Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Halloween Miracle

After three months of checking the two remaining pumpkin vines almost daily for female flowers and hand-pollinating at least once a week only to have the fruits fail,  I finally got one!  I knew it wouldn't be ripe for Halloween, but at least I can have a pumpkin in some stage of production for the Great Pumpkin to see.  It should be ripe before Thanksgiving, so I can use it as a centerpiece before it gets turned into a dish.  I did buy some canned pumpkin at Sprouts, but that's to make soup at some point, or maybe another batch of that rice pudding.  My home-grown pumpkins are for recipes that use pumpkin with more texture.  The seeds from this one are going to be cinnamon.  I haven't done sweet ones yet.  This pumpkin seems to have slowed down its growth at 13" circumference.  Based on previous pumpkins, that will be about 12oz.  Very small, but better than nothing.

I finally ripped out Tommy.  So much for salsa.  Since the two tomato plants are doing fairly well, I replaced the dead rosemary bush by the front door with a beefsteak tomato, which bloomed only two weeks later.  I am going to use those quart jars for something, I swear it.  Living somewhere it never freezes opens my options for fall planting.  I still have Kale's spot to fill, and now Tommy's.  I may leave the latter empty until I'm sure I've solved the drainage problem in the fountain.  Gives me a few months to plan next year's garden.  I'm considering another shot at corn, or perhaps something from seed if I'm feeling especially cocky.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Butternut and Cilantro Soup

I caught a cold and wanted soup.  I just didn't want soup with that much salt in it.  Sometimes I do, but this cold wasn't that bad and I only needed a hot soup to go down my throat.  So I bought a package of pre-chopped butternut squash and started rooting through my fridge and pantry for ways to make it into an interesting lunch with not too much effort.

Then I realized that, as long as I wasn't feverish, there was no such thing as me making something without effort.  Cooking is an effort of love for me, even if it's just for myself.  It nourishes both body and soul.  Still, I bought the squash already prepped.  No reason to add a cut-off finger to the pot.

This is very much like my chilled butternut squash soup, except I added cilantro and basil to it.  I should have bought a lime and put in a splash of orange juice instead.  It's really a carrot soup recipe made with butternut.  Whatever, I was sick and it sounded palatable.

1/2 C diced onion
1 Tb olive oil
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped (about 20 oz)
2 C water
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp dried basil or 1 Tb fresh basil leaves, chopped
juice of 1 lime or 1 Tb orange juice
1/2 C cilantro leaves, finely chopped
Salt and white pepper to taste
Plain Greek yogurt and cilantro for garnish

1.  In medium saucepan, cook onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add squash, water, nutmeg, and basil.  Stir together, cover, and simmer until squash is tender, about 30 minutes.

2.  In blender, purée mixture in batches until very smooth.  Return to saucepan.  Stir in lime juice and cilantro and return to a simmer.  Cook 5 minutes for flavors to meld, then taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

3.  Serve hot, garnished with yogurt and cilantro if desired.

Difficulty rating  :)  (for cutting up the squash)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Cinnamon-Oatmeal Bread

I may be training a new baker very soon, which means my daily teatime will be reduced to only a few times a week.  On the other hand, I'll be able to shift my time zones a couple of hours west.  Atlantic time is fine if you live there, not so much if you're in California.

I looked in quite a few places for cinnamon chips, even gourmet and restaurant shops.  You can order them online if you plan ahead.  It isn't cheap, especially when you add in shipping, so I would only do that for a party.  There are also a few DIY chip recipes out there, this one with some very helpful comments.  I decided that my DIY would be to take some yogurt chips I already had in the pantry and toss them in straight cinnamon to coat.  It looked like it worked, but the cinnamon washed off into the batter.  The chips melted into a nice creaminess in the bread, so it wasn't a total loss.  Toffee chips are probably an acceptable substitute if you love caramel.

I'm basing this on a recipe from Better Recipes.  Some of the amounts are awkward, and possibly scaled down from a restaurant or multi-loaf recipe.  I'm rounding them a little, since not everyone has a 1/4 tsp measuring spoon.  Or a 1/2 Tb spoon, for that matter.  I do, but I have a lot of cooking gadgets that don't get used often.  I'm also replacing some of the flour and sugar with rolled oats, since that much in the streusel was just going to fall off anyway.

1/3 C light brown sugar
*2 tsp cinnamon

1.  Stir together until well mixed.  Set aside until needed

1/2 C rolled oats
*1 tsp cinnamon
2 Tb brown sugar
1 Tb butter, melted

1.  Toss together the oats, cinnamon, and brown sugar.  Stir in butter until everything gets clumpy together.

2.  Store in refrigerator until needed.  This will harden up the butter and make the streusel granola-like.

Cake (um, because this is really a cake.  I don't know why it's called "bread")
2 C flour
1/2 C rolled oats
1 Tb baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 C granulated sugar
1 egg
*1 C milk
1/3 C vegetable oil
1/2 C cinnamon chips, chopped walnuts, or raisins, optional

1.  Grease a standard loaf pan with shortening and place it on a baking sheet to catch crumbs.  Preheat oven to 350º.

2.  In a medium bowl, combine flour, oats, baking powder, salt, and sugar.  Separately, combine egg, milk, and oil.  Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet.  Stir only until combined, then let it sit a couple of minutes.  When you go back to stir it a few more strokes, it will be much more evenly moist.  Stir in any chips, nuts, or raisins.

3.  Pour half of batter in loaf pan.  Sprinkle with half of the brown sugar filling.  Top with remaining batter, followed by remaining filling.  To get a marbled loaf look, poke down in several places with a blunt knife.  Top with all of the streusel.
4.  Bake 40 minutes, then test with a toothpick.  If still too moist, put it back in and check regularly.  Mine was almost an hour, but I did use those yogurt chips, which probably added moisture.

5.  Allow to cool in the pan five minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.  You may need to run a knife along the edges first.  Once cooled, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours.  This will make it easier to slice.  I sliced mine, put a bit of waxed paper between the slices, and wrapped the whole thing back up.  It went into the freezer, and I can pull out a slice any time I want and pop it directly into the toaster or warm it in the microwave.

Makes one loaf, about 8-10 real slices (where did he get 16?)

Difficulty rating :)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Individual Dip Cups

I have solved the issue of double-dipping!  You can have a cocktail hour in December without the fear of spreading the flu.  It takes about ten minutes longer than simply making a dip and pouring it into a bowl, but the presentation makes a much greater effect and all but eliminates the spread of germs.

I used some glass bowls I have for the photo because I didn't want to go back out, but Party City has an impressive array of plasticware for "tasting parties".  I've never done one.  It seems like an awful lot of work that you reserve for foodie friends who truly appreciate the effort.  I don't have many of those.  The cups and bowls are mostly in the 2-ounce range, and the prices are quite reasonable.  Smart & Final also carries a variety of containers, including the little salad dressing cups you get at takeout.  You can make up a couple of trays of these little cups and bring them out whenever the need arises.  This also reduces the chance of serving warm and possibly hazardous dip that has been sitting out too long.

This idea also lets you get a little creative with presentation.  I garnished a 6-layer dip!  I also used fresh lime juice for the guacamole layer and really liked the result.  The sour cream is actually plain Greek yogurt, which I use frequently as a substitute.

For non-layered dips, a fast way to fill the small cups would be with a pastry bag or ziplock with the corner snipped off.  Again, it's the presentation.  There's no reason onion mix-and-sour cream dip on football night can't be an event.  It may even reduce the number of calories consumed, as you watch the stack of cups on the coffee table grow.  Dips are bad for diets because you have no idea how much you've had.  Individual cups may give dieters the freedom to enjoy what they otherwise might have passed on because they can now see the portion size.

I am definitely doing this the next time I put out dip.  A few extra minutes and a couple of dollars for the cups is worth it to keep your guests healthy.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

One Little Tomatillo

Tommy must have heard me thinking about tearing him out in favor of something that actually produces.  When I went out to pick a tomato that afternoon, I found several tomatillo husks.  The fruit inside them was the size of peas, but it was enough improvement for me to let him live a while longer.  I did have to rip out Kale.  She had some kind of bug infestation and most of the leaves had died.  I still have kale ribs in my freezer's broth bag, so she may make a contribution to Thanksgiving from beyond the compost pile.
Wow, washing them a lot makes your hands look old.
A week later, only one husk had a sizable fruit in it, and that size was smaller than my cherry tomatoes. What am I supposed to do with one little tomatillo?  I guess it can be a garnish on one serving of something.  I'll probably buy several more in order to make it an ingredient, totally defeating the purpose of growing the plant.

Even with the success of the pumpkins, this year's gardening effort was nowhere near profitable.  Guess I'll try again next year.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lavender-Lemon Shortbread

I wanted cookies and found this recipe from last year's L.A. Times cookie contest that I had never made.  Good enough.

If you have a food processor, this recipe comes together in just a couple of minutes.  Then you chill it and bake as desired.  If all you have is a blender or coffee grinder, there will be some manual labor involved.  Maybe five more minutes than the food processor version.

The difference between a "cookie" and a "shortbread" is one egg.  With the egg as a binder, it's a cookie.  Without, it's flavored pie crust and known as shortbread for the high proportion of fat that shortens the gluten strands.  Yes, that's what "shortening" means when you talk about Crisco.  It's the fact that fat creates a barrier around flour grains, preventing long glutens from forming.  This does not mean a product is gluten-free, merely that the protein of gluten is deterred from creating long strands.  This is why cookies and cakes crumble, while long-strand products like bread do not.

My batch of shortbreads got very dark on the bottom.  The most likely cause was cutting them too thick.  I only got 15, and didn't feel like re-rolling and re-chilling the log.  Another possible cause was putting them on a dark sheet pan.  I also get better results when I use the silpat.  Then there's the possibility of my oven being a bit hot.  Whatever I did, they did not taste burnt.  They smell like lavender and have a distinct lemon tang.  Not bad for a few minutes' work.

*1 tsp dried lavender
1/3 C sugar
1-1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest (either use a micro-planer or chop up regular zest)
1 C flour
pinch of salt
1/2 C (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/2" cubes
1-3 tsp lemon juice

1.  With the food processor running, drop lavender through the tube.  The reason for this technique is that the blade will sit above the buds if you put them in first and nothing will happen.  Doing it while the machine is running will keep them moving until they are pulverized.  Trickle in sugar and lemon zest, then pulse until combined.  If you let it run, the sugar will turn into powdered sugar and escape.  Add salt and flour and pulse to combine.

2.  Add butter and pulse until the big chunks are gone.  Add lemon juice half a teaspoon at a time and pulse between additions.  You know you have enough when it starts to clump.  I did this on a dry day, and it took a full tablespoon.

3.  Roll dough into a log about 10" long and wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper.  Chill 1 hour in the fridge for immediate use, or place wrapped roll in a ziplock baggie for freezer storage until needed.  Just thaw for about 30 minutes before using.

4.  Preheat oven to 350º.  Slice log crosswise into 1/2" pieces and arrange on ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake until edges are golden brown, about 20-25 minutes.  Cool on a rack and serve.

Makes 20

Difficulty rating  π

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tomato-Yogurt Dip

I amassed a whopping four small tomatoes on the day I was trying to eat only from pantry and garden items.  This turned into a sauce to have with some falafel and chicken, since I didn't have any cucumbers for a proper tzatziki.

I've made roasted tomato spreads and cheeses, but I don't remember ever doing it with fresh tomatoes in a cream base.  It's fantastic.  You get the bright freshness of the tomato flavor against the tang of the yogurt.  It's almost like a soup, and works great against any vegetable, bread, fish, or poultry.   Plus, it takes less than five minutes to make.

*1/2 lb tomatoes, seeded and petite diced
*1 C plain yogurt (Greek or regular)
*1 Tb lemon juice
*dash of salt
*dash of dill weed

1.  Stir together tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, and dill.

2.  Stir in yogurt.

3.  Chill and serve.  If it sits overnight, some of the whey and tomato water will pool up.  You can either drain it off or stir it back in before serving.

Makes about 2 cups

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chicken Stock & Consommé

And this is what you do with the bones from the chicken you de-boned last week.

I'm going traditional with this one, straight out of the garde manger textbook.  However, I'm cutting it down a bit.  What is the average home cook going to do with a gallon of chicken stock?  Here, we're working with one chicken's worth of bones and trimmings, which will be somewhere between 1-1/2 and 2 pounds.  That will make about a quart, otherwise known as enough for the base of your average pot of soup, risotto, or stuffing recipe.

I rifled through the broth bag to pick out only celery, onion, and carrot for the base stock.  There's an awful lot of kale in there.  I still have a quart of veggie broth in the freezer, but my next batch will be heavy on the kale and celery.  That would be lovely for a stuffing base.  Can you tell that I'm ready for Thanksgiving?

For the second part of this recipe, the consommé, I cut up fresh stuff.  I even sacrificed half a pound of perfectly good ground turkey.  Unlike stock, which is leftovers, consommé is a proper recipe in its own right.  It is an elegant and somewhat labor-intensive dish, and all diners think of it is strained soup.  It is clarified soup, which can also be boiled down into a reduction sauce or all the way down into a form of gelled, preservable soup base that can be rehydrated.

Chicken Stock
2 lbs chicken bones
6 C water
2 oz by weight chopped onion
1 oz by weight chopped celery
1 oz by weight chopped carrot
1 bay leaf
3 coriander seeds or peppercorns
1 sprig fresh thyme

1.  In a pot, bring chicken bones and water just barely to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  Boiling will bring up scummy stuff, so keep the water on as low a heat as possible.  Cover and come back in 4 hours.
2.  Stir in remaining ingredients, leave the lid off, and continue to simmer for another hour.

3.  Run contents of pot through a coffee filter or cheesecloth placed over a mesh strainer.  It will take some time, but don't force the liquid through.  All those little specks of cooked chicken at the bottom of the pot are safe to eat, but not pretty.  Refrigerate overnight, then skim off any fat.  Stock may be used immediately or stored up to three days.

Makes about 1 quart

Difficulty rating  π

Chicken Consommé
1 quart chicken stock
1/2 lb ground chicken or turkey (ground beef is more traditional)
3 egg whites (1/2 C if you're using carton)
2 oz diced onion
1 oz diced carrot
1 oz diced celery
herbs of choice (bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, parsley, etc)
salt and white pepper to finish
reserved carrot and celery leaves for garnish

1.  Make meatloaf out of everything except the stock, salt, and pepper.  Just mush it all together.
2.  In a large saucepan, add stock and that lump of meat, then stir it together while heating over medium.  It's going to look like something you don't want to eat.  Let the soup warm up slowly, stirring every minute or so until the meat forms a "raft".  Yes, it's just as gross as it sounds.  Reduce heat to a simmer.  You don't want to boil this, or the act of boiling will kick up more of the gunk we're trying to get rid of.  The idea is that the raft absorbs any bits left in the stock, while emitting more flavor.
3.  After an hour, strain through coffee filters or cheesecloth over a mesh strainer.  Use a ladle so you don't have to kick up more debris.  Think of it as wading on the edge of a lake.  You can drag your feet until it gets muddy or step carefully and only get wisps around the ankles.  The raft doesn't look any better after it's cooked, but it is perfectly safe to eat.  I added mine to some marinara.  You could stir it into mac & cheese, chili, or anything Hamburger Helper.

4.  Add a very subtle amount of salt and white pepper to the consommé, just one or two shakes for the whole batch.  Chill consommé, then skim off any fat.  Can be served chilled or hot, with bits of celery and carrot as garnish.  If chilled, it will require one extra shake each of salt & pepper.  Mine didn't come out as clear as I was hoping (see photo at top), but I totally nailed the salt & pepper.  The flavor is rich, yet smooth, with only the faintest hint of the spices and herbs.

Makes about 3 C

Difficulty rating :)

Monday, October 6, 2014


Found something to do with the maple syrup!  Granola can be really expensive for something that is mostly rolled oats, which cost less than a dollar a pound.  And then there always seems to be something in it you don't like, or something missing you do like.  Problem solved, make it yourself.

I'm still trying to take one meal a day with me to work, since I seem to be staying long enough for both breakfast and lunch on most days.  We do have a low-fat granola on hand, but I thought this would be a cool project that anyone could do, even as a cooking lesson with kids.  And it's nice and easy, after the last post.

I'm starting with Alton Brown's recipe, which has many positive reviews.  It's a little too sweet for my taste, so I'm cutting back on the sugar.  My mix-ins were sweet, which may have something to do with it, but even the oats part was a bit much.

Speaking of a bit much, this makes a lot more than I thought.  When his recipe said six servings, I was picturing six cups of granola.  Then it filled my half-gallon jar, and there was still more in the bowl.  I'm going to cut it in half here, and make the list of mix-ins more generic.  The only specific I'm using is rolled oats as opposed to quick oats.  It's going to make a big difference in your finished product.

1-1/2 C rolled oats
1 C mixed nuts (I used sliced almonds and broken macadamias)
*6 Tb (1/4 C + 2 Tb) coconut flakes - I used unsweetened
2 Tb dark brown sugar
*3 Tb maple syrup or honey
2 Tb vegetable oil
1/4 tsp salt
up to 1 C other mix-ins like dried fruit and chips

1.  Preheat oven to a mere 250º.  Get out a rimmed baking sheet.  No parchment or greasing required.

2.  In a medium bowl, combine oats, nuts, coconut, and brown sugar.  In a separate bowl, combine maple syrup, vegetable oil, and salt.

3.  Combine two mixtures until dry mix is thoroughly coated.  You can even let it sit a few minutes to let everything soak in together.  Pour out onto sheet pan in a single layer.

4.  Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes for even browning.  If granola starts to look dry and crisp at the 1 hour mark, go ahead and pull it.

5.  Allow to cool on pan, then stir in dried fruit and/or chips.  I used dried cranberries and yogurt chips.  Taste and add light salt if needed, which would mainly be if you went heavy on the nuts.  Store in a sealed container at room temperature.

Makes about 1 quart

Difficulty rating  π

Friday, October 3, 2014

How to Debone Poultry

I finally got around to it, the lesson I have been wanting to do almost since I started this blog.

The version I'm doing is the classical one demonstrated by Jaques Pepin on PBS many, many years ago.  It's on the long side, but an excellent demonstration.
There are faster ways to do it, but this one preserves the most meat and the shape of the chicken.  I did this once to a turkey.  Do not buy a Butterball, or you will be pulling out handfuls of butter from between every muscle.  Once it was stuffed and tied up, it looked like a turkey on a diet, but the shape was intact.  The leg bones had been replaced with stuffing, and the whole thing could be sliced crosswise like a loaf.  I didn't have to figure out how to carve it.  I had done all the hard work before it went into the oven.

For this demo, I picked up some Cornish hens.  Very thin bones.  With smaller poultry, you have to be extra careful not to tear the meat or skin.  Chicken, duck, and goose are all the mid-sized fowl that are easiest to do with this method.  Since you get a better meat yield with deboning, over 90%, I was able to allow half a hen per serving instead of the usual full bird.

This took me 20 minutes for the first bird and about 18 for the second.  Some of that time was stopping to wash my hands to take pictures, but not much.  It has been about ten years since I've done this, so a first-timer should expect a similar result.  In a professional kitchen, the prep cook should be able to do it in about five minutes.  The turkey took me slightly over an hour.  In my defense, it was not 100% defrosted and I spent a lot of time dumping that butter in a bowl.

All right, here we go, breaking down the video into smaller segments:

1.  Get out an array of very sharp and thin knives, plus one heavier knife to break the legs.  By having a few on hand, you'll be able to switch off more easily if you realize one isn't quite right for a particular step.  Unwrap bird, rinse thoroughly, and pat dry with paper towels.  Make sure the cutting board is secure, with either a towel or grip pad underneath.  Have a plastic bag handy to collect the bones.  Either freeze them for a project we're doing next week, or use it to seal them before throwing away.  They smell after a few days.

2.  Remove two end segments of the wings.  On a person, that would be shoulder to elbow that stays put.  This is easily done by placing a knife in the joint, which should give way without effort.  You can save the next joint for a wing dish or toss it in the bag.

3.  Place chicken breast-side up.  There should be a neck opening so you don't have to cut the skin.  Make two small slashes at the top of the breast just deep enough to pull out the wishbone.  If it breaks, make sure you go in there and get all the pieces.  It is an extremely sharp and dangerous bone once broken, and you're going to be sticking your hand in there in a minute.

4.  Turn over the bird and slice the length of the backbone, all the way down to the bone.  I find it easier to make two cuts, one on each side of the spine.  They will be very close together, maybe half an inch apart, and go neck to tail.

5.  Back on the breastbone side, reach through the wishbone slashes until you feel the shoulder joints.  Disjoint them with the tip of a knife, making sure to cut the sinews.  Do not remove the wing bones just yet, or cut any of the skin.

6.  Flip over again and pull the flesh off the carcass at the ribcage.  Pepin talks about including the "oysters", which are a pair of round muscles at the hip-bone.  Since you are going through the back, the breast meat should be largely intact.  Sometimes, the filets come off as you're pulling.  If not, pull them off separately and remove the long sinew as Pepin demonstrates.  Bony parts go in the bag, meat back on cutting board.
7.  Scrape down the thigh bones until the "knee" joints are exposed.  Cut connective tissue and remove thigh bones.

8.  Using the back of your heavy knife, break the "feet" knobs free of the leg bones.  For the turkey, I needed Techie Smurf's help to break the bones.  The Cornish hens were so light, I could almost do them with bare hands.  Scrape down leg bones and remove, leaving feet in the skin.

9.  Scrape down and remove last wing bones.

10.  Double-check for bones, cartilage, and connective tissue.  The only tough parts left should be the feet.

Now, what to do with this floppy mess of meat.  The fancy dish would be a galantine, which the average home cook would not necessarily serve the family for dinner.  A ballotine is more appropriate, and is what I did.  My trussing string is from Home Depot.  Don't spend a lot, just make sure it's cotton.  Pepin's looping technique is not only classical, it is the easiest and most reliable way to tie up poultry or a roast.

When cooking a stuffed, deboned piece of poultry, the standard 350º oven and 160º pull temperature are still recommended.  Make sure you are temping the center of the stuffing, especially if it contains eggs.  The other five degrees are from a ten-minute rest.  The cooking time may be slightly less because the stuffing is usually less dense than the meat and bones.  It depends on what you use and how tightly it's packed.  Use a thermometer, check every 15 minutes until it gets close.

Good luck!

Difficulty rating $@%!