Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Weekend Barbeque

I am not an over-achiever. I was a solid B student for most of my academic career, excelling in what I liked and not excelling, but not doing poorly, in what I didn't like. My house is fairly neat and tidy, but tables do tend to get a bit cluttered with mail and purses and keys and recipe printouts and such. I am a pretty good sambista (samba dancer) if I do say so myself, but don't practice routines much outside of class, but rather when the mood strikes (and the neighbors aren't looking). I have been known to peruse the blogosphere with a cup of coffee before starting my workday.

But then there is cooking. And the more experience I gain, the more recipes I master, the more ingredients I experiment with, the more I want to achieve in my kitchen. Even over-achieve, if you will. Friday afternoon at work everyone chats about weekend plans. Most people say they are going to relax, see a movie, perhaps go for a hike. I am usually readily prepared with an exhaustive list of things I plan to cook over the weekend. Most people knit their brows in concern wondering why I might choose to do such a thing. "It's ok," I say, "I'm an over-achiever in the kitchen. I love to cook." They unknit their brows a bit and nod their heads.

So when my boyfriend threw a bbq over the weekend for a dear friend of his who is in town, naturally I volunteered to cook. A LOT. I love a good summer bbq, and getting together to share a meal with friends, and I love to feed people. Cooking for a crowd also gives me a reason to cook all the outlandish sweets that I crave without actually having to eat them all. Usually when I want a cookie, I really want to bake the cookies, then have one, maybe two, and then I want them to go away. Roommates and boyfriends can only eat so many cookies, too.

Oh, where to start? These cookies have been all over the interwebs since the story came out in the NY Times a few weeks ago (blogged here, here, and here). I thought if they were good enough for the NY Times and all food bloggers that I like, they were probably good enough for me. A few weeks back I went to another bbq and had just a taste of an amazing layered birthday cake. It was a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting and I had been thinking about the frosting for a good few weeks by now. But cupcakes are fun and easy to transport so I decided on Pioneer Woman's Chocolate Sheet Cake, subbing in a peanut butter frosting. There was a frozen chicken that had been hanging out in the freezer for some time now, so I decided to take him out and brine him so that he would stay juicy on the grill (I don't know why this chicken is a "he" chicken in my mind, but please go with it). Lastly, since I was two years behind the phenomenon, I figured it was time to give that No-Knead bread a try (blogged here and here). With my shiny, new red dutch oven I finally had all the necessary equipment. Whew. Lets get started, hmmm?

I looked a few brine recipes online and settled on one that was originally based on one by Alice Waters. It called for juniper berries and cloves, but I didn't really like that so I used fresh thyme and lemon instead. I had brined a chicken before but didn't remember there being sugar in that brine, but apparently it's in all brine recipes. Hmmmm. I mixed up my salt (1 cup kosher), sugar (scant 1 cup), and aromatics (thyme, peeled garlic) in cold water and soaked the chicken for about 24 hours.

Next I mixed up my cookie dough following Orangette's version of the recipe. The original recipe called for a mixture of flours and chocolate feves, but most other people who tried the recipe used plain old all purpose flour and good quality chocolate chips so I did, too. The key with this recipe is to let the dough rest for 24-36 hours to develop the flavors. I let mine rest for 24 hours and not the full 36 because I'm a busy lady with a day job, etc.

The brining and the cookie dough mixing I did Friday night (exciting, I know) and the rest I did Saturday afternoon, post samba class.

Pioneer Woman's Chocolate Sheet Cake was pretty easy and fun to make. I didn't make any substitutions or subtractions with the cake batter because this recipe is simple and straightforward already. Didn't even have to adjust the cooking time. This batter made about a tray and a half of cupcakes, but I think I could have stretched it further by not filling the cake cups so much.

The peanut butter frosting was pretty good, although not quite the frosting I had been daydreaming of. I used random internet recipe that I can't remember now. I always balk at the amount of sugar called for in recipes and try to skimp. Then I taste it and think, they were right, it does need more sugar. So my frosting could have been just a tad sweeter. And I forgot to take a picture of a frosted cupcake. Damn.

And then there is the bread. Oh, this bread. All the hype you may (or may not) have heard about this bread is so true. And then some. It pains me to admit that I am not very good at making bread. I've been making it for a few years now, not religiously, just spurts here and there of all homemade bread. My loaves are always dense. Brick like. They taste good, but I cannot for the life of me figure out now much or how little to knead. This bread solved all of my bread problems, and I'm sure some other problems, too.

I mixed up the dough on Friday night and let it rise for about 16 hours. This is the dough right before it's second (two hour) rise. There are bubbles on the surface that you can't see in the photo. I folded it over twice, let it rest for 15 mintues, then let it rise for two more hours. It is dusted with wheat bran (next time I plan to use flour) and plopped into a preheated (to 450 degrees) cast iron pot with a lid. It bakes and steams, creating a chewy interior with an airy crumb and a crisp, bakery quality crust.

This is what mine looked like out of the oven. It would have looked like the perfect artisan loaf had it not been bean-shaped. But you try sticking your hands into a 450 degree cast iron pot to straighten the dough out. Ouch. Sorry about the crappy, blurry photo. I am not a great photographer.

So, what became of all these goodies? Mostly they were eaten by hungry boys and a few hungry girls. Did everyone appreciate the subtle nuances of the rested cookie dough? Uh, maybe. Mostly they just ate and said yum. The chicken was horribly butchered (by me, sadly, a few beers in) but the meat stayed juicy on the grill and everyone seemed to like it. Half the cupcakes went quickly and the other half were eaten for breakfast the next day. (Coffee + cupcakes for breakfast do not a happy tummy make).

And what became of the bread? I did not take that to be devoured by hungry, non food snob boys. Instead I saved it and made this with it...

... and brought it to a birthday brunch the next day. Not going to share the recipe today for this savory bread and cheese bake but I will share it soon.

So that was my big weekend. It was a lovely way to spend two days, cooking and feeding people. And all of the dishes worked well, I would make each one again. So.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Summer Cravings

After four days of day dreaming about this meal, I gave in and had it for dinner last night. I've been waiting patiently until the heirloom tomatoes were colorful, striped, and bumpy enough to eat. It's still a bit early here for them but a few are showing up in the markets. This particular tomato was a lovely shade of red with some hints of purple. I don't remember what variety (bad food blogger!). I tore up a good sized chunk of fresh mozzarella and scattered some shredded basil over the plate. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt and I had a light and delicious summer dinner. I skipped the balsamic vinegar because in truth, I don't like it much.

Oh, and don't forget the rose...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Update: The Kitchen Garden

Alternate (and appropriate) titles of this post:
  • The Chard Stands Alone
  • Death and Destruction

  • And then there were none
Yeah, the kitchen garden didn't really pan out, sadly. I lovingly watered my little seedlings and they grew indoors for a few weeks, then I transplanted everything outside. The beet sprouts didn't really take once they were outside and died. I pulled them out, then planted seeds directly in the outdoor planters and they seemed to like that much better. The radishes thrived and grew big leaves right away. The chives didn't like sharing a container with the parsley for some reason. The parsley didn't grow much at first but then started to steadily grow after a few weeks outside. The rainbow chard seedlings went into a large container on my front porch, which gets less sun. I have read multiple times that chard is really hardy so I stuck it in a place with less sun. I planted some lettuce from seed directly into pots and that did amazingly well. It sprouted within a few days and was almost ready to eat.

And then...

I went away for six days. And it turns out that those six days were the most horrible, brutal, hottest we've had all summer. I didn't check the weather report before I left and figured that since it had been raining some at night, my plants would be fine without me. Halfway through my trip I thought better of that and left my roommate a message asking him to please give my plants some water. Well, he knew there was a big planter of something out front, but missed the pots of lettuce, herbs, beets, and radishes outside of the back door. The back door that he uses at least twice a day. Yeah.

When I got home to sweltering PDX heat late on a Sunday night, I was greeted with the carnage. All my plants (except the parsley, strangely) had withered and died. They were limp and brown and sad, hanging over the side of their pots. I cried.

It was own fault really, for not thinking this out ahead of time. A smart gardener would have asked her female neighbor to look after her plants, or given her male roommate step by step instructions on exactly which plants to water and when. A smart gardener would not have left her little baby plants alone, parched, in the blazing heat for six days. A smart gardener I am not.

Most of these plants (except the herbs) are plants that do not like the hot weather. Beets and radishes and lettuces do much better in the late spring/early summer or in the fall when the weather is mild. So starting over mid June to harvest bitter veggies in July or August didn't really make sense. I guess I'll see how the chard fairs and try again next year.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Banana Bread

In my junior year of college I took my one and only creative writing class. It was one of the best classes I took. The teacher was wonderful, creating a comfortable atmosphere for sharing and critiquing work, and I produced some writing that I was really proud of and got to read some wonderful stuff by my classmates. The classmates were another thing I loved about the experience and I felt like we all connected as a whole. My favorite classmate was someone named Sabrina. She had wild and curly blond hair and lots of green clothing. We often partnered up to trade writing and ended up becoming friends. My masterpiece story was about a young woman who falls in love with her toaster oven, which Sabrina loved because, like me, she loved food. The first time we got together outside of class we cooked. She made me her special roasted vegetables and we baked this delicious banana bread that has been my ultimate go to banana bread recipe for four years now.

The original recipe was from a Cooking Light cookbook, I think. I have stuck pretty closely to the original recipe, but pared it down some. I don't always want nuts and chocolate swirls in my banana bread. With banana bread I think the simpler, the better. This banana bread is dense and flavorful without being as heavy and cake-like as most quick bread recipes. Yogurt replaces some of the butter and it doesn't call for any oil (I hate using vegetable oil in recipes). It is a bit heavy on the sugar, but could be much worse. I always use whole wheat pastry flour to make this a whole grain bread, with great end results.

Now, I know it sounds fairly crazy asking you to turn on the oven in this heat. But it's worth it, I promise. I've eaten this loaf mostly for breakfast, toasted, with a bit of butter or homemade apricot jam. And I think that it's cool enough at 7:15am to justify eating a slice of warm, buttery bread for breakfast.

For this go round, I was actually (shockingly, momentarily) out of my beloved whole wheat pastry flour. But I didn't want to go to the store, so I subbed in a combo of amaranth, all purpose, and mesquite flour. It was fine, but I much prefer the whole wheat version. The mesquite flour was overpowering and there wasn't enough banana flavor shining through. Plus, it darkened the bread considerably, making for a less gorgeous bread photo. Don't be like me--use whole wheat pastry flour.

Banana Bread
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
3 overripe bananas, mashed
2 eggs
1/3 cup plain yogurt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a bread pan.

Combine flour, salt, and soda in one bowl; set aside. Cream butter and sugar, then add banana, eggs, and yogurt, and mix well. Add dry mixture to wet mixture. At this point you can add any nuts or spices that you like.

Bake for an hour and fifteen minutes or so, until a knife inserted in the center comes out mostly clean.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Heidi Swanson's Sushi Bowl

I have spent days mentally preparing a lovely post about my Dad and M's wedding and all the lovely things we did and ate, with pictures to accompany. Unfortunately, the computer gods are conspiring against me, and the disc I have of wedding photos is not jiving with my computer. My computer will show me the photos, but will not let me copy them. Hmmmm. As soon as I figure a way around this I will put up some wedding photos.

Wedding Week was hectic and fun, and food filled; family dinners and party after party. It was wonderful to catch up with family and friends over food and wine. There was a lot of catching up, and there was A LOT of food and wine. I left one party early because I was falling asleep at the table from being exhausted and absolutely stuffed. Classy.

When I got back to Portland I was craving simple, light, summery, vegetarian food. So I whipped myself up this lovely sushi bowl for dinner. I didn't have all of the ingredients the recipe called for on hand, but I did have a fridge full of vegetables and decided to just sub in what I had rather than go to the store. The meal was vibrant and refreshing and didn't leave me feeling weighed down.

A few notes: I doused everything in the citrus-soy dressing, even though the recipe only says to put it on the rice. I wish I had followed directions because it made everything taste like the dressing and it would have been nice to have the contrast of flavors. I also would have put a tad more (1/2 tbsp.) soy sauce into the dressing. I sauteed up some rainbow chard with a pinch of salt and put that in the bowl, as well as some raw zucchini cut into matchsticks, and some scallions. I also halved the rice portion of the recipe because it calls for an insane amount of rice.

Sushi Bowl
Adapted from Heidi Swanson's Sushi Bowl with Toasted Nori, Avocado, and Brown Rice, from Super Natural Cooking

1 cup short grain brown rice
1 3/4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

Rinse and drain rice. Combine rice, water, and salt over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until rice is tender, 45-60 minutes. Set aside.

zest and juice of one orange
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar

Combine orange juice, lemon juice, and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Cook for a few minutes, then add soy and vinegar. Return to a gentle boil and cook until slightly thickened, another few minutes. Remove from heat and stir in zests.

Slice tofu (as much as you want) into 1/4 inch thick slabs. Pat dry. Heat a nonstick pan on medium high heat until fairly hot (sprinkle a little water and there and see if it sizzles). When pan is hot, cook tofu until slightly browned, a few minutes per side. Remove from heat and slice into thin strips.

Pour citrus dressing over rice to taste (start conservatively and taste as you go). Add tofu and whatever veggies, cooked or raw, you like to your bowl. Eat.