I love our local farmers’ milk and buy a gallon every week. Non-homogenized, lightly pasteurized, sweet and creamy. I don’t actually drink milk much myself, but I appreciate the difference when I do– it is just delicious. I feel very good about supporting these local, real grass farmers and very, very good about pouring that milk over my kiddos’ homemade granola. Particularly on the days that they refuse to eat anything else.
I have tried to support those same farmers by buying their cream, butter and half and half too, but I find the high fat products get a ‘cowy’ flavor after a mere 4 days in the fridge that I simply cannot appreciate. Which is sad, because I burn through a lot of half and half in the course of my coffee addiction. The butter gets especially strong flavored. I can’t tell if it’s “culturing” our just plain going rancid. It starts out sweet and delicious but doesn’t even last out the week, which is really not acceptable behavior for butter.
Has anyone else had this problem? Am I just being too much of a weak American, afraid of a little flavor? I don’t know, but after a few pounds of not good tasting butter I gave up and went back to Organic Valley’s Pastured butter. This is not the worst compromise I make in my daily life, OV rates by far the best of the national brands with the independent organic watchdog Cornucopia Institute. Nevertheless the butter issue kept bugging me.
I suspected that part of the problem with the local butter was that they just weren’t getting enough of the buttermilk out. Residual liquid makes butter go bad much faster, and their butter did seem unusually wet– little drops spring out when you cut a piece off. The solution didn’t surface in my brain until I went on my cancer-inspired health kick a few months ago. I reread Paul Pitchford’s Healing With Whole Foods and was reminded why I have such high standards for oils and fats, and why I need to get back on the wagon.
I am no expert, and I don’t want to get to involved in the incredibly complex and contradictory world of nutrition. I feel that Pitchford’s very strong and lengthy opinion on oils is well worth a read and I highly recommend his book if you are interested. But the part that’s most simple to understand, what convinced me, is smoking oil. You know when you turn your pan on too high and it takes you longer to cut the onions than you thought it would and the oil smokes? Ahem. Well, maybe that doesn’t happen to you. Anyway, it’s not hard to imagine that smoking oil is bad. It smells bad and it tastes bad. Every oil has a different smoke point (here’s a chart on Wikipedia) and getting anywhere close to that temperature is highly destructive to the structure of the fat chains and turns otherwise healthy fats into evil free radicals which attack the very basis of health, including a direct correlation with cancer. Pitchford does hinge an awful lot on oil quality and appropriate use and makes an unusually big deal about it, but the idea that over-heated oils are unhealthy is perfectly standard modern nutrition.
At any rate, Pitchford’s recommended oils for moderately high heat use (like sauteing onions and other general skillet frying) are raw unrefined sesame oil (not the more commonly available toasted kind), coconut oil and ghee.
Finally the cogs met in my brain, and I made my first ever batch of ghee– the Indian name for clarified butter. Ghee is pure milk fat, with all the residual liquid boiled off and the milk solids strained out. Because it is pure fat it lasts much, much longer than plain butter and is probably the only way to keep butter at all without refrigeration in equatorial regions like India. Plain butter burns at a pretty low temperature, but ghee can get quite hot before it smokes. You still can’t leave the pan on high while you cut up the onion, but making pancakes is a dramatically less smoky experience.
In addition to being sanctioned by both traditional and modern nutritional knowledge, butter can be sourced locally in most places, making ghee a very sustainable way to fry.
Now, what if you are put off by the same thing that put me off for so many years– fear of waste? One pound of butter yields about 3/4 of a pound of ghee, it’s true. As you cook the butter, you skim off the foam that rises and then eventually pour the finished ghee off of the bottom layer of sediment. But as soon as I made my first batch I realized the implicit answer to the waste question. Just don’t toss the foam and weird milk solid sediment! Stir it into a pot of mashed potatoes, soup or bread dough. No problem.
So, are you ready? Making ghee is very easy. Start by melting a pound of your farmer’s market butter over low heat.
Once it’s all melted, turn the heat up to medium-low. The butter should bubble actively, but not ferociously. The foam will start to rise right away, but you only need skim it off once every 10 minutes or so. Maybe even less, I’m still experimenting. Keep a jar next to the pot for the skimmed foam.
You can leave it pretty unattended between skims, but when it starts to look like this (below) you’ll need to stay in the room or you might overdo it like I did the first time and make “browned butter” ghee. This is not the worst way to screw up, but it doesn’t last as long, so I recommend paying close attention towards the end. **CAUTION: Occasionally when you stir the cooking butter it will spit hot fat at you. Keep the kids back from the stove while you are tending your ghee, and be careful with your stirs.
When the bubbling changes from a boiling sort of sound to a frying sort of sound, your ghee is done. If you want it to last a really long time (months) pour it through a paper towel into two half pint jars. If you only need it to last a few weeks, you can just pour it straight in so long as you are careful to keep the solids in the pot. I recommend using the more perishable foam and solids up right away for dinner rather than putting them into a jar that might get pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten.
As your ghee cools it will solidify, more or less depending on room temperature, at 70-80 F my ghee stays pretty soft. I put one jar in the fridge and keep the other by the stove next to my cast iron skillet brush (a one-inch wide natural bristle paint brush from the hardware store). Then I can just brush ghee into my pan when I need it. A spoon would work better if your house is cooler.
There are some things that are just too handy not to keep in small portions in your freezer, no matter how Betty Crocker it makes you feel. Two such things are chicken stock and chopped tomatoes. I make my own stock and put it into pint size or bigger jars for the freezer, but there are many times when you just want a little stock, like for cooking collards or adding into a sauce. I also always buy the 28 oz cans of chopped tomatoes, but often don’t need the whole thing. So I put the rest in the freezer for soups, rice, or again, collards. I do love me some greens stewed with fried onions, tomatoes and a splash of good chicken stock.
Ice cube trays are the classic container for small frozen portions, but they’re much too small for my purposes. I used to use a collection of plastic containers– yogurt tubs and tupperware– and just half fill them. But then one day, oh fraptuous joy, I happened to buy this silicone muffin pan at a garage sale, in a box with several other silicone baking items. I don’t like actually baking in silicone, I bought the pack to use as soap molds. But this muffin pan has turned out to be one of my better spent $2 solely for the purpose of freezing small portions.
Once frozen, the little half cup portions just pop right out of that wiggly silicone and I put them into a big quart sized zip lock. I keep both the stock and tomatoes in the same bag, it’s easy enough to see which is which.
You can throw the frozen hunk right into whatever you are cooking, it melts pretty quick.
Also good candidates for small freezer portions are pesto and pureed beets for pink pancakes.
Apron Stringz is two years old! Over that time, the content has grown like a nursing baby with knee dimples. While much of what I write is just day-to-day flotsam, I do sometimes crank out a useful and, I feel, enduring post. And I hate that blogs (at least, free ones like mine) don’t support any decent kind of index for these posts. Blogs are ephemeral, meant to be enjoyed hot off the presses, I guess. But it bugs me to no end that our hard work, one week after publishing is more or less lost to the world.
So here is a directory of posts on the wide subject of food. These are all posts with a more practical edge, those that you might reference. There’s an equal number of my more journal-style posts which I have left out, particularly on the subject of gardening. They make an interesting read if you like that sort of thing (and if you read this blog, you probably do) but seemed less in need of reference-able indexing. If you’re going for the journal aspect, try the archives. A few brave souls have apparently read start to finish.
As I’ve said before, I love eggplant. That’s why I planted six plants in my garden. What the fuck was I thinking?
I love eggplant, but my family? Not so much. Is this a female thing? My latest bloglove, The Girls Guide to Guns and Butter has the selfsame issue. She posted a wonderful looking recipe for easy moussaka recently, which I haven’t yet tried. I’m still busy trying to hide my eggplant, and subsequently force my family to eat it.
Because even though two of the plants didn’t make it, the remaining four are an endless waterfall of purple fruit. I go to my garden once a week lately (to my surprise, I’ve found that the thick leaf mulch on my garden, combined with the well established plants means I don’t need to water. At all. I haven’t watered in months. I barely have to weed because of my initial kick ass soil preparation and again, the mulch.) All I do is pop over to harvest. Every week a heaving bag full of eggplant and red marconi peppers. Neither of which anyone but me likes to eat.
Fortunately, although cohesive pieces of eggplant are entirely disagreeable to those who don’t like it, I’m finding it is easy to hide. It has little flavor of it’s own, and melts right into other foods if you cook it long enough. Last night I made a tomato (and red pepper) sauce with some roast chicken thrown in, and a heap of leftover grilled eggplant, which completely disappeared into the sauce. Even I couldn’t tell it was there. I served the sauce over gnocchi (which sounds fancy, but is actually the world’s easiest homemade pasta and it uses up leftover potatoes!)
Several weeks ago I blended up some fresh eggplant and added it into a batch of meatballs. I used the food processor to finely chop it and thoroughly squeezed the resulting mince over a fine mesh strainer to drain off the copious amount of juice (! Who knew those dry spongey seeming things had so much water?)
Then I added it to my usual meatball recipe. I used 2 full cups of it to a mere pound and a half of meat (meaning the “meat”balls were 1/3 eggplant), along with the usual egg and breadcrumbs.
No one noticed.
For myself, I made Paula Wolffert’s fabulous pate. The recipe calls it a ‘dip,’ but I remember from the book that she scooped it into a (flexible) container and chilled it, after which you can un-mold it and slice it, just like real pate. What a treat!
Eggplant’s also good for quicky mama lunches like this one.
Don’t forget that eggplant lasagna! That was a winner I I will surely make again. Also on my list (most definitely for myself) is caponata.
What are your favorite things to do with eggplant? Do you serve it front and center, or do you have to hide it too?
Most modern people think cooking dinner starts with deciding what they feel like eating. Some of us more pragmatic cooks think first about what’s in the fridge, then about what we could do with it. But there is yet another level, which I often find myself on, where the question of dinner is secondary altogether to the pressing concern of using up the food I’ve procured. Have you ever felt that way? I almost find it difficult to leave for the weekend because, like a pet that needs daily care, my food store is a Jenga-like construction of meals on their way. I can’t go camping this weekend, there’s a big pile of red peppers in there waiting to be roasted! I have meat thawed for a roast. The leftover garlic yogurt sauce needs falafel. What would happen without me?
Having a garden really brings the use-it-up struggle to a fine fervor. I don’t buy very many vegetables, and since my crops are heavily seasonal and furthermore a mix of pass and fail, I often only have two or three options at a time. Right now I have peppers and eggplant. Every meal is a question of how I can use up some more peppers and eggplant (made especially difficult since no one else in my family really likes either…)
Back home in Alaska, we only had one growing season– summer– and it only accommodated what here in New Orleans are “winter crops.” Kale, carrots, cabbage, kale, peas, chard, leeks, more kale. Every meal, how to use some kale. But also, more importantly even, the wild foods. Salmon, deer, black bear. Nettles, blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries. How to use them up. I spent a lot of years learning the answers, and really my whole way of cooking was based on those ingredients. Not that I didn’t have a whole pantry full of “regular” stuff like pasta, beans and oats. But the point was always to use as much wild and garden food as possible. Those were my focal points.
When I first discovered my love of Mediterranean Arabic food (one night at a Moroccan restaurant in Portland changed my life) it seemed so exotic. Such a far stray from my local food ways. I used to cook these enormous 8-course Moroccan meals for my birthday, spending $150-200 on ingredients. Whole cardamom, pomegranate molasses, orange blossom water. Pistachio oil to drizzle on a pate of roasted eggplant and ground walnuts. Mmmm, I swoon just naming them. All resolutely un-Alaskan ingredients, not pantry cooking.
I’m not sure when it happened but at some point I realized that I was just adventuring in someone else’s use-it-up food culture. Pomegranate molasses is the outcome of a shit ton of pomegranates. Roasted eggplant pate is what you make when you’ve got more eggplant than you know what to do with. And then I had the real epiphany. I consistently substituted wild game for beef or chicken in these recipes, thinking I was perverting them. But then I realized that the original recipes were often for wild game, and then converted to commercially available meat for American households. Even recipes for “lamb” were probably originally mutton (full grown sheep) and much closer to wild meat than beef.
The realization snowballed when I inter-library loaned Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens this spring. I adore her work, and this is an almost archival book that I hope to someday own (it’s got a cultish following, so it’s pretty pricey). As implied by the title, it’s half about greens. All kinds of greens, and all kinds of traditional recipes for them. She gives modern world substitutions (chard, endive, beet greens, etc) but the original recipes are based on mostly wild greens. Which are apparently the traditional greens of the Mediterranean. Nettles figure big. Also purslane, dandelion, and lots of green herbs. It struck me as funny realizing that when my friends and I made ‘nettle-kopita’ back in Alaska, we were quite a lot more on target than we could have imagined.
The subject of traditional cultures, what foods they harvested and how they cooked them is endlessly fascinating to me. Back at 17, when I was considering whether to go to college, ethnobotany and culinary anthropology were top on my list of ‘fields.’ In the end I decided to save my money, and I’m glad I did. I spent a lot of time traveling the world instead of studying textbooks, divining my own ethnobotanical cooking methods instead of taking tests. For myself anyway, a much better education.
Lately I’ve been running the subject through my fingers again as I consider this new culinary climate. In some ways it’s like starting over, but really, the principles of cooking with what you’ve got are universal. Stay loose, think creatively, abolish taboos.
Yesterday, with a big bag of eggplant weighing on my mind, I approached the subject of dinner. I looked online to see if I could find Paula Wolfert’s recipe for the roasted eggplant and walnut pate that so blew my mind years ago. Amazingly I did find it, pirated out of The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever seen. I scribbled out the recipe, and then sighed, wondering how I could possibly call eggplant pate ‘dinner’ to my particular audience. The ricotta in the recipe must have been the key to my brilliance. Suddenly I realized its similarity to pureed eggplant, abandoned the pate and jumped straight to… lasagna!
Could I mash up the eggplant and use it in place of ricotta? Could I possibly get away with such heresy? The quick answer is yes.
It worked beautifully. I cut the eggplants into small chunks and sautéed slowly in plenty of olive oil. I mean plenty, you know how eggplant can suck it up. More fat the better, I always say. Especially when you’re trying to disguise a vegetable as a cheese! When the eggplant was about half done, I threw some onion in there, and a little green pepper. Once completely soft, I let it cool a bit, then pureed roughly. I was going to just mash it with a fork, but the peels were still too prominent, so out came the stick blender I bought just for soap making and now wouldn’t want to live without. To the puree I added a little heavy cream, not much, a few tablespoons maybe, an egg, plenty of salt (cheese is salty) and 1/4 cup of leftover yogurt-garlic-mint sauce. Surprised yet?
Lastly I mixed in some thawed collards (squeezed and chopped fine), and layered it with mozzarella, lasagna noodles and tomato sauce. Divine! And need I say, it went over much better at the dinner table than the aforementioned pate would have.
As I said in that last garden post, my harvests are mostly over till November, at the earliest. But, whether you base your meals on a constant garden supply, what’s in season at the farmer’s market, or just whatever is cheapest at the grocery store, the principles of cooking with what you’ve got are the same. Don’t start dinner by wondering what you feel like eating, start by looking around to see what needs using.
You are just the conduit through which the foods of your world are transformed into the meals for your family. First start lookin’ and then start cookin!
Need more ideas for over-exuberant garden goods? Try How to Hide, Err, Eat Eggplant all of which I think would work equally well with that dreaded August zucchini glut.
If you use a lot of olive oil you might want to buy it in the big square cans, it’s considerably cheaper than the small bottles. But you’ll still want to keep a small bottle near your stove, which presents the problem of pouring from that big can, which inevitably goes glugluglug and slops oil all over everything.
To solve this annoying problem, just punch a small hole on the opposite side of the top to the pouring spout. This lets the air in and makes for a nice smooth pour. This might work with those big plastic jugs from Costco too, once the oil level goes down a bit.
Storing Leftover Wine for Cooking
We used to have a lot of dinner parties, resulting frequently in leftover odds and ends of wine bottles. I’m not a big drinker– if I have wine one night, I don’t feel like more the next. I love to cook with wine, but again, not very often. I left a lot of wine sitting around souring, waiting to get used, before it finally occurred to me that I could just freeze the leftover wine! Freezing wine works beautifully. Because of the alcohol content it stays loose, like a slushy. All you have to do is scoop out however much you want and dump it straight into the pan!
Now, with our dinner party days seemingly over, I buy a bottle of wine every now and then expressly to stick in the freezer (pour it into a wide mouth jar first!) I keep a jar of red and a jar of white. Since I only use a 1/2 cup or so at a time, one bottle of wine lasts me for ages.
When cooking with wine, you need to boil it hard for a few minutes if you want to cook off all the alcohol. My routine– sauté onions, brown meat or whatever, then throw the wine in and let it roil on high to ‘deglaze’ all the caramelized goodness off the bottom of the pan. Yummie.
I don’t remember how it got started, but we have one of those private family jokes about a crusty old timer going on and on about “chicken an’ biskit, chicken an’ biskit.” From some old Monty Python, or maybe Kids in the Hall? Don’t know. Anyway, it’s a solid in our household now.
I buy pastured chicken from the farmer’s market, and in case any sad soul out there is eating supermarket chicken and thinking, as I used to, ‘Am I just imagining things or did chicken used to taste like something? Like… chicken?’ Local family farms are still producing that old-fashioned chicken flavor, in chickens no less. No test tubes involved.
Of course, ethically raised meat is expensive. It should be. $4 a pound for a whole chicken (half of which is bones) might seem expensive if you’re used to supermarket prices, but when I think of all the work that goes into just plucking and dressing a chicken I can hardly believe they sell them for that cheap. It’s all a matter of perspective.
We eat meat at most meals. Locally raised goat and chicken or grass-fed beef from Whole Foods. At least once a week, I cook a chicken or roast and allow us a bit of a gorge, then eek the leftovers out in the next meal (or meals). A few nights ago we had two guests for dinner. I cooked a 4 pound chicken. We ate up most of it, but after a thorough picking over I was able to glean enough bits and pieces to make chicken an’ biskit the next night.
I usually make dumplings actually, which are just a biscuit recipe plus an egg. Is there any more satisfying food than dumplings? But yesterday I had leftover actual biscuits, and thought, what the hell? Time for some real chicken an’ biskit.
I’m not at all sure how the crusty old-timer in whatever original piece of comedy ate theirs, but I made a quick chicken stew with carrots, onions and peas and then topped each bowl with a split biscuit, so that the bottom sides got all soggy with chicken juices. So yum, so fast.
Here’s the journal of a single bird in my kitchen:
Unbelievably Easy Roast Chicken and Potatoes
Fill a baking dish with cut potatoes, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Quarter your chicken, if you don’t know how check out my photo heavy tutorial from last year. Quartering a chicken might not exactly be “easy” but it’s almost the only work involved in the recipe. Place the whole breast in the middle of the baking dish, on top of the taters, with a thigh/leg on each side. Put the back bone in the fridge for stock later. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces, and add any spices or herbs you like.
Bake at 375 for an hour to an hour and a half. To test for doneness poke around in the thick parts with a fork, the juices should be clear, not pink. Quartering makes the breast and thigh cook more evenly than whole roasting, and all the pieces get a beautifully burnished skin. Also, all the fat runs down into the potatoes and oh my dear god! Those are some spuds worth eating! Every bit as good as mashed potatoes and gravy, and a fraction of the work.
After the hurricane of dinner has abated, carefully pick every last bit of meat off of the bones, including the ones left on your kids’ plates. They’ll get cooked again, fear not the germs, my friend. Put the bones into a pot with the reserved back bone and make a good strong stock. Leave one pint of broth in the fridge with the meat, and freeze the rest.
Chicken an’ Biskit, Two Ways
Pour the reserved stock into a pot and add a good bunch of chopped carrots and onions, celery if you have it. Aim to fill your pot no more than half full, veggies should be barely covered by stock. Bring to a simmer. While it’s cooking, make your favorite recipe of biscuit dough (what? You don’t have a favorite? Remedy, coming soon!), substituting an egg for 1/4 cup of the milk. When the carrots are just tender, add the chicken pieces and frozen peas, salt and pepper to taste and bring back to a boil. No need to thicken this stew, the dumplings will do that as they cook in the broth. Scoop spoonfuls of dough over the top of the boiling stew. Turn the burner down to low, lay a tea towel on top of the pot rim (careful of the flame under there!!!!!), set the lid atop that, then fold the corners of the towel up over the lid to keep them out of harm’s way. Cook 5-10 minutes or until dumplings are cooked through.
If you have leftover biscuits, which are never very good plain, this is an awesome way to use them up. Make the stew as above, but thicken just a bit at the end with a roux. Lay the split biscuits on top right after adding the frozen peas, then just turn the heat off and let it sit for ten minutes. The heat will equalize and the biscuits are good as fresh again.
Make sure to yowl, “Chicken an’ biskit! Chicken an’ bisket! Chicken an’ bisket!” in a crusty voice as you rally everyone to the table.
I started making bread when I was 14. I know. I was a weird kid. I also wore peasant dresses and a hooded brown woolen cloak to school. I read wild plant books with the fervor usually reserved for Teen magazine and sometimes I even washed my peasant dresses by hand in the bathtub.
The bread making was the first real action I took toward a lifestyle which I spent whole school days fantasizing about. And once I started eating that rich, nubby homemade wheat bread on a regular basis, I was hooked. I have made almost all my own bread since then. After turning 34 in May I realized that my homemade bread years add up to a full 20. Wow. Happy 20th Bread Anniversary to me, or– us– I guess. Me and my bread.
Some things are just a little better homemade, but freshly baked homemade bread is truly not comparable to the stuff at the store. It’s pennies on the dollar for cost, miles more nutritious, and tastes divine. You win points all around. I really recommend it as a starting place for virgin DIYers. The return on your investment is very high. And let me just tell you now if you don’t already know, pulling a loaf of freshly made bread out of the oven is hot. And I don’t mean potholders.
I wrote a Bread Evangelizing post some long time back, to convert anyone on the fence about trying it. In that post I gave the recipe that I started with some 20 years ago, which I still know by heart even though I never follow it anymore. It’s a great beginner recipe, very easy and always worked for me. I recommend following a recipe for at least your first few months, till you get the hang of it. For some reason bread making puts people off, and it’s best to minimize failure till you feel absolutely confident. I also don’t recommend reading up about the complexities of bread until you understand viscerally how simple it is. (That means now. If you are a new bread baker, just stop right here. Go read that Evangelizing post, follow the recipe for a few months, then come back and read this bunch of drivel.)
I followed that first recipe for years. Then I started reading some bread books and slowly realized just how much play there was. Now, I never follow a recipe for our every day bread. Once you understand the basics, you won’t need a recipe either. Every loaf will be different, and (almost) every loaf will be good.
Bread at it’s most basic is flour, water and yeast. The flour needs to be mostly from wheat, because wheat has gluten. Gluten is what holds it all together. Yeasts are living organisms, they eat the sugars from the flour and fart out millions of bubbles which become trapped by the strands of gluten and raise the loaf. The water activates the yeast and makes everything possible, along with viewers like you.
At it’s purest, you can simply mix warm water, wheat flour and a pinch of yeast into a thick sludge, dump it into a greased loaf pan, let it rise and bake it. That is bread.
But, we like to complicate things. We’re human. It’s a vice. We favor certain textures and flavors. We like our bread to hold together when we slice it. We like it to taste tangy and fresh, and to feel soft but chewy in our mouths when we narsh it. We don’t like it to be pasty or gluey or hard or dry.
To further complicate things, each of us has been taught to cultivate our own individual preferences. Myself, I like a hint of sweetness, but hate the cake-like quality of store-bought bread. I like it to be soft enough for a sandwich, but still have a toothsome substance, nubby texture and a moderately crusty crust. If it’s white bread, then I love it sourdough. But if it’s wheat (and that’s almost all I ever make) then I like just a shadow of beery-ness with the lovely dark wholesome flavor of the wheat itself front and center. I want to feel like my bread could be a meal if need be, adorned only with a sheen of butter. But I don’t like brick bread. I don’t like it to be heavy, sour or otherwise intimidating.
I’ve loved my homemade bread all along– like pizza and sex, it’s all good. But I feel like, 20 years in, I am just starting to get a handle on what creates my perfect loaf.
There’s plenty of great written works on artisan white breads. The gourmet world is afloat with them. My earmarked favorite is The Village Baker. And of course, you don’t have to look far to find a recipe for that revolution in bread making, the No-Knead Method (Erica at NW Edibles just posted her spin). But these artisan breads are usually mostly white flour. Even the “whole wheat” recipes are 1/2 to 2/3 white flour. Sadly, the world of truly whole wheat bread is remarkably barren.
I do recommend starting with a half and half ratio, to get the feel of bread making. In fact if your family is used to white bread, start there. If it’s homemade, it will be healthier. In addition to the lack of preservatives, I guess my dad instilled upon me his grandmother’s belief that homemade trumps “nutritious” as defined by science. I believe that little molecules of love transfer from your heart to your food as you cook for your family, and that this spirit ingredient sustains on a physical level.
That said, I myself find half-wheat breads an unsatisfying compromise. I love good homemade white bread, but on an everyday basis I want to eat whole grains, and if I’m going to have whole wheat bread I want it to taste fully of it’s namesake. I made 100% whole wheat bread for years, and love the strong flavor, but in recent years I’ve started using something like 6/7ths whole wheat flour. It has taken me a lot of loaves of bread (and the acquisition of Kitchen Aid mixer) to get all the texture I want out of a mostly whole wheat dough. And to furthermore discover what it is that makes the flavor sometimes so much more delicious than other times. It’s a lifelong learning process. Bread is not magic, but like all living things, endlessly mysterious.
Once you have gotten comfortable with a basic recipe you can start unravelling the mystery and working toward your own ‘perfect loaf.’ To that end, and in celebration of my 20 year Bread Anniversary, I thought I’d offer some basic proportions and principles for the exploration of bread.
Let’s start with a dough based on 1 cup of water. This makes a small sized single loaf.
For years I thought the temperature of the water was critical, but that’s not true at all. Any temperature that feels even slightly warm, but not so hot that you can’t hold your hand under is fine. Yeasts are living organisms, just like us right? They like pretty much the same temperatures. If the water is dead cold, the yeast might actually not activate. If it’s burning hot, it could kill them. But anything in between is just a matter of the how quickly the yeast will do it’s work.
Slower or longer rising times all make a loaf of bread. They just give that loaf different flavors. The long rise times have become very popular, making a european style bread with complex flavor and a large holey crumb. I love those sour flavors on white bread, but I finally admitted to myself I’m not so fond of them on wheat bread. Shorter rising time makes a sweeter, yeasty flavor, which I personally prefer in my every day whole wheat bread.
So, the temperature of the water (and the flour and the room) will affect how long your dough takes to rise. I use water that would make a good bath for little people. Measure out 1 cup into a large mixing bowl.
Next the yeast. Here is my biggest tip for new bread makers. DO NOT USE OLD YEAST. Yeast is a living organism, I will say it as many times as I need to. It can be dried and will survive in dry form for a surprisingly long time, all things considered. But not indefinitely. If you have a jar in your cupboard from the last tenants, here’s what you should do with it. Throw it in the garbage. Do not sabotage your budding passion for baking by using old yeast. An opened jar should not be counted on to last more than a few months. You can buy a little more time by storing yeast in the freezer.
Now that we have that cleared up, how much yeast? Like every other part of this bread endeavor, it is simply not so critical as I was first led to believe. To your 1 cup of warm water you can add anywhere from 1/4 teaspoon (or even less) to 1 whole Tablespoon of yeast. Even more than the water temperature, the quantity of yeast will affect how long your loaf takes to rise, and also therefore the flavor.
The handy thing about getting to know bread on an intimate level is that you can adjust your recipe for the confines of your day’s schedule. Add more or less yeast depending on when you want to get on with the loaf shaping. Our schedule is usually to take an outing in the morning. I like to mix up the dough during the insanity of getting two kids ready to get out the door (I have a Kitchen Aid, remember? It’s relatively easy) and then I shape my loaves during the lull of nap time. When the hungries of early afternoon arrive, I am pulling fresh bread out of the oven and I look like Mom of the Year.
If that schedule sound good to you, add 1 teaspoon of yeast. I actually use 1/2 teaspoon, but I think a full teaspoon of yeast per cup of water is a good jumping off point.
In the first unorthodox No-Nonsense Recipe I posted, you mix the yeast with the flour then stir the water in. That works, I actually never had a problem with that method. But more standard is to “proof” the yeast in the warm water to jumpstart it, then add the flour and knead.
So, flour. Wheat comes in a dazzling variety. (Keep in mind that white flour is wheat flour, as in– from wheat berries. When I mean whole wheat, I will say it as so.) There are red, white, and semolina or durum varieties; furthermore they can be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ depending I think on the season they grew in. The ‘hard’ wheats have a higher gluten content and will make a more cohesive bread that rises considerably higher (‘bread flour’ is made from hard wheat). Then there is the grade to which the grain is ground. Almost all whole wheat sold in the US is pretty fine, but in Britain the standard whole wheat flour (called brown flour) is relatively coarse. I am still enchanted by the memory of homemade ‘brown bread’ there. I once found some ‘graham flour’ here that resembled it, but otherwise until I get my own grinder I will have to make do with the smoother texture of standard US whole wheat.
My flour of choice for everyday bread is hard red whole wheat. Fortunately, most ambiguously labeled ‘whole wheat’ flours are red wheat, though their gluten content is variable. White wheat has a milder flavor, whole wheat pastry flour is very finely ground soft white wheat, very appropriate for cakes and muffins but not so much for bread. Hard white wheat is a bit difficult to find, but some people prefer it for bread making. I haven’t done much with semolina (or durum) flour, but I believe it has the highest gluten content of all.
Are you feeling brain twisted? Don’t sweat it too much. You can try any of these flours. If it’s wheat it will make bread. But once you have gotten comfortable with the process discovering the devil in the details is part of the fun, right?
Feel free to experiment with other flours as well. Just keep your proportions to at least 3/4 flour derived from wheat, so that you have enough gluten. If you have ‘gluten flour,’ you can add a Tablespoon per loaf with your other flours to help things along. (Rye has some gluten, not as much as wheat, but easily enough to do a half and half loaf.)
But how much flour altogether? That is the question of the day. In fact it changes with the humidity of your kitchen and the particular bag of flour. If you’ve been making bread for awhile you may have noticed that the same quantity of flour sometimes makes a softer or harder dough. I used to think it was all in my mind, then I finally found out that the absorption of different flours is quite variable. You want to start with a lesser amount, and work up. For that 1 cup of water, add 2 cups of flour, then keep adding more 1/4 cup at a time. You might need as much as one more cup of flour, but I really recommend you keep your dough as soft as you can handle. The softer a dough, the more it will rise. A very hard dough will sometimes hardly rise at all. The importance cannot be underestimated. But there is a fine line between ‘soft’ and ‘sticky,’ especially with whole wheat doughs which tend to stick anyway. I think this is the main reason my Kitchen Aid doughs rise better, you just cannot knead a very soft whole wheat dough by hand.
(Fear not, you can still make a damn fine loaf of bread by hand, I did it for my first 16 years of bread making! But more on that in the next post…)
Now that we’ve covered the essential ingredients, on to the generally expecteds.
Salt is not strictly necessary to bread, but if you ever make a loaf without it, you will morn the loss. It just tastes… flat. I do like considerably less salt than is usual. For the 1 cup of water in our exploratory un-recipe, I add a mere 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Standard is double that or more. Salt supposedly keeps the yeast in check, which is considered good, but also limits the development of gluten, which is bad. I personally have not noticed the difference when I add more or less, or when I forget it altogether, other than the obvious difference in taste.
Some kind of sweetener is pretty standard in whole wheat loaves. In addition to the bit of sweetness, honey and molasses are both hydrophillic, which means they attract moisture, keeping your loaf softer longer. This is important with wheat bread, which goes dry faster than white. I usually add in a glug of honey or a Tablespoon of brown or whole sugar.
Fat is always good, right? My beginner recipe has almost 2 Tablespoons of butter per cup of water. This is very good. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to make myself put butter into my bread. Not sure why. I no longer feel any compunction spreading it onto a finished slice…. But somehow, putting butter into the dough seems excessive. Though if I’m feeling expansive I sometimes glug in some olive oil. Like sugar, fat will help keep your finished loaf fresh longer.
You can also add anything else that strikes your fancy, in small quantities; nuts, raisins, seeds, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, herbs, cheese, pureed spinach… The options are limited only by your imagination, as they say.
It seems wrong to go on for so long about about something I am trying to say is really simple. But that’s why beginners should start with the other recipe. All this rhapsodizing is for those of you who’ve mastered the basics and are hungry for more.
It seems like a lot of things in life are extraordinarily simple and bogglingly complex at the same time. Gardening can be broken into a lifetime of scientific details, attempting to master the myriad variables. Or you can simply drop some seeds in the ground and pour water over. Human nutrition can apparently require comprehensive volumes of research, or just eat your vegetables and get lots of excersize.
**For a great bread making resource, check out The Bread Experience‘s list of whole grain breads. They have some fantastic recipes to widen your repetoire. She also keeps a great blog, and hosts the monthly Bake Your Own Bread Round Up that I’ve got up there in my sidebar.
Yesterday I did it again. I can’t be helped. After a few weeks of diligent survival cooking, I saw a recipe over at Food on the Food for goat gyros. I love Food on the Food. I love gyros. I had a package of ground goat in the fridge, a cucumber going soft, a vat of plain yogurt and mint growing outside. The stars were aligned.
I mixed and baked and pressed the goat loaf. I diced and salted the cukes, drained the yogurt, minced the mint. I had really intended to just use white flour tortillas to wrap it all up in, but I couldn’t bring myself to put those luscious ingredients on store-bought tortillas. So I made flatbreads. Proofed, divided, rolled, cooked.
I started, wisely, in the afternoon during the 1YO’s nap. I got back at it around 4:00, and by 5:30 I was setting the table, small children notwithstanding. I was even up to date on the dishes. I’d cracked open a beer while I was at it, and I was feeling pretty good.
As smarter people might have predicted, it played out like any other family dinner. Apparently no one had got the memo that I was making a “special” meal. My Man sat down saying “I ate lunch late,” as an advance way of explaining why he wouldn’t eat much. It didn’t really matter what he said, because all I heard was the lack of “Oh my god, you made gyros for dinner!!! Homemade gyros, hip-hip-hooray!” The kids, for their part, wouldn’t touch the meat, let alone the tatziki or (first of the season!) homegrown tomato. They ate the flatbread without comment.
I sat alone in my own world, tasting and remarking in my head. Mmmm, delicious. Pretty crumbly meat, but the flavor’s right on. Oooo, that tatziki’s good. It’ll be even better tomorrow. Bread came out perfect, if I do say so myself. Soft and so wrap-able. And all would be well if that had completed the conversation in my head. But unfortunately there was a rip tide of Bitch Martyr Housewife. No one appreciates me. I try to feed my family wholesome, responsible, delicious food. I cook all day to make something special. No one even notices. No one cares. I work my fingers to the bone. Etc, etc.
Of course, the kids would rather I just fry straight-up patties and serve them with boiled potatoes. 25 minutes. That’s all they ask. Simple, separate, plain foods. And My Man has never been a big food person. He eats to keep from dying of starvation. He tries to get in a ‘thank you, it was good’ at every meal, for my sake, but with the uproar of small kids at the table niceties are often lost in the shuffle.
Which leaves me– passionate eater, indefatigable cook. Setting my higher cooking notions aside to be a ‘mom cook’ has been a long, painful journey. I do have hopes for the future, the 3YO particularly had an incredibly adventurous palette and lust for food at the outset and may well come back around. But for now, my audience is callous. Cooking brilliances fall on deaf ears. Everybody (else) wants plain simple food. They sure as hell didn’t ask me to make gyros. I can hardly hold them responsible for being less than exuberant.
It’s selfish really, the fancy cooking. Selfish under the guise of generous. Which I guess is what turns a good person into a martyr. I’m doing all this for you, so you’d better thank me. Starts with ‘I,’ ends with ‘me.’
Every time I tell myself, ‘This time I won’t be mad. This time I know full well that I’m doing this for me. I will just eat it and enjoy it.’ And every time the Bitch Martyr Rip Tide comes up out of nowhere and cuts my legs out from under me.
No more! I say. Survival cooking from now on. Protein, starch, veg. Leaving time to clean the house, or read a book. No more guilt trips, no more terse looks at the dinner table. No more ranty morning-after blog posts.
Until I find another recipe I just can’t live without.
One of the subjects I really wanted to delve with this blog, and one of the books I fantasize about writing, is How to Be a Home Cook. I don’t mean how to make a bechamel sauce or caramelize blood oranges. I mean how to put healthy food on the table and into your family’s belly, day after day after day.
There’s a million cookbooks out there, and I’ve yet to find one that really covers the subject. Maybe they used to write them, back before housewifery got put in the doghouse. Now the only kind of cooking that’s cool to do is weekend-brag-cooking. Loads of books can walk you through taking all of Saturday to create an impressive 5 course dinner for eight (adults only), they’ll tell you just what to drink with it too. And I don’t mean whether to get your water out of the tap or the Britta.
But what about the cooking we do every day? Every. Single. Day. Breakfast, quick before it’s time to go. Lunch of foraged leftovers. Dinner– shit is it already 5:00?!
The shopping lists, the balancing thrifty with responsible, the kitchen layout and pantry storage, the bare minimum tools, thawing in the morning to cook in the evening, taking everyone’s appetite into account, starting meals with what you’ve got instead of the other way round, trying to make the same old ingredients taste new all over again, using up everything before it goes bad, and importantly, how to keep your spark alive under the day-to-day weight of it.
In any revolution, the mundane, basic changes often get lost under the big, fun, showy changes. You know I’m all for gardening, preserving the harvest, crafting punk goodies of any type. But at the base of it all should be the simple, understated and vastly underestimated task of cooking wholesome food for your family every day.
I wrote about my own style of cooking some time back in the post Not Menu Planners. Basically, open the fridge and see what needs using. The only problem with so rarely following recipes is that I easily get stuck in cooking ruts. My spark sputters. A fridge full of gorgeous garden produce and wholesome groceries, and all I want to do is order pizza.
When I asked for survival tips the other day, y’all offered up the jacket potatoes and fried rice suggestions, both of which are beautifully simple yet for some reason, I hardly ever make. I realized I need to break out some. I started a new discussion over at Homegrown about good, easy, healthy meals, but I know you’re not all signed up over there, and I certainly don’t want to be the one to lure you into more computer staring. Nevertheless I don’t want anyone (and their kitchenbrain full of good ideas) to get left out. So leave all your family’s secret non-recipes for good home cookin’ right here in the comments.
For some of my faves, check out this old post It’s What’s Fer Dinner. And, even though it’s considered winter fare, I just have to mention pot roast, which is the ultimate in easy, delicious food.
Very few people understand what it’s like to be addicted– obsessively, compulsively– to cooking. It’s rough. I’m not joking.
For example, what should I have been doing at 4:00 yesterday afternoon? Should I have been taking down the laundry and folding, picking up the drifts of junk and sweeping the floors, or otherwise restoring some order to this whirlwind of a house? Yes. Should I have been packing boxes for our move, a mere 6 days away? Absolutely. Should I have been putting a pot of brown rice on the stove for a simple, wholesome dinner to top with some sauteed greens and fried eggs? That would have been a reasonable plan.
But no, what did I suddenly get a hair up my ass for? Empanadas. I had a beautiful bunch of Tuscan kale from my garden, and it spoke to me, oh whispery siren’s call. It said, ‘Cook me with the ground lamb from the farmers market and some potatoes, stuff me into some oily dough and fry me to flaky perfection….’ And I was helpless to the call.
Those of you reading this who don’t cook might look through the many posts on food and cooking and be impressed. How can she cook so much with two little kids? You might wonder. But I am a victim. A slave to my own whim and taste. You think it’s funny, but I’m actually really truly not joking.
Maybe victim is too strong. There are some goods in it for me. Part of the addiction comes because I find cooking so soothing. Especially now that I’m a mama. So long as I am solo in the kitchen, cooking is like a balm on the cracked lips of my day. It’s so relatively predictable, controllable. Note, I say relatively. I’m no freak, my food often comes out not as I expected. But it mostly comes out. I mostly have an edible product at the end of an hour of cooking. Something moderately delicious to show for my work.
The same cannot be said about all one hour periods in my day.
Sometimes I cook purely as a means of keeping my head above water, my survival mechanism. It keeps my sanity. And that’s good, I don’t begrudge it for that.
But other times, I just really really want to make empanadas, and no amount of rationalizing can stop me.
I think a lot about you mamas who didn’t get any scrap of job training. I mean, I was a blank slate as far as the kids were concerned, and I’m no housekeeper we all know. But at least I could cook. I’ve been cooking since I was 14. I’ve cooked in every kind of situation, from campfires to restaurant kitchens. I know how to make food good, and I know how to make food fast.
This is not to brag. Almost the opposite. I just want to say that if this were not true, if cooking were an anxious, bewildering chore for me, I sure as hell wouldn’t do it. I cannot even fathom learning to cook while having small children. It would be the contrary to my ‘balm.’
So, it’s with a bit of hesitation that I am going to share with you my empanada recipe. This recipe is for those of you who, like me have a borderline psychotic addiction to cooking, or for anyone who has enough free time to relish the process without addiction. This recipe is not for those of you who feel overwhelmed by the task of feeding your family, who feel like you are drowning in the kitchen. I mandate that this recipe must not inspire guilt in anyone! Homemade empanadas do not a better housewife make. You can get these same foods onto your table in half the time if you just forgo the indulgent wrapping and frying of the pastry crust. Leaving you an extra hour to accomplish other good-housewifely duties, such as for example maintaining even a modicum of cleanliness in your home.
Lamb and Kale Empanadas, for those who can’t help themselves
Fry up about a pound of fatty burger. If you’re burger is frozen, like mine was, just dump it in the pan with plenty of oil, pile 3 medium sliced potatoes around it and put the lid on. Cook over low heat, stirring every few minutes. Sprinkle with salt, garlic powder and plenty of black pepper. When the burger has all been crumbled and cooked, and the potatoes are just barley soft, throw on one big bunch of kale, stemmed and chopped small, 3 or 4 stout green onions, sliced, and several cloves of minced garlic. Stir over medium heat until the kale is vivid green and tender. Remove from the heat and let cool.
For the dough, whisk together 3 cups white all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, and 1/2 Tablespoon of salt. With a wooden spoon, mix in 1/2 cup of oil and 1 cup of tepid water. Add more water as necessary to make a medium soft dough. Pinch off golf ball sized pieces, round off, and set on a floured baking sheet. Cover with plastic and let rest 30 minutes or until you have a window of time with no little kids underfoot. I’m all for even the tiniest kiddies helping, with simple cooking projects. But ‘help’ with this one will make you crazy.
Roll each ball of dough out to an 1/8 inch thick, using plenty of flour to prevent sticking. Stuff, fold and crimp into half moons. If you’ve never made a stuffed pie before, G**gle it, I’m sure there’s good instructions out there.
These are great baked. But they are traditionally fried, and even though nothing else about this recipe is traditional, I happened to have some leftover palm oil from an emergency doughnut making session a few days ago. So I fried them and they are little nuggets of deliciousness.
That doughnut emergency was not for me, but for my budding little food addict 3YO who was having a really rough day and wanted to make doughnuts more than anything.
A couple of weeks ago, I sorted what was left of my slowly ripening tomatoes. The ones that were still very green, I decided to make into a green tomato jam. I had been enjoying slices of green tomato, fried simply (unbreaded) with my eggs in the morning, and then stacked all together on whole wheat toast. Yum. I imagined a savory jam which captured that fried green tomato flavor, and I could use it in the same toasty egg combination. I quartered them, roasted them at 350 for an hour (since I had the oven on anyway) then promptly forgot about them. Still in the oven, yes, days later when I remembered. They looked fine, it’s been cool here.
I chucked them into a pot, covered with water and boiled them for some long time, till they were falling apart soft, then rubbed them through a fine mesh strainer to puree them. Then I stopped for a moment and noticed they didn’t smell… that good. I mean, they smelled fine, but extremely vegetal. Not like anything I could imagine calling ‘jam,’ even of the savory variety. I shoved the pot to the back of the fridge to think more about later.
Or preferably to try to forget until rotten so I could dump it.
Yesterday I finally pulled the pot out, sure they had reached “dumpable” by now. I took the lid off and tentatively sniffed. Damn. Still fine. Still that sort of weird smell, but not remotely rotten. Guess I really have to figure out how to use these, I sighed to myself.
I kept ‘green tomato puree ideas’ in the background of my mind overnight, hoping for a brainstorm.
That slightly weird smell was in fact quite a lot like a tomatillo smell. Hmmm, green enchiladas have chicken, but I didn’t have any chicken. If I got a whole chicken at the farmers market, it would have to thaw, then cook and wouldn’t be ready for enchiladas for days. Hmmmm…
I still had several packs of Thanksgiving turkey left in the freezer. It seemed like I’d even heard of turkey enchiladas with green sauce. It was brilliant!
Or rather, the idea was brilliant. I still had some trepidation as I committed lots of time and good ingredients to that slightly weird smelling sauce. I assembled it in the afternoon, so the suspense was at a fever pitch by 5 o’clock when I set it on the table, with a nice Mexican slaw alongside.
Yum! After all that neglect and weirdness, it came out sooooo good. It was like spinning straw into gold, without any fear of losing a first-born child to a tricky dwarf.
Most likely y’all are done using up green tomatoes in any way possible, but in case you have any still kicking around– fresh, jarred or frozen (I chucked some into a ziplock in the freezer back in my early December panic)– I can’t recommend this highly enough. Of course I don’t have any kind of real recipe to offer up, but here’s the basics.
Fry an onion. Add some garlic. Shake on not too much cumin, and whatever other mexican spices are your faves. I had a jar of chipotle sauce, so added a tablespoon of that and let it fry for a minute. Then I stirred in about 1/2 cup of dark beer. I love cooking with beer, not only does it give a great flavor, but then– oh darn, what am I gonna do with the rest of this beer?
I dumped in the green tomato puree (oh, something like 3 cups) and the juice of one blood orange. Hey, it needed to get used up. Think creatively, right? Then I added my defrosted turkey scraps and let the whole thing simmer for an hour or more. Salt to taste.
(If you had any green chiles they would be ever so appropriate here. I was actually concerned about the quality of green enchiladas without green chiles, but they turned out dandy.)
Grate plenty of cheese, I used a mix of cheddar and mozzarella.
Fry your corn tortillas. This is a must for really good enchiladas, whatever the color. I used about 12, I think.
Then I strained the sauce off of the turkey mixture (reserve sauce of course) and kind of mashed the turkey around to shred it, it was super tender by now. I mixed the turkey with a cup of cottage cheese– again, cuz I had it– and because I was adding the cottage cheese I thought I’d better throw in an egg. Then a big heap of cilantro from my garden. Check the salt.
I used a 7×11 inch pyrex. A smear of sauce in the bottom, then 3 tortillas, evenly spaced and overlapped. Lump a third of the turkey filling over the tortillas and spread it evenly, not to the edge of the pan, but just to the edge of the tortillas. Thin sprinkle of cheese, 3 more tortillas, and repeat for two more layers. Finish off with tortillas, the rest of the sauce, a bit of cilantro and cheese. If you have what seems like too much sauce, and it pools down into the space between the tortilla stack and the edges of the pan, don’t worry– it thickens right up into a nice extra tangy side spooge.
We’re big fans of coleslaw round these parts. Particularly, the 3YO who can shovel away a good pint of it all to herself if she hasn’t had it in awhile. And who am I to stop her? Whenever we eat Tex-Mex, I add a bit of cilantro to my regular slaw, and lime juice instead of vinegar if I have it. It adds just the right lift to the otherwise heavy Americanized Mexican food. Plus, well did you see the size of the cabbage in the last post? We’ve been at it for weeks already.
(Sorry I don’t have any photos, our camera is in a bad mood lately. But honestly, it wasn’t pretty food. Delicious, yes. Pretty, not so much.)
Here’s to green tomatoes and using up the harvest!
Sorry about that for all of those who just didn’t see what was so interesting, and can we get on with some more cast iron blather already?
How you clean your cast iron is important, but what and how to cook in it is every bit as essential to the integrity of your fabulous new pan. Consider cooking as a part of the seasoning process, because in fact it absolutely is. Certain foods will enhance your seasoning, others will eat it right off. It’s all about the balance of oils, acids, and sugars.
First and foremost, cast iron cookery is not low fat. If you’re used to using one of those oil misters, you’ll have to come around to the whole ‘fat is not actually bad for you’ revolution and start tipping from a bottle. I have gotten increasingly liberal with the oil in my cast irons, and I find it really helps. I used to eek out the tiniest amount that would cover the pan with a super thin sheen (out of frugality, not health, I’ve always believed in fat), but the more oil I started to use in cooking, the better my pans got.
Let’s start with eggs, because isn’t that after all where the day itself often starts? Eggs are one of the most frequent things to hit my cast irons, and a offer a good explanation of general cooking advice.
Fried eggs are in the plus category. If you fry a couple of eggs in your pan every morning, it will be a great thing. Here’s how to do it: take your best seasoned pan, pour in a generous glug of oil and turn the heat on medium. One of the most important things about cooking with cast iron is to let your pan heat up, with the oil in it, until good and hot before you put the food in. This way you get a bit of last minute seasoning in, plus when the food hits the hot oil, it forms an immediate crust, and prevents sticking.
Next in importance is do not flip or stir foods too soon, give them a few minutes to form that crust. You can poke at the edge with a spatula (using metal utensils with cast iron is just fine by the way) to see how it’s going under there. When your eggs are ready to flip, they should loosen pretty easily. (If they don’t your pan needs some TLC, give it a quick stovetop seasoning after this batch of eggs) If you’re pan is looking dry, or the eggs were a bit hard to loosen, then tip some more oil in as you flip ’em.
The pan shouldn’t need to be cleaned after frying eggs. Maybe a few crusts to scrape into the trash.
How about scrambled eggs? Back when I first started to discover blogs, I found a post about how to scramble eggs in cast iron. The author apologized for directing people in such a basic activity, but then went on to do it. And I was so glad, I realized I had never really known how to scramble eggs!
Of course there are many different ways to do it and everyone has a different “perfect scrambled egg,” but like many things I have discovered as I get older, I had stubbornly clung to my easy no-nonsense way (crack eggs into pan and stir over heat) even though I really loved when other people cooked those big fluffy hunks of luscious eggs. I had never thought or wondered why my eggs were never like that, until I read that post. I still sometimes fall back on the no nonsense way, but mostly I follow her directions. In addition to making great eggs, this is definitely the best way to cook scrambled eggs as far as your cast iron is concerned. Here’s how (my apologies to you, Oh Great Inspirer who’s name and blog I’ve long forgotten and cannot therefore link to):
Heat pan over medium heat, using a smaller sized skillet will make hunkier eggs. Pour in a tablespoon or two of oil and swirl to cover. Crack your eggs into a bowl, salt to taste and beat well with a fork (I use forks all the time for cooking, they’re so damn versatile!). When the pan is hot pour the eggs in. Now, this is important if you like big hunks of eggs, do not stir for a few minutes. Let the eggs set on the bottom. Then hook that same fork underneath, grab the set egg and gently fold it over the still runny stuff. Approximately. Let cook a minute more and repeat. When most of the egg is set, you can give it a regular stir, breaking up the big chunks into smaller if you like. Turn the heat off while the eggs are still wet looking, as they will continue to cook a minute more in the heat of the pan.
If you’re using good fresh farm eggs that you feel confident about, you can go ahead and slop the cooked eggs back into the bowl you whisked the raw eggs up in, and save a dish! Unless that queeves you out. I understand. What’s one extra dish against the mountain already in the sink anyway?
Now we move farther afield, because don’t you sometimes like to make scrambled eggs with all manner of goodness thrown in? Onions, peppers, garlic are all in the neutral category, as far as cast iron goes. They’re fairly dry, and fried in oil, which is good, but I think it’s the sugars that negate that. At any rate, no problem, just make sure to, again, heat the pan first, use plenty of oil, fry to your liking, then stir in the eggs. Cheese? For some reason, when I add cheese into my scrambled eggs, they stick a little. Not bad, but enough that I have to wash the pan afterwards.
Before we leave breakfast, I want to mention pancakes. Great for cast iron! So long as you are liberal with the fat, you are essentially seasoning your pan and cooking breakfast at the same time! I like to brush a little oil in as I heat the pan, and then otherwise use butter. I’ve come around to using plenty of butter when I fry hotcakes, so they get the lovely crispy edges, and then I just skip the extra butter on top part. Yum! My daughter loves pancakes, and as long as I make them with 100% whole wheat (I use pastry flour) they last in my belly pretty well too. Cast iron griddles by the way are completely awesome. I left mine in Alaska, boo hoo.
How about the rest of the day?
Grilled cheese, toast, quesadillas? Fabulous for your pan.
Fried onions, fried zucchini, fried rice, anything that starts with the word fried? Fine. Your pan might need a wash, but should still be well seasoned.
How about dishes that start with frying and move on to a sauce? These are okay, but anytime you cook liquid in your cast iron you are taking it down a notch. Tomato sauce especially because it’s acidic. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, I always make spaghetti sauce in my cast iron. Just start with plenty of oil for the frying of onions part, and when dinner is over, make sure to remove your saucy dish from the pan to a non-reactive container for storage. Then wash your skillet and see how it looks. Much of cast iron care comes down to this:
After washing your pan, look at it. How much water is still clinging to it’s surface? If there is a scattering of drops across it, that’s good. If it’s a slick of wetness straight across (which it probably will be if you’ve just done spaghetti), it needs a little TLC. Just do a quick dry/season to put her back on track– set the pan on the burner on low for five minutes or until dry, brush lightly with oil and leave on that low heat for another five minutes. USE A TIMER. DO NOT LEAVE THE ROOM. I only reiterate this so many times because I have just about burned our house down more than once by thinking I’d just pop into the next room to do some small chore. This time I won’t forget, really. How can I do the same stupid shit so many times, over and over, without learning the lesson?
Meat and fish are a category unto themselves. In this case, what’s bad for the goose is great for the gander– your pan will suffer a smidge from it, but meat and fish cook brilliantly in the even heat of cast iron. I have come to think it’s the sugars that eat into the seasoning, though I don’t really know. Something leaks out as they fry and does kinda bad stuff. Again though, no matter. Just means you have to do a thorough wash and maybe a quick season afterwards. See the cast iron cleaning post for my taboo-breaking soap use on fish pans (ie: it’s okay, really).
I have to interject another annoying “how to cook something basic” suggestion here. For years (on the occasions I had it) I just cooked meat in pans without thinking much about it. Sometimes it was good, sometimes not so. In case you are new to cooking, or like me, a self-taught who has not cooked enough meat to really get on a roll, here’s how.
When a recipe calls for “browning” meat, it doesn’t just mean any old cooking. To brown meat, you need a quick shot of high heat, which sears the outside to a rich mahogany color. This gives a dark, roasted flavor and also seals in the juices. You need hot burner, but also an important ratio of meat to pan. If you have a lot of meat, cook it in more than one batch, you want only one sparse layer. You should be able to see a little skillet between pieces. If it’s one big roast just make sure your pan is at least an inch bigger all around.
Once again, heat that pan over medium. Add oil, even if it’s a fatty meat because it takes a minute for the fat to render out and you don’t want any meat to hit your pan dry. When the oil is good and hot and shimmery looking, place your meat in carefully. Turn the heat up to high. Now leave it alone for a minute or three. Then peek under a piece to see if it’s brown, and if it is, flip each piece over. If at any point your oil is smoking, turn the heat down a little. Also if you haven’t already, learn where the hot spots on your burner are (mine are always between 9 and 12 o’clock regardless the stove… Is it how I set the pan on or what?) and flip those pieces first. Once the meat is brown on both sides you can continue with cooking on low until done through how you like, or add liquid if the recipe calls for it.
This whole browning business really gives meat a meaty flavor. But it also works miracles with almost anything you fry. Browned onions are a world apart from simply cooked onions. Zucchini, to die for. Browned salmon with nothing fancier on top than salt and lemon? My absolute favorite way to eat it, and believe me, I’ve eaten a lot of salmon in my day. Mushrooms you’ve hardly eaten till you’ve eaten them properly browned.
Just keep the heat high, don’t crowd the pan and don’t stir or flip until the bottom is crusted with brown gold. For me at least, this was a revelation in cooking.
Before we leave meat, I’d better mention pot roast. Cooking a roast in a deep cast iron with a lid works great. You can do it stovetop on whisperlow, in the oven, or if you have one, on the woodstove. At our home in Alaska I cooked stuff on the woodstove a lot in the winter, and cast iron is perfect. In addition to pot roasts, I also cooked pretty much anything one might cook in the oven on low heat. It took quite a bit longer, but whole potatoes in a skillet with a lid on works beautifully, as do yams, thick slices of winter squash, cornbread, not to mention stew, beans, etc, etc….
Let’s finish up with dessert, shall we? Because baking in cast iron is awesome. For awhile I was on a kick, trying to find cast iron cookie sheets (never did, they make griddles of course, but they are inconveniently sized for ovens) because I loved the even and perfectly browned crust I always got baking in my skillets. Cornbread is a classic in cast iron, but cake works good too, just grease it like any baking dish. I like to make pie in my big cast iron when I’m making pie for a crowd. Fruit is acidic though, so things with fruit on bottom like crisp and cobbler will be better off in a pyrex. You can use your cast iron, but you’ll probably have to season afterwards, and definitely don’t let that fruity goodness sit in the pan overnight or it will pick up an iron flavor.
Biscuits bake brilliantly in cast iron, as does bread. The whole artisan bread in five minutes a day revolution depends on deep, lidded cast iron pans and really does produce an amazing bakery quality crust. Those deep lidded pans are actually called Dutch ovens because people used to set them in the coals of the fire and bake things in them, with more coals heaped on top (traditional Dutch ovens have a flat lid). I did this in mine a few times, years ago, I remember it being a bit tricky. Another old technique that takes a bit of practice.
Which reminds me, I have neglected to mention one of the best parts of cast iron– camp fire cooking! I lived in a treehouse some many years ago, and we had our kitchen set up underneath, including a raised stone firepit where we did all our cooking (a bucket of water and an old board for cutting on completed the “kitchen”). The thick heavy build of cast iron helps to distribute the otherwise uneven heat of a campfire beautifully. Plus, when the flames lick it black, who can know?
I guess I could go on all day. Cast iron is so versatile, flexible and forgiving, how can you not love it? But, I’d better wrap it up, I think it’s just about time to go cook some eggs.
Let’s get one thing outa the way. There are some Cast Iron Fundamentalists in the world (it takes all kinds), and I am not one of them. I take decent care of my pans, and they serve me decently. With a fundamentalist approach you can reach amazing heights with cast iron. You can slide a frying egg around in it before you’ve even looked at the spatula. I’ve seen these feats with mine own eyes.
My pans are good. In their best times, you can easily loosen and flip a fried egg. But ain’t no sliding goes on in my pans. I just don’t have enough space, patience or spousal support for high maintenence pans.
If you want to create cast iron perfection, better look elsewhere. As with everything else in this space, I am concerned with cast iron for the rest of us.
Notice I specified “in their best times.” Cast iron is very resilient, which is one of the things I like. You can fix it up fast. You can also ruin it fast. And then fix it up fast again. No need to worry one way or t’other.
How to Clean Cast Iron
Let’s start with the big taboo breaker. You know I love me a taboo. Fundamentalists look away.
I sometimes use soap.
Yes, pretty much everyone who’s anyone knows you’re not supposed to use soap. But one of my favorite things to cook in cast iron is salmon. As you might imagine, it leaves a fine fishy infusion that just, no matter how I tried to fight it off, needed soap. The first time I did it, I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, squeezed my eyes shut and squirted away. The fishiness washed off perfectly, then I did a quick season on the stovetop, and my pan was back in business. Now I never hesitate, if I have a real grease-mess pan on my hands, I squirt on the soap. No regrets.
My point is that it’s not so intimidating or exacting as you might have feared. Cast iron is not an all or nothing proposition. There are many shades of gray. Or black, as it were.
Having got that out of the way, in general the less you wash your pan the better. As I explained in the last post, seasoning is a build up of oils. The more aggressively you wash, the more seasoning you strip off. No big deal, just wash as little as you can get away with. If all you did was fry an egg, don’t wash at all. If you fried a nice piece of fish, scrub with soap, then season to replenish.
As for gear, I really recommend a nylon scrub brush for cleaning cast iron. A metal brush takes too much off. Nylon scrubbies work, but whatever you use on your cast irons will get pretty gross looking, what with all the blackened grease, and I prefer to have a long handle between me and the business end. The trouble is finding a brush with stiff enough bristles. I have used a sharp scissor to clip long, floppy bristles shorter and that stiffened ’em up pretty well. But recently I discovered a thing called a “grout brush” which has really thick stiff bristles and works great. It’s even got black bristles, instead of the usual kitchen white, so it looks less gross with the gunk on it.
(About that gunk– wash your brush every now and then on it’s own, by dripping soap into the bristles and then scrubbing hard against the sink or something to work the soap around. Rinse with lots of hot water. Repeat till clean.)
For the most part cast iron washing will consist of plain hot water and yer trusty scrub brush. If your pan has a decent season, it should be relatively easy to scrub clean. If you have a real problem pan, soak it for a few hours and it should come right off. If the mess is the greasy variety, use soap, as I said.
The absolute best way to clean a pan is to take it immediately to the sink, still hot from use, run water into it, and scrub clean. This gets stuff off before it gets a chance to crust on. Because your pan is still hot, it dries itself off quickly, which is good too. Best of all, next time you want to use your pan, there it is waiting beautifically for you. And wouldn’t that be nice?
Unfortunately, my most common wash happens when I go to use the pan and discover last night’s dinner crust around the edge, ‘cuz I’m just dirty that way. If running a spatula around to knock out chunks is not enough, I put a half inch of water in it and set it on the stove. When the water’s at a rolling boil, I use my cast iron brush to scrub it clean.
Most important is to dry your pan. Don’t ever leave it sitting with water in it, it could rust. (Again, if it does, no tragedy, just scrub as per post #2 and reseason.) Don’t use your kitchen towel to dry cast iron, it will really scum it up. Instead set your pan on a low flame on the stove and set a timer for five minutes. Do not leave the room!!! I refuse to accept responsibility when you practically burn your house down by leaving an empty skillet on high heat and then going to do just one little chore outside. I would never do such a thing. Ahem….
Having warned you thusly, I will confess I only occasionally dry my pans. A well seasoned pan will just have a few beads of water clinging after the wash, which dry fine so long as the pan is left out in the open air…. At home in Cordova I had a pot rack above the stove. I highly recommend this to anyone with the means to make it happen. I love hanging pots and pans. A joy to behold, but also just darned practical. But here I just set the pan back on the stovetop and even there they dry fine.
seasoned skillet after a wash. see how the water beads up? that means the seasoning is pretty good. a great seasoning wouldn’t even have beads of water on it.
The key amongst all of this is to pay attention to your pan. Consider it a low maintenence pet, akin to maybe a goldfish. You can ignore it most of the time, but once in a while you do actually have to feed the bugger. In the case of cast iron, this means reseasoning. The oven season that I described in the first post is great for popping yer pan’s cherry on, but for regular upkeep a stovetop quickie is perfectly effective.
Say you’ve made spaghetti sauce in your pan (more on that in the next and last post!), washed it with hot water, and now you notice that rather than the “few beads of water,” the whole inside of the pan is wet. You dry it stovetop, and then it looks… well, dry. A well seasoned pan, even when dry, will have a sheen to it all the way accross. That’s the oil that keeps food from sticking. If your pan looks dry when it’s dry, just add a few drops of oil (really, drops are all it takes, be light), brush it around with a pastry brush, and heat it over low again for five or ten minutes. Need I repeat? Set a timer. Do not leave the room. Smoking oil does not smell pretty.
So I’ve lit your fire for cast iron, and you’re wondering where to start?
Cast iron care and cookery is very simple and forgiving. That’s why I love it. It’s really all about one thing, the seasoning.
Cast iron “seasoning” is just a fancy term for a build up of oil on the surface of the iron. It’s the ultimate DIY non-stick coating that doesn’t flake off into your food and cause Alzheimers! In general, if you use and care for your pan right, this build up is maintained on it’s own. Which is what makes it all so brilliant.
I’m going to start with how to rescue an old cast iron skillet. If you already have pans and you just want to re-season them, or you are buying new ones, you can skip to the Seasoning section below.
How to Rescue an Old Cast Iron Skillet
If you read between the lines up there, you’ll have realized that “seasoning” is just old cooking oil from many past meals. That’s fine if it’s your meals, but what if you want to dig grandma’s old skillet out from the basement? Isn’t there something a little gross about cooking in someone else’s years old oily build up? Even I’m a little grossed out, and I have a high-level gross factor.
So if you’re scrounging an old skillet you’ll probably want to get all the dusty, crusty old black seasoning off. I’ve heard of throwing pans into a good hot woodstove or campfire to burn ’em clean. Sounds like it would work fantastically, though I’ve never tried it. Second to that is just good old fashioned elbow grease. Scour the pan with a metal scrubbie, steel wool, or a wire brush. Attack any bumpy spots with the edge of a metal spatula. Buck the taboo and squirt dish soap on between scours (more on soap and cast iron later). Use lots of soap, it is oil after all, and unlike the rest of your life with your new skillet, this time you want to get that oil off.
When you’ve scraped and scoured to your liking, give it a good old regular wash and then set it on the stove on low heat. Set a timer for five minutes so you don’t forget about it! When it’s thoroughly dry, proceed to the seasoning below.
But what about an old rusty pan?
Cast iron is iron. Iron rusts when exposed to moisture. Thus if you are scavenging a pan from any place even moderately damp, you are likely to see some rust. Maybe a whole pan full of it. Fear not! Even a real rust bucket is salvageable! Just follow the same soap and scour method until all the rust is gone. Or, well, actually, if there is a very thin layer of rust dust that just doesn’t seem to wash off, don’t worry about that. The seasoning will absorb it.
To Every Pan There is a Season(ing)
Whether you bought your cast iron or dug it out from under an abandoned house and cleaned it up, before you start cooking you need to season it. This is an easy task, and one you can repeat any time you feel like giving your cast iron a little extra attention.
There are (as with everything it seems) lots of different ways to do this, and everybody swears by theirs. There’s the high temperature camp and the long, long camp. Whatever blows yer skirt up babe.
Basically the idea is just to get a thin coat of oil on your pan and heat it up so that the oil penetrates into every pore. I think the long, low method is easier. Brush or rub your pan with whatever kind of oil you have (extra virgin olive oil is a last choice because it burns at lower temperatures, canola is better, coconut oil best of all), make sure you also coat the outside of the pan, and the lid if it has one. Use a very light hand, or the extra oil will drip down onto your oven and make a big stink, it really only takes a few small drops. Then put your pan into a 300F oven for about an hour. You can stop there, or repeat the whole procedure a second time for an even better seasoning.
That’s it! Your pan is ready for cooking! The seasoning will get better with time, provided you cook and care for it properly. But that’s for the next post.
I found an old cast iron skillet at a junk shop the other day. Brought her home, cleaned her up and seasoned her, and she’s a beaut. It’s inspired me to do a small series on cast iron– how to cook in it, and how to take care of it– so that you never have to buy another damn teflon pan again. Anyone interested?
I am a huge fan of cast iron. I’ve been cooking in it for 15 years. I love the fact of it’s permanence. You can get an old cast iron from your grandmother, and pass it on to your grandchildren. Never worse for wear. I am even fond of it’s heft in a weird way. Cast iron is solid, man. The seasoning may come and go, but the pan itself endures all.
I love the way you don’t have to worry about your cast iron pans. Take care of them, yes. Jealously guard them from well-meaning but ill-informed dinner guests? No. I hate the way teflon encourages stress in the kitchen. My dad always used teflon pans. He was pretty much the only person allowed to use or wash them, and they got stored on a high shelf behind a closed door. After a nice dinner party he’d have to jump up with alarm when someone approached the pile of dirty dishes.
And if you’re not stressed out about your teflon, you should be. Teflon is theoretically safe, so long as it is never heated too hot, washed with an abrasive scrubbie, or touched by metal of any kind, which will de-laminate the coating. As a side note, if ever you decide your bucket of freshly dug razor clams would be good sauteed with some garlic butter, do not attempt this in your new teflon pan. Ahem. Even well washed clams harbor bits of sand that will rip the shit out of teflon.
So, you’re convinced? Ready to cast off the shaggy teflon nonsense and cast on some cast iron? Alright!
Cast iron skillets can often be found at thrift stores, garage sales, or your grandmother’s basement. They don’t have to look pretty to be good pans. I once recovered a complete rust bucket found in the grass by an old campsite. A little work, as we shall see in the next post, but it resulted in a fabulous pan and a heavy dose of satisfaction. I have a friend who swears she got a “bad” cast iron, that just won’t season, so it’s possible that such a thing exists. So far, I’ve purchased or recovered almost a dozen cast iron pans and haven’t had any bad ones. The brand doesn’t seem to matter. They all work just as well as their seasoning.
New cast iron is actually pretty cheap, compared to other quality kitchen equipment. If you want to buy new, you can probably find a selection at your local grocery or hardware store. Online, Lehman’s Non Electric Supply sells an extensive collection, including my first cast iron, a combination of a 3 quart dutch oven and a lid that is also a shallow skillet on it’s own. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to buy new. It’s a perfect combo. Covers all your bases for only $40.
Are you all fired up? Buy, beg, borrow or steal yourself a skillet or two, and follow along with the next two posts:
If you, like I had, have given up on whole wheat pasta thinking it’s all mushy and repulsive, and ain’t never no brand gonna be good, take heart! There are good brands of 100% whole wheat pasta in the world! It’s true! Really, really, I’m not even pulling your leg.
There’s not many, but I’ve found two good brands. Not as good as the best white pasta, but very good. Good enough that if no one told you, I bet you wouldn’t notice. One is by Bella Terra, the first time I tried it, on a whim since I had given up all hope remember, I was shocked. I kept looking back at the bag, scouring it’s fine print. It said 100% whole wheat, but could there be a trick? Apparently, no trick. It’s organic even, and runs about $1.85 for a 12 oz package from their online store (no, I’m not getting paid in pasta for this, though I ought to be). Pretty good deal, even with shipping, unless you live in Cordova, and stupidly enlist someone who’s coming to visit from “down south” to bring it up for you, and when they forget, have to pay an arm and a leg for shipping anyway, and be really annoyed. Hypothetically speaking.
The other good brand I found down here (praise jesus!) is just the Whole Foods 365 brand. About $2 a bag. One of the cheapest, too. I tried some other fancy imported brand on sale, and it was very good too, but twice the price normally.
Even if you can’t get either of these two brands, just keep it in your mind that good whole wheat pasta is possible in the world. Seek out whatever good brand might be available in your area. In other words, don’t lose hope! It’s a worthy hunt if you, like me, love pasta as a staple but hate the idea of filling your families’ bellies with a bunch of empty calories on a regular basis.
My only question is, if good whole wheat pasta is possible, why do they make so much bad stuff?
In a similar vein, if no-iron shirts are possible, why the fuck do they make must-iron shirts?!?!? (Can you tell My Man is working at a ‘real job’ for the first time ever?)
I found a link recently to a blog that was doing a Home Cooking 101 online class. That’s cool. But it was a lot of money. I just hate the idea that anyone should have to pay to learn how to cook!
I was wondering if there are any of you readers who would appreciate more instructive posts on the art of home cooking? It seems like most of you know your way around a kitchen, and have your thang going. But believe me, I would love to go on and on for hours the way I can about How to Be a Home Cook, if anyone out there wants help. I touched a little on it in this post. Being a home cook is about so, so much more than the actual cooking. I think it mostly boils down to creative thinking, and a familiarity with ingredients that can only come from lots and lots of fucking around in the kitchen.
The other night when I realized at the last minute I was out of potatoes and decided to brave substituting cubes of homemade wheat bread in my chick pea, tomato and spinach casserole (!) I thought of you, dear readers. I thought it would be fun to give a more intimate peak into what goes on in my brain when the dinner hour approaches.
I do so much leftover management that I hardly know how to cook without something that needs using. That particular day, without any scraps to start from, I had felt adrift. Hmmm… I have…. Well, lets see. (Start with starch.) We had rice last night, pasta the night before and rice the night before that. So. Potatoes it is. Okay. (Next, protein.) We don’t have more than a few special occasions worth of meat and fish from home. So. Chick peas from the freezer? That sounds good. Ummm, potatoes, chick peas… Should I go Moroccan (a favorite of mine), northern Mediterranean or Indian curry? I had just made those roasted garlic in oil yummies, so a Mediterranean style casserole of potatoes, chick peas, plenty of olive oil and garlic, tomatoes, and (always last on my mental checklist for no good reason) what vegetable? Unlike the FDA I do not consider potatoes a vegetable when meal planning. And tomatoes are a fruit, plain and simple. So. Spinach from the freezer?
Sounds like dinner! I blundered along, assuming the constant presence of potatoes in my fridge, until, Crikey! Could it be? But I don’t feel like pasta again! Let alone rice. Or even quinoa. The mix would be good dumped out on a pizza crust. But I didn’t have a pizza crust. I was stumped. I scanned the fridge 12 times before the loaf of neglected bread finally registered. Hmmm. Could you maybe…? Like– stuffing? Sort of? Without even toasting/drying it first? It seemed like complete culinary heresy at the time. Now it doesn’t sound so strange at all. But that could just be because now I’ve eaten soggy bread, chick peas and tomatoes and yes, it was perfectly good food. Don’t know that I’d do it again, exactly like that. The pasty bean texture next to the slightly soggy bread texture was just a bit not right for me, but My Man loved it. Toddler ate her share. And it was a revelation that stuffing doesn’t have to start with dried bread cubes, and doesn’t have to taste like celery, onions and turkey.
In this vein, I thought I would follow myself around for a week of dinners, and report. I could just describe my thought process and ingredients, one cook to another, or I could give real instructions, if you’d like. Vote here and now if you want instructions!
Some people have occasionally thought I was one of those modest, self-defaming cooks because when I cook something ordinary, I do tend to pick apart and question what makes it less than extraordinary.
But actually, I’m just honest, curious and I have high standards.
Case in point– when I cook something mind-blowing, I have no qualms whatsoever about tooting my own horn.
And now I have to tell you about the brownies I made last night.
If you’re like me, and most women and many men, you adore chocolate, and are forever seeking that Ultimate Chocolate Experience. Brownies are my personal preferred experience. In my ongoing recipe book, I have Orgasmically Good Brownies, then Brownies Revisited, then Brownies Perfected, then Perfected again and again. A few weeks ago, I borrowed a friend’s Cooks Illustrated (great type-A cooking rag, if you go for that sort of thing) with a Best Brownie recipe, determined to take my over-the-years-developed-into-a very-great brownie recipe to epic levels. Sadly, when I got it home and compared notes, I found that it was almost identical to my recipe. Validating, but disappointing.
Last night I was infected again, and somehow got the brilliant idea to use some of my kumquat puree in a batch of brownies. I do love chocolate with orange.
Oh my dear sweet jesus, why did it take me so long? It’s not hard to guess that it would taste great, but what I wouldn’t have guessed is how much more chocolatey it would taste. Somehow, unless some other form of alchemy was at play, I swear to god the kumquats literally doubled the chocolateyness of my same old, made dozens of times brownie recipe. Not only were they the best brownies I’ve ever had, I think they might just have been one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, period.
At this point I can’t really put off the kumquat story any longer. I’ve had it on my list of To-Write-Abouts for ages. And now, it’s become urgent.
Way back, months ago, my posts went on a citrus kick. Citrus just happens to be what there is here. The locally available, otherwise wasted fruit. Falling off of landscape trees all over the city. And sometimes straight into my foraging bag.
There were trash bags full of split lemons from the local monastery. A dozen grapefruits blown down into public space by the wind. Bag after bag of Satsuma mandarins brought by a neighbor, made into batch after batch of marmalade as I sought to unlock the orangey flavor I believed could be possible.
Then I found the kumquat tree. In an abandoned lot, therefore truly available without even anything sneaky. I’d never eaten kumquats before. Their knock-ya-flat burst of flavor entranced me. Not so much for eating, although one bite’s kinda fun, but for cooking with. They are so very, very orangey. Much more orangey than an orange. I tried candied kumquats, and at first taste was in love with them. I don’t know if each individual ‘quat tastes different, or if it depends on the mood I’m in, but after that very first one, the rest tasted too bitter, and also, too sweet.
Next I tried pureeing the whole fruits (well, first I cut them in half and removed the seeds) for a potent blend of zest and juice. I froze the puree in 1-2 Tablespoon chunks and started using it for baking. Orange Pound Cake? Yum. Orange Cranberry Muffins? Yum. Orange Cream Scones. Yum!
When I used them like this, the bright, full orange flavor was so delicious. Not at all bitter. I had labored over the fact of long boiling with all my marmalade. With herbs, I know that long boiling (called decocting) sends all the delicate essential oils straight up into the atmosphere, and brews out the bitter (often most healing) properties of the plant. If you want medicine, decoct (not always, but usually); if you want delicious tea, infuse. Infusion is just the way we usually make tea– pour boiling water over, let steep. I wondered if I could somehow infuse the kumquats to preserve all those fabulous essential oils and acids that give it the zingy fresh orange flavor.
I tried making a simple sugar syrup, pureeing a big batch of quats and adding them in, then cooking it just the barest bit more, not bringing it back to a boil. Voila! An incredibly orangey syrup. Bright, zingy, sour, sweet, ROWRRR!
I’ve been meaning to try rebatching some of my (many, many jars) of marmalade. Although I don’t mind, and maybe even like the bitter flavor of the ‘decocted’ mandarins, I think it would be far better, more well rounded, with the fresh orangey kumquat flavor mixed in.
In the meantime, I’ve been throwing my frozen puree in lots of things, and loving it every time.
Came the brownies.
Dense, rich, almost truffle-like, but still most definitely a brownie. A Brownie Really and Truly Perfected.
Since I never make the same recipe exactly the same twice, and I did tweak my regular recipe in a few other ways beyond the kumquats, and who knows which thing resulted in this new divinity, here is the recipe as near to exactly the way I made it.
Oh, by the way. I know most of y’all won’t be making kumquat puree. What the hell is a kumquat some of you have been asking since the title? But I think orange zest, mixed with lemon juice would make a reasonable substitute. The acid from the juice might have been integral to the incredible texture, so don’t leave it out.
So here it is, after much ado, fanfare and wordy introduction
The Best Fucking Brownies Ever
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup cocoa powder (fair trade of course!)
3-4 Tablespoons kumquat puree (or something like 2 T each orange zest and lemon juice)
2 Tablespoons olive oil (that’s just what I happened to use…I’m pretty sure regular “vegetable” oil would work fine)
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons sucanat or other hippie ‘dried cane juice’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup white bread flour (I’m pretty sure you could use 2/3 c. all-purpose in place of these two with just as good results)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (I usually use 1/4 t. but thought that with the acid from the juice I’d better double it)
Melt butter in a good sized sauce pan. Whisk in cocoa till smooth, then the citrus. Let sit a moment to steep while you grease your pan. I used a smaller than usual pan, which might have been one of the alchemic elements– it was my little 5×7 pyrex that fits in the toaster oven. Oh, and preheat your oven to 350. Actually, I think my toaster oven runs hot, so I only put it to 325…
Now whisk in the oil, sugar and vanilla and allow to cool a bit while you measure out and whisk together your flours and the soda. Then back to that fragrant goo. Whisk in the egg completely, then fold in the flour and scrape the lot into your pan.
Bake until not quite done. Do not overbake. This is probably the single most important factor to good brownies, and one of the hardest to achieve. Supposedly if you stick a knife in, there should be wet crumbs but no batter. But I’ve found this not very reliable, or just hard to differentiate. If you press the top with your finger it should not feel remotely liquidy, but still… soft. It certainly shouldn’t spring back like a cake. It’s mostly instinctual, and honestly, I’m still cultivating the instinct.
This batch for some reason rose, then fell…? And when Divine Intervention shouted “the brownies!” into my head, making me run for the kitchen, they were perfect. It is possible that the only reason these were the best brownies I’ve ever made is simply because this is the first time I ever took them out at that perfect moment.
So, now. You know my secret. How will I when the recipe contest now?
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I think a lot.
It annoys even me. Or maybe, mostly me.
A blog is the logical extension of a brain like mine. In fact, I’ve always had a running blog in my own head, from back waaaaay before there was such a thing as blogs (from even before every home had a computer!) No readers though. Just me and my brain, all by our little lonesomes, narrating my life in a continuous, endless loop.
Sometimes I catch myself standing slack-jawed in the middle of the room. I’ve been standing there for a full 5 minutes, clicking through all the possible ways, determining the most efficient way in which to execute a 3 minute task. I’ve been trying for 20 years, I can’t seem to help myself.
So, if you’re wondering, “Who the hell thinks about all this shit?” The answer is– me. And honey, it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But, the brilliant thing about the net is that, somewhere, someone might be a freak like me, and actually care to read such endless analytical blather about kitchens. Here’s to you, friend, wherever you may be.
Every family is different. Here’s our daily small kitchen tasks:
Making a bowl of cereal. Which is to say, homemade granola. I always want to put the big granola jar somewhere out of my way, but it invariably migrates right back into the prime real estate of my main counterspace. So. I’ve given up. I keep it out now. Of course, having the granola near to the cabinet (for getting a bowl) and the fridge (for getting the milk) would be ideal, but our kitchen isn’t big enough to worry much about that….
Bread. In our house we eat all homemade whole wheat bread, which means we need a place to cut it. I’m actually pretty fond of those bread boards with the slots for catching crumbs, because otherwise there’s always crumbs all over my main cutting board, then soon, all over the counter. I found this one in a neighbor’s trash, brand new with the tag still on. There was a part on the left for olives, and a part on the right for cheese. It was one of those silly impulse-buy items, all the parts are too small to be useful. But I fixed her right up! The bread board was (just barely) big enough to be useful, if you let the slice fall over onto the cheese part. I cut the olive part off, because crap just fell in there, and it was in the way. I also cut a bit off the cheese side, so that now it fits nicely right in front of the toaster oven. Perfecto! Salvage plus DIY, my absolute favorite!
Here’s another issue with homemade bread– storing it. I hate putting my good wholesome wheat bread into a ratty old plastic bag, which is as you can see, what I settle for at the moment. I dream of someday having an old fashioned bread box, the door would swing down and have an integral cutting board. But for now I’m on the lookout for the right sized, extra wide mouth canister, which is what I was using back in Cordova, and it worked pretty decent.
When we’re on PB&J kicks, I have to give space to at least the PB. But ever-present is butter, and it needs to live right by the toaster. With all the baking that I do, we go through plenty of butter, so I have no concern whatsoever that it might go bad sitting out.
Coffee. You might have heard I’m pretty fond of the stuff. Unless pregers, I’m a strict two cups a day girl. And I’m a hideous coffee snob about it. Hubby’s standards are lower, but he’ll drink as much coffee as you throw at him in a day. Between us we need a minimum of two coffee makers, neither of which is the regular plug in kind. I use a stove top espresso maker (to make myself an americano) because nothing else tastes half so delicious to my, as mentioned, total snob palatte. Hubby loves the same, but prefers more than one cup at a time. For him we have a french press.
Let’s count– so far we have two kinds of coffee pots, and associated water boiling kettle, cluttering up the stove. One of these will fit nicely on the shelf above the stove. On the other side of the room (it’s small) I have the above Coffee Zone. I started keeping it all on plate a few years ago and have thanked myself ever since. The plate contains all those damned grounds that seem to leap out of the grinder and fling themselves hither and thither every time you open the damned grinder. This plate is especially perfect with it’s speckly glaze. Of course, an air-tight jar for beans, and here’s a good tip– use a plastic spoon to scoop coffee out of your grinder and you won’t be dulling the blades every time!
I wish we had a better set up. We make enough coffee to need a square of counterspace, and a little shelf, right beside the stove. But, ya do what ya do with what ya got.
Next up: Waste Management!
PS. Please, again, feel free to chime in with your solutions to the banal everyday kitchen conundrums. I’d love the company.