Monday, August 9, 2010

Right now, this is my favorite


Simple, quiet, unassuming: the first glance belies its rich, tart complexity. It is at once cold, tangy, creamy. I smear it on one half of a prune plum, layer it under granita, serve it with bread, eat it from a spoon.

Labneh cheese.

So effortless, yet so decadent. I vow to always keep it around.

Start with whole milk Greek yogurt.* I had a large container of Fage Total in my fridge so I used that. Use as much as you’d like, but I’d recommend that you use as much as you can. This stuff; it is a drug.

Take your yogurt and place it in a cheesecloth- or unbleached paper towel-lined fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Make sure the strainer balances over the bowl. Dump your yogurt into the lined strainer, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the fridge overnight. I think I let my sit about 12 hours and that seemed sufficient. Perhaps you can get away with less time.

Once the manna is thick, thick, thick (think barely whipped cream cheese), remove and place in a sealable container. Eat with everything possible.

*If you can’t find or can’t afford Greek yogurt, you can certainly use knock-off strained brands, or you can start with plain yogurt (the straining step will just take longer). And remember, this is cheese, not diet food, so stick with the full-fat good stuff.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Pickles


I’ll just go ahead and state the obvious, get it out of the way, and move on. It’s been quite a hiatus over here. I didn’t know if I was going to come back here and continue writing, or move on and start anew. I wasn’t sure of this blog’s identity anymore (stories, recipes, politics, funny pictures: all or one or none of the above?), and that struggle was keeping me from doing what I set out to in the first place, namely, to write. And then I decided I wanted to keep going, to keep writing—writing at least something, but couldn’t get started.

So this blog turned one and I let it be. I moved to Boston, threw a going-away pie-party and didn’t tell you. I took a real person job (in! cookbook! publishing!) and let it slide. So I’m sitting here drinking tea in the Northeastern heat wave thinking about my kitchen and how to catch up.

My new job has blessed me with an abundance of extra food. Some days it is leftover chili, pie, chocolate cake, and (ugh) slow-cooker meatloaf. Other days it is extra produce from a photo shoot: shitakes and basil, habanero peppers and half-cut onions. I lug what I can carry home during a 30-minute stroll to my (hot, hot) 3rd floor walk-up, and lay it all out. On Thursdays I stop by the Coolidge Corner farmers’ market and buy the rest of my week’s groceries: local squash, carrots, early heirloom tomatoes, and the last of this mixed-up season’s blueberries.

My fridge is bursting at the seams, and spoilage is my mortal enemy.

So I’ve been spending my Saturdays getting to know my freezer and practicing the awesome art that is pickling. Using Momofuku as a guide, I’ve pickled carrots, ginger, jalapenos, asparagus, onions, radishes, and so many cucumbers. Quick vinegar carrot pickles go quickly, and sliced on the bias taste great in salads with walnuts and butter lettuce. The pickled ginger has been thrown in (another) salad with leftover work salmon, a spicy okra sauté, and straight into my mouth when I get home from work with a bellyache. My pickled asparagus is quite ugly: I made a soy sauce brine, and the thin spears shriveled up upon contact with the hot/salty/sweet liquor. But they sure taste good.

My best pickles, however, are my latest cucumber pickles—the brine is an agglomeration of ideas and recipes: a mixture of white and rice vinegar, onions, garlic, peppercorns, dill, fennel, and sea salt. They’re not sweet, nor sour, just cold, crisp, and preserved. I can take my time with them, knowing that they’ll still taste good next week.

And then there is the granita, the icy treat that requires no ice cream maker, no dairy, and no custard. I made a great one yesterday and I think you should try your hand at it too.

The method is simple: stir together a sweet, flavorful puree or flavored syrup (but make sure your syrup is watery; too much sugar makes for a gloppy granita). Stick it in the freezer in a shallow pan or Tupperware container. Wait 45 minutes, and stir with a fork. Wait again, stir again. Repeat. After a couple hours, you’ll have it: Italian ice, no corn syrup needed.

Here’s my recipe, but change it at will (a fruit puree would be a great addition; I’ve been eating my berries and stone fruit fresh, and quickly, so none of it makes it into these projects).

Ginger-Basil Granita

serves 1 for a week of desserts, or 4-5 all at once

1/3 cup honey

1 ½-inch knob of ginger, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch disks

a few basil leaves

juice from ½ lime (about 1 teaspoon)

water

Stir together honey with 1/3 cup water. Add ginger slices and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer until the ginger softens and the syrup has become spicy, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, add basil, cover, and let steep for another 10 minutes. Remove lid and let syrup cool for 10-15 minutes. Pour syrup into measuring cup and add water to measure 1½ cups. Pour into a shallow pan or Tupperware container and freeze for 30-45 minutes, or until mixture begins to freeze. Break up frozen chunks with a fork and stir. Return to freezer for another 30-45 minutes, and stir again with a fork. Repeat freezing and stirring steps until the mixture is completely frozen and flaky. If you forget to stir, don’t fret. You’ll just need to stir more aggressively once you remember.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spotted at Super H Mart


I finally made it out to the Korean superstore a couple weeks ago, buying practical goods like somen noodles to mix with ginger scallion sauce, palm sugar, aji chiles, and Pocky


(apparently men only can enjoy dark chocolate).

I showed uncharacteristic restraint when faced with less edible




Did you know that durians are farmed close enough to Atlanta to earn the title "fresh"? Neither did I.


The most entertaining part about shopping here, however, is the shelving arrangements.
Should we combine coconut milk with Vermont Curry?


Or perhaps give dinner guests a choice between canned light Progresso and the less diet-friendly canned tripe stew.


The best part about Super H Mart, however, is the kimchi wall. I will be back.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Food Carts and Recipe Duels


Some meals are best left to restaurants. Long, multi-course affairs with wine pairings and a different amuse bouche for each diner or conceptual, intricate dinners decked out with foam and exploding truffles are beyond pleasurable, but not something most of us would want to make ourselves or even enjoy on the fly. And, much of the time, these are not the meals I crave, dream about, or plot to put together on a long Saturday.


Usually I want simple, straightforward food that tastes great and looks like it was made by human hands.

I think most of you do too.

There are several cities in our country experimenting with new ways for getting just this kind of food into our bellies cheaper, quicker, and better. Chefs are doling out meals ranging from fried-whatever-you-can-imagine and khao man gai to handmade local sausages and artisanal pizza, to hungry office workers, elitist hipsters and vacationing families. They’re brining good food to fast food wastelands and transforming parking lots into foodie meccas. Those of you in Portland, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC surely have eaten lunches, dinners, and late night snacks at your roaming squadrons of food carts, not realizing how fantastic these mini-kitchens are. I know I grew complacent.

But I now know how empty an empty parking lot can feel, and I now know how satisfying that 1:30 am cone of fries can be.

Atlanta, unfortunately, is home to archaic zoning ordinances that make it close to impossible to own and operate a food cart. These days there are a few cart-like vendors but, until the rules change, there is no way for carts to populate Atlanta like in other cities .

Luckily, it looks as if things might be starting to change.

The Atlanta Street Food Coalition, mostly made up of Hayley Richardson and Christiane Lauterbach have begun mobilizing current and future food cart owners and lovers to petition the city for change (go ahead and sign the petition here). They organized a great event a couple weeks ago to raise awareness for the chefs already trying to bring their creations to the street.

I hung around for a bit and tried some pretty good food, made simply and delectably.

Good Luck Bowl: collards, black-eyed peas, cornbread waffle

Coppa Pizza

Ginger Creme Brulee

Speaking of good and simple food, did any of you hear that two of the best sources for creating these meals at home, food52 and Cook’s Illustrated, are having a duel? Apparently they’ve been, um, exchanging words since this fall, and they are, right as I write, culling and/or developing recipes for roast pork shoulder and sugar cookies. The recipes will be judged on Slate and the winner will get the title of Best Method for Creating Foolproof Recipes (or something like that). Will it be the power in numbers that comes from internet-saavy homecooks or will it be the tried-and-true science behind a trained kitchen of experts?

Personally, I like both. I use cookbooks like textbooks and I love resources like Cook’s that provide a wealth of information along with their reliable recipes. I also think that online food site like food52 bring an impressive level of creativity and ingenuity that can inspire cooks of all levels to develop their own recipes and palates.

I ran my own little test this Easter, just to verify my two-is-better-than-one thesis Granted, my test was, um, the opposite of scientific and was pieced together after the fact, but I think that the strength of both publications shone through anyway.


In addition to Martha’s fabulous mac and cheese and an Italian Easter Bread recipe from Gourmet, I baked up a daffodil cake from the most recent Cook’s Country and a pomegranate molasses-glazed ham from food52 (a winner and editor’s pick).

The cake was seriously beautiful, and crazy-simple to make (as long as you can whip egg whites to a medium peak, you can bake this cake). The perfect complement to our strawberries and cream, its crumb was both delicate and creamy, and the hint of orange mimicked the warm sunshine in our backyard that afternoon.


The ham? Holy crap, it was good. The reddish glaze baked up into a complex, spicy caramel crust, and its je ne sais quoi permeated to the depths of the meat. I stood in the kitchen, long past full, picking at the crispy bits long after lunch ended.


Who needs a winner?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

So I started another blog

Mostly food-related, mostly unrelated, modest proposals is a collection of internet-y bits that I find interesting, funny, or gross (most of the time, all three).
Check it out.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

All I've been eating for the past two weeks....

Hello, muffin.


It's been quite nice spending two weeks with you and all of your friends.

I'm glad I learned your almond butter secrets; you taste pretty good.

It is time, however, for you to find some new homes.

Anyone want one?
Or twelve?

Better Than The Bakery Cranberry-Nut Muffins

3½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon non-iodized table salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter, at slightly-cooler-than room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons creamy almond butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1¼ cup low-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
2½ cups fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped in half (if using frozen, do not thaw)
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spray a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray. Spray the top of the pan as well as the inside of the cups.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside. Cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed of an electric mixer until lightened in color and well mixed, about 2 minutes. Turn off the mixer and add the almond butter. Return the mixer to medium speed and cream until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, continuing to beat at medium speed until smooth, about 45 seconds.

Gently fold in 1/3 of the flour mixture, followed by 1/3 of the buttermilk, until the flour just barely disappears. Fold in another 1/3 flour and then 1/3 buttermilk, and repeat once more, again, just until you can no longer see the flour. Do not over mix. Gently fold in the cranberries and walnuts just until incorporated.

Spoon the batter into the muffin pan, filling each cup so that it mounds slightly over the top of the cup. The batter should fill 12-18 muffin cups, depending on the size of the cup.

Bake 40-45 minutes, or until the tops are mounded, smooth and deeply golden brown, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time.

Remove pan to a cooling rack. Let the muffins cool in the pan for 15 minutes to set, and gently remove to a cooling rack for another 3-5 minutes. Eat while still warm.

Happy Spring

I don't know what was up with those freak snow flurries the other day, but I think it's now safe to say that spring is springing here in Atlanta.

The major farmers markets open in a couple of weeks, but for now, get yourself to Decatur or Morningside and make a giant salad!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Southern Manners

In my valuable minutes between batches of granola and batches of cran-nut muffins, I’d like to talk to you about something that is growing increasingly important to me, as my time in the South grows longer like the daylight. I knew leaving Portland, aka farm-to-table Mecca, aka foodie paradise, aka blogger wonderland would necessitate a change in my eating, shopping, and even writing habits. During my time on the left coast, I assumed I could always know from which state, or even which city or town, my pear, broccoli, and mushrooms came. I assumed I could always find responsible meat, even if it cost an arm and a leg. I assumed I could always eat locally, even down to the flour in my cookies and the oats in my granola.

Jesus I was spoiled.

I can still find much of the same produce here in Atlanta that I bought in Portland, but 2500 miles is a long way for Oregon pears, Washington apples and California kale to travel before hitting my plate: a far cry from local; a far cry from sustainable, even if the produce is organic. Of course, Atlanta has farmers’ markets, just like Portland. But at last count, Portland has 16 operating farmers’ markets, excluding the other 23 markets in the metro area. Atlanta? It has 16. For the entire metro area.

I don’t mean to complain, or wax poetic about a city that gets more than its fair share of fanatical press. I just mean to point out the challenges of living in a city a bit less connected to its agricultural blessings. Georgia is a largely agricultural state, and Atlanta is beginning to see much more local produce, meat, cheese, and specialty products now than just five or so years ago. The problem is, all of these great foodstuffs are isolated in specialty shops, expensive restaurants, and our, mostly small, and mostly competitive, farmers’ markets. Our grocery stores, even Whole Foods, are saturated with Mexican and Californian produce, and the names of these far-off origins are hidden or non-existent on the store shelves. Consumers on a budget or with strict shopping schedules (as much as I hate to admit it, many well-intentioned people just can’t make it to a farmers’ market on Wednesday afternoons or early enough on Saturdays to catch the good stuff) have little choice but to buy their citrus from California, even with excellent choices available from Florida, or their apples from Washington, even while Southern heirloom varieties are beginning to make a comeback.

In the past few months, I’ve been doing my best to discover or re-discover the alternatives. Because there are sustainable eating options in Atlanta, and they don’t all break the bank. It just takes a close eye and a willingness to explore new stores.

In the spirit of Southern hospitality, here’s a list of where I like to do my shopping:

Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market
Not a farmers’ market at all, this warehouse of a store is more of an international grocery metropolis. They don’t pay much attention to seasonality, but they do a great job of listing from where every product was sourced and stock more organics than Whole Foods. They’ve begun to carry cage-free eggs (I know, not the same as true free range, but it’s a start), organic milk from grass-fed cows, heritage pork and grass-fed beef. They also carry a huge variety of grains and flours, many from Kentucky (it’s not super local, but at least you know that it’s from the Southeast). Oh, and everything is dirt-cheap.

Whole Foods
Okay, so I talk a lot of shit about WF, but they have been stocking more local products lately. I’ve found local Johnson Farms milk for only $5.99 a gallon (many of the smaller stores who carry their milk charge upwards of 5 bucks for just a ½ gallon), Atlanta Fresh yogurt, and local free-range eggs for decent prices. They’ve also begun to rate the animal-friendliness of their meat producers, and the meat guys are totally willing to ask any questions about the source and raising practices of all of the farmers. Bonus points? They now carry local beef, pork and cute French-style chickens. The chickens get a 2 (out of 5) on their ethics scale, and the both the beef and the pork get a 4. I’ve tried the pork, straight up and in sausage form, and it’s pretty good. They also carry a bunch of local beers, and some of the stores stock Sweetgrass Dairy cheese. Sometimes you can find local produce, but it’s still pretty Cali-saturated.

Decatur Farmers’ Market

I haven’t been here in a while; my nanny job keeps me busy during their Wednesday afternoon hours, but you can find some awesome greens, pickles, salsas, bread and mini-pies most weeks. It’s still pretty small, but it has grown every season, and I’m sure it will be pretty excellent once spring produce begins to come in full force. Also, I just saw that they'll be expanding to a Saturday market in addition to the Wednesday market, beginning in May (yes!!).

Morningside Farmers’ Market

You’ve got to get here early on Saturday mornings; lines begin to form way before the 8 am opening time. Prices tend to be higher here (because of the neighborhood?), but, man, I’ve bought some beautiful vegetables on my visits. A couple of the farmers sell eggs, and there’s a meat guy there most weeks (I haven’t tried these proteins, but I’m sure they’re good).

Alon’s Bakery
When I get done at the Morningside market, I hop across the street to my favorite bakery since … forever. Alon’s has grown considerably since we first started buying their cookies when I was 6 (?). They make several varieties of hearth-style breads, decadent pastries (the mini-cookies, in oatmeal raisin, chocolate chunk, and double chocolate are, um, the best?), and stock a few different local cheeses amongst the European selections. They also carry Johnson Farms dairy products, Atlanta fresh, and local eggs, but these all carry a hefty price tag.

Sawicki’s Meat, Seafood, and More

This one-woman powerhouse of a store carries local eggs and dairy, as well as local and specialty meats and seafood. You can also ask for just about anything meat-wise and she’ll order it for you.

Pine Street Market
Housemade sausages from local pork? I think yes. Plus the owners are totally cute.

The Mercantile
It’s a bit farther from my house, and they stock a lot of the same products as Alon’s, but the cheese monger is more friendly, and super knowledgeable (and they have samples!).

Where do you like to shop in Alanta?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Yogurt Trials

Lactobacillus Acidophilus.
Streptococcus Thermophilus.

Bifidobacterium.

Music to my ears.


The key to my lactose intolerant heart.


Yogurt and I have a close relationship. In fact, if I were to calculate the cost of my yogurt consumption over the past, oh, 23 years, it would surely outnumber the money I’ve spent on any other relationship by some absurdly significant amount. I spoon it over granola and mix it into biscuits for breakfast, dollop it on soup for lunch, and dash it with cinnamon and honey for dessert. I eat it frozen, stirred, lumpy; full fat, non-fat, goat-fat. As long as it isn’t full of flavorings and or soymilk, I’m game. It was only a matter of time until I tried to make it myself.


I’ve read enough and heard enough (my mother has fantastic stories about her hippie days and electric-blanket culturing) about yogurt creation that it just seemed like a no-brainer. Heat milk, cool it a bit, add yogurt, and stir? Easier than high-school chemistry.

Or not.

For my first batch, I sought out the best local milk I could easily get my hands on (Perhaps one of these days I will get my hands on some raw milk for my “pet,” but such delayed gratification is just not in the cards right now). I had been enjoying Atlanta Fresh Yogurt, and a little research revealed the source of their dairy: Johnson Family Farm, who luckily sell their milk retail just ¼ mile from my house, at Sawicki’s in Decatur. I snagged a half-gallon of whole milk and brought it home to my lab/kitchen.

I’ve read that larger brand yogurts make better starters than artisanal creations because they tend to contain a larger number of precious cultures, and thus yield a more consistent product. We already had some Stoneyfield Organic non-fat in the fridge, so I used it for my first batch.
The heating and cooling steps seemed straightforward—the first recipe I found directed the cook to heat the milk to 180-190 degrees and then cool to 115 to 120 before adding the starter (2 tablespoons per quart). I was careful to monitor the temperature during these steps, and then placed the mixture in a 1-quart mason jar wrapped in kitchen towels. I then stuck the whole thing in my oven with the oven light (but nothing else) on for four hours. After this period, the “yogurt” was pretty viscous—kind of like ooblek—but certainly not yogurt textured. However, the directions specificied “setting time” in the fridge, so I figured this would lead to the desired consistency.

Um, nope.


video

Whether it was the too high heating temperature, non-active starter, too short culture time, or just the milk, this never became yogurt. It tasted great: fatty in the way that only whole milk can be, with a distinctive tang upfront. I just couldn’t spoon it on to anything, and it dripped and oozed and slimed its way all over the counter every time I tried to eat it.


But, damn, this milk was expensive. Not to be wasted.

Hence, the ice cream maker.



Another snowstorm and a freezer full of other cartons of frozen decadence notwithstanding, I was determined to create something edible and worth the effort (and hopefully yummy). But this yogurt was totally cursed. Manufacturer’s directions are there for you to read, people. Ice cream paddles will not fit into the container once the mixture has started to freeze. All milk mixtures generally make ice, no matter how long and hard you churn. And these icy mixtures will freeze into a hard block when there’s not enough sugar or fat to keep it spoonable.


I like to think of my yogurt ice block kind of like a Dairy Queen Blizzard: it won’t fall out of its container when you flip it upside down. And scraped on top of raspberry sorbet, the ice eventually melts into a creamy sauce that tastes pretty good.

But it’s still not yogurt
.


So I tried again yesterday.
This time, I bought less local but still grass-fed and organic milk (vat pasteurized!) from the Dekalb Farmer’s Market and chose Danon low-fat yogurt as a starter. Urged on by different directions, I lowered the initial heating temperature to 170 degrees, let it cool all the way to 108, and mixed in a full ½ cup starter. I followed the same swaddling/oven-light culturing strategy, but I left it in incubation for almost 6 hours.

The result? See for yourself:



It’s still not perfect: I’d like it to be tangier, and I could probably push the incubation up to 7 or 8 hours for a firmer product. But this will do for today’s, tomorrow’s, and possibly the next day’s breakfasts, snacks, and desserts. And there’s no ice cream maker to clean.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Best Kind of Saturday

As a once again very busy underemployed jack-of-all trades, I have learned to value the long Saturday afternoons I now have wide-open-free for experimenting, crafting, stirring, tasting. The best of these Saturdays, shining bright after an endless week of carpooling and 30-minute meals are filled with some variation of the ultimate trifecta: pie, granola, and ice cream.


The pie: a sour-cherry confection, baked for my cousin’s 21st birthday (perhaps the ultimate hang-over cure?). I started with a double crust pate brisee from Martha,* and mounded a precariously high pile of canned (uh, I know, not the best, but hey, this was the request) sour cherries mixed with a tablespoon of cornstarch, ½ cup-of sugar, ½ teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt (next time, lemon juice!). The top crust fell apart a bit upon its careful placement, but hey, that’s what “rustic” cooking is all about.


The granola: my adaptation of Orangette’s adaptation of Nigella Lawson’s breakfast blend. It’s got the usual suspects—oats, nuts, honey, cinnamon—but is laced with applesauce, unsweetened coconut, and brown rice syrup, the secret to crunchy clusters without corn syrup. The recipe is super-flexible, so, at least in my house, no two batches are quite the same. Sometimes I add molasses, sometimes I add sesame, sometimes it’s flax seeds. Each adds its own magic.

The roasting process (especially if making a double or triple batch) can take quite a while, especially in my parents’ tinier than tiny oven, but there is seriously nothing more therapeutic than slow, routinized stirring, tossing, and tasting. And with this winter aiming to be the longest, coldest winter, um, ever, sticking by a hot stove all day is pretty freakin’ great. Once finished, this granola is worlds away from anything you can buy at the store, flavor-wise, money-wise, and health-wise. I eat it most mornings with yogurt, some kind of fruity topping, and occasionally mixed with Flax Plus.


The ice cream: left-over from my grandmother’s 78th Sundae birthday party. The ménage a toi of chocolate, vanilla, and mint-chocolate chip is particularly good topped with coconut, chocolate sauce and a cherry.

*Try as I might to convince myself to try a new recipe, like the supposedly foolproof Cook’s Illustrated vodka-laced pastry, I just can’t break with habit. This crust may be a bit finicky during humid weather, but it is crumbly-flaky in just the way I like it, and melts on the tongue in a way M&Ms can only dream of.


Oh, and a big Verdant Kitchen P.S. I prepared a trio of dips and crackers for a CDC party last week. Check it out over on my other webpage.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cooking for Others

I’ve been holding out on you.


It wasn’t intentional. I just didn’t want to tell you until I had survived the first event unscathed. Victorious, even.


A few weeks ago, I was hired to cater a dinner party for a great group of people. I dove in headfirst, scheming up a menu ready to satisfy the vegetarians, omnivores, kosher-keepers and hilal-observers who make up Kids4Peace, an exchange-ish program between Muslim, Jewish and Christian children in the US and in Jerusalem. Needless to say, the stakes were high. I mean, these are pretty awesome people, and I certainly couldn’t serve them less than the best.


I made a triple batch of French bread (learning important lessons about the freezer along the way), roasted free-range chickens, stuffed 10 pounds of kale into my stockpot, and pickled beautiful Woodland Gardens watermelon radishes. I baked cookie after cookie, stretched endless batches of cracker dough, assembled mushroom and rutabaga tarts, and sliced enough citrus to power an iPhone (um, almost).


In short, it was awesome, and I hope to do it again. And again.

Without further ado, then, I give to you my new pet project: Verdant Kitchen Sustainable Catering.

Tell your friends.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Avoiding Ingredients

During a job interview the other day, I was asked if there was one ingredient with which I refused to cook. This question kind of threw me for a loop, because, in the last few years, I have undertaken a mission to at least like everything. As a kid, I was pretty picky. I’d like to think that this stemmed from my myriad food allergies; my pickiness was just a method of self-protection. In reality, I was probably just being a kid.

Since then, I’ve taught myself to eat (and enjoy) mushrooms, tomatoes, fish and browned toast (Yes, I was one of those children who would have rather eaten a cold Eggo waffle than one with just the slightest hint of browning). The only food I have yet to conquer?

Bananas.

The final frontier.

Granted, bananas aren’t the most sustainable fruit to eat, especially in the winter, and the hard yellow specimens filling our supermarket bins are the culinary equivalent of Sara Lee white bread. But the sweet yellow fruits seem should seem like a small hurdle to overcome on my path to I’m-a-foodie-so-I-like-everything status.

Not so.

From a young age, I could pick up the taste of traces of bananas in everything from baked goods to my friends’ contaminated lunch boxes. Small taste tests turned into face twisting retches of agony, the flavors in my mouth screaming “Mushy!” “Overripe!” “Saccarine!” At some point, my abhorrence got so bad that I refused to touch any fruits near the bananas in my parents’ kitchen.

With age, I tried to introduce the flavor slowly, stomaching plantain chips, slowly sipping strawberry-banana smoothies, and swallowing whole rum-soaked Foster slices. None of these things worked. Not even close.

It wasn’t until the other day that I was asked to whip up some banana bread for my after-school charges that I ate a few bites of the stuff without a grimace. Perhaps it was in hopes of keeping my authority intact (How can you get a six-year-old to eat broccoli if you won’t even try your homemade banana bread?), but I actually enjoyed my banana-filled concoction. And seriously, this bread was filled with the fruit—I had to almost triple the suggested amount of banana to use up the quickly over ripening specimens on the counter, lowering the other liquid ingredients to almost negligible amounts. This was serious stuff, and I wish I had a recipe, or at least a picture to show you, but it has unfortunately escaped into the netherworld of crazed babysitter afternoons.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Julia knows her bread

One of my "Santa" presents this year (yes, we still do Santa in this family...) was a DVD collection of Julia Child's The Way to Cook series. Now, I'm not an insane Julia fanatic (Mastering the Art of French Cooking was on my shelf, admittedly, gathering dust, way before Julie & Julia), but I do love me some knife-banging, cream-logged, ooooo-filled cooking every once in awhile.

And there's no time like the new year for some indulgence, right?

Hence, The Bread.

Yes, gut-busting, crust shattering, just-the-right-amount-of-chewy French bread—and not just any golden loaf of splendor, but Julia's exhaustively detailed, hours and hours in the making bread.

Some may scoff at her detail, others may run in horror, but hear me out: the details matter, and when you follow them to a T, you wind up with impeccable stuff. Two winters ago, the Daring Bakers took on the recipe, and they've got great advice and photos (not to mention the whole recipe, word for word, out of Mastering the Art... vol. 2). I followed all of the kneading, shaping and baking directions exactly, but I added a slow first rise in the fridge overnight. This slow rise gives the flour and water more time to incorporate; ferments the dough a little bit, giving the finished product that slight tang so desired in artisan breads; and makes the whole process quite a bit more convenient.

Trendy or not, Julia knows her stuff—this bread is just as good (if not better) than anything I've had in restaurants here, and it is certainly the best I've ever made. So please, bust your gut a little this weekend and make. this. bread.

Seriously.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Smarty Pants


My whipper-smart little sister is the science nerd of the family. My brother and I have managed to emerge from my parents' protective graces firmly entrenched on my mother's artistic side, but she's got her eyes set on pre-med and chemistry and neuroscience and all sorts of other mysterious things. She's also a cook, and for her senior (high school) project, Sally's been taking a cue from meticulous blogger extraordinaire, Carol Blymire, who has taken on some of the country's most challenging cookbooks (and meatballs), by exploring the craft and science of molecular gastronomy.

Basically, she's playing in the kitchen.

I got to help out with one of her experiments over Christmas vacation—we made our version of Alinea's Pheasant, Shallot, Cider, Burning Oak Leaves and served it as a haphazard amuse bouche on Christmas Day.

It was a hit, even with five-year-old Robert (for him, a more apt name for the dish was Fancy Chicken Nugget on a Burning Stick).