Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Reputation Precedes Me

This past weekend, I went out to the midwest to visit some of my extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, and some of my cousins). I hadn't seen them in a long while, and my mom has been feeling really homesick, so as a birthday gift to her we flew out crazy early Saturday and returned crazy early today.

Somehow, "we'll help with dinner, Grandpa, since everyone who can is descending on your house the Saturday we arrive" turned into "Ms. Hermit and her intrepid mother with fix dinner for the gang- and Ms. Hermit will make one of her famous pies!" On three hours sleep. And it was two pies, since I had to feed eleven people. (I could go on a rant about why it is that the women do all the cooking, and the blatant sexism I encountered in the midwest, but that's going to have to be it's own entry)

And when did my pies get famous, anyway? The last one in this family to have really amazing baked goods was my great-grandmother Atha (yes, that's her real name), who won all kinds of county fair ribbons back in the day. I was maybe ten or twelve when she passed on, and I remember her pies and cookies. How can I live up to that?

But somehow, my pies, and especially my pie crusts, have become reknowned in my family. I'll admit, pie crust takes a certain amount of finesse, but it's deceptively easy. Here, I'll write it out. This makes two crusts, by the way.

You need:
2 cups flour
10 tablespoons cold shortening or butter (or a mix of both)
a pinch of salt (like 1/4 t or less)
between 2 and 5 tablespoons ice cold water

Put the flour in a big mixing bowl. Bigger than you think you need. Add half the shortening, and either use a pastry tool to incorporate to the stage of looking like cornmeal, or two knives (the two knives method: hold a butter knife in each hand. Start with your fists together, then pull them apart. Continue to run them through the flour and shortening so that the sides of the blades touch or almost touch as they pass each other for what will feel like a very long time. Consider it your upper arm workout for the day.)

Add the other half of the shortening, and incorporate "until it looks like little peas." Or that's what the recipe I use says. I can usually get most of it down to the size of dried lentils. What you're doing is trying to get the smallest unmelted little globs of fat possible coated in flour.

Now add the water, one tablespoon at a time, to bind it together. It should still look grainy. But when you pick up some of it and squeeze it together in your fist, it should mostly hold its shape.

Wrap it in a ball in wax paper if you will use it right away and stick it in the fridge or freezer (freezer for what I call "mix and dump" pies like pumpkin and pecan, fridge for things like apple where you have some chopping and peeling to do for the filling). Wrap your wax paper ball in lots of plastic wrap if you're going to freeze it for later (if it gets frostbite, it's gone bad).

Honestly, you can put just about anything in a pie, and fillings are surprisingly flexible. The ones where I went "oh no, I fucked up" are inevitably everyone's favorite (who knew people would like an apple pie that was over-flavored to the point of tasting like a spice cake? Or a cherry where I added so much cornstarch that it didn't run at all?)

Warning! This pie dough will not easily stand up to things like making a lattice. You can do it, but be prepared for lots of breaking and patching. but lattices are really too much work anyway. you want pretty, I recommend just cutting some diamonds out of the top crust in an artistic sort of way or something.

next entry: rolling pie dough and a couple of filling ideas. With photos, I promise!

P.S. the funniest part? I got my pie dough recipe out of a cookbook that I promise you every single member of my family already owns.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Blog-keeping Note

I've been flitting about the internet, reading other food blogs. It is typical of me to jump into doing something before actually doing the research into the thing first. I have a talent for getting myself in over my head. So I've made some decisions regarding this blog:

1. I need to start taking photos as I cook. This means I need to get batteries for my digital camera.

2. I will continue to ramble on in the process of sharing recipes, and will actually try to censor those ramblings less. I've been thinking about the things that had early influence on my love of food, and the thing is, my love of food and my love of stories are intertwined. There are recipes that can only be shared with the story that goes with them. And there are stories that require food. And blogs that don't do both wind up boring me. So I'm not your food-porn site. Suck it. Do not get off on my descriptions. Make the food, eat it, and feel peace with the world.

3. At some point I need to talk about the preponderance of female food-bloggers and how they go about claiming, adapting, or refuting the domesticity assumed in preparing food. In fact, that may become a running theme here.

4. I need to actually post. At least once a week.

Considering it's February, I'm a solid month behind on making these resolutions. Forget Douglas Adams and the whooshing sound deadlines make as they go flying by, I'm not even on schedule when it comes to creating the job.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Making Use of Odd Kitchen Tools (or why I love my baby cast-iron)

When I was 18, I got my first apartment. This wasn’t exactly how I’d intended my life, but at the time Emerson College gave housing priority to the people who were already in the dorms. This forced a third of the incoming freshmen and all of the transfer students into Boston’s cut-throat September rental market. The following year, they changed their policies to give priority to incoming freshmen, and these days they require that you live on-campus unless you get specific exemptions.

So basically, I got screwed.

Fear not though, because my family is composed almost entirely of pack-rats. I got my parent’s old dishes from when they were first living on their own. I got spare furniture from our basement (that I still have and love) and desks and chairs from aunts and uncles. And I got boxes of kitchen stuff and bags of linens that my grandmother had been storing in her attic for the eight years since my great-grandmother died. I got a lot of stuff that took some work to identify (an ancient oddly-shaped whisk comes to mind), a mish-mash of olive-green aluminum pots, and a 6 inch cast iron skillet.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of this baby skillet. It was too small for most of the cooking I did, and I was just starting to learn my way around daily cooking. I didn’t have much in the way of cookbooks (aka: I had one cookbook from the 1960s that had been in amongst my great-grandmother’s stuff) and our internet was dial-up (the cable company said our apartment didn’t exist. But the cable wire that came out of the wall worked. I think we were stealing from the upstairs neighbors, but I have no way of really knowing). So I subscribed to an recipe email list. Every day, I’d check my email to see what I’d been sent, and if it sounded good I saved the recipe in a text file. I never made most of them, but there are a couple of recipes that I still use. My favorite is also the one that first gave me a use for that itty bitty cast iron. No other pan travels from stovetop to oven the way that a cast iron skillet does.

Individual German Pancake

1 egg
¼ cup milk
¼ cup flour
1 T butter or margarine
Turn your oven to 475 degrees. Then put the butter in the itty bitty skillet and melt it on the stovetop. While the butter is melting, whisk the egg, then add the milk and whisk again. Finally, whisk in the flour. Pour the batter into the skillet once the butter is melted, and move the skillet into the oven for 12 minutes. Use a hot-pad, the skillet heats up fast. When the time is up, your pancake will be all super-puffy, but it will quickly fall. You can just pour syrup over it, or you can fill that space with fresh fruit or sweetened ricotta cheese.

Of course, if you’ve ever been to Bickford’s you’ll recognize this as the base for their “Big Apple” pancake. For a home version of that:

1 apple, peeled and chopped into itty bitty pieces
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup water
¼ cup honey
(all measurements approximate )

Toss the apples in the sugar and cinnamon. Add half of them to the pancake batter.

While the pancake cooks, put the water, honey and rest of the apple into a little tiny saucepan/pot. Bring to a simmer and whisk until it gets syrupy. Pour over pancake when you remove it (the apples will keep the pancake from falling quite as much). Enjoy!

I love that little bit of kitchen alchemy, it never fails to impress people who crash at my place, and takes almost no work. Of course, because I only had one skillet, there was a 13 minute wait-time between finished pancakes. So eventually I picked up a second itty-bitty cast iron (for surprisingly cheap) so I could make two at once.

This has come in handy because it is also the perfect size to make individual batches of hash browns, which are more work than I’m willing to do for just me. I like potatoes just about any way, but the combo of crunchy and soft afforded by good hash browns is heaven. Today, having only two eggs left and wanting a savory breakfast, I got creative:

Hash Browns and Eggs

2 medium potatoes
Cheddar cheese (or almost any kind of cheese, really)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper

I very generously coated the bottom of both my itty bitty cast iron skillets with oil over medium heat on the stove, then grated the potato with my cheese grater with the biggest holes (also the one I use for cheddar). You could grate the potatoes in a food processor with the grater blade, but I didn’t want to wash the whole food processor. I then mixed in what was probably a full teaspoon of salt, and three or four twists of freshly grated black pepper. I split the potatoes in half, and pressed them into the hot oily skillets the left them alone for about five minutes.

Using a metal fork, I went along the edges of the potatoes to make sure they were unstuck from the pan and crisp and golden. Then I used a metal spatula to go underneath and make sure they weren’t stuck there. I inverted a plate over the skillet, grabbed the whole mess with hot pads, and turned it over. Now I had the cooked side of the potatoes facing me on the plate. Once I’d made sure the skillet was still lightly oiled, I slid the potato mass back in and returned it to the heat. Then I grated cheese over it (to taste), and poked at the cheese so that there was less in the center than on the edges.

I turned on the broiler, then cracked an egg on top of each skillet of potatoes. The skillets then went under the broiler for about 4 minutes, or until the whites were set but the yolks still gooey. You can cook it longer if you like your yolks hard. I slid my toasty, cheesy, eggy hash browns out onto plates, and attempted to eat mine fast enough that Mr. Bo didn’t poach my breakfast when he finished his.
I feel like I’ve made that sound a lot more complicated than it was. Really, this was also very easy to make. I’m not big on complicated breakfasts, because I don’t function well before coffee.

I’ve also discovered other uses for the baby cast-irons, but those will be another post. This has gotten really long already.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Soup, Part 2

So it took more than a day, but I finally made that soup and polenta. It’s just as well, because fresh polenta doesn’t fry as well as cold, molded polenta does. Polenta, by the way, is just a fancy Italian way of saying corn meal mush. Massive staple for pioneers, and comfort food for my family. I’m particularly fond of frying cold cornmeal mush for breakfast and topping it with brown sugar or maple syrup. It’s also crazy easy to make:

1 cup cornmeal
3 cups water
¼ teaspoon salt

Boil two cups of the water with the salt in it. Stir the cornmeal into the other cup of water to make a slurry. When the two cups is boiling, pour the slurry in and stir until it thickens. No, keep stirring. Thicker. Yes, I know you have big huge bubbles and you’re afraid you’re going to burn it. Keep stirring. 15 minutes. You’re aiming for gloopy here. (it’s during this phase that fancy recipes will tell you to stir in some kind of cheese or spices. I don’t because I like the plain kind better for breakfasts)

Spoon into a greased mold (I used a loaf pan, but if you want circles clean aluminum cans work), cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

That had been in my fridge for a few days before I got around to making the soup. I had a couple breakfasts out of it, and still had more than enough left to fry a couple slices and top them with cheddar to go with the soup.

I received for my birthday a cookbook of soups, and this is part of what got me in the mood to make soup in the first place. The cookbook has a ton of really tasty-sounding recipes in it. The only catch is they’re all designed to serve at least eight to ten people. Mr. Bo and I will get bored with it long before we ever finish that kind of quantity of leftovers. Also, I don’t keep most of the ingredients on-hand. So I kind of cobbled this spicy black bean soup together from what I had, based vaguely on like five different recipes I looked at.

Spicy Black Bean Soup
Oil (whatever you like, you only need a little)
1 onion, chopped
½ t garlic
2 c water
1 bouillon cube (any flavor will do)
1 t cumin
1 t chili powder
1/8 t cayenne pepper
1 t oregano
4 large cherry tomatoes (1/3 to ½ cup) roughly chopped
1 16 oz can black beans, drained
Dash worcestershire sauce
Tabasco to taste
(cheese and crushed tortilla chips to garnish)

Sweat the onions in the oil with the garlic. Meanwhile, heat the water in the microwave and add the bouillon cube to the water. Once the onions are translucent, add the spicy spices and give them a moment before dumping in the water, oregano, and Worcestershire sauce. Add the tomatoes, and bring everything to a boil. Add the beans, and boil for about ten minutes longer, to ensure everything is good and cooked. Then puree in batches in the food processor or blender. I needed two batches in my food processor so as to not go over the “liquid fill” line. I made that mistake once. Hot soup all over everything! It was un-fun.

At this point, you might have soup. Taste it. Is it at the spice level you want? Is it thick enough? If the answer to the first question is no, add some Tabasco. Go easy on this. I didn’t, and we wound up with Fiery Death Soup. If it’s not thick enough, a low boil with regular stirring should evaporate some of the liquid.

Serve it with cheese or sour cream, and crushed tortilla chips, and the fried cheesy polenta on the side.

We solved the Fiery Death problem actually by crushing up a handful of tortilla chips into our bowls. Which also gave it nice crunchy bits in the creamy soup for contrast.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Weird Tasty Pasta Dish (and Formatting!)

I know Brussels Sprouts aren’t everyone’s thing, but I like them. I especially like them roasted. So it made sense as I was attempting to figure out how to fulfill my craving to turn them into a pasta dish- another one of those things I like so much I forget that not everyone is willing to eat it three or four nights a week.

Pasta with Brussels Sprouts:
  • 1 16oz bag frozen Brussels Sprouts (yes, I buy frozen veggies. You know what I like about frozen veggies? They don’t go bad in my fridge if I forget about them for a couple weeks. Is the flavor and texture exactly the same? No. But most of the time it’s still damned tasty)
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic (I pre-mince my garlic and store that frozen as well)
  • 1 Tablespoon butter (I used unsalted, because that’s what I keep around for baking)
  • 1 generous pinch rosemary
  • 1 scant shake thyme
  • 1 handful breadcrumbs
  • Enough oil to liberally coat the bottom of my cast iron skillet
  • Two people’s worth of spaghetti (because that’s what I have on-hand. Linguini would be better. I think bow-tie pasta would be perfect*)
  • Salt and pepper

I always feel weird writing how I do this, because it’s so utterly winging it. I wasn’t sure I was making a pasta dish when I started, or what was going to go into it. But I started by cutting the frozen Sprouts into pieces. I halved all of them, and cut the biggest ones into fourths. Even the itty bitty ones. The reason is that then all the inside leaves get all coated in oil and crisped, too. By making them all roughly I knew they’d cook in roughly the same amount of time.

While I was doing that, the butter went into the cast iron on a hot stove. I left it there to sizzle and pop until it stopped, so that it would clarify and not smoke when I roasted the Brussels Sprouts in the oven (did I mention I turned the oven to 400 degrees?). Once it was ready, I added oil to the pan to generously coat the bottom, gave it a minute to heat up, and dumped the Brussels Sprouts in. Salted and peppered, added garlic, rosemary, and thyme, and put it in the oven.

Once that was in, I started a large pot of water, heavily salted it, and turned the heat to high. The pasta would go in once the water reached boiling. I aimed for just tender. Different pastas take different amounts of time, so

Every ten minutes or so, I checked on the Brussels Sprouts stirring them with a big metal spoon to ensure even browning. It took about half an hour.

With both cooked, I took the cast iron skillet with the Brussels sprouts out of the oven and tossed in the handful of breadcrumbs. I gave it a stir, then dumped the pasta in and poured a smidge of olive oil on it. Gave another toss, then divided between two bowls.

I grated parmesan over each bowl. There are schools of thought that not all pasta dishes should be doused in cheese. I don’t ascribe to them. I firmly believe in the power of cheese to strengthen just about any dish. I have yet to hear complaints from anyone eating my food ;)

Ways to improve this dish:
  1. Nuts- I would add them about 2/3 of the way through the roasting process, so they don’t burn. I’d imagine just about anything chopped up would do (chop whole nuts in the food processor, by hand takes forever and is messy)
  2. Bacon or Prosciutto- both pork products, so left out of the equation with my pescetarian boyfriend. I’d say, skip the butter and cook the meat on the stovetop first, then remove but don’t drain the pan. Chop and sprinkle back in with the breadcrumbs at the end. You could chop it before cooking and cook in the oven, but the pork sticks something fierce.
  3. A cheese sauce- Not sure how I’d do this. Probably make it on the stovetop while the Brussels Sprouts cooked, then poured it over everything at the end. Would be lots of work, though.
Tonight: black bean soup and fried polenta! (the things I made when I'm not willing to go out in the cold to the store)

* While all semolina pasta may taste the same, different shapes have different textures and food-complimenting properties. Thin noodles are good for light sauces, seafood, and small pieces of stuff. Thicker noodles are good for thicker sauces. Shapes are useful for gripping things, and for pasta with lots of big, oddly sized stuff in it. Ziti with grooves is actually the ideal for red meat sauce, regardless of tradition. Bow-tie I think would work for this because you can pierce it with a fork easily and get a good pasta to Brussels sprouts ratio.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Intersection of Opposing Ideals

At a recent holiday party, I got into a discussion about food and cooking with some of my friends, both swapping delicious recipes and just generally the joys and difficulties of day to day cooking. One couple I am friends with recently moved, and they both work from home. So they find themselves having to find new ways to organize cooking, as previously the man in the relationship did very little of it. However, being home more, and enjoying cooking himself, they are working together more in the kitchen.

I said that it’s always more fun when you have both people working together, but that Mr. Bo is not so much fond of cooking, and therefore I do all the cooking and he does all the washing up.

They were surprised. Knowing that I’m a feminist, and that I strive for equality, and that I am in many ways a tomboy (I <3 tools), they were taken aback by the fact that I let things fall into the stereotype. And to be honest, it was something I struggled with as well for a while. Eventually, though, I had to give up. And here’s why:

I really, really like to cook.

Cooking brings me the wonderous, tasty, life-giving food, yes. But it’s also a form of therapy for me. Nothing cures a long day or just a grouchy mood like taking a few extra minutes to do something special with my food. As long as the problem is not “I am so hungry I can’t think straight” (in which case Mr. Bo kindly brings me snackage) preparing food actually does wonders for my mental health.

No so for Mr. Bo. Which is not to say that he does not like to cook, but it is a thing that has to happen to provide the tasty things for eating. Surprisingly, there are things that he is incredibly good at, such as making rice or thickening cream sauces, which I a horrible at and therefore always get him called into the kitchen. And I often call him in just to chat and keep me company. But cooking doesn’t feed his soul the way it does mine.

Which is not to say that I didn’t struggle with this arrangement when it formed. Initially, I didn’t really think about it. I come home and I relax for a little bit, and then what I want to do with my evening is usually fix dinner. And it’s just as easy to cook for two as one. And when Mr. Bo went pescetarian I took it as an opportunity to try a lot of new and different recipes. But over time it began to feel stifling, and like a chore. As though I was falling into the trap of the dutiful woman who does all the cooking and cleaning while the man brings home the paycheck and then gets to lounge around (or do repair and yard work). Which is a false dichotomy, both because it’s not an equal distribution of tasks and because we as a society tend to view those “masculine” jobs as being more important. It’s assumed that there will be dinner on the table each night, and the floors will be cleaned and the surfaces dusted, etc. But it’s praiseworthy that the yard get mowed or the gutters cleaned or the broken thing fixed.

Also, it’s a false dichotomy because the only reason most women don’t know how to do these things is because they haven’t been taught. It’s not hard to hammer a nail or refinish a piece of furniture, and I built my new dresser (well, assembled, but it was an “all assembly required” kind of assemble). I did this because my parents made sure that my brothers and I all knew how to change a flat tire, hammer a nail straight, fix ourselves dinner, and sew a button back on.

But to get back on topic, eventually the arrangement with dinner began to chafe. And we talked about it, and we tried different things, and what we found was that for the most part I really wanted to cook dinner. As long as it was understood that this was something I was doing because I enjoyed it and not because either he or I felt I was obligated to do it. And there are certainly nights where I am not in the mood, and Mr. Bo cooks, or we order in.

Still, occasionally, the inner radical feminist chafes at the system we’ve created. And while I understand the “Down With Patriarchy” sentiment, the reality is that when one lives with someone, one is required to compromise. I seriously doubt I would have a different setup were I living with a woman. When single, I would occasionally fix dinner for the whole apartment, or invite friends over for a large dinner, just so that I could feed a group of people. It is a driving need in me to cook, not just for myself but also others. I can attempt to rebel against this part of me in an attempt to live up to the Ideal Feminist in my head, but I’m left feeling incomplete. Or I can cook. And feel whole. And find other ways to satisfy my Feminist Ideal.

I may talk about those more some other time. I may not. First, I need to remember to post more than once a month.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Apparently, I’m the Only One

One of the bloggers I read occasionally writes about his six year old daughter. This may come as a shock to those who know me, but I don’t mind (mostly because he tends to be more about being a good father than about “my pwecious babygirl”). His latest installment in “trying to be a good parent while working 60 to 80 hours a week” involved her handing him a list of things she wanted for the upcoming holiday, most of which consisted of Barbie toys.

Cue the comments section filling up with people going all anti-girly-consumerism. Which, I have to admit, I kind of agree with. I was of an age to want Barbies when they came out with the one that said “math is hard” (and some other stupid shit, but that’s what I remember). I was pissed off over it, and I was six or seven, because I liked math. Well, that’s not true, I didn’t like math as much as I liked reading or science, and I wasn’t particularly good at the speed tests, but it was one of the places my tendency towards meticulousness flourished. I might not be the first one to turn my paper in (this was a big deal to me when I was in second grade) but I was sure all my answers were correct. And nothing pissed me off more than someone telling me that I (or the rest of my gender) was stupid.

But back to the topic at hand: the notion that girls shouldn’t be allowed to play with things that are “girly.” That somehow one Barbie or dress-up set will ruin the entire women’s lib movement and send us all straight back to the bad old days of corsets and arranged marriages and not being able to vote. I don’t buy it, and my reasoning is two-fold: children like playing make-believe, and will use anything they can get their hands on to do it (don’t give your boys toy guns? They will use sticks. And your red tablecloth is just as good a superwoman cape as one purchased at the store); children think they want what they perceive other children as having. They are not stupid, they know that Barbie and whatever are status symbols. The toys I begged hardest for were often the ones that ultimately never got played with.

I don’t think it has as much to do with what the child is playing with as it does how they play with it. And that’s where the parent really comes in. I think if you teach your daughter that she is strong and smart and capable, a pretty princess outfit won’t undo that. I certainly got all my girl friends to dress up as princesses with me. Then we slew dragons and invaded Nazi camps as spies and took them out. If we don’t teach our little girls that they aren’t allowed to fight and think, then there’s no harm in them doing it in fuchsia tulle, or using America’s Most Ridiculous Example of the Idealized Female Form to act it out.

Of course, as I got older, I acted out other things with my Barbies. . . but that might need to be another post ;)