Friday, March 30, 2007

Super Natural Cooking: A Book Review

For seven years now, I've said that if I were on a deserted island with only one cookbook (and a fully equipped kitchen), I couldn't live without The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. This is such a delicious, basic collection of recipes, many of which are flexible enough to be made ahead and impressive enough to serve to guests. The other day Max the postman brought Super Natural Cooking, however, and I fear it's going to give Ina Garten a run for her money.

Super Natural Cooking is the latest offering from photographer and blogger Heidi Swanson, founder of two of my favorite food sites: and 101 Cookbooks was started when Heidi realized she had a million -- or at least 101 -- cookbooks and did more flagging of pages and looking at photos than actually cooking from them. In an attempt to use the books and learn new cooking skills and gain new confidence, she began cooking through her massive collection, "One recipe at a time," and chronicling her culinary adventures. She also does a lot of recipe writing of her own.

I'd made a couple of Heidi's recipes, like the Ravioli Pasta Salad posted on her blog; this salad is typical of her recipes -- pasta punctuating rather than overpowering a salad. I packed it for lunch four days in a row and never tired of it. So you can imagine that once I'd ordered Super Natural Cooking, I immediately started stalking the mail. This past Wednesday I had a one-day trip to New York that began with me leaving the house at 4:00 a.m. and returning near midnight. When I arrived home, the package from Amazon was waiting for me, and even though I was beat, I couldn't stand not to do a little thumbing, marking, and mental planning before hitting the hay. The book is beautiful and inspiring.

Let's be honest. You know how sometimes you can walk into a hard-core natural foods store and the whole thing smells like old curry, the bottles of medicinal herbs are covered in a layer of dust, and the books all sport curled paperback covers and amateurish designs that look like they were laid out in 1982? Not so enticing. Super Natural Cooking is the polar opposite: It makes cooking with whole and natural ingredients look luscious, enticing, and achievable. The photography is absolutely breathtaking -- food porn at its best -- and the recipes are vegetarian and whole-food based but don't look so prescribed and, well, good for you. They just look good.

This morning the boys slept in and I made Heidi's Wheat Berry Salad with Citrus, Toasted Pine Nuts, Feta, and Spinach. Rather than spend an hour cooking down the wheat berries, I put them in the pressure cooker for about 25 minutes. The rest of the salad -- including a delicious dressing of shallots, extra-virgin olive oil, and citrus juice and zest -- came together in about five minutes. I took this in my lunch today and ended up eating while finishing a conference call because I couldn't any longer hold off diving in.

I have at least half a dozen other recipes flagged: Espresso Banana Muffins (can you imagine?), Otsu (soba noodles in ginger-sesame dressing), Gnocchi alla Romana, Black Tea Spring Rolls, Hijiki and Edamame Salad, Thin Mint Cookies...

If you've been wanting to try natural ingredients but feel intimidated, check out this book. The recipes are quick, easy, and delicious, and the text explains what each ingredient is and how to use it without blathering on or condescending.

Watch your back, Barefoot Contessa.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sourpuss Part II

Teresa popped by my office yesterday bearing a foil-wrapped gift: a gorgeous round loaf of Irish Soda Bread she'd whipped up, complete with golden raisins, caraway seeds, and a Luck of the Irish sticker. I spent the rest of the day secretly ripping off chewy, sweet hunks of the bread, taking home a sort of misshapen disk that was now about 2/3 its original size. I don't believe I've ever had soda bread before -- I was mixing it up in my head with Irish brown bread -- and it was unbelievable. (For Amy's Grandma's recipe for soda bread -- or is it? -- check out the comments here.)
This coincided nicely with my adventures in sourdough, in which I'm now in a pattern of making bread on Saturday night/Sunday morning, and have decided that our family is through with storebought bread. I had it in my head that making bread at home is very complicated and time-consuming and requires gobs of flour stuck to the sweat oozing down my face. Not so. Granted, I do use a stand mixer, so it's not exactly a Laura Ingalls experience in our house. But even so, it feels a bit rustic and back-to-the-Earth and natural. And it requires about 15 minutes of time, tops, to bake for the week. What is it about breadmaking that feels so intimidating?
The pattern goes like this: Saturday evening I mix up a batch of bread and let it rise overnight. Sunday morning I punch it down, divide it into two pieces, shape it into loaves, stick those loaves in loaf pans, and let the bread rise for another four or so hours. Then the loaves go into the oven, and we have fresh bread for dinner and homemade bread for the week. And it's just so simple and gratifying. Why is breadmaking a dying art? It makes me think maybe things like cheesemaking or sausage-preparing aren't really so hard.
If you're feeling like trying sourdough bread, after you get the starter going, here's a really basic recipe to try:

Sourdough Bread -- Enough for two loaves
1 Tbsp. salt
1 cup water
2 cups sourdough starter
2 cups whole-wheat flour
3 to 3-1/2 cups white flour
Dissolve the salt in the water. Now mix in the sourdough starter. Beat in the two kinds of flour until it all makes a lovely, unsticky wad; you might need all the flour, a little less, a little more. Just add it until the dough feels like Playdough. Even with using a stand mixer with a dough hook, I end up kneading the bread for a minute or so to get the dough to come together nicely.
In a clean bowl, add a tiny bit of oil and rub it around the bowl (I use olive oil), stick the wad of dough in, flip it over so that the oil gets on both sides, and cover the bowl with a damp towel. Let this rise overnight; it'll double -- or triple -- in size.
In the morning after you've had a little coffee and maybe after the Sunday morning talking heads have gotten up your ire, punch down the dough. Divide the dough into two, and flatten each piece slightly, then roll those pieces jelly-roll style, tuck the ends under, and put each loaf into a loaf pan. Let the dough rise for four more hours, covered in another damp towel.
Bake the loaves at 400 degrees for about 40-45 minutes: Until they're nicely browned on top and they sound hollow when you rap on them. To keep them sort of moist and to brown the tops evenly, you can put a pan (like a pie plate) of water in the oven with the bread. This will keep everything nice and hydrated.
(To "feed" the starter after using 2 cups, add back 1-1/2 cups white flour and 1-1/2 cups water. If you cut the recipe in half, just cut the starter food in half. But you probably knew that.)
I think part of the magic of making this bread is that it incorporates whole-wheat flour my sister-in-law has ground. There's something extra-rustic about making bread from flour that's been hand-ground. Who knows? Maybe this summer I'll try growing my own wheat. On our homestead.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Culinary Heebie-Jeebies

Yesterday at school M's class learned about St. Patrick's Day, complete with a snack of Lucky Charms topped with green milk (not moldy milk, just milk and green food coloring). In fact, he loved the cereal so much, he convinced me to make up some green milk and let him and T have cereal for dinner. So much for the homemade pizza I'd baked with pre-made sourdough pizza crusts.
Later I made him some green frosting to spread on graham crackers. He stared in disbelief. How in the world had I just *whipped up* frosting? Had I *added* frosting to the bowl, he asked, sure it was an ingredient; perhaps that frosting farmers in Mexico harvested the frosting crops every summer. I realized that for the most part I've only used frosting from a can; it's what he knows. It seemed to him insurmountable to get it any other way.
Which got me thinking about the culinary mountains I've never climbed, partially because I'm scared I'll be such a miserable failure. I think back to when I first learned to drive a stick shift. We were in Brooklyn, trying to navigate the start/stop traffic. I didn't understand how manual cars work, and was sure the car would accelerate itself and I'd go careening through someone's brownstone. I even had to stop for a quick tearful breath-catch, causing a cop to stop by our car to ensure that there was no domestic strife. These days, even with all that drama, I prefer to drive a stick. I'm hoping in a few months I'll be able to say the same about the things that intimidate me in the kitchen.
So this year I'm going to face my cooking fears head-on, including:
  • Pie crust. Why is it that I watch Amy whipping one up and feel it's no big deal, I've got this licked. But on my own I can't seem to get the balance right and will flirt with the Poppin' Fresh Doughboy rather than try to tackle this. No more.

  • Maki rolls. Back in New York on a shopping excursion with a friend to Kan Man Foods, I bought all the sushi tools one Friday night: rolling mats and a knife and even little sake cups. And they've all sat for six years. The boys recently disassembled one of the sushi mats and made swords from the bamboo sticks -- that's the extent of the action the sushi mats have seen. I love the idea of talking with dinner guests while I expertly roll up and cut perfect maki, but ultimately I get intimidated by what seems like it could be sticky and lumpy and prone to disaster. But mark my words, this year I'm making my own maki rolls.

  • Lasagne. You read it right: I've never made a lasagna. I've never even purchased lasagne noodles with the intention of making lasagna. This isn't so much total fear of failure, but just never having done it. Everyone I know makes lasagna; why haven't I? I don't know. But I'm going to. I have my eye on this recipe from Adrienne of Hello Yarn.
Are there any culinary mountains you're looking to climb to climb this year? If you're intimidated by making green milk, M's got a surefire recipe you can try...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Adventures in Procrastination

What I'm supposed to be doing: Our taxes.

What I'm doing instead: Eating almost-too-hot-to-consume bread pudding straight from the oven. It's burning my mouth, but I can't stop eating it. It's delicious.

My first venture into sourdough baking was a double batch of bread. We're a family of four, with two of us being under six and one of us still trying to lose the three pounds she gained over the holidays. As you can imagine, that was too much bread. So tonight during bath time, half a hard leftover loaf was made into bread pudding.

I never ate bread pudding growing up -- it wasn't part of my mom's repertoire, and it seemed one of those adult-type creations that was not only weird but tremendously unappetizing. Akin to your stewed prunes. But in the last few years I've grown a real appreciation for not only the efficiency and flexibility of bread pudding, but the taste.

Proportions between recipes differ, but it basically goes something like this:

Bread Pudding

6 beaten eggs
3 cups milk
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. or so cinnamon, and other spices if you like them
2 tsp. or so vanilla
4 cups 3/4-inch cubes of day-old bread
1 cup or so of raisins, dried cranberries, dried blueberries, or anything else you like -- if you're so inclined (I'm a purist who isn't so inclined)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Whisk the eggs, milk, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla in a big bowl. Stir in the bread cubes and make sure all the cubes get coated in the egg mixture. Stir in the raisins, if you're using them. Pour this into a 9X9 pan, or a deep dish pie pan, or whatever else will hold it comfortably. Bake the pudding for about an hour -- until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean and the whole thing has puffed into a glorious mini-dome. Go cut yourself a slab before it's even had time to cool, and put off doing your taxes for another night.


A Softer Side of EFD

If you're in Indy and free tomorrow (March 15) at 6:00, swing by Luna Music to hear Eisenhower Field Day's first acoustic set -- with strings, even. I'll be there with the boys, who are going to be cheering on their drumming Dad. If T isn't feeling shy, there will probably be some dancing.

I haven't seen the playlist, but I have my fingers crossed that they'll play "National Sunday Law."


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cooking to the Beat

This morning, after dealing with a clogged and overflowing toilet at 6:30 a.m., I set to work making a couple meals from 2-1/2 pounds of ground beef I'd just bought. Nearly two pounds went into Cincinnati Chili, a recipe I use verbatim from The Joy of Cooking, and the rest went into a pressure-cooker Bolognese sauce my friend David made up.

As I was smashing a dozen garlic cloves, crying over four onions, and listening to the sizzle of three different pans/appliances, I craved some background music but couldn't think of anything I wanted to stop to put on the stereo. So I'm going to make a Cooking mix playlist/CD to pull out for just such times.

So a question: If music is on when you're in the kitchen, what is it? What do you like to cook to?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Yo, Baby!

There's been a lot of domestic shenanigans in our house lately. The angry hiss of the pressure-cooker letting off steam. Sourdough bubbling and fermenting next to the stove. Abandoned wine corks being dressed in little knitted hats and sweaters to make stockpiled ornament gifts for next Christmas. So I'm guessing Phil took it in stride the other day when he came home late from band practice to find a soup pot overturned on a heating pad warming up on the kitchen counter. I was making yogurt.

I ran out of my Light N Fit yogurt this week, and after having made a crack about Gogurts last week in this blog, thought I'd try making my own. It's pretty simple. You bring a quart of milk almost to the boiling point (180 degrees F), and then let it cool to about 112 degrees F. (You need a candy thermometer for this.) The cooling takes the longest time in the process -- maybe 45 minutes to an hour -- but I had a laundry list of things to do that night, so would flutter around changing sheets and folding laundry and just check in on the milk's temperature after each task.

Then you take a small amount of the warmed milk -- maybe 1/3 cup -- and mix it with either 2 Tbsp. yogurt with active cultures or a commercial yogurt starter. I used the starter, but I think either are purported to work equally well. Then you mix this little bit of milk-mixed-with-starter back into with the quart of milk, and pour it into whatever container it will be incubating in. I used a quart canning jar.

Once the milk was in the canning jar, I just screwed on the lid, placed it on heating pad set to low, and overturned a big soup pot on it for extra insulation, a slightly kooky but effective method I read about in The Tightwad Gazette.

After that I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and went to bed. In the morning, there was a quart of yogurt.

The yogurt was runnier than I like, but tastes wonderful and fresh. I've read that you can thicken up the yogurt by adding about 1/2 cup powdered milk to the quart of milk after mixing in the starter, so I'm going to try that next time.

Because there will be a next time.


Monday, March 05, 2007

A Book Review

Mix & Match Recipes: Creative Ideas for Busy Kitchens
by Deborah Taylor-Hough

Deborah Taylor-Hough knows busy kitchens. She homeschools her three kids, runs a website, and is the mastermind behind Frozen Assets, a series of methods and recipes for once-a-month cooking.

I bought this book a couple years ago and have to admit I've used it rarely. But with our new concentration on creating real food (vs. packaged "food") and our busy schedules, I've pulled it out again. This is basically a collection of universal recipes: i.e., to make a muffin, take XX dry ingredients, XX eggs, XX filler, etc. You then can determine whether those dry ingredients are oatmeal or whole-wheat flour or a combination of soy and rice flour.

The book is short (64 pages), and in many cases contains dishes that I feel I shouldn't need a cookbook for. But I love the cheat-sheet aspect of this little gem. If I have some leftover ham and broccoli, it's nice to have someone else do some thinking about how I can pull them together. (Skillet dinner? Fried rice? Quiche?) The recipes as stated are pretty basic -- several dishes use canned soup as a binder, for example -- but sometimes throwing together a couple things is all a person has time or energy for, and it still beats a Happy Meal. If you're feeling more ambitious, you can dress up the recipes.

As an example, Sunday night we had lamb sausage thawed and waiting for inspiration. I used the universal skillet recipe in the book, but skipped the canned cream of mushroom soup and instead carmelized some onions and made a quick white sauce to hold it all together. As Phil was eating dinner, he said, "Boy, this is some real comfort food." That's what this book is: Homey, easy, recipes for cooks with great intentions, a hodgepodge of on-hand ingredients, and little time.

If you're wanting to make a lamb sausage skillet, here's one variation you can try:

Lamb Sausage Skillet

1 Tbsp. or so olive oil
1 Tbsp. or so butter
1 medium-sized sweet onion, coursely chopped
1/4 cup or so (a few splashes) white wine

White sauce:
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. white flour
1 cup milk

And the rest:
4 good-sized links lamb sausage (about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds), sliced about 1/4- to 1/2 inch
1 16-oz can stewed or diced tomatoes, undrained
8 oz. uncooked egg noodles
1/2 cup or so (a nice handful or two) shredded cheese

Start by making the onions. Heat up the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat until the butter gets foamy. Add the onions and stir around for a while -- maybe 10 minutes, until the onions are dark golden brown and there's some lovely brownish stuff on the bottom of the pan. Pour in the white wine and scrape up the stuff at the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile, in a separate, small pan, melt the butter over medium heat; this is the basis of the white sauce. Now stir in the flour to make a paste. Pour in the milk and whisk it constantly until the sauce starts to thicken.

When the onions and sauce are ready, pour both of these and all the remaining ingredients except the cheese into a big skillet or similar pan. I used a pretty good sized brasier pan. If there doesn't seem to be enough water to actually boil, add a little more water. Now stir it all around, turn the heat to medium high, and let the liquid boil. Once it boils, turn the heat to low, cover the skillet, and wait about 25-30 minutes -- until the meat is cooked through and the pasta is ready. Sprinkle with the cheese and tuck into a good family meal.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Adobo! Gesuntite!

Last Thursday night, I went to my first book club with our friend Holly, and Phil had Holly's husband Noah over. I didn't read the book (Jane Eyre), mind you. I've been having trouble getting through Entertainment Weekly lately. But I'd read the book years ago, in my leisurely reading, pre-kids days, and I brushed up on the CliffsNotes before the group met at a local restaurant, so I was good to pontificate over my Planet Burger.

When Holly and I came back to the house post book group to meet up with Phil and Noah, we all sat around talking and I suggested that come the summer, farmer's market months, we should all go in on half a hog from Royer Farms, a local farm that sells half-, quarter- and whole hogs. For some reason, thick-cut fresh bacon seemed really appealing at midnight.

The only issues are: 1) Our regular freezer is stuffed full of I don't know what. 2) To get a dedicated freezer in our basement, we're going to have to reconfigure our laundry room, a job that's on the list but hasn't floated to the top yet.

So I'm making a concerted effort to clear the freezer before summer hits.

Last night, I thawed some whole bone-in chicken breasts I'd fished from the back of the freezer and was casting about for something to do with them. And came upon a recipe for Chicken Adobo, a classic Filipino dish. I looked through a ton of recipes and found that the dish is incredibly flexible and basically just involves cooking chicken in a mixture of soy sauce and some kind of vinegar until the chicken's done and the sauce is thick enough to spoon on rice. Some recipes were super-simple (dumping everything into a pot), some more complex (braising the chicken and then removing and grilling it while you reduce the sauce). I went down the middle on complexity. There were online comments that this dish can taste pretty vinegar-y, so I used rice wine vinegar instead of a stronger vinegar like apple cider. And some recipes included ginger, which I love, but angry commenters claimed the original dish didn't have ginger. I was more interested in taste than authenticity, so I added some.

I'll admit that the jury was hung on this. Phil wasn't wowed, but in my defense, he got home from errands later than he had expected to and dinner was about a half hour late, meaning the chicken cooked longer than I wanted and then sat waiting for another 15 minutes, so the sauce was probably too concentrated. And by the time we ate, the boys were crabby and whiny and didn't add much mellow to the dinner vibe. Even with all these strikes against it, I really liked my first taste of Chicken Adobo.

So if you're willing to trust me and give it a whirl, here's what I did:

Chicken Adobo

2 Tbsp. or so olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium-sized onion, cut into slices
2 pounds bone-in chicken breasts (mixed parts would also be great)
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup or so reduced-sodium soy sauce (so it doesn't get too salty tasting)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. ground ginger (1 Tbsp. fresh ginger would be even better)
1-1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper

Over medium-high heat, heat up the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed big pan or skillet. I used my enamel-covered cast iron 5-1/2 quart Dutch oven. Add the garlic and onion and stir around frequently, softening but being careful not to burn the garlic.

Meanwhile, stick the chicken parts in a bowl. Mix up the rice vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaves, sugar, ginger, and pepper. Pour this over the chicken, and flip the chicken around to coat.

When the onion is soft, about six minutes, put the chicken pieces (but not the sauce) in the hot pan and brown for about 4 minutes on each side. (Go ahead and stir the onion and garlic around the chicken pieces so that it doesn't burn, but don't disturb the chicken pieces so that they can brown.) Now add in the sauce that the chicken had been sitting in, turn the heat to around medium or just below, and let it all cook. When the chicken is cooked through, the sauce will have reduced by about half, and you're done.

Serve rice alongside this, and spoon the thickened sauce over the chicken.

Tonight I'm coming up with some kind of something to do with the package of lamb sausage I have thawing. Maybe some kind of skillet dish? Or is that too Applebee's? Stay tuned...

Friday, March 02, 2007

Good Home Found!

The Bon Appetit Cookbook found itself a loving home where it will be nurtured, cared for, and splattered with eggs, as all good cookbooks should. I'm going through my stock of cookbooks, though, so keep your eyes open for future offerings.

Free to a Good Home

This past holiday season, my company gave us all an insanely good discount on the newly published Bon Appetit Cookbook. It's a monster: 1,500 recipes and some gorgeous photography in a book the size of the Oxford English Dictionary. It even comes with a complementary one-year subscription to Bon Appetit.

I bought one for myself and stocked up for Christmas gifts. One was earmarked for a good friend who's a great cook, but she made a pre-holiday comment that she understands that some people like cookbooks, but she just finds it much easier to go online to get recipes. So her copy was left without a home. It's languished on a closet shelf in my office since. It's a really solid cookbook -- Bon Appetit does a lovely job of putting tasty twists on classics while keeping the recipes manageable.

If you'd like it, just write me a comment saying so or e-mail me at cindy_kitchel AT, where the "AT" is the "@" symbol. And I'm happy to mail it, so don't worry if you're not local.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Today marks the end of my Month of Not Spending. I decided, after looking disgustedly at all of the things filling up our little Cape Cod (CDs, action figures, books we haven't read, yarn I haven't knit) that in February -- the shortest month of the year -- I wouldn't add to the spoils. Only a month, I realize, but I'm hoping that taking little consumerism breaks will help me be a more conscientious consumer, and not pick up things thoughtlessly. ("Hey! The Footloose soundtrack for $6.99! I haven't heard this in years!") You will notice by the dates of my posts that I got that pressure cooker in just under the wire.

I wasn't completely strict with myself. February is a heavy birthday month for us, and I didn't put restrictions on birthday gifts, although I did make a couple small things to complement the purchased gifts. And my favorite yarn is being cleared out at KnitPicks so I used a gift certificate I'd received at Christmas to buy enough for a new sweater, which a friend said doesn't really count since "that purchase had already been made." (I like the way you think, Kitty!)

I was amazed at the difference in our checking account in one month, so I've been feeling very Amy Dacyczyn-like. Consequently, I thought I'd try my hand at sourdough bread, which is purported to be "the cheapest bread you can make" since it contains such a few, very humble ingredients.

This morning I made the starter, which means combining:
  • 2 cups room-temperature water
  • 1 Tbsp. yeast
  • 2 cups white flour
You mix this in a non-reactive (non-metal) container big enough that the starter can expand, cover it loosely with plastic wrap so that some air can get to it, and let it sit on your counter for a couple days until it gets a bit gamey. By the weekend, I should be in the bread-making business.

I had some starter going years and years ago. That time, being the lazy cook I am, I didn't want to go to *all the trouble* of mixing up the three ingredients, so I stuck them in a quart Mason jar, twisted on the lid, and shook the dickens out of it. Then I covered it loosely with plastic wrap and went for a long walk. By the time I came home, thick starter had exploded all over my counter. So today I went through the *very* tedious process of stirring the ingredients for 30 seconds. Just like our forebears had done.

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