapping pillbugs for fun & profit

I bet you guys are wondering what's going on in my garden, huh? Well.

This year's garden has actually been a source of constant frustration. I started all kinds of vegetables in my homemade pots--and 3/4 of them died, mostly from one four-hour episode in which I moved them out into the sun--wet--and they fried before I came back. The only survivors were the super hot-weather plants: tomatoes and bell peppers. In the meantime, something was eating the vast majority of plants I put in the actual garden, and I couldn't figure out whether it was bugs or the neighborhood cats or what. Four or five bean plants died, leaving only three viable. Three out of four potato plants withered to nothing. The only things actually growing were green onions and garlic. Then one exciting day I came home to discover a team from PG&E trimming branches from the yard behind our house--and dropping the resulting half a tree right on top of a good third of said green onions. That was pretty awesome.

But the biggest problem is definitely these guys.

pillbug sowbug roly-poly wood louse

Pillbugs--also known as sowbugs, roly-polys, wood lice, or the colloquial "those fuckers"--have been eating all my seedlings. Pillbugs mostly eat decaying or dead plants, including wood. This makes sense; there are certainly several in our compost pile. However, they also eat tiny delicate baby seedlings. They ate the new potato vines, and cut off the bean stems just below the soil. They ate the tiny baby sprouts of tomato and bell peppers. They mowed down a full three-inch jalapeño seedling I got from the farmer's market--it was completely gone overnight.

So I had to start catching them. Instead of relying on additives like diatomaceous earth--which I'd wash away while watering the plants anyway--I read around until I discovered a deceptively simple trap: the tube of damp paper.

To trap pillbugs, roll up a piece of newspaper and get it damp under the tap. Stick the roll in your garden overnight. Early in the morning, before the sun has a chance to dry things out, go out to the garden and peek inside the tube. Behold! Pillbugs galore! Now you can just pick up your tube and remove the pillbugs from your garden entirely.

We didn't have any newspaper at home, so I used a couple toilet paper tubes. These worked as long as they stayed intact, but they didn't stay intact for long--the dampness totally released the glue. Actual paper would be better.

This method worked admirably, especially when it was particularly damp, dank, and grey outside. My best attempt caught about fifty pillbugs at once. Needless to say, I didn't stop to take pictures of the ravening hordes; I just chucked them far away as swiftly as possible.

I don't have any illusions that I'm going to be able to catch the entire pillbug population, though. So, to ensure that I actually get a decent vegetable harvest, I'm also trying to grow my seedlings big enough that a little gnawing won't kill them before I put them in the ground. Right now I have another tomato plant and jalapeño pepper in medium-sized pots on the back step. I think the tomato is pretty close to ground-ready, actually. So I'll probably put it in the bed next week or so--and then we'll see who's boss for real.

01 June 2012

Carrot-pinto soup with herbed couscous

carrot-pinto soup with herbed couscous

On Yarntaculon VII, planet of fiber arts, an individual's supply of yarn (or other raw materials) is called their "stash." Why? Well, knitters and crocheters don't necessarily buy yarn because they want to use it immediately. Sometimes they buy yarn because it's soft, pretty, on sale, rare, their favorite color, or available at some large event they're attending. Then they take the yarn home and stash it away for use at some indefinite point in the future. It may be months or years before they actually make something with stash yarn. In the meantime, the stash provides a ready supply of raw materials for them to pick from when they want to make a sweater, scarf, or hat.

I knit, so I have a yarn stash. Of course, I also cook all the time, so I also have an ingredient stash. Granted, the turnover is much higher with food than with yarn, considering spoilage, shelf stability, and the need to eat three meals a day. Still, the concept remains the same. I choose appropriate materials from my stash and use them to make delicious food.

So last night I took advantage of my glorious kitchen stash to make an excellent and easy dinner.

In the cabinets, I found onion, olive oil, and dry vermouth. In the fridge, I found carrots, celery, and parsley. In the freezer, I found pinto beans in broth, my stockpile of broth veg, and a container of couscous. About 45 minutes later, I had a finished pot of carrot and pinto bean soup, and a bowl of herbed couscous. Not bad!

Carrot soup is definitely one of my favorites, as you may have noticed. I make carrot soup with beans, greens, potatoes, grains, or just carrots, and flavor it with fresh dill, cumin, ginger, cilantro, hot chili paste, or--hey, I haven't done a carrot-miso! I need to get on that one. Carrot-miso with seared tofu cubes and maybe some sesame cabbage or soba noodles--yes please.

This particular carrot soup was filling, smoky, and a touch spicy: a good all-round version.

carrot-pinto soup with herbed couscous

Carrot-pinto soup

olive oil
dry vermouth
pinto beans (or other beans of your choice)
veg broth
paprika, smoked paprika, marjoram, oregano, cumin
salt, pepper
couscous & sambal oelek for garnish

If you need to make vegetable broth, start there. Just simmer several handfuls of vegetable scraps of your choice in water for about 15 minutes. Simple.

In a large soup pot, soften a chopped onion and a minced jalapeño pepper in a slug of olive oil. You can leave out the jalapeño or remove its seeds if you aren't into spice.

Wash and dice a couple ribs of celery and add them to the pot. Scrub and similarly dice a handful of carrots and add them as well. I used six carrots, but the amount you need will depend on size. Season to taste with paprika, smoked paprika, marjoram, oregano, cumin, salt, and pepper. Then stir everything together and sweat over medium heat for about five minutes. Deglaze the pot as needed with a slug of dry vermouth or a couple spoonfuls of broth.

When your vegetables are tender, it's time to add beans and broth. I was using a block of pinto beans frozen in their cooking liquid--maybe a cup of beans and another cup of broth--so I just stuck the entire thing into the soup pot. If you're using canned beans, drain their liquid before you add them. Pour in a few cups of vegetable broth--mine was freshly boiled, so I poured it over my frozen bean block to melt it a little faster--and bring the entire business to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about ten minutes, or until everything is cooked to your liking.

Next, take the pot off the heat, let it cool for a minute, and puree it with an immersion blender. Or don't puree it if that's how you roll. It's all good.

If your soup is too thin, put it back on the heat and simmer it down until it reaches your desired texture. If it's too thick, add more broth and heat to warm. When you reach a good texture, taste your soup and correct any seasonings; cook for 2-3 minutes more to eliminate any raw spice issues.

When everything meets your satisfaction, you are done. Hooray! Serve it up.

carrot-pinto soup with herbed couscous

This soup is good by itself, but I think it's much more interesting with the addition of couscous.

Ordinary couscous is kind of a surprise to see around here, considering how frequently I've bypassed it in favor of the Israeli variety. I actually love both kinds of couscous. I used to bring dry instant couscous and chopped or shredded raw veggies to work for summer lunch. I'd make the couscous with boiling water from the instant tap in our cooler, add salt, pepper, and butter, let it all steam for five minutes, and eat it with the veg. It was one of the best lunches ever: filling, cheap, easy, tasty, and--most importantly--freshly made.

Herbed couscous

boiling water or veg broth
instant couscous
olive oil/butter
fresh parsley & chives
salt, pepper

The proportion of liquid to couscous varies by recipe. I use about a 3:2 ratio: 3 parts liquid to 2 parts dry couscous. Of course, since I don't measure--I can always add more couscous or liquid, right?--I usually just add liquid to come about 1/4 inch above the couscous. This time, I made about a cup of dry couscous, which meant I used roughly 1.5 cups of broth.

First, put your cooking liquid on to boil. I used vegetable broth because I had some left over from making the soup. While your liquid is coming up to a boil, prepare your other ingredients. Measure out your couscous and chop up a handful of parsley and chives. Also, if you're going to use a pyrex bowl to make your couscous, warm it with tap water. You don't want boiling liquid hitting cold glass, ok?

When your liquid has boiled, take it off the heat and let it cool slightly. Put your couscous, a couple teaspoons of olive oil or a pat of butter, and some salt and pepper in a large bowl. Pour your liquid--which should be hot, but not actively boiling anymore--over the couscous.

Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and let it sit and steam for about ten minutes. Then take off the towel, add your chopped herbs, and mix, fluffing the finished couscous with a fork.

Add a generous spoonful of couscous to each bowl of soup. If you like spice, add some sambal oelek or other hot pepper business of your choice. If not, you may want to add some more parsley or chives. A spoonful of plain yogurt is good too.

Hooray! 100% kitchen-sourced dinner!