Saturday, December 31, 2011

You just won a KitchenAid mixer! What are you going to do now?

Okay, so I didn’t win it. Despite the numerous contests I’ve entered to snatch up this coveted prize. Instead, I claimed my stand-mixer over Christmas—thanks Dad and Peg!
Only… I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I mean, make bread, obviously. That was first on the list. But logistically, my kitchen is very small. I’d guestimate one square meter total of counter space—which is normally cluttered with dirty dishes… okay fine: beer bottles. Now you know.
Kitchen before Project "Let's live here for real."
I’ve been feeling like I need a better solution for the “pantry”—a wobbly, sticky bookshelf and cardboard TV stand combo. There is something about make-do, cobbled together furniture that makes you feel like you are squatting in your own home. I moved some things around to make room for the mixer, but it didn’t do this shining new piece of equipment justice.
Kitchen after Project "Let's live here for real."
So yesterday, we ventured all the way north to the Brown Elephant resale shop. And, Christmas miracle (can I keep saying that? I guess not)—and, birthday miracle (Christmas is over, the next six months are for my next favorite holiday), we found exactly what I was looking for: a 50-inch long, 18-inch deep, 30-inch high dresser. True story. It was under a few lamps, has some scratches/dents, and the drawers don’t quite close, but it has a counter! Sale price: $37. True. Story. That leaves quite a nice anthropologie knob budget. You know that’s right.
The kitchen project was completed with a new sink mat and full-on stuff reorganization. Now Alex has a whole drawer to house his Tupperware issues.
"Tupperware. Must. Be. Stored. With. Lids. On!" - Alex
Now that my KitchenAid has a place to live, I’m ready to put it to work. The NYE festivities tonight are set to include homemade pizza making and a few cans of Sofia Copola, so I decided to skip the bread for now and focus on our evening’s other necessity: dessert.

It was liberating to read the recipe I had in mind, to see the foreboding words that have always turned me away: “In the bowl of a stand mixer.”  How many recipes have I discarded because of that one simple phrase? “In the bowl of a stand mixer.” No longer will I fear them! Liberation is at hand!
I. Have. A. Stand-mixer. 
And starting in its shiny steel bowl, with the whisk attachment in position, I made meringues. Lemon-almond meringues. With a crisp, toasted crust, a chewy center, and nutty zesty sweetness. I know because I ate one after lunch.
The way I bake is kind of the same way I wear yesterday's eyeliner: A little bit smudged and messy, but unintentionally good enough to get by. With my extra countertop and miracle machine, I baked like Ina Garten, with ease and grace. I even cleaned up as I went. I’m finna mise en place the stuffing out of 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Hat-trick ham

Pop quiz: What’s the best thing about Christmas ham? Post-Christmas ham. I’m talking about deja food: leftover ham, the versatile ingredient that has sustained our household this week. We have been all but intubated with ham, and yet never over-hammed as our consumption had many forms. The first incarnation:
Open-faced ham, cheddar, and mustard sandwiches. I’ve been thinking a lot about our time in Vienna, mostly because it was over NYE in 2008 and two friends have recently visited the old-world city. This salty, perfectly textured sandwich is an homage to that Austrian adventure—and an easier nod to accomplish than homemade doner kebab.
When separated from my broiler, I had ham straight up, salad style. Paired with marinated white beans, cubed cheese, and fresh greens, the ham provided a fantastic, filling lunch at work.

I know it seems like I’m writing a blog about how to use leftover ham in SHOCK! sandwiches and WOW! salads, but I’m not. I’m writing about how to use leftover ham in soup. I couldn’t get my hands on the coveted hambone, but I was still dying to make some soup. (Those of you wondering why my “I’m trying to like soup” attitude has changed to “Yeah! Soup!” should know: I got an immersion blender last week.)
Chicago is under heavy fog and drizzle today, and soup seemed to be the best course of action. This sweet potato and leek soup with ham smells as good as it tastes. The rich orange broth studded with chunks of meat is sweet and peppery, with a little kick from fresh dill. And it is so satisfying to blend with the handheld. Like cutting through butter with a light-saber... or whatever.

It’s like living in the future. Next stop: jetpacks.

Sweet potato leek soup with ham

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups cooked ham
2 cups leeks (from two short leeks)
2 ½ cups sweet potato (one real big sweet potato)
6 cups water
Salt and fresh-ground pepper
1 tablespoon fresh dill

In a heavy pan or Dutch oven, brown ham in olive oil. Remove to a plate and add rinsed sliced leeks. Deglaze with water and put on the lid so the leeks don’t burn. When the leeks are wilty and tender add cubed sweet potato, a few cranks of black pepper, and water. (I threw in some of the fattier ham pieces so they’d melt into the soup and flavor the broth.) Bring soup to a boil then cover and reduce heat to simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, until sweet potatoes are cooked through and soft. Turn off heat and blend using your new immersion blender(!). Season to taste with salt (½ teaspoon-ish), pepper then add the ham back in along with chopped fresh dill. Turn the heat back on and simmer for a few more minutes while you make cheddar toasts for dipping (bread, cheese, broiler). 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How to impress my mom, part two

For as long as I can remember, my mother has fought what is likely seven other Hyde Parkers over a monthly 10-box supply of McVities digestive biscuits at our local grocery. The shelf where the flavorless wafers should lie is constantly bare, and, as demand is clearly existent (even if I wouldn’t say “high”), the stock is never increased. On multiple occasions at different stages of my youth, my mother would come home from the store empty-handed, cursing a faceless neighbor whom she was sure had taken the full stock of biscuit boxes. This is something my mother refused to do: Upon arriving in the cookie aisle and finding a miraculous brimming shelf of her precious oatcakes, mother would leave the majority of boxes behind for her enemies. In the same situation, faced with a full shelf of a certain hard-to-find lady product, I cleaned out the store. With Alex’s help, I even reached the very last box at the back of the top shelf. I marched proudly down to the check-out with him in my wake, hiding his face behind the dozen boxes I had piled into his arms. 

If Christmas isn’t the time to reward someone for their unselfishness, I don’t know when is. So, for her gift this year, I made my mom homemade digestive biscuits that she doesn’t have to share with any fellow anglophilic patrons of Treasure Island. 
The recipe comes from one of my “favourite” cookbooks, River Cottage Every Day. Knowing of my mother’s passion for what I will facetiously call a delicacy, I flagged the recipe right away, deciding to keep to the lower sugar amount in order to anchor the biscuits on the more savory side. May I note that the “one tablespoon” of milk called for was outrageously low? I ended up at around 10 tablespoons to get the dough wet enough to come together and it was still pretty brittle and crackly.

Though not normally a fan of the digestives, my mind was changed by these tasty tea discs. The combination of molasses and salt make the rounds deeply satisfying, while local wheat flour and oats helped make them nutty and whole.
To house the biscuits, and to provide a more lasting gift, I presented them in a vintage Scottish biscuit tin, putting the “i” in “Christmas” and in “win.” (Probably also in “insufferable.”)

Digestive biscuits from River Cottage Every Day

1 3/4 cups whole-wheat flour
1 cup unsalted butter
3 cups quick oats (I used 2 cups quick and 1 cup whole for bite)
1/3 cup brown sugar (I used white sugar with a tablespoon of molasses)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
“1 tablespoon” of milk (plus, like, 9 more)

The process is pretty simple: Cut the butter into the flour until you have a breadcrumby consistency. Mix in the dry ingredients, then the milk a little at a time until the dough comes together. Refrigerate for half an hour then roll out with more flour to help the sticking. It was tricky but manageable, though I think my biscuits were a little thicker than they were supposed to be. I cut mine with a scalloped biscuit cutter (maybe 3 inches, or 2 1/2). Bake for 10 minutes (15 in Muzgaash time) at 375 degrees on a parchment lined baking sheet. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Alphabet – Christmas edition

a is for Advent calendar 

is for Bubbly cheer 

is for Cookies 

is for Decor 

is for Extra crispy Brussels sprouts

is for Festively wrapped presents

is for Glowing sunsets 

is for Hunting trees in the wild 

is for Illumination

j  is for Jingle bells 

is for Kin in the kitchen

is for Little herb bushes as Christmas trees 

m is for Monkey business at Target 

is for New truck

is for Old-fashioned transport

is for Puppy 

is for Queen of fashion

is for Ribbons 

is for Snowman 

is for Traditions

is for Unwrapped paper

is for Very patient dog

is for Wishing for snow 

is for X-mas ornaments

is for Yoe "cooking"

is for Zoo lights

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Feelings can't be wrong

I faced a feeling on Friday. A strong feeling. A gut feeling: I can’t eat anymore pizza. I can’t eat another cookie. I. Need. Vegetables.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that it’s been pretty quiet around here. It’s partly that we’ve been enjoying the jingle bells out of this December, and partly that we’re on season four of Burn Notice, having only started the pilot over Thanksgiving. What I mean to say is: There’s been a lot of eating out… and ordering in.
We’ve hit a couple of new spots this week, and a few old favorites. The old favorites held up, but I’m sorry to say the new places failed to excite. Top on the disappoint list is Butcher and the Burger. Although rave reviews from all around led us to this trendy little joint, the food didn’t stand up to the hype. And it’s pretty impressive that we found the service faulty when we only had contact with one guy who took our order. Apparently he found the pick-your-own-topping feature as tiresome as we found it gimmicky without payoff.
Though served on a delightfully toasted and buttery split top egg bun, the meat was dry, the cheddar was mild, and the overall impression of this burger was forgettable. If my cheeseburger had been half as satisfying as the cashier’s eye-roll at our new-customer enthusiasm, I might think about heading back. Truth is: I don’t want another burger from there. I want another burger from Owen & Engine, which is, in a word, juicy. Even if the cheddar and rasher toppings turn this lunch-friendly item into a $19 entrée, it is savory, meaty, tender, flavorful, and worth it.
…But I’ve been eating salad. My favorite being the Brussels sprouts salad from Hub 51 topped with almond, dates, and manchego. That’s a fine way to get a vegetable into your system.
Dinner tonight found us back to our regularly scheduled programming: a meat and pastry fest at Pleasant House. We’ve almost got a bingo on the bakery’s specials—we’ve tried Tuesday night burgers, Wednesday’s bangers, Fry-day’s fish, and Sunday afternoon tea (is there a higher calling for bananas than banoffee pie?)—and now we’ve hit the Sunday evening carvery. Tonight’s menu: Prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. Absolute perfection.
Let’s talk about dessert. Cakes, cookies, chocolates hold no draw for me. I’ve been over-served—so early in the season its embarrassing, I know. I did manage to choke down a beer float this evening. Chocolate ice cream doused in Bell’s double cream stout. Nothing tastes as much like the holidays as boozy treats. Who wants to go wassailing?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What I like about mugs

I love December: counting each day, green wreaths, red ribbons, white lights, thinking about what loved ones would like most, long nights, tulle ribbon, bright paper, coffee in mugs, tea in mugs. Mugs. For beer? Mulled wine? Eggnog? Hot toddies? Hot chocolate with marshmallows. Mugs are a vehicle for joy—liquid joy.
At our last Thanksgiving stop, despite a full day of bubbly, cheese, crackers, and olives (not a bad day by any standards), I was ready for the main event. Turkey, sides, let’s do this. Then came a surprise: a tray of mugs. Hot chocolate, I wondered. But as I leaned in to take my offering, I found I was wrong. The mugs were full of spicy, sweet carrot soup. I rolled with it, settling back into the couch and cupping the steaming treat in my hands. Oh, the warmth! The spice! Ginger and black pepper. Soup in mugs is my new hobby. And I’m super into it.
Pull up a blanket, the sun is probably down, soups on. It’s mug-holding season, and I’m not going to miss any opportunity for hot porcelain to hand contact.

Carrot soup
1 medium onion
2 garlic clove
1 pound of carrots
1 orange
Fresh ginger
Black pepper

Sauté an onion and two garlic cloves in the bottom of a Dutch oven with some oil.  Add a pound of peeled, chopped carrots and 4 cups of water. Let simmer for at least an hour, until the carrots are totally tender. 

Add the zest of an orange, about a tablespoon of fresh grated ginger, a few grinds of black pepper, and the juice of the orange. If you are a poor, stricken soul without an immersion blender, as I am, transfer the soup carefully to a regular blender, purée, and move back to the pot. Season with salt and pepper, and thin with more water as needed.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

How to store fresh herbs (get excited!)

Our dining room table requires my immediate attention after serving as an ultimate drop-zone during a particularly sloppy behavior week on my part, so I’ll make this quick: I’ve found out how to store fresh herbs so they keep without wilting! …Google told me.

I’ve tried keeping fresh herbs outdoors as plants (which isn’t a year-round option for Chicago), indoors in live format as well (only to be thwarted by some tiny white bugs that take over the leaves in the absence of wind), and wrapped in paper towels in the fridge (but they never seem to last for more than a couple of days).  Buying a bunch of cilantro is economical enough, but feels like a waste unless I dedicate three squares a day to the herb for as long as it lasts. I’m all for using the rest in pesto (if you catch it in time—is there anything worse than discovering the herbs had gone overnight?), but was still looking for a way to keep herbs fresh in the fridge for longer.
Behold! A glass of water—and a plastic baggy! This contraption is the herb saver I’ve been looking for! It is truly amazing, I have no idea how it works—some sort of greenhouse effect must happen. All you do is settle your herbs in a glass of water and top with a plastic bag. Change out the water every few days and enjoy the miracle of life. I kept cilantro in my fridge for two weeks! Dill bought Saturday was as fresh in potato leek soup on Monday as it was in a broccoli, cheddar frittata on Thursday, and still is in my fridge right now!

You are welcome.