Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Canning In The Off-Season

For the last two months I've had a one-gallon crock of saurkraut sitting on the counter. There's a lot of other stuff sitting around on that counter, so a big jar of fermenting cabbage didn't really stick out the way you might imagine it would. Still, it was long past time to move the kraut to a more permanent home.

When I was growing up, my mom didn't exactly celebrate the domestic arts. She was a good cook but never really enjoyed it the way I do. Nonetheless, mom was a faithful canner of tomatoes from our garden and jelly-er of grapes from my nearby grandparent's vines. Every summer, my distant grandparents would arrive with bushels of fresh peaches and Lodi apples. I remember my mom and great-aunt working in the kitchen for hours, peeling, slicing, freezing, and saucing. (Was I helping? Mostly not. I was probably busy being a surly teenager). My point being that, despite the frequent appearance of Spam at our supper table, home preservation of fresh, local foods was part of my family's food culture.

In spite of my initially unhelpful attitude, I've done a bit of canning myself. The summer after I graduated college I decided to grow pickling cucumbers in my parents' garden. Two weeks into my post-graduation trip my mom called to say that the cucumber vines were taking over. Sure enough, those suckers were quite productive and kept me busy harvesting, pickling and canning for the rest of the summer.

Every few years I have the urge to can again. In grad school it was jellies and jams, then for a while I flirted with canning tomatoes and peaches. The saurkraut habit started as a side effect of owning too many books about pickling: I browsed through the fermented pickles chapter once too often. I tried a small batch a few years ago and, having met with success, gave it another go this year.

It's really pretty easy to make: if you can slice cabbage and measure salt, and tolerate a large crock that occupies prime counter space for two months, you can make saurkraut. The kraut probably finished fermenting several weeks ago but I just didn't make the time to deal with it. Plus it was fun to skim off the "bloom," some fungus or whatnot that appears on the surface of the brining liquid, and watch it grow back again. You've just gotta love a recipe that directs you to remove surface scum every three weeks.

Canning saurkraut is not a very traditional New Year's Eve activity, at least not in any tradition that I'm aware of. It's not really necessary to can it anyway, if you have a nice spot in your house that's a constant 38 degrees for kraut storage. But it had reached the point where the kraut had to be tended to, so that the counter would not have been occupied in vain. Truthfully, it felt a bit odd to get out the canning gear on the same day that I shoveled 10" of snow. Canning is supposed to be a summertime sport. It was rather nice, however, to boil a huge cauldron of water on a cold, dry day. Too bad there's no way to make tomatoes wait until winter.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Go Play With Your Food

My son has never really had a "lovey," some kind of stuffed animal or security blanket, that he carries everywhere. He does like to take various objects with him whenever we go out, though. When he was about a year old, he liked to hang on to a spoon when I took him out in the stroller. Now that he's a big boy (all of 2.75 years) he's broadened his objects of desire to include the occasional toy, but more likely than not he'll be clutching a piece of produce when we walk out the door.

For the last few weeks my son has been fixated on potatoes. Part of it stems from his recent mastery of the concepts involving "one" and "two." It was inevitable, therefore, that when Mommy unpacked the big bag of potatoes from the grocery sack, he immediately begged for me to give him just one potato. (Well, what he actually said was "wah, wah, wah!" but I knew what he meant). Having obtained just one potato, he immediately began lobbying for another.

The two potatoes have been everywhere. They roamed around the house, danced to music, rode along in the car (in the cup holder, of course). They even misbehaved when my son had the brilliant idea of using the potatoes to push things off of the table, when I told him to stop doing that himself. (I then found myself uttering words that I never, ever envisioned myself saying: "Do I have to put that potato in a Time Out?"). One potato even got wrapped up in a cozy foil blanket: I was wrapping burritos to re-warm in the oven and my son cried out for some foil to play with. Wrapping the potato seemed like the thing to do.

A few weeks ago, the foil-wrapped potato came along to a playgroup. We walked into our local Family Network and the nice lady kindly asked, "What've you got there?" when my son proudly brandished his pet. "It's a potato," I replied. "Oh...a baked potato?" was the still-kind, but puzzled response. "No," I sighed, "It's a raw potato. He just wanted to wrap it up in foil." I'm sure the kindly lady put this down as typical, odd toddler behavior, or at least I hope she did.

Another mom's comment has me reconsidering the meaning of my son's love affair with food as playthings. The mom has a young child as well as a job, and mentioned that she'd rather spend time with her son than be tied to the stove. Now granted, since I'm not working an outside job (in addition to being mommy), I probably spend more time cooking than I would otherwise. And, my son is usually playing in the kitchen alongside me while I cook, unless he can't keep to our safety rules and has to be sent to the adjacent playroom for a little while. Nevertheless, he likes to do what mommy is doing, and mommy is in the kitchen an awful lot.

My son also loves to play with a bar of soap - the kind that comes in a box. great entertainment that is, opening the box, taking the soap out and putting it back. My son carries soap everywhere, too, and it's certainly NOT because he sees Mommy cleaning all the time. So maybe, just maybe, it really is typical, odd toddler behavior.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wigilia - The Director's Cut

Here's the final menu from our Christmas Eve feast:

Crabcakes; wild mushroom soup; roasted cod with arugula; kapusta (saurkraut) with mushrooms; potato-cheese and saurkraut-mushroom pierogies; fruit compote, Panforte di Siena and rugelach for dessert.

My cookbooks tell me that the Wigilia feast should have an odd number of courses (or dishes, I guess) - seven, nine, or eleven. If you count all the desserts as one course, it brings the total to seven. I had also picked up the ingredients to make cucumbers in sour cream (a favorite of my hubby) and cauliflower baked in a cream sauce (because I felt compelled to have another vegetable). The thought of nine courses for just four people was a bit much, however, so I saved those recipes for another day.

We ended up doing a simple treatment with the cod, based on an Epicurious recipe. The cod was seasoned with salt and pepper, fried on one side in a hot cast-iron skillet, then flipped over and finished in a 400F oven for about 5 minutes. We served it with a simple arugula salad, dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and the kapusta. The arugula went surprisingly well with the cod; the kapusta, not so much - the flavors were too strong for the fish. In retrospect, it might have worked better to serve the kapusta as a separate course with the pierogies, perhaps as an appetizer. Although that would have brought us to three appetizer courses!

I found a recipe for Polish Dried Fruit Compote (Kompot) on, and then - as usual - ignored most of the instructions. I did stick with the 1 1/2 pounds of dried fruit, 8 cloves and 2 cinnamon stick directives, but added much less water (~3 cups instead of 8) and sugar (1/3 cup instead of a whole cup; I think dried fruit is sweet enough). I also added a splash of brandy (works for fruitcake - why not fruit compote?).

The recipe's notes say that compote was originally made with twelve dried fruits, to represent the twelve apostles. It took some scrounging around the pantry, but we came up with 12 (mostly) different fruits: figs and prunes, which were purchased just for this recipe; dried currents, dried pineapple, golden and regular raisins, which were leftover from holiday baking; dried cranberries, apricots, and peaches, which we have on hand for my son's snacks; dried lychees and red dates, which I use to make Eight-Treasures Tea; and finally dried chestnuts, which I bought to make Korean ginseng-stuffed chicken (but never did).

OK, you caught me - the chestnuts are not really fruits. Or maybe they are? I don't know enough of chestnut tree biology to address that question. The recipe author on (and my husband) wondered which of the twelve fruity apostles was supposed to be Judas; I'm thinking that if it has to be someone, the chestnuts are it. At any rate, the stuff smelled delicious whilst it was simmering in the kitchen, and the chestnuts came out quite tasty.

Altogether, dinner lasted about four hours (not counting the snacking we did all afternoon on cheese, bread, nuts, and olives). We took our time with it; most of the dishes were prepared during the day and re-heated as we went. I was still pretty full when I woke up this morning.

...but we somehow managed to eat a little breakfast. I'd bought a huge Panettone that sufficed to feed us while our son opened his presents. Later in the morning, I used the Wigilia leftovers to make a big breakfast based on a specialty at a local diner: crabcakes benedict. I toasted some baguette slices and topped them with some arugula. I warmed a couple of leftover crabcakes were re-warmed in a skillet then placed on top of the arugula. I put fried eggs on the crabcakes, and topped the whole thing off with some mushrooms from the soup. Yum. We were so busy eating last night that I forgot to take pictures, but I did get a shot of our breakfast this morning.

Now off to cook more food. Today will be easy; I'll bake the leftover kapusta with some kielbasa. More pierogies are awaiting their fate in my freezer; it's simple enough to fry them up. I might even get around to making those cucumbers in sour cream.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Functionally Polish

I don't remember what my family used to eat on Christmas Eve. Probably, I was too excited about the next morning to pay much attention to what was on the dinner table. I do recall, however, what was served on Christmas Day for many years: a Pennsylvania Dutch concoction called "Dutch Goose," which is comprised of a pig's stomach stuffed with sausage and potatoes. My generation was sufficiently removed from the family's farm that Dutch Goose held a maximum ick factor - I used to eat the filling within a one-inch border around the hog casing. In later years, the Dutch Goose was replaced with a crown roast of pork - much more kid-friendly, with its top hat-like paper frills.

In my husband's family, Christmas Eve is a big event. They still have a traditional Polish Wigilia feast (say "Veel-ee-yah"). As I understand it, Wigilia means "vigil" as in waiting for the Christ child. The meal is traditionally meatless.

My father-in-law does most of the cooking for their family and prepares fish cakes, stuffed mushrooms, homemade pierogies - both potato-cheese and saurkraut, - boiled shrimp, and more. The first few years that we were married, my hubby and I would make it to the feast on alternate years. Now that we have our little guy, however, we've been staying home for Christmas. Since I don't have a strong emotional attachment to Christmas Eve foods, I'm happy to make a Wigilia feast for my husband. (Heck, even if I did have a strong emotional attachment I'd probably be up for making the feast anyway. Let's call a spade a spade - I'm a cooking junkie).

I had my first truly authentic Polish Wigilia a few years ago, prepared by my friend Marta (the guest cook in our paczki episode). While we were enjoying that delicious meal it became apparent that some of my husband's family traditions differ from Marta's. Subsequent conversations with other Polish-American families have revealed further divergence from the homeland. Such as, whether or not to serve soup (my hubby's family: no, Marta's family: why, of course).

Marta is joining us for Wigilia supper this year and I'm a little worried about what to make. I bought pierogies and saurkraut at a Polish deli, so I've got that covered, and Marta is making a mushroom soup - but I need to come up with a fish thing. I like fish but it's one of those things that I can't quite get right when I try to cook it. Or at least, when I try to cook it Polish-style.

I can handle a basic saute, or baked fish recipe, and I have a couple of Indian and Korean recipes that work OK for me, but my Polish cookbooks leave me stymied - all the recipes call for fish types that I can't seem to find. When was the last time you saw pike in the market? Or carp? Last year I decided on tilapia and stood patiently in line with the rest of the horde at Super88 on Christmas Eve to get a freshly-killed fish. I passed the time by consulting with a fellow shopper on how much fish I needed to feed 4 people. She recommended a 2-lb tilapia. Well, that might have worked out all right if I'd cooked the fish whole, but when I brought the little fella home and my hubby tried to fillet it, there just wasn't that much fish. I guess that tilapia is not a big filleting fish? I ended up sending the hubby out to the grocery store for supplemental tilapia.

Frankly, I'm a bit tempted to sneak in one of those Indian or Korean fish recipes to our Wigilia supper, since I know that they will turn out OK. Marta's husband is Korean-American, and my son is ethnically Korean, so it's not such a wild idea, really. These days, many families are culturally blended; does it really matter if our traditional Polish feast is not 100% Polish? There's a trend amongst adoptive parents with children of international origins to refer to the whole family as Chinese-American, or Irish-Ethiopean, etc. - basically applying the cultural sum of the family members to the family as a whole, to help create a family identity. In that vein, our full family identity is Polish-American-Korean-WASP, but we jokingly refer to ourselves as Functionally Polish since that's the type of food I'm usually cooking for holidays. As I learn more Korean dishes, however, that's likely to change; my son's last two birthday parties have been billed as "kimchee and kapusta" events.

At any rate, my menu is almost set and cod was the winning fish. I picked it up this morning when I was running errands; after the weekend's storm and other events, I don't have the fortitude to face the Super88 fish counter tomorrow. Marta's coming over early to make the soup, so maybe I can get her to help me pick a recipe for the fish. I'll let y'all know how it all comes out.

A Quick Note Between Errands

Just stopping by briefly to let you all know that we added a few more cookie recipes to the Neighborhood Dish website (see We had planned to re-broadcast our first-ever show, Holiday Cookies, for the rest of December. The show is the same but we've added our groovy graphics and a plug for the extra recipes on the website. As of last weekend, however, the bachelor episode was still running. Hopefully, Holiday Cookies will make it into the lineup for MATV's holiday programming - if not, no big whoop...the main thing is that I wanted to get the word out about the recipes.

Off to run more errands...Happy Baking, and Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Panforte di Siena

Why don't more people like fruitcake? Maybe they would if more people made them from scratch. Maybe they would if more fruitcakes had chocolate in them.

This is yet another recipe I collected during the heyday of Gail's Recipe Swap. It was originally posted by Julie R - WA. I made one today because I'm still trying to use up leftover ingredients, but it's usually on my to-do list of goodies anyway. (I was trying to not go overboard this year, and now I'm a bit worried that I won't have enough. More baking!).

As usual, I've taken a relatively simple recipe and added copious instructions - all to help ensure success in your kitchens. Can't have users posting comments that the recipe didn't work, now can we :-) Please don't be put off by my lengthy notes; this fruitcake has a wonderful, chewy texture rich with chocolate and apricot flavors. A little goes a long way so in my opinion it's worth the effort.

I also do a few things that are probably not traditional, but I'm OK with it. You have some latitude with this recipe, too - last year I forgot to add the almonds, so I just pressed them on top after the batter was spread in the pan. If you don't have dried apricots or candied pineapple, you could substitute dried peaches, pears, or cranberries. I used dried pineapple today.

I like to add wedges of this to my cookie plates - the light color of the nuts contrasts prettily with the dark chocolate of the batter. If you have a set of those individual cheesecake pans - the 4"-diameter springform pans - you can make 5 mini-panfortes to give as gifts (the baking time is about the same).

4 ounces almonds
4 ounces hazelnuts
2 ounces dried apricots
2 ounces candied pineapple
2 ounces of candied orange and lemon peel
2/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon good ground cinnamon
2 ounces semi-sweet baking chocolate, broken into pieces or coarsely chopped [chocolate chips are fine; I usually use whatever semi- or bittersweet chocolate that I have on hand]
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
powdered sugar (for sprinkling)

[I start by toasting the almonds and hazelnuts for 10 minutes at 350 F. They can go onto the same baking pan but keep them in separate piles; when the nuts have cooled, rub the skins off of the hazelnuts. You can rub them individually or wrap them in towel and rub the whole bunch at once].

Prepare an 8-inch cake pan by greasing well. [I like to use a springform pan. I butter the pan, lay a round of parchment paper on the bottom of the pan, and then butter the parchment].

Preheat the oven to 300 F.

Chop the almonds, hazelnuts, apricots, pineapple, and candied peels.
Put the sugar and honey into a small saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, then reduce the heat and simmer 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the chopped fruit and nuts in a large, heavy glass or ceramic bowl (this will make it easier to mix the dough). Add the flour, cinnamon and cocoa and mix well.

Turn off the heat under the pan, add the chocolate and stir until it melts. Pour the chocolate mixture over the fruit-nut mixture (drizzle it all over to make it easier to incorporate) and stir with a really heavy wooden spoon. You can use a rubber spatula to scrape the chocolate out of the pan, but it will not be strong enough to stir this dough.

The batter is VERY heavy, like clay...after a few turns with the wooden spoon I usually give up and "knead" it with my hands. The batter is also sticky (to itself, not so much your hands). There is basically just enough dough to hold all the fruit and nuts together.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and press it into place. Use the back of your fist to push it out into an even layer, or as even as you can get it.

Bake for 35 minutes. The batter will still look "wet" over most of the surface of the cake - it's important to not overbake it or the edges will be dry. If you see little holes appear over the surface of the cake (from releasing steam), it's done.

Let the cake cool in the pan. Remove the cake, wrap it in foil, and it stand overnight. The cake will keep for weeks if it is wrapped in foil (you do not need to refrigerate it). To serve, sprinkle the cake with powdered sugar and cut into wedges. I use a big 10" chef's knife and cut it in half, then into quarters, then each quarter into 6 wedges.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Couple of Ways To Go Nuts

I always seem to overbuy ingredients for my holiday baking. One of these years I just might figure out exactly how many cookies I truly need and therefore be able to shop more accurately. Until that happens, there are a few recipes I rely on to consume the leftovers.

These are two of my favorite recipes that use up lots of nuts. Both can be prepared ahead of time and frozen, so you can make them now and get them out for your next party. The Union Square bar nuts are especially nice when they are warm from the oven.

Candied Curried Pecans (from Bon Appetit magazine, Nov. 2002)

1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons honey
3 cups pecan halves

1. Preheat oven to 250°F. Line large rimmed baking sheet with foil. Mix onion powder, garlic powder, 1 teaspoon salt, curry powder, and cayenne pepper in small bowl to blend.

2. Melt butter and honey with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add pecan halves and stir to coat; remove from heat. Add spice mixture and toss to coat pecans evenly. Spread pecans in single layer on prepared baking sheet.

3. Bake pecans until dry and toasted, about 40 minutes [in my experience, the baking time is closer to an hour. The nuts should get darker and will be crisp when they are cool. Since they are not crispy while they are still hot, I take one or two off of the pan and taste them after they've cooled a bit to be sure that they're done]. Cool completely. Separate pecans. (Can be made 1 week ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.)

The Union Square Cafe's Bar Nuts

2 1/4 cups (18-ounces) whole unsalted nuts [I like to use cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds and pecans. You can also add peanuts and Brazil nuts. Oh, and if all you have is salted cashews, you can either give them a quick rinse in a colander to remove some of the salt, or you can just not worry about it and use a little less kosher salt in the recipe].
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Spread the nuts out on a baking sheet (with a rim) that is large enough to hold them in a single layer (a 9x13" cake pan will do). Toast in the oven until the nuts are fragrant and light golden brown in color, about 10 minutes.

3. In a large bowl, combine the rosemary, cayenne, sugar, salt and melted butter.

4. Add the toasted nuts to the bowl containing the spices and butter and mix well. Serve the nuts warm, or let them cool and store in an airtight container (zip-top bag) for a few days.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Something Pithy About Baking

(Sorry about the lame-o title; for once I'm at a loss for words. Maybe i'll think of something better later).

I've never contributed user comments to a recipe on Epicurious, but I do love to read them. Call me lazy for benefitting from others' work without contributing, but really, most recipes have enough user comments already - what else is there for me to say?

Some recipes are downright controversial - half the users love it and think it's the easiest thing ever, the other half say it's a complete disaster. What's really interesting is when one user attempts to diagnose the problems encountered by other users. Case in point: I just made a chocolate biscotti recipe. Some people said that the cookies came out perfectly, whereas others complained that the dough was much too wet and spread all over the place. Enter the sleuths: one user surmised that those plagued by runny dough were adding all 4 eggs (as listed in the ingredients) to the batter, instead of using the 4th egg as a wash for the prepared loaves (as instructed in the directions). Fascinating - now there's a cook that knows a thing or two about cooking. And about how other people cook.

The failure to follow directions can't explain all of the negative reviews for a recipe, but the diagnosis of that problem is a good reminder to read the recipe carefully :-) For the record, my biscotti came out just fine - no issues with sticky dough.

My main objective was to use up some hazelnuts and a chocolate biscotti seemed like a good match (all those people eating Nutella can't be wrong). I swapped out the candied ginger for candied orange peel (because I was trying to use that up, too) and the taste is OK but in retrospect, I would have preferred the ginger. I also skipped the drizzling-with-white-chocolate part, because I wanted to differentiate them more fully from the Cranberry-White Chocolate biscotti on the cookie plates (see the Puttin' on the Spritz post for more on my obsession with attractive arrangements of cookies).

Which brings me to another thing I love about user reviews: cooks who make so many changes that they end up preparing something altogether different from the published recipe. Don't get me wrong, I'm a major tinkerer myself; the thing that I am fascinated with is why someone would take the time to write, "I loved this recipe! I used a grapefruit instead of the almonds, substituted chicken for the wild boar sausage and cooked it over a slow grill rather than stir-fry, and it came out PERFECT." I'm being more than a little facetious but you get the idea...the well-meaning user has actually reviewed a different recipe. Fascinating stuff, indeed.

Anyway, here's the biscotti recipe: (and no, I haven't yet figured out how to embed html links into text). These cookies have a nice chocolately taste, and they can be baked well ahead of time because there isn't any butter. (The cranberry-white chocolate biscotti, which have lots of butter, will remain at their prime for about 3 weeks). The batter is easy to work with and would probably do well with a variety of ingredients: almonds, pecans, cranberries...hmm maybe that's what all those creative user review-writers are getting at.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Biscotti Baking Tips

These are also posted on our website,, under the Recipes section.

• Make sure the biscotti dough is well mixed - take it out of the mixer bowl, dump into another bowl to be sure there isn't a puddle of wet ingredients at the bottom
• Use a scale to weigh the batch of dough, then divide by the number of "logs" the recipe calls for (i.e., 2 pounds of dough, 4 logs = 8 oz per log or 1/2 lb)
• If the dough is very sticky, you can wrap the portions in plastic, shape into a thick, short log and put in the fridge for a while to firm up a little. Then roll the dough out of the plastic and onto a floured surface to do the final rolling into a log. (Roll the logs in cocoa or sugar for a chocolate biscotti recipe)
• Most doughs need to be flattened a little after the logs are shaped, to get the most even baking throughout the loaf.
• Use parchment paper to line baking sheets. A piece of parchment can be re-used a few times.
• Slices can be baked "standing up" on the cookie sheet. This saves your fingers from trying to flip hot cookies and also takes up less space. The baking time is the same as if you flip them (i.e. 10 min, flip, 10 min = 20 min when standing).
• To decorate with melted chocolate, put wax paper down to cover the counter and set a couple of cooling racks on top. Place biscotti on cooling racks. The cookies should be lying on their sides and be spaced close together, but not touch each other.
• Put chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate) into a zip-top quart-size freezer bag. Melt the chocolate in the bag by microwaving it for 15 seconds at a time; smoosh the chocolate around between bursts of microwaving by squeezing the bag (this is really fun). When the chocolate is evenly melted, smoosh all of the chocolate to the bottom of the bag and snip off the tip of the corner. Now use the freezer bag like a pastry bag and rapidly move the bag back and forth over the cookies while gently squeezing the bag, so the chocolate drizzles all over. (I usually go at a diagonal). It is important that all of the chocolate is melted, or the chunks will block the opening in the bag.
• Let the chocolate set up completely (put the cookies in the fridge for a few minutes, if you have to) and then store in tins between layers of waxed paper. This is a really easy way to make your biscotti (or any other cookie) look much harder to make than they actually were. I always use white chocolate for biscotti - you don't need to worry about tempering it, because a cocoa butter “bloom” won't be visible.
• Let the loaves of biscotti cool COMPLETELY before attempting to cut into slices. Especially important if there is chocolate chips in the dough.
• Use a serrated knife to score the tops of the loaves, then cut the slices with a sharp chef's or utility knife (I like the utility knife because the blade is thinner).

Puttin' On The Spritz

I baked some Christmas cookies today. I love to bake cookies, even though I usually have a lot of "technical difficulties." I try to make detailed notes about each recipe but as the season rolls around again each year I find myself in the kitchen facing a messy bowl of batter, half of which has been used up trying to get the cookie size and baking times just right.

I know, I know - I need to let go of my obsession with wanting all of the cookies in each batch to come out looking the same. I'm not a professional, and I don't really aspire to be, but it would be nice if I could get all the biscotti to be approximately the same length. (Actually, biscotti are one cookie that I've gotten pretty good at; I'll post my biscotti-baking tips later).

Another issue with which I grapple is the need to have a pleasing "composition" on the cookie plate. The cookies have to taste good, of course, but I want that visual appeal as well. That means there can be only so many round, oblong, or square cookies. Ya gotta mix it up! I also like to work in a little "punch" of color.

"Spritz" butter cookies seemed like the ideal answer to both problems - if you use a cookie press, you can make any number of differently-shaped cookies, and you can add food color to the dough. After many batches of those cookies, however, I can state with some authority that those spritz can get you into trouble.

Start with the dough itself - too loose and the cookies spread out, losing the details in their shape; too tough and the cookies don't taste as good. I finally found a recipe that I can work with - the cookies are very rich, buttery and have a nice "bite" to them. It's Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipe for butter spritz and if I remember, I'll post it later too.

The real trouble began when I tried to spruce up my spritz - which was the reason, you may recall, that I was baking them in the first place. Apparently I do not have an eye for color when it comes to cookies - there's some magic formula involving food color and cookie dough that I haven't quite determined. Last years' batch of hot pink cookies was not terribly appetizing; neither are the grey-tinged green trees I produced today. (See the photo - they actually look more appealing here than in real life. More like green arrowheads than trees, really - maybe I'll save them for St. Patrick's Day...)

Fortunately I've learned from my mistakes and know that the occasional flash of pink on a plate of traditionally-dressed cookies isn't as startling as the whole herd of Pinky Tuscaderos, so I didn't panic (too much) about my ailing trees.

As for different shapes, I've almost given up on that. You know that plate on the cookie press that makes little flower-shaped cookies? And how the center of the cookie just cries out to be filled with a chocolate chip? Well if your cookies dough recipe is one of those that spreads and loses details when baked, the cookies come out being a striking resemblance to, ah, shall we say - a body part that is not found on a man. That's not what I had in mind when I said that I wanted to spice up my cookies!

Monday, December 1, 2008

One More Thing To Do With Turkey

We had a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year - an all-day appetizer fest, which I'll write more about later - so I didn't make a roast turkey until yesterday. Which is too bad, because I also forgot about this recipe, which is great to use up leftover turkey meat. The recipe was orginially posted on a now-defunct forum called Gail's Recipe Swap on the Epicurious website. Gails' is archived here : and is somewhat searchable, although that function doesn't always work.

At any rate, here's the recipe. I'll be making this later today...enjoy!

Pumpkin Turkey Black Bean Chili

From: Gail’s Recipe Swap, posted by Jackie in PA

2 T oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
1 ½ t dried oregano
1 ½ t ground cumin
1 ½ t chili powder
3 cups beef broth (I use homemade turkey stock)
1 can (15 oz.) black beans, drained
1 can (14 ½ oz.) diced tomatoes, not drained
1 can (16 oz.) pumpkin
2 ½ cups chopped cooked turkey
½ cup cream sherry
¼ t salt
Dash of ground pepper

Heat oil in Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and peppers. Saute until quite soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in oregano, cumin, and chili powder and cook for 1 more minute.

Add broth, beans, tomatoes, pumpkin, turkey, sherry, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil while stirring constantly. Lower heat to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes, over low heat.

Friday, November 14, 2008

You say potato, I say tuber

“You can see a lot by just looking.”

I forget who said that – Yogi Berra, maybe? I’ve been putting information together to update our website. Our current episode features a prominent bachelor in his gleaming, sparkling clean kitchen (well, it was clean at the start of the episode…). In addition to the recipes demonstrated on the show, I like to include information from the web to inform and (hopefully) inspire our viewers. This time, a search for “bachelor-friendly recipes” revealed some surprising findings.

First, “bachelor-friendly” is a broadly defined term. My initial idea of a bachelor-friendly recipe was something that could be put together with little more effort than a microwaveable dinner – I was equating “bachelor” with “cooking novice.” But, as some bloggers point out, bachelor-friendly can also mean budget friendly. Most ingredients are packaged and recipes are designed to serve several people. If you’re not into leftovers - which I am, so I don’t identify with this – this presents a problem. (When I was single I used to cook big meals and Sunday and eat leftovers until Wednesday). In those blogs, some knowledge of cooking by said bachelor is implicit. Other blogs and recipes I found took the level of cooking knowledge higher - detailed enough to set heads a-spinning on many people I know, singles or not.

Second, there are not many blogs devoted to bachelor cooking. I found lots of entries in non-bachelor-specific blogs tagged with bachelor-friendly as a keyword. I didn’t try searching under “cooking for singles” or another gender-neutral title, because I wanted to see what the bachelors were doing. If they’re cooking, however, they’re apparently not blogging about it.

Third, of the few blogging bachelor cooks that I found, most of them focused on Indian cuisine. Which got me thinking: when you’re yearning for the food that you grew up with, you’re at a bit of an advantage if you grew up with mac ‘n cheese vs. chicken biryani: mac ‘n cheese is a lot easier to make. I love to prepare Indian food but it does take some time (so I usually make a LOT and we eat it for several days…maybe things haven’t changed much since my single days, after all).

If anyone knows of a good food blog geared towards bachelors and singles, please post it here. I’d love to know if they’re out there…in the meanwhile, I’m thankful that the few I found expanded my narrow view of bachelor cooking. And I feel for all you hungry bachelors out there…now go get into your kitchens and cook!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Terrible Twos and the One-Armed Webmaster

The long-awaited episode featuring a certain City Councillor is finally airing! And many of you have been logging onto our website, no doubt in search of the recipes that Gary (who was a really, REALLY good sport about the whole thing) learned to make.

I must ask for your patience - the website will be updated in the next week or so. Things have been a little nuts around here because our webmaster (a.k.a. my hubby) had a little run-in with a broken faucet handle and the handle won...he's OK but the surgery and rehab for his hand put him out of commision for a little while. Meanwhile I've been doing double-duty with our son, who is acting every bit of his 2 1/2 years.

Not that I'm whining about it! I just wanted to let y'all know that we just haven't been able to coordinate everything to get the website updated...but we will, soon!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Duck, duck...lobstah!

I’ve been playing with lobsters for the past few days. Lobster is one of those things that I’m going to make the most of, given the time and expense to prepare it for dinner.

My routine goes something like this: Day One, cook and eat lobsters. Save some of the cooking liquid and the non-nibbled-on shells and put into the refrigerator or freezer. Day Two, make a broth using a recipe that is loosely based on Julia Child’s sauce for Lobster Americaine. Day Three (Part A), make soup out of said broth and lobster cooking liquid, along with any leftover bits from the lobster boil itself (sauage, potatoes, etc. – more on this later). Day Three (Part B), use the remaining lobster broth to (1) make Lobster sauce and freeze it (use it later on pasta, or atop poached eggs for a Lobster Benedict) and/or (2) freeze the rest of the broth for future use in soup, risotto, or paella.

Sounds like a lot of work? Well, yes, except that you can do the steps on different days, and four lobsters can end up feeding you for a week. Lobster is kind of a “duck of the sea” in that regard – you can keep using and reusing the same critters to create several meals.

The lobster carousel is a little different with each ride, depending on how I cook it and what else I make with it. (Note to readers: extensive cooking details follow, skip to the end if you’re not into it). This time, the lobsters were steamed with potatoes, corn (yes, corn in November – what was I thinking!), and linguica (a type of sausage), a là a stove-top “lobster bake.” I started by making a broth out of water, two bay leaves, a small handful of coriander seeds, a tablespoon of black peppercorns, a whole head of garlic (sliced in half, across its equator), a whole onion, and a piece of dried kelp (a.k.a. kombu). The broth was simmered for ~30 minutes, then the potatoes and corn went in. When the broth was boiling again, the four lobsters went in (headfirst) and the linguica was piled on top. About 30 minutes later, the lobsters et al. were served with oodles of clarified butter and exuberantly applied Old Bay seasoning. After dinner I saved the lobster shells, leftover sausage and potatoes, lobster cooking liquid (it was strained to get rid of the spices and whatnot), and even the extra clarified butter in the refrigerator

The next day, I sautéed the lobster shells in a little peanut oil in a very large pot over high heat. When they were good and smokin’ I added a large onion (chopped) and two stalks of celery (also chopped) and sauteed them for a little longer, until the onions started to soften. (If I’d had a carrot I’d have added that too). Next, ~1/3 cup of cognac and ~1/2 cup of vermouth went in to deglaze the pot, and then enough water to cover the shells. Finally, I added a can of diced tomatoes, two bay leaves, a tablespoon of dried tarragon (don’t leave this out, even if you’re not crazy about tarragon – it totally makes the broth) and a head of whole garlic, unpeeled but sliced open across its equator. Everything was brought to a boil and then simmered happily over low heat for 1-1 2/ hours. When it was done, I fished out the head of garlic and set it aside, then strained the broth and chilled everything in the refrigerator.

Still with me? I promise, this is worth it…on Day Three I started a soup by sautéing a large onion and one green bell pepper (both chopped) in a couple of tablespoons of the leftover clarified butter. When the veggies were soft I added a couple of tablespoons of flour and continued cooking, while stirring the flour and veggies around. Next, I added ~ 2 cups of the lobster cooking liquid (which was fragrant from both lobster and linguica), ~4 cups of lobster broth, the leftover linguica and potatoes (both diced into ½” pieces) and a can of cannellini beans (drained). Oh, and some extra sweet Italian sausage that I was cooking for something else that day. Since all the ingredients were cooked, the soup came together very quickly. I made a garlic spread by smashing the garlic that was cooked in the lobster broth with about an equal amount of the leftover clarified butter and a splash of lobster broth, for an extra lobster oomph.

One of my favorite things to eat is that lobster-garlic-butter, spread on toasted bread, and dipped into the rich, lobster-y soup. (When Conan was asked, What is best in life? He meant to say “Why, it’s lobster butter garlic toast in lobster broth, of course…”).

Back to the lobster tale: I simmered down some of the remaining lobster broth, added a tablespoon of tomato paste and thickened it with a mixture of flour and (you guessed it!) more leftover clarified butter – about one tablespoon of each, mixed together, per cup of broth – to make Lobster Sauce. And after all that, I still had a quart of lobster borth left to freeze and enjoy another day.

Total count from four lobsters: lobster dinner for four people; 1 ½ quarts of lobster-y sausage and bean soup; 1 quart of Lobster Sauce (enough for 4 breakfasts over eggs, or 2 pasta dinners); and 1 quart of lobster broth for a recipe to be named later. Plus too many yummy sounds to count.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Greetings from the Wormy Pear Emporium

It’s been quite a while since we’ve made any posts. I never thought that blogging could be seasonal, but I noticed that the date of my last entry corresponds to the week that I started the first seedlings for my garden. I was so busy planning, and then working in the garden that blogging fell down a few rungs on my to-do list. Our production schedule for the show slowed down, too, as summer came on, but now we’re back with a new episode on air, and are busy filming the next one.

Ah, back in February the garden was so full of promise…this is our fourth year in this house and I’ve been busy studying our light, water, and wind patterns over the seasons. I thought for sure that I’d figured out a good plan of attack for vegetables in the raised beds, flowers in the side yard, and a mix of both in the front. Well of course I was wrong.

I’ll spare you a complete litany of woes; suffice to say that it wasn’t a banner year. Yes, I grew enough beans and broccoli to feed my toddler all summer long, but toddlers don’t eat much beans and broccoli, do they?

There were a couple of successes: the alpine strawberries (also known as wild strawberries, I think) and Butternut squash. I put six strawberry plants in a raised bed in early April; we started picking berries in June and the plants have been going strong ever since. Well, going as strong as an alpine strawberry goes: they are not heavy producers. But again, my son has been able to go “berry picking” almost everyday and I enjoy watching him almost as much as he enjoys eating them. Hopefully the plants will make it through the winter and repeat their magic next year.

The Butternut squash were intended as a defensive maneuver against squash vine borers. Between the vine borers and the powdery mildew rampant in our yard, I cannot grow zucchini. (Hard to believe, but true). I’d read somewhere that Butternut squash vines are tough so that borers can’t get in. Sure enough, I only spotted one borer which promptly met its demise. The squash crop was not without its casualties, however, thanks to an overzealous husband wielding a gas-powered line trimmer…

I am starting to close up shop in this year’s garden. In some cases, it’s time to move the exhausted plants on to my greater reward (aka the compost pile); in others, I’m just giving up (the tomatoes never really got going at all). I am switching over from production mode into consumption mode. Always challenging, it’s also a little depressing this year because I don’t have much to work with. Last year at this time, I picked ~ 3 bushels of Bartlett pears from our ancient tree. The fruit was certainly not perfect, but enough of it was worm-free to make dealing with the wormy tolerable. This year, the tree put out about a half bushel of worm-ridden pears. I can’t work up much enthusiasm for dealing with the poor things, even to make sauce (which I did lots of last year, and my son loved. He still gets excited when he sees one of the empty freezer containers. Hmmm, maybe I should start putting the broccoli in one of those containers).

At any rate, putting the garden to sleep means that I should have more time now for blogging. And dreaming about next years garden.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Darn you, W. K. Kellogg!

My son loves fruit. Usually, this is one of those things that I feel incredibly fortunate about; I mean, there are a lot less healthy things out there that my boy could go crazy over, right? Every now and then, however, his fruit obsession causes me problems.

Marketing gurus have apparently decided that plain old cereal in a bowl just doesn’t look appetizing. Thus, there are snazzy photographs of cereal garnished with luscious-looking fruit on the outside of the box. Thanks, Madison Avenue; it has taken me MONTHS to convince my toddler that there really aren’t any raspberries inside that box of Oatios. Even now, he points hopefully to those glistening red jewels at breakfast time, hoping for a miracle. Try explaining what “serving suggestion” means to a toddler.

Enter Special K with Red Berries…I just knew that I could never let my son learn that this box of cereal was different. Any time he requested that cereal, a curious atmospheric phenomenon occurred whereby the aforementioned Red Berries mysteriously stayed behind, while the flakes were transferred to his bowl. (More berries for Mommy, that way). Did I feel guilty for withholding berries from my baby? Well, I might have, except that this child can put away a pint of dried strawberries in nothing flat and then frantically sign for more. Cooking extra meals I might be, but I will NOT pick out berries from a whole box of cereal. We all have our standards. (And it would be very expensive way to buy dried strawberries).

I was content in my duplicity until this morning, when…Daddy let the big red berry out of the bag. It’s my own fault for not including him in my deceit. At least I wasn’t in the room at the time, so I didn’t have to endure seeing the light of wonder in my son’s eyes turn to cruel understanding that Mommy has been lying. Maybe I can airbrush those raspberries off of the Oatios box.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Mouths of Babes, Part II

I always swore that I wouldn’t be one of those moms who make separate meals for their kids. My master plan was to introduce a variety of flavors early on, so Junior wouldn’t experience culinary culture shock when he made the leap from baby food to table food. So, I started adding small amounts of curry powder, soy sauce, and other flavorings that I cook with regularly so that he’d get used to the flavors in the food served at our house.

For over a year I’ve been strategizing, cooking, and serving him a healthy, balanced diet that includes a dizzying array of fresh fruit and a decent number of vegetables. Some examples: I use an overnight method to cook organic, steel-cut oats for his breakfast porridge (enhanced with unsweetened applesauce, almond butter, and sometimes ground flaxseeds). While he naps, I cook organic green veggies (broccoli or kale; frozen green beans or Brussels sprouts in a pinch), roast a Butternut squash, or microwave sweet potatoes to use at lunch or dinner, or even as snacks. The freezer is always stocked with kiddie-sized portions of homemade soups, stews, lasagna, muffins, and waffles for meals and snacks when I didn’t have time to cook during the day.

In other words, an embarrassingly large portion of my time is spent to ensure that an overabundance of healthy food is available to serve to my child on a moment’s notice.

In the middle of a cooking frenzy one day, it dawned on me that I was doing the very thing I’d vowed to avoid. I AM making separate meals for my child, but not because he’s a picky eater. The sad truth is that Mommy is a picky eater and she eats, well, poorly. As long as my son will accept it, I’ll keep giving him plain yogurt with tahini and wheat germ. But I’ll also keep sneaking bites of donut when I go into the pantry to get his organic, high-fiber crackers.

Discovering a dirty little secret about oneself is one thing; actually doing something about it is, well - is it necessary to do anything? If I’m making extra meals in the name of health, rather than catering to a picky toddler, it’s okay, right? With the way our schedules run, we don’t really have a family meal at our house, so we have some time before Junior discovers that Mommy and Daddy eat according to different rules. The day of reckoning will come, though, and I suspect that in the end, my boy will join his father (and me) on the Dark Side. Hopefully the positive effects of his current, über-healthy diet will carry on long after he begins to think of Cheetos an orange vegetable.

The Mouths of Babes

I’d heard that having children changed your life, but I didn’t realize that included my perspective on food. For example: serving sizes. I vaguely recall hearing my friends grumble about the tiny amounts of food that they could coax their children to eat. So, I wasn’t completely surprised to discover that 3/8th of a mini-muffin are more than sufficient to fuel my toddler for an entire morning. What did come as a shock, though, was the reason why: a mini-muffin is much larger than it innocently appears to be.

Don’t believe me? Try this: place half of a mini-muffin on a plate. Cut the half into quarters, then - and this is the key step - use your fingers to carefully squish each piece into crumbs. (It’s a delicate operation. You want to break up the muffin without compressing it. If you can’t master the technique, borrow someone’s toddler and have them do it for you). Magically, the muffin half will grow into an enormous pile of fluffy muffin bits. It’s a huge portion! No wonder our little ones full up so quickly.

Still not convinced? Take the plate into your living room and shake the crumbs all over your couch. Now measure the surface area of the muffin-coated regions and back-calculate to get the total volume of muffin. Or, just trust me when I tell you that those muffin bits will have mysteriously multiplied into a full-sized muffin.

It turns out that the food professionals who write baby food cookbooks are wise to this bit of infant wizardry and have built correction factors into their recipes. I remember thinking that Ruth Yaron (author of “Super Baby Food”) must be nuts for suggesting that my baby would consume ½ to 1 cup of yogurt in a meal (even if he didn’t eat anything else). The actual amount of yogurt that goes down the hatch, however, is on the order of 2 tablespoons, leaving plenty for him to spread around. (And did you all know that it’s possible to cover every surface in your kitchen with less than half a cup of yogurt? More food magic, brought to you by your friendly neighborhood toddler).

For my part, I’m thinking that eating like a toddler just might be the key to a successful diet plan. It takes a lot longer to eat a muffin when you have to hunt down each crumb. If you have a dog you’ll eat even less because you’ll be competing for muffin bits as you search all over the couch. Ah, but the symbiotic feeding habits of dogs and babies is a topic for another post.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Loss and Translation

Yesterday, my friend Marta came over to make paczki, a Polish donut that is traditionally prepared before the Lenten season. My husband, Jeff, is Polish-American and his family also makes them, though they usually have their paczki closer to Easter.

Like many treasured family recipes, Jeff’s family really didn’t have an exact recipe for paczki – his grandmother (Babci, in Polish) just knew when the stop adding the flour, when to stop kneading, when the dough was ready. Fortunately Jeff’s parents had the foresight to sit down with Babci and figure out just how much flour was being added and to describe, in some detail, how the dough looked when it was ready. Thus the treasured family recipe was preserved.

…until they started tinkering with it. Can you use more whole eggs, fewer yolks? Can you cut back on the butter? Some cooks just can’t resist altering a recipe (myself included). In this case, the paczki recipe got somewhat leaner for a while, then slid back toward its original all-egg-yolk glory (what’s the point of trying to make low-fat dough that’s going to be deep-fried, after all). I doubt that the paczki being made this year are strictly according to Babci’s original recipe. I also doubt that, in the end, it truly matters. So many things affect our perceptions of taste; would any paczki, other than those made by Babci herself and eaten when we were children, ever taste just like Babci’s?

The paczki themselves seem to differ from one family to the next. Most paczki lovers, it seems, dream of jelly donuts as the season approaches. Jeff’s family adds raisins to the dough, shapes it into balls for frying and skips the jelly. One family I know fries balls of dough, then splits them in half and fills them with both jelly and whipped cream. (Talk about decadent…).

The paczki we made yesterday were filled with plum butter. Marta brought her cookbook from home and translated the recipe as we worked, so I’m thinking that those paczki must be pretty darn authentic. Unless we missed something in the translation. I must admit, I preferred them to the raisin-studded version of Jeff’s childhood, and I’ll probably switch over to the new recipe from here on. It might turn out for the best – just having paczki in the house should be enough to bring back memories of childhood treats, but since the recipe is so different, Jeff won't be sad that they aren't just like Babci's.