Wednesday, May 27, 2009

B-b-b-b-ben and jerry's!

So it's been nearly a year since Dana and I made official with the state of California and God and stuff this union we'd been living in for quite a while, dragging from tiny apartment to tiny apartment, blue state to blue state. By this I mean to say that we got married. And it trips me out. I mean, it's wicked awesome--even if Dana didn't read and write this blog I would gladly say that--but it's so... it's so adult. I'm still trying to get past being picked on in high school and I'm married! How did that happen?! And that it's been a year since we actually did the whole processional thing, since we processed, I guess, is even more absurd. Somehow, this year has passed faster than any year of my life so far. I fear somehow that this is growth in its own right, an indication of a pattern. That every year that follows this will pass faster than the one before it until finally everything is buzzing on as quick and distant as satellites and then it'll be done. This is my fear, that this condensing of perceptional time will steal my life from me. Is this a reasonable fear? No, it is a crazy fear and I accept and acknowledge this, but it's my fear and I've just put it on display. You came for the food but you got the insecurity. You're welcome.

So I started that paragraph to say this: it's almost our first anniversary and this week Dana, flush with a devilishly perfect gift she'd just received from Amazon, couldn't wait.

She ambushed me in the hallway and said it: I can't wait. I was going to wait but I can't. I'm going to give it to you.

Don't, I said, thinking suddenly she meant to do me in, It's not time yet. What is it? Don't tell me.

She pulled it from behind her back and pushed a book in front of me. Happy Anniversary!

The Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Book had been sulking on my Amazon wishlist for months, all hand drawn kitsch and layers of abdominal fat and suddenly here it was in the hands of my wife (my wife!), in my hallway, staring me down. I immediately knew it was an almost incalculably perfect gift and truly, just as I'd suspected earlier, my undoing.

What better way to spend a long sort-of-unemployed summer than with a cookbook (if that's even an appropriate name as I've yet to find any cooking between these covers) that pushes you irrevocably to generate more and more velvety cold sweets? That urges you not only to numb your tongue to a disturbing polish against almost undetectable ice crystals but first to toil in inactivity for hours sweating on the couch reading bad novels while a cream mixture chills or continually turning the television up and up to cover the grind of the ice cream maker churning? What better summer is there than to have a hundred pages of reciped relief to try and only the agonizing inefficiency of your freezer to get in your way? Do you see? Do you see now why this would be fantastic and awful?

Man, let me put it this way, from everything I've heard, this is the One Ring of ice cream cookbooks. It is the ice cream to rule them all. You get that, don't you? Nerd.
So our first product from the book was simple, one might even say humble in its restraint. Here's how it went: I made brownies. And then I froze them. The next day, armed with a cup of that Hillcrest Dairy heavy cream that Dana mentioned in her last post, 2 cups of whole milk (which I bought originally to make yogurt, another story yet to form), 3/4 cup of sugar, 2 eggs, and a teaspoon of mint extract, I made a variation of the Ben & Jerry's original sweet cream base which forms this thick intensely creamy uncooked ice cream that, at least on the first day, does seem to approximate the richness of a B & J pint. In the last two minutes or so of mixing, I dumped in the frozen brownie bits and then removed the nascent ice cream from the maker (eating like a quarter of it "just to clear the spoon" as per my custom) and let it set in the freezer for a bit before really digging in in earnest.
Here's the bad news. I think that the fairly cakey brownies I made produced bits that couldn't stand up to the mixing process so instead of the rich chunks I hoped for, we got shards, nay even flecks of brownies on the edges of our spoons. Unsatisfying. The ice cream itself kicked ass but still I struggle interminably with the true problem of home ice cream making: if you don't go through the trouble of making a custard, you're going to get crystallization. By the second day in the freezer, the quart was starting to solidify a little, by the third I could not dig a spoon in for the awful icy sound it shuddered up the shaft.
Now here's the good news: this is a start. We've got lots of time to divine the ice cream recipe that will transcend our homiest of home kitchens. Even if everything seems to be happening super quickly, we're only a year into this marriage, only days into this book, we've got all the time in the world.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Strawberries & Cream Scones

Okay, so I obviously have a problem. I know this. But I can't stop it with the strawberries. Due to the near-visible pollen levels in our apartment, I found myself at the grocery store again on Sunday in search of allergy medicine, and somehow - we'll never know how, exactly - another pint of strawberries made it into my basket. Let's just chalk it up to a time/space/strawberry rift and never speak of it again.

When I made the Strawberry Shortcake Cookies last week, I enjoyed eating them, but couldn't help but think they would be better as a breakfast food, and not a cookie. So earlier tonight I hybridized a scone recipe from this Martha Stewart scone and this Alton Brown version. The result? Buttery, flaky, scones that almost satisfy my strawberry desires.

Almost.

Strawberry & Cream Scones
Makes 15

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup sugar
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup fresh strawberries, cubed
3/4 cup cream (ours was from Hillcrest Dairy, and it was impossibly rich and creamy)
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk flour, salt, baking powder and sugar until combined. It's best to handle the dough as little as possible during this process, so cut in the butter with a pastry cutter until it forms coarse crumbs. Stir in strawberries and mix with a fork until berries are lightly covered in flour.

2. In a small bowl, whisk cream, egg and vanilla. Pour into flour mixture, then mix with fork until just combined. There should still be a little bit of flour left in the bowl.

3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and flatten into a rough rectangle, approximately 1 inch thick, then cut into 15 triangles. Transfer to baking sheet and bake until golden brown, approximately 20 minutes. Cool on wire rack. Enjoy with tea.

This was, admittedly, not the most patriotic cooking activity I could have undertaken on Memorial Day, but whatever. Maybe I served them on a blue plate, okay? Get off my back, man! Who are you, the pastry police?

I thought you were cool.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Chorizo & Eggs

This morning, we scrounged up all the quarters we could find in the house and sauntered over to the farmer's market in truly glorious weather. The thermometer is poised around 70 degrees, the humidity is fairly low, the clouds are sparse, and the sun is out. Ithaca is slowly transitioning into summer and today was the first day I could accept the inevitable change with equanimity. Spring is a fantastic time to be alive in the finger lakes and summers can be tough in a 3rd floor apartment without central air, but I always forget about days like this when the ice has truly been thrown off the water but the weather hasn't yet committed to its interminable sauna. These are good days and even though I see the first fingers of summer heat sliding through the weather report, I'm happy to throw open the windows and invite them in.

Like I said, we armed ourselves with stacks of quarters before we left the house--we managed to collect about eight bucks worth, impressively enough--but we tried to make the most of them, passing all the way through the market and only finding ourselves a dollar lighter and two apple cider donuts richer. It was only when we reached the stand for The Piggery way down at the opposite end of the market that we knew we had to part with some coins. For around five bucks we picked up some beautiful chorizo and knew we'd found lunch. Another couple dollars for local organic eggs on the way out and we were set.
At home, we combined our market finds with some potatoes, onions, and tortillas from the fridge and a quick pico de gallo with fresh cilantro, tomato, jalapeno, and onion into a huevos con chorizo that was to die for. Afterwards, splayed out on the couch, our stomachs full as sausage casings and the lightly greasy remains on our plates, I would have sworn these were tastes only available in the west. Even after a year of keeping this blog--and the accompanying seriousness about food--I'm still constantly surpised by the new worlds home cooking has opened for us and the possibilities inherent in fresh local flavor.
I think there's no doubt that we're going to be customers of The Piggery during all the rest of our days in Ithaca if only to recreate this dish alone.
Huevos con Chorizo
(serves 2 outrageously large portions)

1.5 links of fresh chorizo from The Piggery (about 4-5 oz. total), removed from casings
1 potato
1 medium onion
3 large eggs

Dice the potato and onion finely and saute together in olive oil (or bacon grease if you really want to be decadent) until soft (about 8 minutes at medium heat). Turn up the heat to high for another minute until everything is really sizzling and carmelizing then reduce to medium again and add chorizo, breaking up into bits. Brown thoroughly (five minutes) then reduce heat to medium low. Crack in three eggs and mix into chorizo mixture. Cook until set (about 4 minutes) and remove from heat.

Serve in tortillas with fresh salsa and sour cream.
Clean Plate!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Strawberry Shortcake Cookies

Tipsy and bored at a English Department reception early this spring, Justin and I came up with the perfect ice breaker question, and proceeded to ask it of everyone we knew: what is the food that you most covet, and why? To be fair, it probably looked like we were drunkenly asking people what their favorite food was, but we meant it in a much more profound sense. We meant not only what food tastes best to you, but what other associations do you have with it? I've seen a lot of weight loss stuff that says food should be about sustenance, rather than emotion, but food is intrinsically linked to home, to memory, to everything. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

My answer, you ask? Strawberries - no question, hands down, strawberries. I grew up next to fields of California-grown strawberries. I'm talking the giant, mutant kind that are dessert-sweet even without sugar, the kind that I spent my childhood devouring to the point of tummy ache. Of course, nothing I could buy in Ithaca could possibly live up to these mutant berries, but come spring, when the smell of strawberries wafts towards me at Wegman's - well, it's a done deal. Those babies are going in the cart.

Which is all to say: neener neener, I found a recipe for Strawberry Shortcake Cookies in my June issue of Martha Stewart Living, and I made them and ate them and you are so jealous.

Strawberry Shortcake Cookies c/o Martha Stewart

2 cups strawberries, cut at a 1/4 inch dice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
9 tablespoons sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into smaller chunks
2/3 cup heavy cream
sanding sugar, for decoration

1. Preheat oven to 375. In a small bowl, toss diced strawberries with lemon juice and 2 tablespoons sugar. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 7 tablespoons of sugar. Cut cold butter into flour mixture with a pastry blender until mixture is in coarse crumbs. With a spoon, stir in cream until a dough starts to form, then stir in strawberry/sugar mixture.
2. Drop tablespoon-sized balls of dough onto nonstick cookie sheets, being careful not to place too many strawberries directly on the sheet (these bake for a long time, and the strawberries tend to burn). Sprinkle with sanding sugar, and bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to wire rack and let cool.

Martha claims at the top of this recipe that the cookies are "a portable version of a classic dessert," but the bottom of the recipe says they are "best served immediately." So basically they're not much more portable than actual strawberry shortcakes. At least they're extremely delicious, with a shortbread-like consistency, and could be duplicated with other fresh berries, as they come into season.

All this brings me to my final question, which is: what is the food that you most covet, and why?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

HEY KIDS! It's choose your own adventure pasta dinner!

Tonight's dinner was our second attempt at a bit of a fridge-clearing exercise. I'm calling it choose your own adventure pasta but it might as well just be called pasta for all the technical artistry and time that went into it. It was a success and a quick one at that.
Last week, our first go at this dish consisted of roasted asparagus and cauliflower thrown with garlic and leeks sauteed in olive oil, some leftover shredded chicken, lemon juice, and little squares of mozzarella melted in. It was okay, a little dry and ultimately unharmonious. Plus it suffered from some issues of preparation. I didn't think to save time by cutting up the asparagus before I roasted it, then I didn't leave it in the oven long enough to actually coax any carmelization out of the stalks. The cauliflower was tasteless and rubbery, the cheese melted enough to ensnare some pasta then recongealed in unattractive little globules of thick starch. There was too little protein. Again, it was dry. On and on and on I went racking up complaints about the meal as we chewed our way through it. It was not merely an experimental dinner gone a bit awry, it was a reflection of my own failings as a cook, as a husband, as a human being. Last week, we made pasta you could hang some issues on. This week, though. This week, we made dinner.
Since I intend to make this post about as short and quick as the actual cooking process, I'm going to go ahead and skip to the actual recipe after a quick word. In case the name isn't making it clear enough, this is a dish that takes everything you got from the farmer's market last week and forgot to use, forgives it its shortcomings, dresses it in new clothes, and gets it into computer school. Feel free to make this as is, I'm sure we will do so many times over, but I'd actually really like you not to for one reason: I want variations.

So allow me to extend my first feedback challenge in this blog's history: I want you to make dinner this week -- either some sort of experimental pasta-y thing or just something new from whatever you have on hand -- and post the recipe in the comments. This means you. All of you. No more lurking in anonymity, at least not for today. Respond! The poet demands it!

Now, shall we go on?

Ahem...

:

Choose Your Own Adventure Pasta
(3-4 servings)
  • 1/2 lb dry spaghetti, broken in half
  • 1/2 cup leeks (about 2 tiny, the last scrapings from our fridge), chopped
  • 1 small vidalia onion, chopped roughly
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 link spicy Italian sausage
  • 1 cup cauliflower florets
  • 5 asparagus spears, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 2 ounces cheese (ours was an ale-soaked Red Meck from Bronson Hill Cheesery)
  • salt and pepper to taste
Boil the pasta to just before al dente, about 7 or 8 minutes. Meanwhile, over a medium heat, saute the leeks, onion, and garlic in olive oil until onions are translucent. Twist to medium high heat then stir in the sausage and brown well. Add the cauliflower, asparagus, basil, and red pepper flakes along with a few tablespoons of water from the pasta pot. Cover, reduce heat back to medium and let steam for four or five minutes. Remove cover and spoon in pasta and a bit more water, continue to cook until pasta is done to your liking. Season with salt and pepper, mix in the cheese (or throw it on top), and serve.
So that's our quick pasta dinner creation for the week. How is your dinner looking?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Long Weekend Living: BLTs for dinner

Monday afternoon, Dana and I went up to campus to finally and officially finish up our last semester teaching at Cornell. We submitted grades, turned in keys, cleaned out our desks, and then we were done. But this past weekend, we were already feeling the lull of unemployment approaching. Walking through the farmer's market on Saturday morning for no other reason than to look around was indicative of our larger trend toward shiftlessness. When we went back to market early Sunday afternoon, it was in an attempt to counter the edges of boredom that had already started to creep back in to our weekend. So today on the blog I'd like to resurrect an old standard trope: Long Weekend Living. Welcome back to these long stretches of downtime when we have nothing to do (except pack for the move we've recently delayed until July and make pots) and no money to do it with anyway. So we spend whole days, whole weekends just cooking for no other reason than that we have to eat anyway and there's a lot of joy in the studious protracted creation of sustenance.
Ahem... cue announcer voice. This week on Long Weekend Living, Dana and justin make two loaves of white sandwich bread from a recipe in Baking with Julia (by way of Slashfood), transform fresh local bacon and potatoes from the farmer's market and a bunch of chives growing wild in town into a dinner to be proud of. All in the next hour on Eat This House.



The dinner was ultimately pretty humble. Sandwich, potato, salad. But the pleasure was all in the details: A twice-baked potato with sour cream, sharp cheddar, and fresh chives. A BLT featuring local bacon on slices of fresh baked sandwich bread. A salad with in-season strawberries, toasted almonds and butter lettuce topped with a champagne chive vinaigrette.

We had our friend Julie over to share in our little bounty which I think was nearly as pretty as it was tasty. Expect more meals like this soon.
Note from Dana: Chives were $2 a bunch at the farmer's market, but on the way to the farmer's market we found two huge bunches of them growing outside an apartment complex on our street. Later that night, we stealthed back with kitchen scissors and a canvas bag and snagged some for my twice-baked potatoes, and the vinaigrette.


Sour Cream & Chive Twice Baked Potatoes
(serves 3)
  • 3 medium potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 ounce sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1/4 cup fresh chives plus a few more for garnish
Bake the potatoes (say while you're baking a loaf of bread, for instance) until they pierce easily with a knife. Let cool enough to handle then, holding the long way, cut off the top quarter of each potato making what amounts to a little dish. Scoop as much flesh as you can into a separate bowl making sure not to pierce the skin. Whip in everything except cheese and put back into the potato skins. They'll overflow a little bit but that's okay. Top with cheese and pop back into the oven until potato mixture is hot and cheese is crispy. Top with remaining chives.

Serve immediately.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Oh the lengths we'll go to for a lowly burrito

This morning we got up at 7 to help Alex and Nancy put up a Cold Springs Studio Pottery booth over at the Trumansburg Fine Art and Craft Sale. Most of the help we offered turned out to be just hanging out keeping company with them and T-burg's other art glitterati, but it was still a great time. And, owing to the fact that we were up a couple of hours earlier than usual, we got to experience some of the sun and warm breezes that this afternoon's thunderstorms are supposed to ruin. By the way, if you're anywhere near Ithaca and interested in Cold Springs Studio pottery, (and, really, how could you look at that site and not be) you should stop by the studio which is only a few minutes out of town on the 96. And if you're not in Ithaca, well, there's always Etsy.

Anyway, on the way home from the sale we stopped by Ithaca's recently reopened farmer's market to look around. Well, okay, we stopped by to buy things and take them home with us but with the 2.50 fee on the ATM we just couldn't bring ourselves to take out cash. Instead, we simply wandered listless around the market drooling after every piece of prepared food, and clutching our chests after every bunch of fresh produce. This is Ithaca in mid spring for me, the market crowded and impossible to park near, covered boardwalk narrowed by bushels of fresh organic produce, cuisine from all over the world dumbed down, fried on a camp stove, and sold from tiny booths on greasy paper plates. I hate it and I love it. It's so Ithaca, caught between the bursting surge of Cornell and IC's populations and the stability of the townies we always wish we were, the affordable and the way overpriced pushed together and stamped.

Solaz, our perennial favorite booth is always jampacked this time of year and today's line was no exception. It stretched three across nearly halfway through the market and scarcely moved in the time we were there, yet, if we'd had the cash, we would have gladly waited. This is the only place in town... hell, for all I know, it's the only place upstate where you can get a real honest to god burrito. According to my California-specific definitions of the dish, anyway. It's a good restaurant headed by a guy who grew up fairly near to my hometown, and their breakfast burritos--made to order with black beans, salsa verde, cheese, and eggs--are kind of amazing. The smell of it wafting through the market I can barely even describe. It's ambrosia, it's heaven on the breeze, it's a new version of smelling salts that push everything but burrito out of your head for days. Our jones for that breakfast burrito was in such opposition to our unwillingness to pay unnecessary bank fees that it nearly drove us mad.

But our frugality ultimately prevailed. We stomped off to our car parked in a mud puddle half a mile away and we drove home without withdrawing money. Instead, as soon as we walked in the door, I was searching the fridge for eggs, tortillas, as Dana emptied a can of black beans into a pan. So here's what we made in homage to the Solaz burritos we could not afford but had to have:

Breakfast burrito with Black Beans and Tomatillo Salsa for two (I'm practicing my recipe-writing skills. Bear with me here.)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 can black beans (seasoned with 1 tsp cumin, 1 bay leaf, a dash of garlic powder and salt)
  • 2 Tbsps of tomatillo salsa (we've been getting one branded by Wegmans that is awesome and cheap)
  • 3 strips of bacon cooked crisp and cut into little crunchy bits or lardon as the case may be
  • Half a handful of shredded pepper jack cheese, something like 2 oz
  • 2 tortillas (toasted over a gas flame)
  • rough chopped cilantro
  • half a fresh tomato, diced
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Sour cream and fresh cilantro
Combine bacon bits, tomatoes, and salsa as well as half the black beans together in a saute pan over medium heat (I use the same pan I cooked the bacon in but wipe it out between) and warm. Throw in the eggs and stir to scramble messily. When the eggs are nearly set but still partially translucent, fold in the cheese and cilantro. Cook until set, then spoon into prepared tortillas. Garnish with sour cream and cilantro.
Apparently important note: get eggy liquidy stuff all over your shirt while you eat this, every single time you eat this, but don't even notice until every last bite is gone.

A... uh, a friend... does that.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hummus

Dana and I share a hippy doctor. Don't get me wrong: she's a good doctor, she's informative and caring and we really like her, but every time either of us goes in she invariably tucks her hands into her rough handmade wool sweater and lectures us about the benefits of an all-vegan diet filled with grains you have to boil all day to even make crunchy.

And while I'm sure that vegans do live longer and run laughing through fields full of tittering rabbits and chipmunks, the truth is I'll never be able to hack that life. I like meat, it's tasty. Animal fats and proteins engage my taste buds in a way I just don't think I'll be able to give up without feeling like some sort of self-righteous ascetic. And let's not even talk about dairy or eggs. The sad fact is that it's worth it to me to keep a little weight around my middle in order to eat pork shoulder and, even if we're talking about my health, I'm just not that interested in spending my life wandering the desert in rags.

But that doesn't mean the message isn't getting through in some part. We have been scaling down our consumption of animal proteins a bit as the weather has warmed (and last week, spiked) up. For the health thing first, obviously, but also because fresh local produce is finally starting to materialize on the store shelves, appearing slowly as if by magic across Wegmans' interior walls, greener and brighter than everything that's lined the store since October. And finally, we've been making this slow switch because meat is expensive and beans--especially dried ones--are really really cheap.

Last week we picked up two pounds of dried chickpeas for a little over a buck with the idea that we might start subbing in hummus for the ubiquitous stock of chicken that makes up a not insubstantial portion of our food budget. Now, I've had hummus dozens or perhaps even hundreds of times, we both have, but beyond a tenuous knowledge of its basic ingredients I really didn't know what the stuff was at all. Except for delicious, I knew it was that.
If asked to identify what made some hummus better than another I'd be perplexed: "It's just chickpeas and... tahini?... right? Maybe it's a different ratio?" The composition was a total mystery.

So bringing home this bag of chickpeas was an exciting step. Yet another small mystery of the food world on its way toward clarity, a tiny part of this lifelong journey in learning food which I didn't know I was on until maybe a year ago when we started cooking with the same avidity we'd always put into eating. Yes, soon, even hummus would be open to my knowing mind, soon even this creamy fractious dip would know the ardor of my gaze!

It's really the littlest victories that keep us going.

Back from the store, I researched recipes online and finally game to Ina Garten's hummus which promised to combine the key factors I wanted from this dish: little (or no) oil, lots of flavor, and a few basic ingredients that I could quickly take to heart so that I'd never need to actually look at the recipe again. But since the recipe called for canned beans instead of the dried I'd brought to the kitchen, my first step was to soak the beans overnight and then pop them in the slow cooker the next day.

So, okay, pop quiz: if you want one pound of cooked beans, how many dried beans should you use?

If you said one pound, congratulations, you're me. Also, so so wrong.

One pound of dried beans comes out to something like three pounds cooked, an almost obscene 8 cups of beans that meant I was quadrupling Garten's recipe and still trying to make the suggestions listed in the comments. So if people suggested reducing the 4 cloves of garlic by a third and then I quadruple that... a million cloves of garlic? I was an english major, people, I got a graduate degree in creative writing. So I did what I always do with recipes, I abandoned all math and did whatever seemed right, proportions be damned.

So here's my improvised first time out of the gate recipe for a ridiculous amount of hummus you apparently won't be able to finish with even three whole packages of pita:
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 8 cups cooked chickpeas, liquid reserved
  • 3 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 cup tahini (sesame paste)
  • 10 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 8 tablespoons liquid from the chickpeas
  • 20 dashes hot sauce
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp chili powder
Throw the garlic into a cuisinart and pulverize it, then add in everything but the oil and blend to a grainy paste. With the processor on, drizzle in the oil until the mix gets all creamy and gorgeous.
Enjoy. You've just taken your first steps toward eating better. Your hippy doctor would be so proud.