Archive | January, 2010

Sunday Suppers (Tuesday Morning Edition): A Reasonably Good Excuse for Slackness and Some Most Excellent Chicken Wings

26 Jan
hot wings

These await at the end of the post. Don't skip my excuse for not writing sooner though. It's really good.

The Beloved and I hosted my best friend and her family this weekend.  There are Four in that family.  In addition, we hosted another friend and his daughter.  That makes Six Altogether.  The Beloved and I generally live alone with the kittens, making 2 human-sized and 3 kitten-sized bodies in our home.  On Friday evening, our home contained five adult-sized bodies, two-teenage-sized bodies, one eleven-year-old body and three kitten-sized bodies. That’s a very lot of bodies.

My other best friend, Lizzie of the Beautiful Plate, called last week when she heard.  Not to chat, but to see if I had Lost My Mind.  I assured her that I was as much in my Right Mind as I ever am.  Hey, I see you in the back!  No eye rolling.

So, maybe you are wondering why we had all these Bodies in our home?  Yep, I thought so.  Two words, folks:  feis and beer.

Feis is Gaelic for festival.  And in the world of Irish Dance, a feis is an Irish Dance competition.  Think Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.  Julie’s daughter has been dancing for nine years.  Her brother is also competing these days.  Shellie has a lot of wonderful friends whom she’s met through Irish Dancing.  Amelia is one of those friends.

Every year, there is a feis in Raleigh, and since we live close by, we invited our Feis Friends to stay with us.  Of course, they took us up on it.  I mean, have you seen our porch?!

If you’ve never been to a feis, let me describe it for you.  There are a lot of girls (and some boys)  in sparkly dresses with big bouncy wigs and glitter and sparkly makeup.  (But not the boys. They just wear shirts, ties and vests.  And pants).  There are a lot of parents who look like they could use a drink.  There is a lot of clomping about and bouncing of big hair to Irish tunes played by a dude on a fiddle or an accordion.  If you think a dance is supposed to start at 1pm, it is best to add at least 2 hours.  I speak from harsh experience.  The feis parents call it “Irish time.”  With apologies to my lovely Irish readers, I am Not a Fan of Irish Time.

At any rate, we all had a perfectly lovely weekend.  Amelia earned her Open Champion, which is a Great Thing, Shellie (also an Open Champion) placed second in one of her dances, and James William earned two first-place finishes on Saturday.  Keen!  And guess what?  Amelia and Shellie have both qualified to go to Worlds in Glasgow, Scotland in March!  Double keen!

While the feis was happening, the boys were brewing.  You know–The Beloved and Julie’s husband Scott and Amelia’s dad Matt and our neighbors Chuck and Thomas.  They ended up with about ten gallons of what will eventually be blackberry golden ale.

Needless to say, it was a Very Busy Weekend.  Fun, but very busy.  The kittens were at first horrified as the troops kept hauling accoutrement up the stairs.  Then, when we began opening up sleeping areas, they were all, “Beds!  We LOVE beds!”

Here are some Photographs from The Feis:

Irish dancers

Proof that not all teenagers are obnoxious: Shellie and Amelia

solo dress

Shellie in her lovely solo dress and big fake hair. And bright red lipstick. I saw it in person. It is NOT a color actually found in nature.

Everyone ended up leaving on Sunday morning around 10:00am.  The Beloved and I promptly went back to bed for many hours.  And then yesterday, I was overcome with Ennui.  Perhaps it was the Post-Feis Let Down.  Perhaps it was because the house was so quiet.  Perhaps it was the Advil PM I took Sunday night.  Whatever it was, it left me Unable to Do Anything.  Very, very sad.

And so, here I am on Tuesday writing what I neglected to write on Sunday or Monday.  Sorry about that, but better late than never, right?  And it’s a good one, too.  Promise.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Will from Recipe Play wrote about the Best Chicken Wings in History.  And a funny thing happened.  I am not one to try and replicate someone else’s recipe.  I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise to you.  At any rate, this time, I was struck by the Need to Replicate These Wings.

I even did something that I (almost) never do:  I bought a special ingredient that Will used:  onion powder.  I know, right?!  I could’ve just gone with my own garlic powder, but I wanted to stay true to what Will made.  I was Resolute.

Until I got home and began cooking. Then, I must admit I made a couple of changes to both the recipe and the technique.  In the main, I think the wings were Pretty Close to the Original.  And they were G.U.D. good.  I mean it–they were fantastic.  Sticky and messy and Succulent and spicy and sweet/sour and blue-cheesy.  Will said they were redonkulous, and he Was Not Kidding.

I didn’t measure anything.  Honest.  I tried to keep proportions fairly accurate (like 3 parts cider vinegar to 2 parts rice wine vinegar), but I just eyeballed everything.  Go check out Will’s Master Recipe, and then come see how I made my wee modifications.  I shall wait for you.

So, here’s what I did:


  • kosher salt
  • black pepper
  • tumeric
  • sm0ked paprika
  • after my special shopping, I forgot to add the onion powder.  Oops.

I mixed all that up together, sprinkled it on the wings and let them sit for about half an wings

Then, I mixed up the wet stuff:

Wet Stuff

  • apple cider vinegar
  • rice wine vinegar w/garlic in it
  • Thai chile-garlic paste–lots.  Prolly 1/2 cup or a bit more.
  • squirt of honey
  • big splash of fish sauce
  • big splash of soy sauce
  • toasted sesame oil (just a touch)
  • one small-ish bunch of green onions, mostly the white and light green parts, whirred up in the food processor.

I mixed all that stuff up together.

I dried off my wings (I had 30 drummettes).  Drummettes is a word I Hate.  Like Niblets.  But that’s a different story.  Anyway, I dried the wings, and then here’s how it goes:

Brown in peanut oil in batches in a cast iron skillet.  Put back in big old bowl or pot.

making hot wings

From this...

browned hot wings this.

  1. In the same skillet, reduce the wet stuff for a few minutes to turn it into a thin glaze.
  2. Pour over the browned wings and toss to coat.
  3. Place wings in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.  Cover w/foil and bake at 375F for 35-ish minutes.
  4. When the wings are done, take them out and put them on a large plate.  Cover to keep warm.
  5. Carefully pour the glaze and chicken juices from the pan back into the skillet.
  6. Add a squirt or two more honey and reduce to a thick syrup.
  7. hot wings

    From this...

    glaze for wings this.

    Turn off the heat but leave the skillet on the burner.  Add another touch of toasted sesame oil.
    Dump all the wings back into the skillet and toss with tongs to coat the wings.glazed hot wings
    You can either eat them right away or put them under the broiler for just a couple of minutes before eating.

My blue cheese dressing was almost exactly like Will’s.  I did add a bit of celery seed to mine as a nod to “original” buffalo wings.

As the Goose from Charlotte’s Web would say, “These were Incredibly-edibly-edibly good.”  Please make some at your earliest convenience.  You will not be sorry.  Will and I promise.

There Are Just a Few Things That Have Been Annoying Me, of Late.

22 Jan
things that annoy me

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

Photo credit

I’ve tried to hold back.  Truly, I have.  But it has now gotten to the point that I must speak.  I should take the high road and talk about muffins or crepes or pudding or something, but I can no longer See the High Road because of the red Haze of Rage that blurs my vision.  So, I’m just going to talk it out.  Thanks for listening, because I know I will feel Much Better after I’ve gotten these Items off my chest.

1.  The Special K Commercial. You know the one:  a nice Mommy is sitting at a small table with her daughter working on Some Sort of Craft Project.  The mommy looks lovely.  She is of Less Than Regular Size.  And then, she stands up, and the chair gets stuck to her hiney.  And rather than realize, like a sane person, that she should Not be sitting at the Kiddy Table because Kiddy Table chairs are not made for Grown-Ups (this is why they place them at the Kiddy Table in the first place), she Works Out in her brain that she should prolly Shed a Few Pounds.  Because those Olsen twins should be everyone’s body-type role models.

And can I just add here that I have never seen a Person of Average Size or Above on any Special K Commercial.  Ever.  They tell you to lose weight by replacing two meals with a bowl of their Magical Cereal every day for two weeks.  And then you can have a Reasonable Dinner.  The two cereal meals equal 220 calories, so unless you’re cramming down a Bloomin’ Onion, a Slab O’ Baby Backs and some Chili-Cheese Fries, you will be subsisting on maybe 800 calories a day.  Awesome.

2.  The Chef Boyardee Commercial. Take a moment to soak that in, will you?  On the surface, this is a cute little commercial.  The subtext is that one must Lie and Sweat to get their children with big Trusting Eyes to eat their vegetables.  Because, you know, vegetables are evil and nasty and Do Not Taste Good.  And now that the mom has Wimbled About, hemming and hawing and Consulting Jiminy Cricket, the child probably won’t waste her time asking her mom what any other letters spell.  Like P-O-I-S-O-N.  And then she drinks it and then asks her mom why all the purple dragons are flying around the room and then they have to call poison control and they say, “Quick, pump her full of vegetables.” At which point the mother rushes for the Chef Boyardee can but she can’t find the can opener.  Let us just walk away from this Tragic Scene, shall we?

3.  Big Mac Sloppy Joes.  I saw a reference to this on twitter from @RenaissGourmet, so I went and investigated.  This is what I found:  Big Mac Sloppy Joes Recipe by Ellie Krieger.  You know Ellie.  Per her website, she is:

New York Times bestselling author and James Beard Foundation and IACP award winner Ellie Krieger helps people of all ages achieve balance in food, health and life, and have joy right at their fingertips. She is a registered dietitian and host of a hit show, “Healthy Appetite,” on Food Network.

I have taken the Liberty of bolding parts of the description.  Wowie.  Follow Ellie and win the Keys to Joy.  She wants us to be healthy and happy and watch Food Network.  Apparently, she is also In Bed with the fine folks at McDonald’s.  I give you the first sentence in the procedure section of the recipe for Joy-At-Your-Fingertips Healthy Big Mac Sloppy Joes:

“Finely chop the filling of a McDonald’s Big Mac, including the burger and toppings; reserve the outer buns and discard the center bun.”

I’ll wait while you Compose Yourselves.

Yes, registered dietitian Ellie Krieger would like us to chop two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions and feed it to our pets bury it where it cannot contaminate the ground water mix it with real food and then make our family eat it.  On the reserved McDonald’s Bun!  I am speechless.

Right.  Straight to Azkaban with her, I say.

If you’d like, swing by the comments about this “recipe.”  I am not the first to take offense, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the last.

I’m pretty sure that, as soon as I get up from the desk where the Magic happens, I will remember more annoying stuff.  But, I have a houseful of guests coming in a few hours, and I must go clean.

Let’s love ourselves, folks.  Let’s love ourselves enough to realize that looking Good should not mean looking Gaunt.  Let’s eat all the colors of the rainbow in the form of vegetables, and let’s share that excitement with our kids (or kittens).  Let’s vow not to Lie and Deceive our loved ones about eating vegetables, lest we end up calling 911 as in our Cautionary Tale above.  And, for the love of Everything, let’s just Step. Away. From. The. Big. Mac.

That is all.  Have a lovely weekend.

PS.  Wally says, “Joy to the World.”  Thanks, Wally,  I’ll try and remember that.Christmas KittenPPS “Big Mac” is all trademarked and stuff by the folks at McDonald’s.  I no steal their idea.  Promise.

Smashing the Culinary Ceiling, or How to Overcome Recipe Anxiety

19 Jan

No pretty pictures here, people.  Just the cold, hard, sometimes uncomfortable facts of how I got to be a better cook than I used to be.

Off and on, I spend time talking about becoming an automatic cook:  about letting go of fear, divorcing yourself from rigid recipes and having fun in the kitchen.  People seem to appreciate the sentiment, but I often get comments about how to do it:  Do you have to go to culinary school to become an automatic cook?  How do you learn the skills and techniques in order to become automatic?  How do you make that first leap from Recipe to No Recipe?

Well, here’s the thing, I can’t really answer those questions for y–No, wait!  Don’t go.  Please, stay, and let me ‘splain.  If you had let me finish what I was saying you would have heard me say “I can’t answer those questions for you; I can only tell you what worked for me.”  Everyone is differe–now, wait a minute. It’s not a cop out!  Sheesh, you’re pretty touchy.  Everyone is different.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses, both in and out of the kitchen.  My huge kitchen weakness is impatience.  Yours might be entirely different.

On top of our differences, we all have our own learning styles.  Some of us are visual learners–show us (or let us read about it), and we’re ready to go.  Other folks need to walk through the steps with someone who knows what to do.  These are the kinesthetic learners.  There are even auditory learners out there who can just hear a lecture about how to make a souffle and just go for it.  I am Not one of Those People.  But you might be.

So, the first step on the road to automaticity is knowing your learning style.  If you’re a visual person, learn by watching videos or reading cookbooks with lots of procedural photos.  If you’re kinesthetic, take a class or two and get your hands dirty.  Or open up your cook book and get your hands dirty.  If you’re one of those auditory folks, go to some cooking seminars.  You can also watch videos, too, especially if the person is good at explaining what they’re doing (and why) while they’re doing it.

None of this has to be expensive.  The Hinternets are full of free resources.  The Cyberworld practically bursts at the seams with Helpful Cooking Videos and Treatises.   Go borrow some DVDs and/or books at the library.  Find some classes in your area at a gourmet shop, community college or even at a cooking school or restaurant.  Just learn in the way that works best for you.

So, now I’m going to tell you about how I went from being Completely Tied to Recipes (and I mean completely) to being able to cook with what I have on hand, knowing it’ll turn out to taste good, if not fantastic.

Circa 1986
I had a wonderful friend in college, Kenny.  He loved my mom’s chocolate pound cake.  I decided to make him one when I was home one weekend.  Mom gave me her recipe, and I “followed it,” only to end up with runny, scary batter instead of the thick, creamy batter that she always turned out.  The problem?  I put all the eggs in at once and tried to mix them in.  I know that now, but then, I just figured that I was cursed and called my mom.  She told me that I had to put the eggs in one at a time.  Round 2 turned out just fine.  I didn’t really know why I needed to add the eggs one at a time, but I learned a valuable lesson:  knowing what to put in the bowl isn’t enough.  You also have to know how and in what order to put stuff in the bowl.  It’s also a good idea to know why.

Damn, I love me some Oodles of Noodles.

Collected all sorts of cook books–even the wee stapled ones at the check out at the grocery store.  I remember one time I wanted to make lemon chicken.  It had five ingredients.  I actually checked off the ingredients I needed as I purchased them.  During this time period, I a)made special trips to the store on many occasions to purchase silly stuff like 3 sprigs of mint or 1/2 teaspoon of sage.  Speaking of which, have you guys seen these?  Not a bad idea, just to get an idea of what flavors go together to evoke certain cuisines.  McCormick has a whole line of them.  I say, study them at the store and then buy the spices separately.

Another time, I wanted to make some chili–it had a billion ingredients in it, and I made sure that I had Every Single One, right down to infinitesimal amounts of herbs and spices.  That’s a long way from this:  How to Make Intuitive Chili.

Slowly, I began to notice patterns in recipes:  Lots of Italian recipes start with cooking down some onions and garlic in some oil.  Cajun recipes often start with either a roux or cooked down onions, celery and bell pepper (trinity) with maybe some garlic.  Many French stews start with cooking down some onion, celery and carrot with maybe some shallot.  Lots of Spanish recipes start with cooking down some onion, sweet and bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic.  I began to recognize the common themes running through recipes from the same culinary heritage.

How did I learn this stuff?  Well, I’m a visual learner–I’m a voracious reader, and I read every cook book I had from cover to cover.  I also obsessively watched PBS Cooking Shows, as far back as my Oodles of Noodles phase.  As a matter of fact, my roommate Jeff and I lived in a rickety blue house with no heat that was owned by a person who I believe might have had a side business of dealing in illicit drugs.  We had no heat and no cable TV.  So, all we had to do was huddle by the space heater and watch either Star Trek: Next Generation or PBS cooking shows.  Good times.  But I learned a lot from Nathalie Dupree, Marcia Adams, Justin Wilson, Jeff Smith (and poor old Craig), of course Julia, and Martin Yan.

I also experimented on Friday evenings by making the most difficult recipes I could find–usually from the annual Gourmet Magazine Cookbooks.  One time I made a chocolate-raspberry layer cake with whipped ganache filling and poured ganache glaze.  It took me Nine Hours.  And I didn’t get paid.

My Ah-Ha Moment
I am not a fan of the term “ah-ha moment.”  It sounds like Oprah, and while she’s great and all, her halo blinds us and makes us squint.  Never the less, I had Such a Moment in regard to cooking, and it changed Everything.  Seriously.

I decided I wanted some rice.  I had always made rice by adding 2 measured cups of water to 1 measured cup of rice, putting in one measured teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper.  And a pat of butter.  One day, I saw Martin Yan show me that I could measure the liquid for the rice with my finger.  This meant I’d never have to measure again.  Hooray. But that wasn’t the Real Ah-Ha Moment.  This was:

One day, when making rice, I realized I had some coconut milk in the fridge that I needed to use.  Before I knew it, I was just tossing that coconut milk in there with a Damn the Torpedoes sort of abandon.  Next, I thought in my brain, “Jenni, you also own coconut.  It wouldn’t be so wrong to put some coconut in there, too.  Plus, you’ve had rice at Asian restaurants that is sometimes flavored with cloves.  Put a couple in.  You also know that folks in India lots of times put some sweet yummies in with savory items. Why not throw in some raisins?” Well, I’m not sure if that was the exact order, but the end result was creamy good rice with yummy raisins.  I threw in some chopped peanuts at the end, too.

Now, I’m not saying that this was a Show Stopping dish.  It probably wasn’t even a really good dish.  But, I can remember how I felt while I was making it.  I was scared and exhilarated at the same time.  It sounds kind of stupid, but if you’re passionate about cooking, you probably know the feeling.  I felt like I was on a trapeze without a net.  The cookbooks were all on the shelf, and I was just winging it, pulling in ideas from things I’d read and eaten that seemed to evoke “Eastern” to me.  Looking back, I’m not sure there is any cuisine whose hallmarks are coconut/raisin/peanut/clove, but I was very proud of myself.  And guess what?  The best part was that it tasted pretty good.  Okay, maybe the rice was a little overcooked, and maybe I hadn’t yet fully embraced the Power of Salt, but still, it was Not Bad At All.

And, like they say, the first time is always the hardest.  Since then, I’ve been trying to make connections between and among recipes.  I’ve given myself permission to play with flavors and to build flavor profiles based on previous eating and cooking experiences.  If something seems a little tart, I add some sugar.  If it seems a little bland, I’ll add some salt.  If it needs a green note, I’ll pull out some herbs.  Not hot enough?  I’ve got all sorts of hot sauces and ground peppers I can add.  I’ve come to look at recipes as ingredient lists and a list of techniques/methods for how to put those ingredients together.  That’s pretty liberating right there, let me tell you.

Even in baking, which has many more rules due to all that pesky chemistry, I find that I can alter “recipes” to my taste by introducing different spices, zests, extracts, liquids.  (If you’re not familiar with the Van Halen pound cake and all its iterations, go check it out).  I can even use different mixing methods for the same list of ingredients to get different results.  If I want a fairly sturdy cake, I’ll use The Creaming Method.  If I’m looking for a more tender cake, I’ll go with the Two-Stage Mixing Method.

And I think I’ll stop now.  I hope this helps you.  As you stand in your kitchen cooking, just think of me ruining my chocolate cake batter.  It will make you feel better.  And if a quiet little voice speaks up and says, “How about adding a bit of sage?”  go with it.

Another of my posts you might find useful.  It covers some of the same ground, but repetition is not a bad thing when it comes to building confidence:  Oh, Look What Has Come Around on the Guitar Again

All January ad revenue goes to Haitian earthquake relief.  Read more here.  Thanks.

Things to Do With a Bag O’ Cranberries: Part 1

13 Jan

I try to stay away from sneaky Spend-More-to-Save-More campaigns.  I’m looking at you Kohl’s.  “It’s like getting paid to shop” my Hiney.  Sure, it sounds all innocent, but the thought process is, “I’m going to spend a Very Ton now to justify coming back next weekend to use my Special Free Money.”  I don’t know about you guys, but I very rarely go spend a Very Ton of money two weekends in a row.  But, once you have that Free Money you almost feel obligated to spend it the following weekend.  Then, you end up spending much more than you would have if you hadn’t gotten the Spending Incentive in the first place.”  Of course, the folks at Kohl’s and other stores that have the same sort of programs realize that a) a certain number of people will not come in within the time frame specified on the Free Money, and they won’t have to honor it and b) folks that do come in will buy more than they would have without the Free Money, so either way Kohl’s wins.  Sneaky.

That’s all well and good, until I get to the grocery store.  Then, ten boxes of pasta for ten bucks?  Sure–it’s not like we won’t get around to eating it eventually.  I recognize this double standard, but I can live with it.  So, a few weeks ago, I purchased four bags o’ cranberries for ten dollars.  This was a Very Good Deal, because often one bag can cost upwards of Three-Fiddy.  Again, I rationalized that it wasn’t like we weren’t going to eat them.  Only, sometimes it’s kind of hard to come up with Things To Do with that many cranberries.

And thus, this post.  To help out you Suckers for a Sale at the grocery store.  And to help myself, too.  I have four bags o’ berries, so there will be four posts in this Series.  Eventually.  Currently, three bags are safe and sound in the freezer, and this is what I did with Bag One:

homemade cranberry sauce

Mmmm, pretty! And very, very tasty.

Green Tea Cranberry Sauce
Trader Joe’s sells a wonderful cranberry green tea, and it was the inspiration for this sauce.

  • 1 bag o’ cranberries
  • sugar, to taste (I used demerara)
  • a cup or so of orange juice and a bit of water, depending on how thick you want your sauce
  • healthy pinch of salt
  • minced crystallized ginger, about a tablespoon or so.  No need to get carried away.
  • 2 green tea bags–I used Zen brand green tea with lemongrass.

Now, if there are any die-hard Tea Devotees out there, I know that you shouldn’t boil green tea.  And I don’t if I’m just making myself a cup.  I figured with the strong flavors of the cranberry and ginger going on that I wouldn’t notice any off flavors from the tea.  And I didn’t.  If you have a Particularly Sensitive Palate when it comes to tea, I think you could probably brew a concentrated batch and then add just a little to the finished sauce.

Anyway, here’s what I did.

I threw the cranberries in a small pan, added some sugar, orange juice, water, salt and minced crystallized ginger (yes, you could use powdered or even freshly grated–the finished product will taste different than mine, but since you haven’t had mine, it doesn’t matter).

I tied two tea bags to the pot handle and let them hang out in the pan.

homemade cranberry green tea sauce

Almost ready...

Then, I just brought everything to a slow boil and kept it there until the cranberries softened and popped open.  I helped them along by smashing them against the side of the pan, too.

Taste and add additional sugar or salt if it needs it.  Mine needed a bit more sugar, so I threw some more in.

And: Done!  I could have left well-enough alone and served it chunky, but I did hit it with the immersion blender to make a relatively smooth sauce.

homemade cranberry sauce

You can tell from the suspicious red smears and blobs all over the stove that I didn't stage this shot. Cooking is messy people. Deal with it.

To get it really smooth, I could have strained it through a sieve or used a food mill, but I wasn’t that concerned about making it extremely smooth, especially because I was going to serve it as a condiment to some roast chicken.

We ate it with the chicken, and it was very good, but we have a lot left over.  Here are some things that I may or may not do with the extra:

  1. Push it through a sieve to get it very smooth and fold it together with some whipped cream to make a simple mousse.
  2. Roberta said that I should use it as a cake filling.  An excellent idea, especially with chocolate cake.
  3. Mix some into softened ice cream and have it for dessert.
  4. Spread it on roast chicken sandwiches as a Condiment.
  5. Re-heat it, add more orange juice and/or water so it’s not quite as concentrated, and stabilize it with some gelatin to make homemade cranberry-orange Jell-o.
  6. Spread it out into thin sheets on Silpat and dry them in a very low oven to make cranberry fruit leather.

And that’s it.  One bag down and three to go.

If you have any good ideas, I’m all ears.

PS  I have just pretty much described one technique for making any sort of thick fruit sauce or puree, so just go for it.

Sunday Suppers (Monday Edition): The Most Thoughtful Christmas Gift Ever and Curried Vegetables over Brown Rice

11 Jan
stocking exchange

Left to right, Lizzie, moi and Julie

You prolly didn’t know this, but I am one of the Three Musketeers.  No, not those musketeers, sillies.  The Three Musketeers of the neighborhood I grew up in.  This is how it happened.  You see, my parents befriended another couple two years before either couple had children.  When my folks bought their house in 1964, the other couple bought three doors down on the same street and moved just a few weeks later.  Even so, my mom and Queenie Embraced and Cried as if they were never going to see each other again.

Then, along came moi to my parents, and along came Julie to Queenie and Ivan.  Julie is still one of my two best friends, almost 44 years later (her birthday is in April).  Living back-doors to Julie was Lizzie, the third musketeer and my other best friend.  All three of us have known each other forever, and although there were times when we weren’t in close contact with each other, we have remained fast friends to this day.  I count myself very fortunate to know and have both of them in my life.

Lizzie moved an hour and a half away when we were fifteen.  An hour and a half is a long way when you’re car-less, not to mention driver license-less.  Still, we all kept in touch, seeing each other when we could.

When college came along, we all pretty much just did our own thing, seeing each other once or twice a year and calling on birthdays and such.  A couple of years after graduation, it dawned on us that we’d all ended up in the same career:  teaching.  Lizzie is an amazing regular ed teacher, and has been teaching in South Carolina for 22 years.  Julie earned a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy and went on to teach various Exceptional Education classes in public schools in North Carolina.  After teaching pre-school for several years while her kids were little, she is in her second year back at a public school and will have her own classroom next year.  If you have an elementary-aged child with an exceptionality, I highly recommend you move to Charlotte and get in her class.  And I bumbled into Special Ed, myself, earning my Master’s and teaching for 16 years.

Teaching, education was always something we could talk about.  It was one of the things at the center of our own Venn Diagram.  We shared stories, asked for and gave advice and laughed when we recognized our own “kids” in each others’ stories.  And then, one day I ran away and joined the circus.

I guess my friends were happy for me.  No, I take that back.  I know they were happy for me.  I can remember calling Lizzie on the way home from teaching one day after I’d already handed in my resignation and was waiting for culinary school to begin.  I told her about this job I had gotten in a start-up bakery in Orlando, and I remember her being very excited for me and telling me that she knew I’d do well.  All of us still talked a lot about teaching–I’d left the profession, but I hadn’t forgotten the lingo.  And both Lizzie and Julie love to cook, so we did talk about cooking, too.  When I worked in restaurants they didn’t really have a point of reference.  Neither did I, really.  It was all new to me, too.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we talked–and still do–about all sorts of things.  And we sing Girl Scout Songs.  Loudly.  Lizzie sings them well, and Julie and I Harmonize, which is my Euphemism for Sing Off Key.  But work is generally a huge part of people’s lives, and work chat always seems to come up, especially when folks have similar jobs.

Well, all was right with the world, and then I started The Blog.  And the website.  And writing for others.  And working in my jammies–all as a way to combine my teaching background with my passion for cooking and baking.   Well, maybe not the jammies part; I just like to wear them.  My friends were happy for me.  Sort of.  And I get it:  it’s kind of odd to have a job that I can do in my PJs.  Oh, and let me tell you another thing about Julie.  She is a Very Smart and Amazing Person, but she abhors computers.  Really.  She can use one to check email and go to websites and What Not, but as far as the nuts and bolts go, she is quite intimidated and wants nothing to do with the nuts (folders) or the bolts (facebook).  So, my whole I’m-building-a-website-writing-a-blog-writing-for-others-making-Squidoo-lenses–all-0n-the-computer is a very Alien Concept for her.  We don’t talk about my work now, because she doesn’t really understand it.  We still have plenty to talk about, though, so worry not, friends.

On the other hand, Lizzie reads my blog, and she has even referenced it conversation before.  She asks how things are going and seems interested in all my jammies-clad goings on.  And now, we’re at the part where I talk about the most thoughtful Christmas gift ever.

As you guys may remember, The Beloved and I stuck mostly to homemade and Heifer International gifts this year.  But, The Three Musketeers have been getting together on Christmas Eve morning at the Cracker Barrel in Rock Hill, SC for brunch and a stocking exchange for a few years now.  We all take turns stuffing gifts in the stockings–I get presents from Julie and Lizzie, Lizzie gets presents from Julie and me, and Julie gets presents from Lizzie and me.  And we have a Very Small Spending Limit.  The stockings are fun, but the real present is the three of us, eating and laughing together, without husbands and without kids (or kittens).  The Three Musketeers ride again!

The stocking rule does not extend to their children, though.  Lizzie has a daughter who is almost four, and Julie has two kids, 11 and 15.  And I have kittens.  I got a Very Keen wine bottle lamp from Julie’s kids–it has a string of Christmas lights shoved inside of it, and it is decorated in Festive Holiday Style with a little cork with a wire Christmas tree on top.  I’m pretty sure that Shellie and JW picked out that present themselves.  Lizzie is still picking out the gifts from Lily, though.  And guess what she got me?  A plate!  Not just any plate, mind you:  a big, white, square plate.  For my food photographs!  How keen is that?!

You guys know that I don’t really fancy myself a Food Blogger as much as I do a Food Teacher, but people like pretty pictures, and I guess you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and there are too many commas in this sentence so I’m done with it.  Anyway, I cannot tell you guys how touched I was that she took the time to find me something that I can use at my job.  I mean, it is a gift that says, “I’m not sure I completely get what you’re doing, but I support you anyway.”  And I’ve already used it twice.  So, let it be known throughout the land that, unless otherwise specified, any photos of food that show up on Ye Olde Blogge  on a big, white, square plate were taken by Me.  I’m not sure that they’ll be any better than before, but at least I’m shooting on a white background now.  And I have a Clamp Light, thanks to Drew‘s kind suggestion.

Well, that was certainly a long introduction.  If you’ve hung in this long, you are a true friend.  And now, without further ado, our dinner from last Sunday.  And the Lily plate:

Veggie curry

Not bad, if I do say so myself. And, my! What a lovely plate! Thank you, Lizzie and Lily.

Look at how I made it.  The food, not the plate:

toasting spices

First, I sauteed some onion and then added some of that Balti seasoning from Penzeys along with some garam masala. And salt. I cooked the spices--carefully--until they were Very Fragrant.

making curried vegetables

Then I added 2 cans of whole tomatoes and kind of mushed them up a bit with the spatula. I think I also added about 1/2 cup of leftover chicken stock.

curried chick peas

Then, in went 2 small-ish cans of chick peas, plus some of their liquid.

curried vegetables

Hello, cauliflower and sweet potato.

curried potatoes

Oh, hey! I have a white potato that's getting a little long in the tooth. I'm'a toss him in, too.

curried vegetables

Did you think I'd forget about you, bell pepper? Not likely...

simmering curried vegetables

Simmer, simmer, simmer with the lid on until everyone is tender. Take off the lid and let it reduce and thicken a bit. It will be better the next day. And the next.

Yes, if you want to roast or saute the veggies a bit to deepen the flavor, please go ahead.  I wasn’t in this for the long haul, though, so I just diced/chopped everybody up and let them go.  Yes, you can certainly add meat.  Chicken, lamb, goat–even fish.  Of course it’s that easy: cook onions, toast spices, add liquid and veggies, simmer, adjust seasonings, stuff in face.  No, you may not have my plate.

Friday Night–From the Sublime to the Ridiculous. Or: Foodie Movies and Feline Mayhem Or: On the Perverse Humor of the Universe

9 Jan

A few days ago, our wonderful neighbors, Thomas and Roberta, lent us their Netflix copy of Julie & Julia.  I had mixed feelings about seeing it.  I harbor a small kernel of Selfish Resentment towards the Intrepid Julie Powell.  I know I shouldn’t; I know it’s wrong.  I know it is Small-Minded and Petty of me.  But, a wee, small voice in my head still whispers, “Why her?  Why not me?”  Rude.  My soul is sometimes ugly and bumpy, like a big toad.  Not to take anything away from toads, mind you.  I’m sure they’re nicer than I am, without pesky forebrains to make them mean.  At any rate, the movie stared at me for several days.  Not only did it stare, it spoke to me.  “You know you want to.  It’s Meryl, after all.  And Julia.  There wouldn’t have been a Julie without Julia.  Come on; all the kids are doin’ it.  It’ll make you feel good.”

Finally, the red envelope wore me down, and The Beloved and I cozied up on the futon upstairs with Kitten Camille to take in Julie & Julia.  And it sucked me in from the opening credits.  The movie, especially the Julia part, simply fizzed with joy.  Meryl Streep was somehow able to drink in the Fizzy Lifting Drink that is Julia’s soul and project it into my heart.  I cried in recognition of the passionate and unaffected soul of a true food lover.  I alternately grinned through my tears, and cried through my smile, as Julia was brought to glorious, giddy life right before my eyes.

I don’t want to take anything away from the Julie part of the movie.  We both empathized with Powell as she fought her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  We were dismayed for her when she failed and thrilled for her in her triumphs.  And still just a little bit bitter.  So maybe I wept, just a little, in self pity when the offers started rolling in.

I know that I am absolutely not disciplined enough to set a one year deadline for cooking over 500 recipes, so huge kudos go out to JP for setting–and meeting–such a challenging goal, all while the life was slowly being sucked out of her by her, well, life-sucking job.  As much as my Toad Soul is able, I am happy for her success.  In my bright, sane, fully-realized-human-being moments, I can say, “If it can happen to her, I can make it happen for myself.  I’ll just make an Oprah-style Vision Board and get on with it.”  I even cried when she made the pilgrimage to the Smithsonian to see Her Kitchen.  Julia’s Kitchen is a holy place.  That scene also reminded me a bit of one of my Absolutely Favorite Movies Ever:  84 Charing Cross Road.  (If you haven’t seen it, you simply must.  I think you’ll understand the connection immediately).

If you’ve seen Julie & Julia, I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on it.  If you’ve been on the fence, I advise you to jump down firmly on the side of See It.  It is a delight.

And that concludes the Sublime portion of our evening.  Let’s get on with the Ridiculous, Shall We?

After I stopped weeping and The Beloved felt that he could stop patting me, we decided it was time to read for awhile before going to sleep.  We wandered down the stairs and noticed a rather Unpleasant Smell.  Immediately, we began looking in the Usual Places.  No dice.  Until The Beloved wandered into our bathroom, in which we have a Temporary Litter Box set up during this cold, cold weather.

Now, the kids generally do their business outside, but we do have several litter boxes in the garage, should they feel the need for Man-made Shelter while eliminating.  Plus, there’s the One in our bathroom.  That one is deep.  I mean to say, it has high sides.  We purchased this model because Kitten Camille went through a The Tub is My Potty phase.  We figured that, if we could get a box that was tub-like, she’d use that.  Hence the high sides.  High sides are great if you’ve glued the box down to the floor.  If you haven’t, it’s not.  Kitten Wally likes to stand on the edge of the box.  Kitten Wally is getting Rather Large, so he accidentally tipped over the box.  And can I just state for the record:  The horror–the horror.

So, there I am in my cute black tank top and green flannel pants (with Christmas ornaments all over them–Keeping Toasty knows no season) and sweeping up Crazy Cat Crystals and Other Items off the floor at 12:30 am.  All the rugs went in the wash, and then the Mopping and the Spraying of Lysol commenced.  It was quite the production, let me tell you.  Crazy Cat Crystals were popping under my Birkies, the kittens were all very curious as to the cause of this strange flurry of nocturnal activity, and The Beloved was banishing the Tub Box to the garage.  In short, the Household was in an Uproar.

It just goes to show you that it is best to Master the Toad whenever possible.  I’m pretty sure that The Universe, which frequently indulges its perverse sense of humor, was giving me the Smackdown for being less-than-100% thrilled for Julie Powell.  So now, chastened, I would like to say to Ms. Powell, “Hearty Congratulations on your success.  You have earned all good things through hard work, dedication, perseverance and unwavering devotion to your muse.”

And now, I am off to make my Vision Board.

You Asked for It: Puff Pastry Certification PP301

7 Jan

You guys know I have polls on my website, right?  Don’t go look right this very second, ’cause maybe they aren’t exactly updated right now, but still.  Anyway, last month, one of the polls asked something along the lines of “What’s the most daunting task in the pastry kitchen?”  Fully one third of you guys–maybe 10 of you–answered puff pastry.  I wrote about puff pastry Long, Long Ago, but apparently the word isn’t out that puff isn’t that big a deal.  So, because I am a Selfless Helper, I will now talk to you all about puff pastry–the ins and outs, the folds, the terminology:  *all of it.

First, here’s a secret:  it is more difficult to make a good pie crust than it is to make puff pastry.  Honest.  Most folks consider making puff pastry a daunting task because it is time consuming.  That it is, but it is not difficult at all.  As a matter of fact, it’s pretty mindless.  You don’t even have to remember how many times you’ve turned the blasted thing–all the directions I’ve ever seen tell you to make marks in the dough after each turn to keep count!

I submit that, if you can use a rolling pin and you know how to Fold Things, you can successfully make puff pastry.

Puff pastry is a laminated dough.  This means that the whole is comprised of layers that are all sandwiched together.  In the case of plywood, you’ve got thin layers of wood sandwiched together with glue.  In the case of puff, you’ve got thin layers of gluten-rich dough sandwiched together with butter.

To achieve the layering effect, you could just roll out ridiculously thin pieces of dough, brush some butter on them, and stack them up.  That’s exactly what you’re doing when you use phyllo dough.  Think of that process as sort of a deconstructed method of making puff pastry.

In order to make true puff (as opposed to rough puff), you take some lean dough (very little, if any, fat) and wrap it around a slab of butter.  Then, you start rolling it carefully so it’s thin enough to fold.  This first rolling starts you off with three layers–the bottom lean dough, the butter in the middle, and the top lean dough.  If, once it’s large and thin enough to fold, you fold it into thirds like a business letter, you’ll have 7 layers:  dough, butter, (dough, dough), butter, (dough, dough), butter, dough.  The doughs are in parentheses because the two layers get mashed into one by rolling.  If you fold both end into the middle and then fold at the middle, you’ll have 9 layers:  dough, butter, (dough, dough), butter, (dough, dough), butter, (dough, dough), butter, dough.  I’m starting to feel a bit like Homer Simpson with all the dohs, so I’m going to stop all of that now.  Suffice to say that subsequent rolling and folding will give you a Very Ton of thin, thin layers of butter and doh.

Most pastry experts agree that classic French puff pastry is made by folding the dough into thirds and rolling it out again a total of six times.  Keep in mind that you can make as few or as many folds and turns as you want, though.  Fewer layers (although we’re still talking over 100) will rise higher but won’t be as flaky and ethereal.  More layers will certainly puff, but not as high.  The classic ideal is that the dough should rise 8x its initial height.  So, if your dough is 1/4″ to begin with, you can expect the height after baking to be around 2″.

Puff Pastry Minutiae That Must Be Addressed
Don’t let the minutiae scare you.  They say that the devil is in the details, but why not be a glass-half-full kind of person and say that God is in the details?

  1. Rule number One for achieving Lovely Lamination is that the consistency of the butter should mimic as closely as possible the consistency of the dough (called detrempe, if you’re fancy).  If the butter is too hard, it will just break up and poke holes in the detrempe.  Rolling out will be Difficult At Best, and you won’t end up with a continuous sheet of butter.  If the butter is too soft, it will just soak into the dough and guish out the sides, leaving you with an overly-rich dough with exactly one layer.  Not good.
  2. Rule number Two:  extra flour is mandatory.  Make sure your rolling surface and the surface of the dough is lightly floured at all times.  This means that you’ll have to keep adding more, a little at a time.  Sticking can tear your delicate layers, allowing even right-consistency butter to guish out.  Since the tough layers (lean-ish dough) are separate from the tender layers (butter), a little more flour isn’t going to hurt anything–you’ll still get an excellent rise.
  3. Rule number Two-A: brush off the excess flour before folding.  See, that’s why this is rule 2A instead of rule 3.  The time that you want the dough to stick is when the dough layers are being rolled together.  ‘Member that (dough, dough) I talked about earlier.  To make sure that those two layers become one, you need to make sure that the surface is as flour-free as you can make it before folding.  They make a keen tool made especially for this purpose, but you can just as easily use a fairly stiff pastry brush or paint brush.  Plus, bench brushes are expensive.
  4. Rule number Three: as you roll, flip your dough over fairly frequently.  Because of friction, the top layer will always roll farther than the bottom layer.  In order to keep the layers even, flip frequently.
  5. Rule number Four:  Chill out.  The refrigeration periods between folding and rolling (turns), allow for the butter to maintain Optimum Plasticity–not too cold; not too hot–and for the gluten formed by all the turning (which is really just a type of kneading) to relax enough to be able to roll out multiple times.  Don’t think you can get away with making more than two turns at a time.  Either your butter will start guishing out or the detrempe will become too sproingy, making it very hard to roll out.  Thirty minutes to an hour under refrigeration will take care of Both Issues.
  6. Rule number Five:  It’s hip to be square.  As much as I love the rustic look of Free Form Baked Goods, puff pastry requires fairly strict adherence to the Ideal Rectangle.  Roll with finesse, and when finesse fails pull gently with your hands, to square up the dough as much as possible before folding.  Keeping the dough square with all the edges meeting up more or less perfectly gives you the maximum amount of dough containing all possible layers.  If you don’t keep the dough square, there will be some areas around the edges that could lack as many as hundreds of layers, causing uneven rising.  This is especially crucial if you want to bake a large sheet of puff, but for consistency’s sake it’s always good practice to Shoot for the Rectangle.

Helpful Tips from Your Friend Jenni

  • If you can find it, use a high protein pastry flour.  You want a lot of protein to develop a lot of gluten.  You want pastry flour because it is finely ground and sifted.
  • For the best puff in your puff, you’ll want to use a “European style” butter with relatively low moisture.  Granted, water releases steam which causes the puff in the first place, but there’s already some water both in the detrempe and in Special Butter.  Using plain old store brand or even name brand Amurkin Butter pushes you right over the edge to soggy.  Plugra is an excellent US-made brand that is widely available and that I’ve had very good luck with.  Regardless, look for a butter with a butterfat content of 82%.  And, no, 80% butterfat isn’t close enough.  That’s what “normal” butter contains.
  • Once you’ve finished making all of your turns, trim off all the edges of your sheet of puff pastry.  If you bake the folded portions, it’ll end up puffing like a book with a warped cover with leaves fanning out only in one direction instead of rising High and Even.
  • If you’ll be using cutters to cut your puff pastry, or even if you’re cutting with a sharp knife, cut straight down rather than twisting or pulling the blade.  You might also have heard of this in directions for making biscuits.  In both cases, the rule exists to keep you from accidentally gluing your edges together and impeding the rise.
  • If you egg wash your puff pastry, be very careful that none of it drips down the sides.  This too can impede the rise.  If you don’t believe me, egg wash a whole piece of puff, sides and all.  It’ll bake up all dome-shaped and stupid.  You really don’t want your efforts to be thwarted when Victory is Within Your Grasp.
  • After you cut your pieces of puff, turn them over before baking.  This will also help with even rise.
  • Chilling the pieces before baking is a Good Idea.  I usually let mine hang out in the fridge on parchment-lined baking sheets for half an hour or so.
  • DO NOT USE a convection oven to bake small pieces of puff.  You’ll end up with Slinkies as the air blows the layers over.  I know; I’ve been there.  Second practicum in one day?  Sure, no problem…
  • To make a classic Napoleon, or just to make a crisp layer of puff that doesn’t puff very much, place a few baking sheets on top of your sheet of puff.  Every fifteen minutes or so, take all the baking sheets out of the oven and push down on the top ones to keep the sheet of puff from rising to Great Heights.
  • If you need to cut puff pastry after baking, a serrated knife is an Excellent Tool.

*So Where’s the Recipe?

I’m not giving one.  So there.  There are tons and tons of recipes out there for puff pastry.  Oh, fine.  Go look at my other Puff Pastry Post.  There’s a recipe there, as well as rules. The rules are the important part, though.  Like so many other Pastry Items, puff pastry is all about technique.  Pretty much the only ingredients are flour, salt, water and butter.  The Magic of the Puff is in knowing how to combine them to achieve the Desired Results.

The Recap

  1. Be Not Afraid.
  2. The refrigerator is your friend.
  3. Keep it nice and square.  Puff pastry is the Anal Retentive Chef’s favorite thing to make.
  4. Do Not Stress.  Repeat:  Do Not Stress.
  5. Don’t forget to pick up your Puff Pastry Prowess Certification.

Sunday Suppers: Porky Stir Fry

3 Jan
stir fry

PMAT stir fry, sans wok

Well, hello all, and Happy New Year!  I know that I said that my first post after the new year would be about puff pasty, but since it’s Sunday, I figured I’d just go for a Sunday Supper and deal with puff pastry tomorrow.  I hope that’s okay with everyone.

Before I get all recipe-y, let me just say that I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday.  The kittens had a great first Christmas, although poor Ruthie had to hang out at the vet’s over the holiday due to an Icky Eye.  Very sad; we missed her.  Camille still thinks that Ruthie doesn’t smell quite right after her five nights at the vet, so she is still hissing at her.  She needs to get over it.  Wally is all like, “Oooh, new girl!” so he isn’t phased a bit.  Wally is a Special Case.  Here is a picture of the children playing with their Christmas Goodies:

kittens at christmas

Ruthie always takes the high ground. Work smarter, not harder, Wally. Camille is just going to shoot the bird down with her death ray eyes. Take notes, Wally Big Head.

And now back to the Original Post.  Stir fry is a wonderful way to use up leftover…anything.  I had some pork, bell peppers, carrots and shallots.  Voila, a stir fry.  I used to have a very Keen hand-hammered wok.  I got it from Publisher’s Clearinghouse.  Seriously.  Remember back before entering on-line, you could enter through the mail by licking stamps for magazine subscriptions?  Well, once they sucker you in with magazines, they start sending stamps for Stuff.  Since I am a Sucker, I licked a sticker for a 5′ long body pillow and one for a wok, complete w/lid, spider, ring, spatula-thingy and a bamboo whisk.  If you’ve ever wondered if that stuff really shows up, it does.  The body pillow lasted for a couple of years, and I had the lovely wok for a long time until The Beloved rubbed off on me and, before a move, I asked myself if I used it frequently enough to warrant the space it took up.  The answer was no, and away it went, hopefully to a Good Home.  So now I am wok-less.  I get around that by using a large saute pan on a small burner turned up to high.  The main cooking happens in the center, and then I push the cooked ingredients out to The Perimeter to stay warm.  Not a perfect system, but it’s cheaper than a new wok.  Did I mention that I’m a Cheap Sucker?

I’m not going to write down all the ingredients I used, because stir fry is all about the process and technique, not so much about a standard recipe.  Just go with it.  Oh, and another thing: I don’t have a fully stocked Asian pantry, and the term “Asian Cuisine” is a Very Broad Term.  I have a few ingredients that I keep on hand that lend some of the base flavors, but by no means is this hard-core Asian cooking.  Then again, I’m not in Asia.  I’m using what I have to evoke the spirit, if not the letter, of the cuisine.

Stir Fry Technique, PMAT-Style

Small pieces of:
protein (meat, poultry, soy-product) or leave it out for a veggie fry
vegetables, all cut to more-or-less the same size

a little neutral oil with a high smoke point (maybe a tablespoon or so)

grated ginger or galangal
soy sauce
fish sauce
some sort of hot sauce or hot chiles
an Asian spice blend
herbs such as lemongrass, cilantro, Kaffir lime leaves, etc.
toasted sesame oil

a little cold stock or juice (orange juice is nice) mixed with a tablespoon or so of corn starch

crushed toasted peanuts
toasted sesame seeds
diced green onion

  1. Marinate the protein for thirty minutes or so in a mixture of your Chosen Flavorings
  2. Heat pan to Very Hot.
  3. Add oil until it shimmers.
  4. Stir fry the protein more-or-less in the middle of the pan.  You can do this in batches if you need to; don’t crowd the pan.
  5. Push protein out of the way, and add the veggies in order from longest-time-to-cook to shortest-time-to-cook, starting each in the center of the pan and then pushing to the sides.
  6. Add all the protein back in, if cooking in batches.
  7. Add the stock/juice/slurry and toss everything together until the sauce thickens
  8. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  9. Serve over rice or noodles.
  10. The end.

As I said before, I had pork, bell peppers, carrot and shallot to use up.  I marinated the pork in some ginger, chile sauce and soy sauce and made the slurry out of a little fish sauce and orange juice.  It was very simple and very tasty.  Just like yours will be.

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