Monday, November 29, 2010

Cranberry teacake

Let’s talk about cranberries.

I made Everyday Food’s cranberry upside-down cake as our Thanksgiving offering, and it was pretty good. But cold from the fridge, two days old: it is wonderful. I guess it needed to ripen? In any case, it couldn’t compete with pumpkin pie in the Thanksgiving dessert lineup, but slam this puppy down with tea and sandwiches and you’ve got a winner!

I worried about the cake turning out, what with the “upside-down” concept, but it flipped with ease, and a satisfying, graceful plonk. Truth be told, the hardest part was getting the batter from the bowl onto the cranberry layer in the pan (the batter was quite sticky and I had to mash it to the edges of the cake pan with my fingers).

On a cake stand, the cranberries glitter a deep, syrupy red and the whole thing becomes a shiny jewel—like in the Cave of Wonders when Abu’s eyes gleam with the reflection of that ginormous, forbidden ruby. It is as pretty the first day, as it is delicious the next. The cranberries are tart, juicy, and fantastic, while the cake is not too sweet, and dense without being dry. It really is more of a teacake than a dessert cake.

You’ll go ruby-eyed for this one: it’s right-side-up flavor, in an upside-down package.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

From chicken comes broth.

I didn’t know this at the time, but the best part about roasting a chicken is the soup you make with the leftover carcass. After I failed to roast my chicken, I embarked on a new journey with the remains: Chicken broth. I plopped that medium-rare salmonella fest in my Dutch oven, filled it with water to cover, turned on the heat, and walked away. I thought about adding some herbs and aromatics—I keep onions, bay leaves, and rosemary on hand—but I didn’t want a stock, I wanted a broth.

I let the chicken simmer for about two and half hours, then I strained it with a fine sieve and transferred the liquid to Tupperware containers, storing half in the fridge and half in the freezer. Next, I picked through the bones and muck, separating out all the nice (fully cooked) chickeny bits. Fantastic: I had a homemade Make Your Own Chicken Soup kit.

And not a moment too soon. Alex has come down with what my sister refers to as a “man cold.” It’s been three weeks and he’s still coughing, and whining about it. In an effort to appease his inner little baby girl with some wholesome, genetically relevant food, I gave my chicken soup kit a Mexican twist.

When I cook (not bake), I don’t like to follow recipes. Rather, I prefer to go to experts I trust for a method (in this case, shock, I looked to Martha Stewart and Rick Bayless). Once I know how they would do it, I pare down their recipes to something that I consider more reasonable—I mean, yeah I think Rick es muy fabuloso, but I don’t keep any epazote in the house.

So I arrived at this simplified, yet delicious, chicken soup for el alma.

Tortilla soup, serves two

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 small onion
1 cup shredded chicken
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon chili powder (I am a wimp—if you like more heat, up this)
3 and half cups of chicken broth (rescued from the chicken you undercooked)
Salt and pepper

Mandatory garnishes
½ cup shredded Chihuahua cheese
1 diced avocado
1 sliced lime
Tortilla strips (Take four corn tortillas, brush them with vegetable oil, cut them into strips, salt them, and bake in 400-degree oven for about fifteen minutes.)

Heat up your soup pot with some oil. Add the chopped onion. Season with a nice pinch coarse salt and a few cranks of freshly ground black pepper. When the onion is translucent, add the chili powder and tomato paste. Stir to incorporate and cook for about two minutes longer before adding the chicken broth and shredded chicken. Bring to a boil, then take the heat back and allow to simmer for however long you can. We waited about ten minutes because we were hungry.

Divide cheese between serving bowls, placing a sizeable mound at the very bottom of each. Laddle soup into bowls and garnish with tortilla strips and avocado chunks. Serve with lime wedge and Tabasco sauce.

Added bonus: we used the leftover leftover chicken, tortillas, and cheese for quesadillas. Bam! said the lady.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My First Roast Chicken

When I decided two weeks ago that I just had to roast a chicken, Alex and I had a long discussion about whose method to use. It came down to the big hitters: Martha Stewart and Laurie Colwin. In my favorite cookbook, Great Food Fast, Martha’s team lays out the high temperature/short time approach that I think most people (not in our family, mind—Mother makes dinner with her credit card) are familiar with. Laurie Colwin’s roast chicken “recipe” advocates for the chicken’s right to low and slow cooking. Although this may sound like a dry mess to those in the know, Laurie assures us that this chicken is tender and moist. Alex falls off the bone for meat that falls off the bone, so we decided to trust Laurie.

If only we hadn’t trusted our oven.

Sunday lunch is traditionally a meal we have in the late afternoon as we’ve no doubt had a large, late brunch. I like to use my extra time to try new things, serving up dishes like chicken pot-pie, mussels over linguine, and mushroom lasagna. And now I can add roast chicken to that list—well, whole chicken, in any case.

Since it didn’t seem likely that Alex and I would eat the entire chicken, we invited the Moms to join us for a Sunday feast.
At 1 pm I put my beautiful Gunthorp Farms chicken—which had been stuffed with lemon, surrounded by garlic cloves, and sprinkled with paprika, as per Laurie’s bequest—into a 300-degree oven, where it would cook for two hours. According to Laurie, “The chicken is done when the leg bone wiggles and the skin is the color of teak.” Super.

Laurie wanted me to baste my chicken every 15 minutes, which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that my chicken released no liquid for the first half hour it was in the oven. Was I supposed to add stock to the chicken pan? I wondered. Is that a common practice that people just know? I was so desperate I called my mother. I know. She told me not to fret, Laurie doesn’t believe in panicking over a meal. I added some water to the roasting pan, which soaked in some of the garlic flavor, and, as I basted, incorporated with the chicken’s natural juices. Crisis averted, I got started on my sides.

Because I was roasting a chicken, I decided to do it up. I found four colors of cauliflower at the farmers’ market, along with apples, brussels sprouts, chestnuts, and sweet potatoes. A menu was formed: applesauce (of course), roasted cauliflower with lemon, brussels sprouts sautéed in butter with chestnuts and hazelnuts, and my new best friend, sweet potato biscuits. I even bought a scalloped-edge biscuit cutter for the occasion. And also for the occasion that it was adorable and $2.

I was able to score and roast the chestnuts while the chicken was in the oven, but the cauliflower and biscuits needed higher temps and had to wait until the chicken was done out.

Around 3 pm, I checked the chicken. It had been two hours, and the leg was wiggly, although I could not tell if the breast was the color of teak. Was teak a dark wood? Or a pale yellow? I’m not a carpenter, so I swapped it out anyway (giving it time to rest, I told myself), raised the oven temp, and popped in my cauliflower and biscuit trays (the brussels sprouts were done on the stove).

At 3:45 pm, the table was set, the Moms were seated, and Alex cut into my roast to find one side was perfectly cooked, and the other a lovely apple pink (thanks Laurie) that meant only one thing: My chicken was undercooked. The oven only roasted one side of the stupid bird! And I had to microwave it. My fresh, organic, local, slow-roasted chicken had to spend its last ten minutes of cooking time in the cancer box.

Surprisingly, it didn’t seem as bad as the time I served a 5-pound pot roast to a vegetarian and a cholesterol-watcher. Probably because the Moms were there. And the biscuits. The biscuits definitely helped.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A is for Applesauce

I make my own applesauce now. No big deal. No, actually: no big deal. It’s so simple, I almost don’t want to brag about it. After you make homemade applesauce, you feel lame calling it homemade—it’s like saying you make homemade ice cubes. Even if you make them in a Tetris mold.

My personal library service (that is, my sister) recently provided me with mom-favorite Laurie Colwin’s two kitchen essay compilations: Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. These books have been bedside-table staples for twenty years, and yet, in my first reading this fall, they were completely relevant to topics we continue to wrestle with as home chefs. Laurie writes about her preference for organic meats, farmers’ markets, and wholesome cooking—and she does it well. So well, in fact, that she convinced me to roast my first chicken, which, unlike my adventures in applesauce, was an undercooked exploit.

Let’s focus on my success for now: Laurie’s applesauce recipe annoyed me at first. In her own words, applesauce is “so simple to make that it almost does not require a recipe.”

I once tried to make cookies without a recipe, and I now firmly believe there are some things that you cannot wing. As a first timer, I didn’t appreciate Laurie’s relaxed attitude. “Any number of apples”? WTF, Laurie? I need answers.
But Laurie Colwin was right: applesauce is a breeze. Once you get over the seemingly lackadaisical instructions, her method is very straightforward:
  1. Core and chop apples. (I use four to seven, depending on size, and I never have any leftovers.) Laurie and I agree that variety is best for flavor. I like to keep the peels on for reasons of both nutritional and indolent natures. Laurie sweetened the pot by asserting my peel-in “result will be a lovely apple pink.” Win win.
  2. Put apples in pot/saucepan and add half a cup of cider.
  3. Cook low and slow for about a half hour, stirring sometimes.
I deviated from the path by adding a cinnamon stick at Step 2—I recommend you do the same. Our apartment smelled like a holiday cheer factory.
I’ve made a number of batches in the last couple of weeks, all in a continuing spiral of neglect for the method. However, each batch turned out fantastic. One time I had no cider, so I added water and lemon. The next time I had no lemon, so I only added water. One time I left the heat too high, all the water evaporated, and the cinnamon stick began to burn. I added more water, reduced the heat, and ate half the ’sauce still warm on a slice of buttered toast a half hour later.

You can’t lose with applesauce. It’s the dish of champions.

    Sunday, November 7, 2010

    Greens and Beans Soup

    Alex’s dad, Fred, is famous in the family for his soups. (He is also famous for a continuing journey known as Gummy-Bear Pie, but I’m not going to get into that because in his own words, “The first one was like eating a tire.”) Fred serves a soup to start almost every meal we have at his house; most of the time it’s the crowd-pleasing lentil soup with triangular chunks of bright orange carrots and salty turkey sausage. Sometimes it’s a new creation, like last week’s butternut squash and ginger soup. His best experimental soup—which has become a staple in the rotation—was brought to being when Alex’s vegetarian cousin came for dinner and he couldn’t use the old lentil standby. He calls it “Greens and Beans Soup” and not only is it delicious, it is crazy easy. Crazy like Steve Buscemi looks and easy like your mom. Boom—roasted!

    I whipped up a batch last night, subbing out broccoli rabe (which I didn’t see at the farmers’ market) for kale (which I did). Fred’s recipe (displayed at the end of this post in its original) calls for three main steps: Add the onions. Add the greens. Add the beans.

    Both the greens and the beans give this soup a great texture: softness from the cannellini and chew from the kale. The broth, which is naturally thickened by the beans, is minimal (a plus for me), so if you like a soupier soup, I’d recommend adding more liquid (water or stock). The best part (for the cheese eaters in the crowd) is the freshly grated parmesan that melts over the hot soup, a sharp burst of flavor blanketing the bowl like a winter’s first snowfall.

    If you’re like me, and you can’t just eat soup, serve with toast (rubbed while hot with a fresh garlic clove for kick). The crispy bread will sop up the soup juice nicely and its crunch in your head will help drown out whatever it is your company is telling you about petroleum or mixed martial arts so you can focus on how super your dinner is.


    1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
    1 bunch broccolini (aka broccoli rabe). Chop up, stems and all.
    1 large onion, diced
    2 cans cannellini (white kidney beans)
    2 cups water
    1 vegetable stock cube (or chicken stock cube)
    Salt (and black pepper?)
    Grated parmesan cheese

    Heat oil in soup pot; add diced onion and let simmer until translucent. Add chopped broccolini and cook until it begins to wilt. Add water and stock cube. Add beans, including liquid from cans. Stir and let simmer about 20 minutes or more. Before serving, add salt (and pepper) to taste.

    Serve in open soup plates with a generous spoonful of parmesan on top.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    Cheese It

    The theme of this post is laziness. I didn’t want to waste any energy weaving a subtle web around my point so there it is. I’m not even going to try to find a synonym for lazy so I don’t say lazy a hundred times in this post.

    This week I have been lazy. Which brings me to my next point (sans a time-consuming segue): My favorite thing to make for dinner when I’m lazy is a cheese plate. Sure sometimes we just eat out, most of the time we just eat eggs, but sometimes I still feel the need to “make” something and I don’t want to dirty a pan. A cheese plate is the perfect thing. (This post is also about cheese.)

    On Monday I left work ten minutes early and went down to Pastoral, my favorite cheesery. It’s a small, pleasant shop filled with fancy meats, imported jam, wine, olives, and, of course, cheese. And though I trip on the ramp coming in most visits, and yeah, sometimes I say the cheese’s place of origin instead of its name because neither are familiar to me—fine the sandwiches are overpriced, too—I still love it in there. And on Monday I loved how easy it was to put together some dinner.

    Listening to Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey (which they not only play, but sell) I perused their nibble-worthy selection, settling on three cheeses: two of Prairie Fruit Farm’s goat options—one being my favorite, a fresh goat cheese which is creamy and fluffy and delightful—and a crumbly Little Darling for sharpness.

    At home I sliced a demi baguette on a diagonal (also found at Pastoral) and dug through the fridge for acceptable accompaniments to round out my supper. Left-over chicken, cabbage and apple slaw, a jar of local honey, and some banging pickles all found their way onto my biggest cutting board, which makes any cheese arrangement look polished. Dinner was served.

    Cheese can be dressed up or dressed down, served for one or many, an appetizer or a main—if you aren’t lactose intolerant, it can be your miracle dinner.

    I’ve chronicled my culinary ventures for a year in my wildly successful flickr series, Food I eat. I eat food. So in addition to a snapshot of Monday night’s laze-fest, I’ve included two of my other most successful cheesings. I recommend the obvious choices: your favorite cheeses, fresh fruit, crisp veg, nuts, deli meats, jellies, and a really big cutting board.