Tips & Techniques

Easy Sexy Garlic Quinoa by Anne

IMG_8965-3

If you're an avid quinoa lover, you might know how it's almost nutritionally perfect--a vegetarian source of complete protein.  In ancient times the Incas regarded quinoa to be sacred, using it as an offering to the sun god, Inti.  Some Incans even worshipped quinoa itself.  So I sure do feel like an a-hole when I get bored eating it.

This is more of an idea than a recipe, but it blows my mind every time.   My 5 year old kid even loves it, and that's saying something.  When I eat this luscious, full-bodied version of quinoa, there is no boredom, only love.  Make it even better by adding some minced veggies, fried egg, or even leftovers to have some fried-rice-style goodness.

Ingredients (amounts vary depending on your taste. Don't be shy with that garlic) :

  • Quinoa
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic
  • Water
  • Salt

Directions:

  1. Cook up a batch of quinoa (or use leftovers).  
  2. Warm some olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  
  3. Briefly cook several cloves of minced garlic in the pan until the seductive aroma of garlic fills the room (no more than 15 seconds--DO NOT LET IT BROWN).  
  4. Immediately dump in the quinoa.   Pour in a few tablespoons of water or stock to avoid scorching, and stir completely.  Adding a small amount of water is very important and adds a surprising feeling of luxury to the texture.  
  5. Allow water to evaporate and soak in, about 1 minute.  
  6. Sprinkle with Maldon's sea salt (or other flaky salt).  
  7. Enjoy thoroughly.  Thank ancient Andean peoples.

Making Sole Meunière by Anne

sole.meuniere

sole.meuniere

Filet of Sole Meunière

Fat, buttery snowflakes are plopping on the front yard, and I'm not even glad.  Why?  Because I want to go to school tomorrow--to have the opportunity to make braised sweetbreads.  As in, cow's thymus gland.  I didn't think I'd be excited about it, but today I put them into water to soak overnight, and once I had my hands on them, I was very intrigued by their complete oddity.  My classmate told me today that getting the membranes off is a pain in the neck.  The curiosity has taken over.  What will it be like?  Also, how will it taste after braising a couple hours in a sauce?

Today I cooked up some Filet of Sole Meunière at school (24 times).  You can look up the recipe for this just about anywhere, but I'd like to share with you some of the techniques, guidelines, and tricks taught to me by Chef KG and also by Steve, a 5th Quarter who was helping in the kitchen today.

Sole Meunière is a simple and intensely tasty way to eat your butter.  It's fried in butter, then served with a lemony butter sauce.

Heat your pan over medium-high to high heat, without adding fat yet.  Sprinkle your fish with salt and pepper.

After the pan is hot (no need to use a non-stick if you do this right), add clarified butter.  As you let the butter heat up, dredge the fish in flour.  Only do this at the last minute or the flour will get gummy.

The fish is then fried in the hot clarified butter, on both sides. Using clarified butter for this is great because it has a higher smoke point.  Your fish is so thin that you'll want to use high heat to get a nice, crusty finish on each side before that sucker is all cooked through.  It only takes a couple of minutes.

It's a delicate fish.  Flip once.  Start with presentation side down (flesh side, not skin side--even if the skin is off) on the pan.

After removing the sole and arranging it on your serving plate, you add some (not-clarified) butter to the pan and brown it, making "beurre noisette."  Noisette means hazelnut.  The milk solids in butter become brown and nutty in appearance and aroma.

After you finish browning your butter--hence adding more complex flavors to the sauce you're building in the pan, you add some lemon juice.

Here's a trick Steve taught me today with that lemon juice.  Tilt the pan over your heat so that all the butter is at the bottom.  Add the lemon juice from the top, so it runs down the super-hot pan to finally reach the butter at the bottom.  By doing this, you reduce the lemon juice briefly, in its trip down.  I have no idea how much reduction you get by doing that, but it sure is fun.

After the lemon juice, add chopped parsley to your sauce.  Quickly swirl, then pour over the fish on the plate(s).  Garnish with lemon slices and more parsley (if desired).

Culinary School, Week I by Anne

IMG_8577 It sure feels surreal to step on the speedy river raft of a Life Dream.  When you fantasize about something for so many years--decades, even--it's weird to start experiencing the real-life details that accompany the dream.  Fluorescent lights.  Combination locks.  Attendance.

The first week of culinary school was a heaping platter of details.  We survived a four-day onslaught of information about the school's program and individual instructor expectations.  Being in a cohort-style group, the 26 of us managed not to get lost by more or less shuffling around together from place to place. 

Seattle Culinary Academy's program itself is brilliantly organized, and it runs like a well-oiled machine.  The whole system must have taken years to perfect.   I wish I could draw you a diagram of how it all works--it's that cool.  Anyway, as first-quarter students, we'll rotate through many experiences during these next weeks, both in our own kitchen and those of the more advanced students. 

Some days I'll be in our 1st quarter kitchen doing prep for SCA student lunches, other days I'll be in the galley washing pots, and others I'll bus tables in the school's two restaurants (for which the more advanced students cook).  On other rotation days, I'll visit the advanced students' kitchens, and they'll give me something innocuous to do while I observe them in action, making me both useful and able to absorb what's to come. 

The teachers themselves seem amazing, too.  I'll likely be telling more about them as the weeks and quarters pass.  Chef Gregg Shiosaki, the one who teaches us the bulk of our first quarter theory and practicum, comes from a well-rounded professional background and obviously holds high standards for himself and us.  I reckon this is the kind of chef you want teaching the new lot--a teacher that people want to work hard for.  On the first or second day he told us that we should walk with purpose and pride when we are in the kitchen.  When we cook, we hold ourselves accountable, and we present what we have prepared with pride, not carelessness. 

Here's something I liked from his knife demonstration yesterday.  It's about onion slices versus julienned onions (example pictured above).   During the demonstration Chef Gregg was showing us sliced and julienned onions. To explain the different cuts, I'll pretend the onion's a globe, with north and south poles.  If half an onion lies north/south on a cutting board, flat side down, then onion slices are cut through the "lines of latitude," east to west, basically making half onion rings.  Julienned onions are cut north to south, like lines of longitude, or time zones.  Julienned onions require angled cutting near the cutting board to create consistent shapes.  In the picture above, the slices are on the left and the juliennes are on the right. 

So, why do we care about the difference between slices and julienne cuts for onions?  When you cut slices, you have cut against the grain of the onion, which makes them easier to break down easily in soups, and also makes them easier to eat in salads; julienned onions, since they are sliced along the fiber lines,  would be more stringy and less easy to eat raw in salad.  Sometimes you want your onions to retain their form in certain cooked dishes, though, such as a stir fry.  So juliennes are better for that. 

On some level I must have known all of this and how the onion fibers affect different cut types.  It's common sense, right?  Chef Gregg reminds us to use our common sense quite a bit.  Still, though, this small fact has filled me with geeky glee today.  It's the sort of "Ah ha!" that I've been hoping will fill my next 7 quarters.

What to Do with Leftover Pork Chops by Anne

bbq pork sandwich For me, this new month of October is so full of awesomeness that I don't even know what to do with myself.  First of all, tomorrow is my first day of culinary school.  I am giddy with excitement and might be up late tonight.  After years of teaching school, I forgot what it's like to be on the student end of the business, having no idea of what is in store for me.  It's a wild feeling, like sitting on a surfboard anticipating a really gorgeous and gnarly wave.

The other excitement in October is the Opportunity To Be A Better Person. With Unprocessed October we get to eat healthier, greener, and probably cheaper.  I've made a good menu.   And by good, I also mean that I took seasonality into account, along with keeping everything as local as possible. 

Wow.  I am (and probably you are) wondering: when school starts, am I going to be able to be this intentional anymore?  That's one of the great things about Seattle Culinary Academy, though.  Their mission includes sustainable practices.  These people walk their talk.  So hopefully, it will be a breeze to walk right alongside them and feed the family well in the meantime!  This is what I'm hoping for, and I'll definitely keep you posted.  Green, healthy, frugal, busy?  What has to give? Does anything?

One sustainable practice, of course, is to avoid wasting food.  Here's where the leftover pork chops come in.  On Friday I tried a new recipe for spice-crusted pork chops that had an intriguing-sounding combination of spices.  I will not share this recipe with you, because it was, in a word, gross.  Did the recipe writer even taste this dish? Ever?   It reminded me of a potluck, where you put too many different flavors on your plate, and, while chatting and plate-balancing, you accidentally take a bite of several people's contributions at once.  Hmm.  I detect notes of kitchen sink.

Meanwhile, though, I had a couple pounds of good pork that had been cooked and crusted within this gross-kitchen-sink combo.  What to do? 

Sunday night I tackled the problem with pork fried rice.  I trimmed the outer layer off the pork, sliced it thinly, and sauteed it on high heat with onions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, mixed veggies and a batch of cooked rice.  At the end, I added a couple of beaten eggs and stirred them in, frying everything some more.  The secret to good fried rice is to not stir too much.  The crusty bits are mighty fine, especially after you add the egg. 

After dinner I realized that I had not used all the pork.  "Are you kidding me?" I asked the tupperware dish.  Tupperware does not kid.  Having used all my big containers to freeze items for Unprocessed October, I had split the large pork chops in two small, unfunny containers. 

So, tonight I trimmed the pork outsides again, rinsed them off, and really shredded them up.  I threw the bits in a slow cooker and added my mom's barbeque sauce.  With a few hours of cooking, a Tall Grass Bakery baguette, and salad greens from our garden, suddenly we were living large and not eating gross leftovers. 

So.  What to do with leftover porkchops?  In a nutshell, cover the previous flavors with strong elements like soy sauce and barbeque sauce.  Feel grateful and don't waste stuff.

Making Cheese, Part II -- Milk Tasting by Anne

IMG_7533 In our cheesemaking class last week we had a milk tasting, which was surprisingly eye-opening.  The contrast between cow’s milk in four different states--raw, pasteurized, pasteurized/homogenized, and ultrapasturized—really showed up when we tasted them one after the other. 

The raw milk, in its original form from a Jersey cow, was our first taste and seriously intense in flavor.  Everything was there in the glass.  The pasture was in there.  The wind was in there.  I was a baby calf drinking it.  And yet, I found the flavor a little wild for my sheltered palate’s comfort zone, because I’m used to pasteurized milk.  Imagine the benefits of that flavor complexity for cheesemaking, though!

Next we tasted pasturized milk, which is raw milk that has been heated to kill bacteria, which can make it safer by killing potentially harmful bacteria, but it also kills some of the extra flavors and potentially beneficial bacteria, too.  Drinking milk that is not pasteurized, in its raw form, is controversial.   Anyway, that’s a whole different topic.  As far as flavor goes, this milk, which was pasteurized by the instructor on the stovetop, tasted less “interesting” than the raw milk but was still creamy and lush.  Pasturized/not homogenized milk is sometimes called "cream line" milk because after sitting awhile, the cream rises to the top and needs to be re-shaken if you want to incorporate it back in.

Further altering milk’s flavor is homogenization, which is the act of breaking up and dispersing (through a tiny tube) fat globules throughout the milk.    I don’t know if it was the power of suggestion, but our third taste, the homogenized milk, didn’t taste quite as good to me as the pasteurized-only milk.  I went home later and compared my cream-line (i.e., not homogenized) pasteurized milk and my husband’s organic pasteurized/homogenized milk, and I preferred mine.  I asked my husband to try the two in a blind taste test, and he could identify which one was not homogenized and said that it tasted richer.  

By the way, I just now went to the fridge to double check if I could taste the difference, and I can.  I just drank (only) 1% fat cream-line milk versus some full-fat homogenized milk.  Before I poured the cream-line, I shook it up, as always, to re-integrate the cream/fat  into the milk.  Surprisingly, the two milks, despite the difference in fat content, tasted equally rich.  The cream-line tasted like pure, perfect, childhood milk.  Sitting in a tree with a plate of cookies.  Somehow the homogenized milk tasted…corporate.  What am I saying? I don’t know.  There was a different aftertaste and it reminded me of office buildings. 

Meanwhile, back at the class, our fourth glass to taste was ultrapasturized milk.  Ultrapasturization uses even higher heat than pasteurization and kills all organisms in milk.  It was the clear loser in flavor, a sad-clown letdown compared to the others.  Sure, you can store it for months.  You can also store watered-down Elmer’s glue for months.    You can’t make cheese with glue or with ultrapasturized milk. 

In terms of cheesemaking, raw milk seems to be a winner.  Because it still contains so much beneficial bacteria, less needs to be added to make good cheese.  In U.S. stores, cheese made from raw milk must be aged for 60 days or longer before it is sold, to be fully rid of potential harmful bacteria.   If you make cheese with pasteurized milk, you’ll need to have a bacterial starter for most cheese recipes.  If you use homogenized milk, your curd is softer (less firm) and you might need to adjust a recipe for this as well by adding calcium chloride. 

Myself, I’ll probably be making cheese with pasteurized milk (not homogenized) and plan to add more bacterial starter.  If I ever get a good, affordable source of raw milk—as in, healthy, grass-fed cows—I’ll do that.  But for now, look out, pasteurized milk.  I’m going to cheddar you.  Soon.

Easy Polenta Squares Using Piggyback Cookery by Anne

butternut squash polenta squares Can you get "slow food" out of quick steps?  Turns out, yes.  Three nights in a row we ate really well, even though I was feeling deeply lazy. The only thing keeping me from ordering pizza delivery on Saturday was that something was about to go bad in the fridge. 

Monday's polenta squares started as Saturday chicken guilt.   

Saturday

The "use or freeze by" date was upon us.  I cleaned and rubbed the waning chicken with lots of rosemary, thyme, sea salt, and peppercorns.  It went into the mini-rotisserie (or a low-heat oven would have been fine) for an hour and a half.  Nestled on top of some fresh greens, that chicken was mighty fine, considering the amount of hands-on cooking time was about 10 minutes. 

After dinner we threw the bones in a pot with chunks of onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and bay leaf, with enough water to cover.  I brought the pot to boil while cleaning up the kitchen, and let the pot simmer until it was time to go to bed. 

When we strained the stock into a bowl, we tasted it.  It was a rockstar quality stock, though a mite salty.  I knew it would become a science project if I didn't use it up quickly, because I would be too lazy to find the right dish to freeze it in. 

Sunday

I was late getting home.  The quickest stock-using solution I could think of was to peel a butternut squash, shred it in the cuisinart, and boil it with the stock, along with some nutmeg, honey, and white pepper.  The cooking was quick--about 10 minutes--because the squash was in small shreds. Rinsing the cuisinart during boiling time and using it to puree the soup added almost no time to the whole deal.  We had butternut squash soup, along with bacon sandwiches (bacon prepared on a cookie sheet in the oven).  Dinner took about 15 minutes to make. 

After dinner, we had lots of leftover soup, which I was sure would become next week's compost if we didn't morph it into something new, ASAP.   So it became two other things:  the base for a lunchy lentil soup (Easy! Boil rinsed lentils in the soup with some extra water for a little over half an hour),  and the liquid for cooking polenta.  

While Michael gave Rosalie a bath I made the polenta, washing dishes in between polenta stirrings.  When it was ready, I spread the polenta in a flat layer on a greased jelly roll pan, covered it with wax paper, then slid it into the fridge.  I was feeling super smug at that point.  Most of the work was done now!

The next night, a tired Monday night, all I had to do was cut the smooth, flat polenta into squares, dip it in egg and bread crumbs, and fry the squares in olive oil with slices of onion.  I served the squares with tomato sauce, the fried onions, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.   These little squares were crispy on the outside and full of butternutty, corny richness on the inside.  We ate so well and so happily.  I felt truly recharged by this accidentally thoughtful meal.

Is there a cookbook out there that shows how you can do this on a regular basis?  Using part of one night's meal to make the next night's meal  is not just efficient; it's bringing love and luxury into your day.  It's the gift of time that you somehow stole, the pleasure of slow food by staggering or layering your meals.  You get something slow out of something quick!  Magic.

Love in the Kitchen by Anne

cocina.con.amor.anne Last Friday I was excited to teach a cooking class -- "Cocina Con Amor" -- a Spanish-themed meal for February.  Yes, I wanted to take Valentine's Day into consideration, but really that kind of love was not the sole inspiration for the class.

The central ideas--and a huge driving force in my cooking--had to do with increasing joy in the kitchen and having that translate to even more delicious food for your beloved family, friends, & guests.  The techniques and tips focused around decreasing annoyances & avoiding feeling overwhelmed (as with a dinner party).  I talked about the mostly make-ahead dinner and gave a sample plan for the week before a dinner party, and I gave some concrete cooking and anti-annoyance prep tips.   The evening was so much fun, thanks to the lively and wonderful class participants!  I'll list the menu at the end of the post.

Anyway, I've been thinking a lot lately about how to keep my mood joyful when preparing food.  I mean, moods happen.  What do you do when you're feeling tired, grumpy, sad, or distracted?   Here's what I've been doing lately:

  • Play favorite guilty-pleasure music.  This one is huge for me!  I have one CD that will make my tired and grumpy body start dancing, in spite of me.  I feel a little like a marionette, tugged upward against my will by guitar strings, but it spreads to my brain eventually. It shocks me how well this one works.
  • Think about some things I'm grateful for, especially the people who will be eating the food
  • Pay close attention to the thing I'm doing right then.  This most often occurs to me when I'm cutting things.  Thank goodness, right?  It's nice having my fingers.  It's also fun to listen closely to the rumbling bubbles of pots boiling.
  • Drink water.  This helps the tiredness, anyway.
  • Don't cook, after all (frozen pizza is our lazy last-minute standby)

What are your tricks?

Caramelized Onions & Idiazábal Cheese; Marcona Almonds; Castelvetrano Olives

Cocina Con Amor Menu

  • Tapas/Pintxos - idiazábal cheese skewers with caramelized pearl onions; marcona almonds; olives 
  • Salad - mixed greens with dried apricot, hazelnuts, and sherry vinaigrette
  • Main -cerdo al chilindrόn (saucy braised pork with serrano ham, tomatoes, and fresh & dried peppers)
  • Side -  fideo con azafrán y limones preservados (short capellini scented with saffron & preserved lemons)
  • Dessert - traditional spanish flan

Thank You, Chickens by Anne

rooster

Michael and I love chickens.  We own The History of the Chicken on DVD, we took a class on chickens, and we dressed Rosalie up like a baby chick for Halloween 2008.  They are so adorable, so alert, so interesting!  

Anyway, I probably am genetically predisposed to love chickens; my mom is passionate about keeping chickens and has done so for more years than I can accurately count. This picture of the rooster above is one of "The Three Stooges," some banties that Mom and Stan raised from eggs this year.  They do not produce the bulk of the eggs in the household, but they sure are friendly and cute.  They roam around the property and stick together like a little club, the three of them.

We plan on having chickens here in the city, too.  Anytime now.  The class Michael and I took was about keeping chickens in the city, and we know what we need to know.  Our neighbors up the street also have a few, so we have neighborly and parental support.  But we keep not having chickens.  Why?  You know, because blah, blah, blah, blah.  It will happen.  We have joked before that we were waiting for Rosalie to help care for them, but that excuse is out the window.  She was just feeding the chickens this morning before we left the farm to come back home. 

So.  Why have chickens, besides their companionship and occasional entertainment?  You know the word: eggs.  Oh, there is a difference.  Check it out:

eggs

Hmm.  Guess which egg came from a happy, free, well-loved chicken?  Which one came from a "cage free" egg carton at the store?  If you guessed that the egg on the left, with the robust, vibrant, perky yolk came from Mom and Stan's place, then you're adept at picking up my subtle hints. 

Below is another compare/contrast that I took last spring with the same thought in mind.   I imagine you can tell which is which.

eggs boiled

 

Our neighbors insist that caring for chickens is virtually effortless once things are set up.  My mom would agree, too, although she keeps more chickens, so it may require a bit more effort at her place.  

If you are interested in keeping chickens in your backyard and you happen to live in Seattle, then I recommend taking a class for taking care of chickens at Seattle Tilth.  The guy that taught our class was so great--he had a degree in chicken husbandry, I believe, and he talked about the natural history of the chicken before launching into the nuts and bolts of their care.  By the way, did you know that chickens' ancestors lived in the jungle? 

If having chickens in your backyard or jungle is not an option, or if your parents don't have a few chickens handy of their own, there is still hope to eat fresh and beautiful eggs.  Go to the farmer's market in your area and look for the stalls where they sell eggs.  Identify the stall that always has the longest line as your first clue; then come back extra early another day and get eggs from that stall.   Hope you have a great brunch!

What's a Vegetable? by Anne

spinach I

spinach I

Happy Thanksgiving!  Did you have pumpkin debates at your house, too?  Ours hit us by surprise.  World Championship Punkin Chunkin' was on TV, and after a particularly good launch, some dude on the show commented, "Not bad for a vegetable." 

"Except that a pumpkin's a fruit," I commented, probably smugly.

Mom protested with equal authority, "Except that it's a vegetable." 

"Pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers, watermelon.  All fruits," I insisted.  "They blossom, they have seeds on the inside.  Fruits!  Oh yeah, by the way, did you know that strawberries aren't really fruits? Their seeds are on the outside.  They're in the rose family." 

Now Mom's eyes narrowed suspiciously, a look I recognize from the bluffs we try to pull on each other during Scrabble games, trying to sell fictional words with made-up definitions.  She informed me,  "The only reason I'm not checking this out right now is because I decided I wouldn't use my computer on Thanksgiving..."   I was already opening up my laptop bag and getting online. 

Sure enough, I was right.  So was Mom. The ideal argument conclusion for a day of thanks.

Each time I've ever learned about another "vegetable" actually being a fruit--tomato, capsicum, eggplant, squash--I've gotten a mini thrill.  On a botanical level, they are considered fruits (and yes, the strawberry is botanically a "false fruit"). Knowing this feels like being in on a botany secret. 

However, as I picked up these nuggets of info, it didn't occur to me that there's not an equivalent "vegetable" botanical category as with various fruits. Scientists do use the word vegetable to refer to plants, such as "vegetable matter."   However, fruits and vegetables are not mutually exclusive.  So much for that mental game of Red Rover in which we sort out who's who: "Oh, goody, spinach still gets to be on my side!  The veggies are ahead!  Oh well, you get beans."  

The word "vegetable" is a culinary or cultural term.  Any edible plant or edible part of a plant can be considered a vegetable: leaves, roots, stems, flower buds, bulbs, and even fruits.   And, of course, since the term is culinary and cultural, that means people can come together to decide whether something's a vegetable or not.  For example, in 1893 the US Supreme Court ruled the botanical fruit, tomato, to be a vegetable for taxation purposes.  Cultural vegetable, botanical fruit.   

 Well, now that that's settled, I have to say: Punkin Chunkin'???  A World Championship for it?  This is the first day I've heard of it.  It's a whole different area of food-related science I've been missing out on: physics.

Information Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetable

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/624564/vegetable#

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squash_(plant)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fruit

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_culinary_vegetables

Fun with Tempered Chocolate by Anne

chocolate lego Safety advisory: Lego and train not edible.

The post below is a continuation from the post a couple of months ago about the "shiny science of chocolate."  

When dipping truffles, you can easily tell if your chocoloate is in temper or not by how quickly it sets.  In this picture below, the truffle on the left was dipped in chocolate that was simply melted to 108˚ rather than tempered.  It is still wet, even though it was dipped quite a bit earlier than the truffle on the right, which was dipped in (almost!) tempered chocolate.  Notice, however, that there are a few faint streaks in the truffle on the right.  This is because I jumped the gun on the dipping, and the chocolate wasn't completely in temper yet.  Not enough cocoa butter crystals had formed to be completely stable and consistent yet--I believe this is why you can see those very faint swirls.

compare.tempered

 

Thanks to the new and fabuloso tempering machine, the chocolate did reach perfect temper a few minutes later, and I managed to make some streak-free chocolates. 

However!  There are so many other tiny details that affect the outcome of a truffle.  For example, even when in temper, chocolate can vary in viscosity with each 10th of a degree.  This affects how thick of a crunchy coat the truffle will have.  It's something to think about:  Do you want an eggshell-thin coating around your soft ganache, or something more substantial? This subtle variation  is just one factor to consider.  Others include the texture of the surface--smooth, or swirly ridges?  Perfectly smooth looks elegant, although there is no room for error.  If you choose imperfect ridges, you get some textural interest, plus it's a bit more forgiving.   Also, the sheen can be affected by how you dip the truffle.  If you use a dipping tool, you have the option to make your chocolate very shiny because nothing comes into contact with the surface.  However, it takes longer to use a tool than your fingers. If you do use only your hands, then contact with your fingers gives the chocolate a pearly matte glow, which also looks very pretty, and you can dip much more quickly this way. 

Yep, I'm probably going to try the infinite variations.   If I run out of truffles to practice with, I may move on to rubber duckies.

Lemon Bars: My New Cuss Word(s) by Anne

lemon.cubesWhen I taught 6th Grade math a few years back, I was always looking for ways to make my job harder with fun-for-the-kids activities that tripled my workload.  This resulted in many fine yet amorphous projects, such as writing songs about the properties of triangles and designing your dream room.  One year, around the holidays, I took a turn for the crazier and decided that our geometry unit would be so much more fun if we applied it to making gingerbread houses.  Hey! We could re-visit fractions by tripling recipe amounts, then launch right into architecture plans, calculating the area of gingerbread needed for the square, triangle and rectangle panels to build the houses.

Yes, that's correct.  No graham crackers for me, boy.  Let's get 19 pre-pubescent kids into the school kitchen to make dough, roll it out, cut it into shapes, bake it, and build it--all in a couple of 40 minute periods. 

I've blocked out many of the specifics from this purgatory.  Mostly I remember the moments.  The most vivid one involved me staring in disbelief and panic at my hand mixer that had just been killed dead by attempting to mix the gluey boulder of a gingerbread dough-hunk in a triple-recipe-sized bowl.  From where I stood in the cloud of spilled flour, I could hear something that sounded way too fun over by the tables; it was possibly a dough fight or exuberant winter break plans, or both.  Meanwhile there were multiple pleas for me to come moderate arguments over the hot commodity decorating items like red-hots and pretzels.   

At the end of the day, not one house was completed, and yet all of the candy was gone.   You might be asking yourself,  "What the hell was she thinking?" or, "How did she grade her students on that?"  or, most importantly, "What kind of lame-ass recipe would break a hand mixer?"   I couldn't even investigate that last one, because the recipe is long gone.   I will likely never make gingerbread again for fear of the PTGD (Post Traumatic Gingerbread Disorder).

After that bitter, chaotic day,  "GINGERBREAD!"  became my new cuss word for the year when something was pissing me off.  For a couple of months, the word actually had a greater shivery-rage impact on me than any of those other four letter lightweights.  For me, this word encompassed the feeling you get when you accidentally dump yourself into hell.  Maybe you don't ever accidentally do that.  I do try not to.

But who am I kidding: I think I've found a new cuss word for the season.  That word is "LEMONBARS!"   Most of the lemon bar recipes I've tried  so far said the same thing in their opening blurbs: Lemon bars are so easy to make!  Shut up, recipes.  It probably is easy to make if you're not ME.  Seriously, though, I have learned important tips if you are planning on making lemon bars this holiday season.

First, most lemon bar recipes seem to follow the same concept: Make a quick shortcrust dough, press it into a pan, and briefly bake it to give the shortcrust a head start on cooking.  Make a liquid of eggs, sugar, lemon juice, flour and (sometimes) lemon zest.  Pour it over the crust, and bake it again.  So simple! 

Simple until you remove your zesty treat from the oven, only find your crust has turned into a shrunken cracker floating in lemon sauce--or a springy sheet of lemon gummy worm.  How to avoid these?  Apparently by disregarding all baking times.  They vary wildly in both published cookbooks and internet recipes, even with those same ingredients in similar quantities. 

Most recipes I found state that the crust will bake at 350˚ for about 15 to 20 (or even 35??) minutes, depending on the type of material your pan is made of.  But ignore these times.  If I were you, I'd start peeking at 10 or 15 minutes.  You don't need to brown the thing.  It should only be barely starting to brown around the edges, and most definitely it should be not shrinking yet. 

Some recipes will tell you to cool the crust before adding the lemony liquid, whereas others will tell you to pour it in immediately after removing the parbaked crust from the oven.  I liked the texture of the bars best when pouring the liquid immediately on the hot crust. 

Regardless of whether you poured into a hot or cooled crust, and regardless of the cooking time your recipe advises, remove the bars when the top surface doesn't jiggle when you tap or shake the pan.  I removed my last lemon bar batch yesterday at about 25 minutes, which was less than half the cooking time of a recipe in a well-edited, reputable cookbook.  Oh, also: several recipes out there mention that for this second round of baking to reduce the temp to 300˚.  This seemed to work well for me, especially after the trauma of a previous gummy worm slab.

Finally, I feel that it is helpful to cut the bars into tiny pieces to be palatable.  They are intense and will leave you gasping for water if you make them into the size of a piece of cake.   I am from the lemon zest school of thought, which necessitates generous amounts of sugar to balance the commanding sourness.  So much sugar, in fact, that I'm questioning how important lemon zest is to me, after all. 

Perhaps a mellower (and less sweet) bar will better match my vision for this dessert item for the Corks & Forks menu.  It's a great bite-sized dessert so far, with a trio of happy, sour harmony--the lemon & shortbread cube, the cranberry coulis and the sliver of dried sour cherry.  It's just that I'm curious what would happen if I made the lemon bar play backup singer rather than fronting the band.  That cranberry flavor is quite a party animal and needs more play.

Oh, lordy.  It's true.  I'm going to have to try yet another version. 

LEMONBARS.

Patience, Grasshopper by Anne

IMG_3393

I eat all my French fries on the way home from the burger place.  According to many people’s upbringings, this is not the best idea, especially for kids.  There are so many reasons to wait: maintaining good habits of eating at the table, keeping  the car clean, and developing maturity through delayed gratification.  I ponder this as I reach my hand into the hot, salty bag at the stoplight.  Because there are many reasons to eat fries now, as well.  Well, one reason.  They are hot and perfect now.  This precious moment is fleeting, not to be wasted on my maturity.

You know that fable about the ants and the grasshopper?  The busy ants work hard, preparing through the summer for the colder months to come, and the grasshopper plays all day, enjoying life.  The grasshopper does not heed the ants’ stern warnings, and he winds up croaking dead once the first snow hits.  No way are the ants giving that slacker any of their hard-earned food.  The Disney version actually depicts the ants as much friendlier folks, and they invite the grasshopper inside for food and shelter during the winter, as long as he’ll be their fiddler. 

With fries, the decision to be a grasshopper is simple.  My semi-impulsive personality jibes with the hot French fry.  But actually, I do work hard.  I do try to make efforts to be antly whenever possible.  After all, there are bigger concerns in the world where thinking ahead trumps carpe diem.  I’m thinking savings accounts.  I’m thinking insurance policies.  I’m thinking tomatoes.

At the moment there are five varieties of tomatoes growing in my backyard.  I forget about them for one day, and kablam!  More tomatoes have exploded with color than I would have predicted.   Languid, heavy and vibrant, they invite you to pick them and eat them immediately, still warm from the sun.   Sometimes we control ourselves enough (or engorge ourselves enough) to actually get a few into that colander which I optimistically bring outside for picking.  Then we can have fresh tomato salad, gazpacho, a myriad of sauces, or just some slices with dinner.   If it involves tomatoes, I’m happy. 

 “Sun” drying tomatoes is an example of being antly, yet lazy.  How cool is it to place supple, round tomatoes into a barely warm oven, and after hours of doing absolutely nothing, remove impossibly delicious dried tomatoes from that oven?  Suddenly you are able to bring sunshine with you, deep into December, without much effort at all.

Sun dried tomatoes’ versatility, as you probably know, is vast.  I add them to sauces, appetizers, sandwiches, and salads.  They’re great in a frittata, bread, and hash browns.  Heck, you could eat them three times a day, with all the meals.  I probably would, but unfortunately I have an unsurprising problem:  I have a hard time keeping enough of these sun-dried morsels to store at all.  Most go straight from the pan into my mouth. 

And here come those cold days.  Too bad I can’t play the fiddle.

"Sun" Dried Tomatoes

Generally when I make dried tomatoes I use nothing but tomatoes, because I want flexibility in how I use them later.  However, if you have recipe in mind for using these dried tomatoes, herbs and flavorings can come in handy.

These are directions for drying tomatoes in the oven, but today I am actually borrowing a neighbor’s dehydrator. It’s pretty great, and I may even get one, eventually.  But the oven is essentially as straightforward to use.

Ingredients:

  • Several pounds of ripe, firm, organic tomatoes.  People say that Roma tomatoes are the best for this, but I use all kinds, from Black Prince heirlooms to regular slicing tomatoes to Sungold cherry tomatoes.  Just choose the best tomatoes you can find.
  • Sea salt or kosher salt(optional)
  • Dried herbs, such as basil, thyme, or marjoram (optional)
  • Olive oil (optional)

Directions:

  1. Set your oven at 150˚ or the lowest setting possible. 
  2. Wash the tomatoes and prepare them for drying: If the tomatoes are small, like Roma, then split them in half lengthwise, notching out the core.  If using larger tomatoes, make several slices to approximate the thickness of half a Roma and remove the core from the slice that holds it.  If using cherry tomatoes (note that tomatoes shrink to about ¼ their original size, so the cherry varieties won’t yield much dried tomato), dip the cherry tomatoes in boiling water for a moment until their skins split, then quickly remove them. Don’t worry about their cores.
  3. Spread out the tomato halves, cut side up, (or slices) on metal cake racks or sheet pans.  Cake racks are better, because they allow better circulation and require less turning. 
  4. If desired, sprinkle salt, herbs, and/or oil over the tomatoes.  Remember that their flavor will condense considerably when they dry.
  5. The amount of time it takes to dry the tomatoes depends on the thickness of your cut and the heat of your oven.  Plan on warming them for 10 or even up to 20 hours.  The heat is very low (hey, not that much higher than a very hot day in Oklahoma!), so this is why this takes so long.
  6. After about 8 to 10 hours, remove the racks and turn the tomatoes over.  Rotate the racks to different levels to achieve balanced heat.
  7. Check the tomatoes again after 4 to 6 hours.  Leave them in if they need more time.
  8. You know that  the tomatoes are ready when they have the rubbery, leathery feel of fresh raisins.  They should not be crispy, nor should they be very sticky or resemble their original smoothness or size.  They will probably be about ¼ the size of the original slices.   You’d probably better go ahead and taste one or two (or five) to make sure.
  9. When they are finished, remove the racks from the oven and cool completely on the counter.  Store in an airtight container.  They will last for months.

Makes the same number of slices that you started with, minus the bites you took to “test” the texture.

The Shiny Science of Chocolate by Anne

chocolate.trufflesIt’s shiny, it’s snappy, and it’s taken for granted.  How many times in my life have I sunk my teeth into a glossy bar of chocolate without appreciating the science and care involved in keeping this chocolate from melting in my hand?   (To answer my own rhetorical question with basic math, it had to be at least once a month, since puberty, until about a year ago, making it 300 times, bare minimum.)  A bowl full of shiny chocolate bars that have been melted down and then left to cool naturally will result in chocolate that crumbles when broken and has a dull, matte finish.  It melts more easily than its original form, too.   Why does this change happen?   Well, I'm warning you, the answer involves molecules. When I was learning about how to dip chocolate truffles in tempered chocolate last year, I wanted to know more about the mysterious and specific instructions about tempering.  Why do you need to go out and buy a chocolate thermometer?  Why do you heat and cool the chocolate more than once?  Why shouldn't I just heat 'er up and start dipping?  The beautiful science behind tempering helped me to understand and appreciate the method to the melting.   

If you are short on time, just skip down to an exquisite chocolate truffle recipe with fresh mint (mint optional).  The truffles are dipped in shiny tempered chocolate and cause a show-stopping hubbub in the room.  If you have a few moments, though, read on to celebrate yet another reason why chocolate is so amazing.

You might already know that sweet chocolate is made of cocoa solids and sugar suspended in the lovely, melty cocoa butter.  However, in spite of this melty quality, cocoa butter, like diamonds or graphite, is a crystalline substance.  In fact, cocoa butter can have more than one form of crystal in its structure.  In cocoa butter there are actually six different kinds of crystals, labeled Types I through VI, each with increasing stability and melting points. 

One of the six types—Type V—is considered optimal for making candy bars or couverture.  Besides having a higher melting point (second only to type VI), Type V has a more stable structure than the first four, resulting in the glossy sheen and a pleasing snap when you break it.  Type VI, while also possessing the desired attributes in even higher amounts, is not desirable.  Its high melting point causes a less pleasant mouthfeel—plus, it’s difficult and timely to form. Meanwhile, the four less stable crystals melt too easily, have a matte finish, and crumble when broken.  

Left to its own devices when cooling, chocolate will start to form a hodgepodge of all these crystal forms.  In other words, left to its own devices when cooling, chocolate will make a much less fun Easter Bunny.   The good news? Even if you have untempered chocolate to deal with, you can still bring it back to temper.

There are several ways to temper chocolate, and I've been using what is called the seed method.  You melt it until it reaches a temperature that is high enough to break all crystal bonds (but not too high, which will separate the cocoa butter from the solids).  Then you cool it slowly, further bringing the temperature down by stirring in some some chunks of still-tempered chocolate (such as pieces of a candy bar, but I’ve been using bulk chocolate).  The chocolate starts to generate crystals of varying types, but with the tempered chocolate nearby, many disordered molecules fall in line and start to form more type V crystals.  However, other crystals have had a chance to form in the meantime, even with an abundance of type V.  This is why you heat it back up again very slowly to melt the less stable, easily melt-able crystals, so that all you have left are (mostly) type V.  The newly free molecules naturally start to form into the adjacent type V crystals as long as it remains at this optimal temperature that keeps type V stable and melts the other ones. 

If the chocolate starts to harden on the sides as I'm dipping chocolate, I'm supposed to slightly heat it up again, but I've discovered that messing with it too much will allow too many lower types of crystals to form when it cools again, and this disorder will cause streaks and less stability in the chocolate. 

Here is an example of pretzels dipped in tempered chocolate compared to pretzels dipped in the same chocolate after I messed around with it.  Only a few minutes' (and degrees') difference makes a dramatic visual impact.

chocolate.pretzels.tempered.and.not

Besides the beautiful fact that chocolate is a crystalline substance, it’s also interesting to note that chocolate is an extremely dry medium.  A single drop of water in smooth, “wet”-seeming melted chocolate will result in a stiff, grainy, gritty mess.  The intense dryness immediately absorbs the moisture and the chocolate has the inclination to clump up around the water molecules.   So, when tempering the chocolate you not only have to keep your eye closely on the temperature of the chocolate—you also need to make sure that no water comes into contact with your chocolate, including condensed steam from a double boiler, if you use one.  If the chocolate does seize, you can still use the chocolate for other baking purposes, just not for dipping. 

So many details and so much attention for a little snap and shine.  Is it worth it?  Absolutely.  Once you take a bite of a truffle that you have dipped into tempered chocolate, you’ll see what I mean.   You pick up this beautiful treasure that you yourself crafted.  It glows in your hand (rather than melting in it).  When you test it with your teeth, you feel the pleasing snap, followed by a rich, softer center full of smooth and creamy chocolate ganache.  The two textures and flavors swirl together, one creamier and one more intense.  Creating this flavor experience for yourself—and those you love, if you love them enough to share—is priceless.  Or at least it’s worth the price of a chocolate thermometer.

Chocolate Truffles with Fresh Mint

Adapted from Pure Chocolate by Fran Bigelow.  You can make truffles the traditional French way and sidestep the tempered chocolate completely for an easy yet elegant indulgence.  The mint is also optional; without it, the chocolate truffles are pure, deep and will showcase the flavor of whatever chocolate you use.  With the mint, you taste clear notes of a fresh garden in contrast to the dark chocoloate.

Ingredients:

  1. 12 ounces semisweet chocolate--best quality available
  2. 1 ½ cups heavy cream (you only need 1 cup if making recipe without mint)
  3. 3 T unsalted butter
  4. A very large handful of fresh spearmint leaves
  5. 1 recipe of tempered semisweet chocolate (optional)

Directions:

  1. Using a sharp knife (many people find it easiest to use a serrated knife for this), chop the chocolate into small and relatively uniform pieces. It’s easiest to make a cut every few millimeters, chopping from the corners, rotating every few cuts.   Transfer the chopped chocolate into a heat-resistant bowl.
  2. Bring the cream just to a boil in a small saucepan.  Add the mint leaves—enough to fully inundate the cream—and stir the leaves so that they are fully covered by the cream.  Cover the pan and let steep for a half an hour.  (To intensify the mint flavor, you can put the mint and cream in the refrigerator overnight after steeping.)  Remove the mint leaves, and return the cream just to a boil.
  3. Pour ONE CUP of the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and let it sit for one minute.  With a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir the cream from the center, gradually working your way outward until all the chocolate is melted and incorporated into the cream.  You don’t want to whisk or whip the mixture; the goal is to make the smoothest emulsion possible. 
  4. Cover the ganache with plastic wrap so that the wrap is touching the surface of the ganache.  Let it stand overnight (or for at least 8 hours) at room temperature to allow the flavors to meld.  This step also improves the ganache’s consistency for rolling into shapes.
  5. In preparation to make the truffles, set out your butter early so that the butter will be at room temperature when mixing it into the ganache.  They should be approximately the same temperature as each other.  In a separate bowl, beat the butter until it is soft.
  6. Carefully fold the butter into the chocolate, fully incorporating the butter until you have a glossy, smooth ganache.
  7. When making truffles, smaller is better.  You should be able to eat the truffle in no more than 2 or 3 small bites.  To make the truffles, you have a couple of choices.  You can put the ganache into a pastry bag fitted with a ½ -inch round and pipe the ganache into 1–inch spheres onto a parchment lined sheet pan, and place the truffles in the refrigerator to set.  Later, slice off the “tails” left by the tip.  Instead of using a pastry bag, you can also cover the ganache, refrigerate it for 20 minutes, and scoop the ganache out by teaspoonfuls, or with a small melon baller, then finish shaping the ganache into rough 1-inch spheres with your palms, placing them on the paper-lined pan.
  8. At this point, you can opt to use the traditional French method for truffles and roll the balls in cocoa powder.  If you choose to make this type of truffle, it’s best to eat the truffles within a few days.  Store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. 
  9. If you wish to enrobe the chocolates in a crisp coat, follow the directions below for tempering chocolate and dipping truffles.

Makes about 60 truffles

Tempering Chocolate 

Ingredients and Equipment

  • 2 pounds good quality semi-sweet chocolate (Fran recommends 56% cacao.  I use Callebaut semi-sweet in large blocks, found in the bulk section of one of those more expensive grocery stores. It contains slightly less cacao than she recommends, but it still works beautifully)
  • A chocolate tempering thermometer (not a candy thermometer; it will not register low enough temperatures)
  • A double boiler (or stainless bowl that fits into a saucepan without touching the bottom)

Directions:

  1. Set aside about half a pound to use later.  Chop this reserved chocolate into chunks. 
  2. If you are dipping chocolate truffles and have been storing them in a cooler spot, make sure they are sitting out at room temperature while you are tempering the chocolate so that they don’t lower the tempered chocolate’s temperature too much.
  3. Chop the remaining chocolate into small pieces, and place the pieces in the top of a double boiler, with the water level in the bottom pot NOT touching the top pot.  Rather than using a double boiler, I use a stainless bowl over a small pot filled with about an inch of water (not touching the bowl).  It is essential that no water touches the chocolate or even the base of the bowl (which will make the chocolate heat too fast). 
  4. On low heat, slowly heat and stir the chocolate with a dry spoon or paddle until it reaches 115˚, which is high enough to break the crystal structures.  Do not exceed 120˚.  When chocolate gets too hot, the cocoa butter separates from the solids.
  5. Remove the chocolate from the heat.  Add the reserved chunks of “seed” chocolate and stir them into the melted chocolate so that the chunks melt into the chocolate.  Cool chocolate until it reaches 82˚ - 84˚.  Remove chunks from the melted chocolate, if any remain.
  6. Return the bowl or pot back to the simmering water for a brief period until the chocolate reaches 88˚ - 90˚.  This takes only a few seconds.  Do not let the temperature exceed 90˚ or it will likely lose its temper. If this does happen, you can repeat the process from step 4.  
  7. You can test to see if the chocolate is tempered by spreading a small amount of chocolate onto parchment.  If it sets up to a glossy finish in a couple of minutes, then it is in temper.   You are now ready to dip.

Provides coating for about 100 truffles or other small centers

Dipping into Tempered Chocolate

  1. There is more than one way to dip truffles so that they are evenly coated.   One method, as detailed in Fran Bigelow’s book, is to drop the truffle into the tempered chocolate with one clean hand so that it is completely submerged, then remove it from the melted chocolate with your other hand, gently shaking off the excess.  Fran also mentions that you can use a dipping or dinner fork to lift out the chocolate centers.  Another method that my chocolatier friend showed me involves having some of the chocolate in one of your immaculately clean palms.  Pick up a truffle and place it into your chocolaty palm, then roll it around in your palm to make a thin coat all around the truffle.  Whichever method you choose, work rapidly to avoid affecting the temperature, and place coated truffles on a parchment-lined pan or plate. 
  2. After you dip all of your chocolate truffles, you will have leftover chocolate to dip into, so you can use the opportunity to experiment with dipping other foods into the chocolate before the chocolate is no longer in temper.  You could also pour the leftover tempered chocolate into molds. If you are dipping something that doesn’t require complete enrobing, such as candied orange peel or pretzels, you can just dip the item directly into the chocolate, gently shake off the excess, and place it on a parchment-lined pan.
  3. Save any leftover chocolate by pouring it onto a piece of wax paper or parchment, let the chocolate cool completely, then peel off and break up the chocolate.  Store in an airtight container in a cool place.  Use this chocolate for baking. 
  4. Store truffles in an airtight container.  The truffles will taste best within a week, but they can stand airtight storage in a cool, dry place for quite a bit longer than that.

Main information sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocolate

http://www.chocolatealchemy.com/

Pure Chocolate by Fran Bigelow

Layering Flavors by Anne

thyme.and.thyme.I It’s not an actual secret or anything, but I like to think of layering flavors as an ace in my pocket.  It's a trick that may be obvious, but doing it intentionally makes me feel like a cooking genius.  Hey, I'll take it.  At this moment, the kind of “layering” I’m talking about is actually the repetition of a flavor in different ways.

For example, you could include both the fresh and dried version of an herb, or mushroom, or fruit, in your recipe.  Using both fresh and dried can make a flavor impact that is more than the sum of its parts. You can also layer a flavor by repeating it over the course of the cooking time—such as adding onions at different times during the cooking of a soup.  Also, adding a flavor in different forms, such as incorporating it within a sauce and then adding it to another part of the dish, can augment that flavor.  And of course, garnishing with one of the key flavor elements of a dish will also enliven it.

I have a mushroom and leek crêpe filling (that could also fill omelets beautifully) that uses all of these concepts, and they result in a deep and savory, mushroom-y experience.  Thyme is repeated three times and is both fresh and dried.  Mushrooms are also both fresh and dried, and even the liquid from rehydrating the mushrooms is used in the sauce.  The gruyere cheese also participates in three different places—within the filling, the sauce, and atop the two.  Hmm, what else.  Oh yes, butter is everywhere.

Layering the flavors in this filling takes a bit of extra time, but it is deeply, deliciously worth it.  In fact, if you like mushrooms, I’d call this filling an ace in your pocket.

Mushroom Leek Filling for Crêpes

Ingredients for the filling:

  • 3 T butter
  • 3 leeks, white and very green parts sliced in thin half-rings
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • Several thyme sprigs
  • A total of 1 lb mushrooms – one part of them dried and rehydrated.  Best if some of the dried mushrooms are morels.  Portabella mushrooms make good additions for fresh, especially if you cannot get your hands on morels.  When gathering your mushrooms, note that the packaging on dried mushrooms will usually indicate what the fresh equivalent weight will be once rehydrated.
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • Optional: a few tablespoons of port or sherry
  • 2 T cream
  • 4 to 5 ounces Gruyere, shredded (about 1 1/2 cups).  If you cannot get Gruyere, try two parts Jarlsberg to one part parmesan mixed together.

Ingredients for the sauce:

  • 3 T Butter
  • 3 T Flour
  • The liquid from soaking the dried mushrooms (above)
  • 1 ½ cups milk
  • Some of the cheese from ingredients above

Directions to make the filling:

  1. Place dried mushrooms in a medium-sized bowl.  Pour boiling water over mushrooms to cover, plus a little more.  Mushrooms will likely float to the top, so place a saucer, lip side down, over the mushrooms to keep them pushed down into the water.  Also, cover the bowl with a large lid to retain the heat.  Steep the mushrooms for about half an hour to an hour.
  2. During this time, slice leeks lengthwise, wash any dirt from between the layers, and slice thinly into half-rounds.  Set aside.  Chop fresh mushrooms into a small dice, about a half-inch square or less.  Remove enough leaves from thyme sprigs to make about 2 teaspoons’ worth.  Set aside into a small bowl.
  3. When dried mushrooms have finished steeping, remove mushrooms from liquid and keep liquid handy.  Chop rehydrated mushrooms and add to fresh mushroom bowl.    Place steeping juice in a small saucepan and boil over medium heat until reduced to ½ cup of mushroom broth.   Set aside.
  4. In a large pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat.  Add leeks and thyme and sauté for 3 minutes, or until leeks are soft.  Bring heat up to high, and then add mushrooms (and port or sherry, if you are using it).  Stirring frequently, cook until mushrooms have given off their liquid—about 10 minutes.  Turn heat off, and add the cream, 1 tsp of fresh thyme, ¼ cup of the grated cheese, and black pepper.  Set filling inside.

Directions to make the sauce:

  1. Briskly whisk together butter and flour over medium heat for 3 minutes, continuously whisking.
  2. Add the mushroom broth and the milk, whisking as you gradually pour in the liquids in a small stream.  Continue to whisk over the medium heat until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add about a cup of the cheese into the sauce, and continue to stir until the cheese is melted.

Assembling Crêpes with Mushroom Filling

A saucy filling like this one needs a crêpe fold that contains it well.  This one fits the bill.

To fill crêpes:

mushroom.crepe

  1. Place a crêpe on a flat surface, with its’ best-looking side facing down.  Once its folded, it will be the part that shows.
  2. Place 2 - 3 T of mushroom filling in the center of a crêpe (Make a test one to see if you like the crêpe-to-mushroom ratio).
  3. Pour 2 – 3 T of sauce over the filling (use best judgment—you don’t want to overwhelm your filling with sauce, but you don’t want it to be dry, either).
  4. Sprinkle a few cheese flakes and a few thyme leaves over the top. This makes a difference!

To fold crêpes:

folding.crepes

  1. Take the bottom edge of the crêpe and fold it up over the filling.  Then fold in the two sides flaps over the first one, and over each other.   Finally take all the folded parts and fold the whole crêpe and filling over on top of the last flap, so that the bulk of the crêpe is sitting on top of the final flap.  You should have a neat little square or short rectangle.
  2. Repeat this for all the crêpes, making an effort to fill and fold them in a consistent fashion so that they look good together.
  3. Arrange your crêpes on a large rectangular serving platter or on a cookie sheet lined with parchment, wax paper, or foil.  These crêpes can be served at room temperature, or you can warm them up for a few minutes in the oven at a moderate temperature. Cover the crêpes with foil if you do this, so that they don’t dry out when heating.
  4. You can garnish the top of each crêpe with a sprig of thyme, or at the very last minute before serving you can add a bit of the sauce to the top of the square and place thyme on top of that.  The sauce should hold the thyme in place.

Makes enough filling and sauce for 12 to 15 crêpes.

Crêpes Are for Everyone by Anne

crepe.opener.picCrêpes satisfy the part in my heart that is obsessed with paper.   So soft, thin, and light, you could almost send a crêpe as a wedding invitation, layered with vellum and scrolled up with a silk ribbon.  Their forgiving, slightly stretchy quality makes them easy to fill and roll up, too.  They even open back up for do-overs if you aren’t pleased with the shape you folded, unlike wrapping paper, once its creased.  Flipping crêpes also feels amazing.  Each time I lift a delicate round from the pan, I feel grateful and amazed that it neatly responds to my spatula, being stronger than it looks.   The only thing more wonderful than making them—and of course, eating them—is that they are incredibly versatile.  A crêpe can be a snack wrapped in a napkin, a flambéed finale for a dinner party, or a morning cure for too much weekend.   So it might seem odd, now that I think about it, how long it took me to start making them.  Here’s the deal. 

About 10 years ago on a Saturday morning at 7 a.m., the phone rang.  Was it an emergency?  Yes.  Sort of.  It was a crêpe emergency.  Actually, a crêpe party emergency.  The party-thrower, our usually unflappable friend Adam, had a couple of flaps in his voice.  “I need some help.   Can you come over?”   We were on our way. 

The crêpe party was to start in a few hours, and it was going to be a doozy that would later go down in friend history reminisced about for years to come.  Adam had undertaken this crêpe extravaganza singlehandedly, and he took weeks to prepare for it.  He would come home after work and start flipping crêpes, then packing, labeling, and freezing them in airtight containers, ready to be filled with innumerable sweets and savories.  But here it was, the day of the party, and many people would be coming, ready for a feast. It was down to the wire. 

We walked in without knocking, to find Adam at his usual spot, flipping crêpes.  Like I said, Adam is generally cool as a cucumber, but he looked relieved to see us.  He didn’t need help with the crêpes themselves; it was the rest of the house that needed attention. So for several hours we made his home party-ready while he continued to flip and flip, fill and fill. There must have been a dozen different types of fillings. I can’t even remember them all, but I remember once the party started, we had the pleasant problem of not knowing where to begin, because there were so many flavors spread out before us.  

It was a fabulous party, an extravagance fit for the turn of the century, which it was.  I can’t believe this was almost 10 years ago.  The memory of this morning burned so strongly in my mind that I avoided even trying to make crêpes.   What, did I think it would be difficult? Drudgery? I’m not even sure.  Apparently, though, it left a powerful subliminal impression that Making Crêpes Would Make You Lose Your Cool. If Adam was a little ruffled, where would that leave me, a more ruffle-y person?  Did I want to make myself that stressed out on purpose? 

Now I realize.  Now that I’ve bitten the bullet and tried my hand at crêpes, I see that the problem with crêpes is neither drudgery nor difficulty.  The problem is that crêpes could possibly drive you to real obsession.  They are so pleasant and satisfying to make.  Next thing you know, you're trying to come up with more reasons and ways to make them, possibly even resulting in making hundreds and hundreds of them for hordes of friends, like Adam did.  In the course of a week I brought crêpes to a barbeque, a brunch, and a baby shower.  Today I made some crêpe batter, “just because.” Just because what?  Why in the world did I do that?  Well, that’s the cool part.  As soon as they are made, they will be welcome in just about any situation, on any doorstep, and in any hand.  Might as well make ‘em.

 

Basic Crêpes

If this is your first or second time making crêpes, I recommend making a double batch so you’ll have enough to practice.  You can easily freeze the extras you make, or you can distribute them to friends and neighbors. They won’t mind. A first-time double recipe relieves the pressure to make perfect ones every time, and you can learn from any problems that arise.  I’ve made a troubleshooting guide below this recipe for your reference. 

Ingredients 

  • 4 eggs
  • ¼ t salt
  • 1 T plus 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 ½ cups milk
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup melted butter

 Directions: Making the Batter

  1. In a medium-large bowl, beat eggs with salt and sugar with a whisk*. 
  2. Add milk and flour alternately, starting with some of the milk (the flour seems to make less lumps this way), and blending well after each addition.  You will need to whisk somewhat briskly to get rid of flour-lumps.  When the batter is well-blended, beat in the melted butter.   
  3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the batter chill and rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour, preferably several hours.  Even better would be overnight, but don’t store it for more than 24 hours. 
  4. Right before cooking crêpes, remove the bowl from the refrigerator and stir to reincorporate the ingredients into a smooth batter.  Batter should be thin--considerably thinner than pancake batter, for example.

*When making the batter you can also use an electric mixer, but use it judiciously.  If you beat at too high a speed for too long, your batter will have too many bubbles and might come out “lacy” when it cooks—which will cause a problem if you fill the crêpe later.  If, when beating, you wind up making quite a few bubbles in order to get rid of flour lumps, just make sure you give the batter more time to rest in the fridge.

Directions: Cooking Crêpes

These directions are for crêpe pans over a stove. If you have a crêpe maker, follow the instruction manual for your model.   

A note before you begin: Because the pouring/swirling process is so quick, I like to use a ¼ measuring cup with a handle for ease of pouring in the proper amount.  I don’t quite fill it, and I only pour/use the amount needed to evenly coat the bottom, but then there’s a tiny bit left in the cup if I need to finish off a small gap where the pan didn’t get covered in time while swirling.

  1. Prepare your station.  Next to the stovetop, place a plate or platter lined with a piece of wax paper —for the finished crêpes.   Position the batter bowl on the other side of the pan, and put a small plate next to the bowl for the pouring cup to rest on when not in use (this helps cut down on drips and cup-sized circles all over your counter and stove).  Crêpe making is a quick process, so it’s nice to have everything set up how you want it before you start.
  2.  Pre-heat pan over medium-high.  No butter is necessary if the pan is non-stick.  If you use butter, you won’t need to use very much.   Too much will make the crêpe greasy, and it also might interfere with the proper cooking of the crêpe (see Troubleshooting Guide below).
  3. Once pan is hot, lift up the back edge at an angle.  Pour about 3 T of batter all at once onto the back/highest end of the pan, letting the batter flow down and around one side.*  Immediately tilt pan in different directions to thinly coat the entire bottom of the pan in a smooth circle.  The batter should be so thin that the crêpe already starts cooking all the way through as you finish swirling.  Set pan back down on burner.  
  4. When the top seems nearly completely cooked—in only one or two minutes—and the bottom is golden brown (you can peek by lifting up an edge with the spatula), slide the spatula under the crêpe and move it around underneath the crêpe to make sure that it is not sticking.  Flip and cook for one or two seconds longer. 
  5. Slide crêpe out onto the plate.

*Most recipes say to pour batter in the middle of the pan in an outward spiral pattern, then start swirling.  I also found that the method described above works well for me.  It seems to give me a better idea of how little batter I can get away with.

making.crepe

Note: This is not a traditional crêpe pan.  It's possible, though not always as easy, to use a regular skillet, such as this one.

Storing Crêpes

Right after making your stack of crêpes, cover the plate with a larger bowl or a large pan lid to retain moisture until you are ready to wrap with or serve them.  They can also be stored in a large ziplock bag in the refrigerator for about 4 days.  They will last even longer in the freezer; just make sure you separate each crêpe with wax paper.

In the next post, I will share some ideas and techniques for filling and folding crêpes.

Crêpe Troubleshooting Guide 

Crêpe batter can be very forgiving if you know some basic tricks and principles about the batter.   I’ve seen some troubleshooting guides out on the Internet and in books, and I’ve also made crêpes “wrong” on purpose (I swear!) and can confirm that the following troubleshooting tips all seem to be true; the fixes worked for me.

problem.crepe

Problem

Possible Cause

Solution

Crêpe is lacy Too many bubbles in the batter Let batter rest longer
  Batter is too thin Add 1 or 2 T of flour
Edges of crêpe crack easily because they are dry and thin Batter is too thin Add 1 or 2 T of flour
  Heat is too high Bring heat down slightly and wait a moment before starting next crêpe
Crêpe does not swirl properly Not enough batter added to pan Finish this crêpe and add more batter next time
  Batter is too thick Add 1 or 2 T milk, testing to see if problem is solved
Batter sticks to pan Heat is too low Wash and dry pan thoroughly; re-season with a bit of butter and bring heat up a bit, making sure pan is fully heated before adding batter
Batter does not stick to pan when swirling, or begins to bubble or curdle Too much butter in the pan Finish this crêpe and wipe out pan with paper towel before starting next crêpe

Marinating Basics by Anne

marinade ingredientsThe other night, when we were eating those grilled pork chops with cherry salsa, my husband Mike commented that I’m the cook in the house who marinates food, whereas he’s more of a rub kinda guy. This is a good distinction to make, and it weirdly matches our personalities. It makes sense that I would choose the method that is messy, likely to stain your clothes, and hard to store. Mike’s method is easy to keep on hand and brushes off clothes and countertop when you’re finished—zip, zop. Yes, there is room in the world (and in BBQs) for both marinades and rubs. Yes, I love Mike’s efficient and practical mind and the herb rubs that exemplify this. However, I am sticking to marinades and their powerful magic. Tough meats turn tender, dull meals develop some glamour, and potentially dry tidbits burst with juiciness.

I did not used to marinate as much as I do now. It seemed like it would require good planning and organization, not to mention a recipe to look up. At some point, though, I learned that you can marinate for half an hour or less without refrigeration, with great results. Then I read about fundamental categories needed for a superb and effective marinade. Perhaps you already know these, but for me, it created great freedom as I stepped away from cookbooks and aimed to build my own flavor worlds for meats and vegetables. So. In case you don’t know about these five categories, I’m going to spill: Salt, acid, oil, aromatics, and sugar. Below I’ll include a good rule of thumb with the ratios, along with examples of ingredients I have used in marinades past. While I’m at it, here are a few tips I’ve learned about marinades from people, books, and experimenting:

Using a Marinade

Try combining ingredients in a blender and pureeing them before applying it to the meat (or vegetable). Pureed, the flavors are more available to penetrate the food as the acid tenderizes it.

Massage the marinade into the flesh of the meat if you are using chicken, pork, beef, etc., but do not rub marinade into the delicate flesh of fish.

Using a ziplock baggie creates the ability to need less marinade per piece of meat.

If you have the time, marinate in refrigerator for several hours or overnight. If you are in a hurry, you can speed-marinate meat on the countertop for 15 to 30 minutes before cooking.

If you are in a REALLY big hurry and not using a grill, cut your meat into small pieces, rub marinade into the meat, and let it sit in a sealed ziplock on the counter for 15 minutes or less. The increased surface area of the meat will absorb more flavor. You can then sauté your meat over a higher heat and have it ready within minutes. You can use the brief marinating time to quickly make your meal accompaniments. I do this often during the week or when I’m tired--speed cooking that tastes leisurely.

There is a meat tenderizer that has tiny blades that look like flat pins. These pins create small holes in meat that are perfect for soaking up a marinade quickly. Mike used to use one of these in a restaurant where he worked, and he bought one for us. It’s very handy, especially when marinating a tough piece of meat.

Marinade Ratios

I’ve often seen marinade recipes use one part acid to two parts oil, though sometimes the acid is higher than that.

Include plenty of salt. I’m not a historian, but from what I’ve heard, marinade was probably originally a brine (think “marina,” as in sea water?) to preserve foods.

Add just a touch of sweet, which tempers the flavor of the acid somewhat and accentuates the flavor of the food.

Apply aromatics, herbs, and/or spices as liberally or conservatively as your dish and palate require. I am rather heavy-handed with them, myself. Sometimes my marinade has bordered on the consistency of a paste from all the herbs & spices.

Five Components of a Marinade - Examples

Salt Sea salt, kosher salt Soy sauce Tamari sauce

Acid Wine Vinegar – balsamic, rice, red wine, champagne, etc. Citrus fruits/juice Yogurt

Oil Olive oil Walnut oil Chili oil Sesame oil

Spices, Herbs, and/or Aromatics Cracked peppercorns Lemon/orange zest Thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano, basil, marjoram, dill, cilantro Chili peppers, cayenne, paprika, Onions, garlic, shallots Cumin Ginger Mustard Worcestershire sauce Fish sauce

Sugar White sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar Honey Agave nectar

Easy Mango Cubes by Anne

mangocubespleaseI was going to share with you the mango-cubing method I’ve been using for years.   I learned my trick watching a cooking show when I was a kid.  However, I noticed that Jaden at Steamy Kitchen has a method that I like more (along with a cool kiwi peeling technique--check it out!).  You have more control over the shapes and sizes you can create.  It’s also a bit tidier.  However, my old method is great for feeding mango to toddlers, because it’s fun to pluck the cubes from the skin.  I’ll share both methods with you.

Step 1, removing the seed, is the same for both methods: 

The seed inside a mango is large and flat, so the best way to get the most flesh from it is to slice along the flat side of the seed.  You can tell by looking from the top or bottom of the mango, because the shape is oval, revealing the orientation of the seed.  Hold the mango vertically on the cutting board, with the stem side at the top. Using the top as your guide, line your knife up parallel to the seed/oval,  and slide your knife  ½ of an inch away from the stem top, which will help you avoid the large seed.  Slice down.*  If you feel resistance from the seed, just cut at a gentle curve away from it until you are cutting into smooth flesh again.  You should have a nice, large piece of mango “half” from this process.  Repeat on the other side.   

In the end you have two large pieces of mango for slicing, cubing, or dicing, and a central seed with some extra fruit still attached.  With your knife you can carefully remove some of that extra fruit from the seed, or you can be the kind of person who licks the spoon and take care of the extras in a more immediate manner.

*If you accidentally slice in a way that is not along the flat side of the seed and need to start with a new slice, I recommend method A for your next steps. 

Mango Cubing Method A - á la Steamy Kitchen

picnik-collagemangonew2

  1. Slice mango from seed as described above.
  2. Place the tip of a large serving-type spoon at the top of the mango half, finding the edge between the mango and the skin.  Scoop in, cutting the fruit away from the skin. What you have left is a smooth, neat hemisphere of mango. 
  3. For most control, place your fruit flat-side down.
  4. Chop or slice in whatever shape you desire.

 

Method B - Fun for Kids

picnik-collagemango2

  1. Slice mango from seed as described above.
  2. Holding the mango half in your palm, gently slice parallel lines into the mango, taking care not to pierce the skin as you do so.
  3. Rotate the mango a quarter-turn in your palm and repeat step 2, forming a grid pattern.
  4. Invert the mango half so that the skin is concave and the cubes pop out. Depending on the ripeness of your fruit, the cubes might fall easily right off the skin, or you can gently slice them off with your knife. Small hands might also like to pluck them off.     

 

 

Orange Suprêmes by Anne

orangesupremetrioedit2

This wonderful name refers to the juiciest, sweetest part of the orange—the actual orange pulp.  When you remove the skin, membrane, and pith from the orange segments, you have beautiful , sweet , pretty segments that lack the bitterness that comes from the pith.  Orange suprêmes make lovely additions to fruit salads, drinks, dessert decorations, and my next recipe on this blog—Salmon en Papillote with Oranges and Mangos.  You can make suprêmes with any other segmented fruit, such as grapefruit or lemon.

To Make Orange Suprêmes:

picnik-collage1

  1. Cut the top and bottom ends off of the orange, deep enough to reveal the juicy orange pulp. 
  2. Using the orange’s flat bottom to steady it on the cutting board, cut away a strip of the orange’s skin along the curve of the fruit, deep enough so that the orange shows clearly underneath.  You want to save as much of the orange as possible while also cutting deep enough to remove the white pith from the sides.  Repeat this in strips until your fruit is free of all outside white pith.
  3. Hold the orange gently in your palm.  Find the edge of a segment, where the pulp meets the membrane, and slice along this so that the pulp is separated from the membrane. Do this on both sides of the segment so you are cutting a long v-shape to completely free the segment from its membrane sheath.  Do this carefully to avoid cutting yourself.  Continue this process until all you have left is a “skeleton” of the membranes and a bowl full of small, juicy orange crescents.  There should be no white parts or membrane on these crescents.
  4.  If your recipe also calls for orange juice, squeeze the skeleton to remove the remaining juice from the fruit.

P.S. I did not know that this method had a name (and a French one, at that!) for years.  The lovely and gracious Melissa told me the other day at Foodista's International Food Bloggers Conference. 

Supreming on Foodista

Preserved Lemons by Anne

 

lemonspreservedingredientsPreserved lemons tumbled into my life and palate a couple of years ago when my friend Laura and I went to Tilth Restaurant for the first time.  During that meal, my head exploded.  Yes, it was a mess, but having your mind blown like that is worth it.  My dinner was so good that I just wanted to climb inside of it.

Many factors made this meal amazing.  So I’ll tell you about my favorite: my gnocchi dish contained, yes, preserved lemons.  This was a plate of perfect, seared gnocchi with fried capers, parmigiano, lacinato kale, and the lemons.   The little gnocchi themselves were a revelation, somehow light in their richness.  All the elements joined to create zesty-savory pleasure.  But the tiny minced bits of preserved lemons lit the gnocchi up like holiday twinkle lights.  Without the lemons, I think the dish would have been great.  But with them?  It was transformed into change-your-life good.  For months, my mind kept returning to those lemons.   And I kept meaning to make them , though my plans were derailed by my birthing a child and related subsequent new-mother duties.

I learned in the meantime that preserved lemons originated from Middle Eastern cuisine, notably found in Moroccan tagines and stews.  The word is out, though, and many restaurants around here zing their dishes with preserved lemons. They are as versatile as lemons themselves, but they can deliver small bursts of intense lemon flavor, kind of like lemon zest does, but the flavor is fuller, more complex, and less tart.  Also, since the bitterness of the rind and pith have been pickled out by the brine, preserved lemons allow more freedom with the size and shape of the magic you’re going to weave, from a teeny mince to long slices.  Not to mention that a jar of preserved lemons—which are technically pickled, by the way—will keep in the fridge for a year, always on hand and available.  Something that a sleep deprived new mom like me could clearly use.

So after much wishing and longing and birthing, I wrote a New Years’ resolution to finally get down to business with some lemons and some salt.  Oh, why did I wait so long? It was so simple and satisfying to prepare.    Sure, the idea of waiting a minimum of three weeks—preferably longer—for the lemons to cure is daunting, but if you cut out the hemming and hawing, the hands-on portion of this recipe totals 10-15 minutes.

I learned what to do with these lemons thanks to the waiter at Tilth, my friend Kim, Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters, and simplyrecipes.com.  I consulted with all four, let the info cure in my brain for a minimum of three weeks (but more like 2 years), then approached the task as if I knew what I was doing.  Here’s what I did:

Preserved Lemons 

  • 1 large jar - such as 1 or 2 quart size
  • 8 – 12 organic lemons – (I hear that milder, sweeter Meyer lemons are good for this recipe, but not necessary.  I did not use Meyers).
  • Good kosher salt, preferably preservative-free.  You’ll need at least 2 or 3 cups.
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice—have about 4 or 5 (or more) lemons’ worth on hand, just in case.

Directions 

  1. Pour salt into the bottom of the jar, about an inch high.
  2. Wash lemons well, scrubbing the skin.  Cut off the top tip of the lemon to remove the stem.  Cut each lemon lengthwise twice, about ¾ of the way through, creating quartered lemons that are attached at the bottom end, sort of like a lemon tulip.
  3. Holding each lemon in your hand over the jar, stuff it with kosher salt, squishing it into the pulp so that extra salt and any juice cascades into the jar.
  4. Squish the lemons into the jar as tightly and impolitely as possible. Some juice should come out of the lemons to create a brine the lemons will soak in. Don’t worry if it doesn’t cover the lemons; this is why you have extra lemon juice, and this is why you are squishing so hard. The less space between lemons, the less extra juice you will need.  Between layers of lemons, add layers of salt.  No need to skimp on that salt.
  5. Once you have as many lemons as humanly possible in the jar, toss in a last layer of salt (why not?), then fill the jar the rest of the way with lemon juice.  Close the lid tightly, and let lemons sit at room temperature for a few days.
  6. After these days pass, continue to cure the lemons in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 weeks.    As they continue to sit in the brine, they will improve in flavor.  Turn the jar upside down every once in awhile, when you think of it.  Make sure that lid’s on tight so it can sit upside down in the fridge without “pickling” your leftover pizza one shelf below.
  7. To use a lemon: remove one from the jar and rinse thoroughly.  Remove seeds.  Pulp may be used but it is the rind that you’re really going for. In that gnocchi dish at Tilth Restaurant, the rind was cut in a small dice without much of the pulp.