Mastering Sprouted Wheat Bread

Have you ever had sprouted wheat bread? It’s known most commonly as that biblical quoting stuff they sell in the freezer at your local health food store– Ezekiel bread. I have always loved the stuff, it’s the only packaged bread that remotely interests me. It’s supposed to be much more nutritious than bread made from plain flour, and I do believe that’s true, but my real draw is taste and texture– Ezekiel bread has a rich, fresh wheat flavor and nubby texture that I just adore.

The only problem (apart from the price) is that, like any real bread, it gets stale quick and therefore the store has to keep it in the freezer. Being in the freezer, not very many people think to buy it and it sometimes sits in there for a loooong time. It’s almost always so dry that you have to toast it to be able to eat it, and I have even had a few loaves that were literally dehydrated around the edges.

I had wanted to try making my own sprouted wheat bread for years– fresh, moist and affordable! But you need to have a way to grind the sprouted “berries.” It takes either a meat grinder or a food processor (a grain grinder only works on dry grain), so when I finally got a food processor for my birthday two years ago sprouted bread topped my list of uses. I spent a few months experimenting and got some almost, but not quite awesome results. There were a fair number of inedibley dense loaves though and I eventually gave it up.

To make sprouted grain bread, first you soak wheat berries overnight in plenty of water. Then you drain off the water and leave to “sprout,” 6-24 hours or more depending on the temperature. You aren’t sprouting nearly to the degree you might imagine, just watching for the grain to split open at one end and the little white tails to poke out.

When the grains are ready you grind them in either a food processor or meat grinder, and that is when the miracle occurs. First it just looks like a bunch of chopped up wheat berries, but as the grain is chopped finer and finer the gluten is released and suddenly it becomes a cohesive mass of (very nubby) dough.

Part of the reason my loaves were coming out too heavy during my initial run of obsessive trailing, was that my food processor was just not getting enough of the grains ground fine enough before a dough formed, and so not enough gluten was being released. I was getting an extremely coarse bread, essentially chopped grains with just enough gluten to hold them all together, but not enough to sustain much real rising power. The heaviness was daunting, but I do adore bread with real texture and the flavor was amazing– so purely wheat. I felt the golden bell of perfection ring siren-like in my ear. I knew somehow, someday I would need to master this bread.

Several months ago, in the wake of our cancer scare, I bought a big fancy masticating (grinding) juicer ostensibly to make My Man healthful juice. What I have really ended up using and loving it for is sprouted wheat bread! You just remove the screen to turn it into a food grinder, and it does a beautiful job, getting a much finer grind than the food processor. It’s easier to use and easier to clean. I have made a few perfect loaves, and hardly any inedible ones. Overall, a great success.

But! You probably don’t have a masticating juicer laying around, right? (If you do, see below) Fear not, for although my juicer gave me the motivation to get back at my sprouted bread technique, I have since learned a few things and even figured out how to transfer my improved recipe and technique to the food processor. All for you, dear few people who have the time and inclination to fret about such things!

The absolute most important part of making sprouted grain bread is getting just the right amount of sprouting going on. As the grain wakes up and pushes that first little rootlet out, it converts the complex carbohydrates into simple sugars to feed the emerging plant. If you let the grain sprout too much, there isn’t enough starch structure left to support bread, and your loaf will be very, very heavy and gummy and not good at all. I read several recipes that said to let the sprout grow to anything from 1/4 inch to “the length of the grain.” Unless I am missing something, this is purely bogus and tragically misleading. From my experience over the last several months, anything over a 1/8th inch is not worth even using**

Watch your grain closely for the first few times. The soaked grain won’t do anything at all for the first few or several hours, then you will see each grain split open just a little at one end and reveal the white inside. A small tip or protrusion will start to bulge out (we are talking very, very tiny here). At this point the process starts to move much faster so keep a close eye. Longer sprouting time makes for a sweeter, fuller flavor but it also makes the bread gummier and heavier, this is a very fine balancing point which I am still navigating. You can actually make very good bread any time after the grain splits open, but I believe the magical perfect moment occurs sometime after the emergence of a visible tip or tail and before it reaches 1/8th inch in length.

these could actually go for another hour or so, but they almost perfect, and perfectly good enough for awesome bread. i would recommend erring on the less sprouted side till you get the hang of things…

I recommend starting this process in the morning, then you can soak all day, let the grain sit and think about things overnight, then watch closely for sprouting throughout the next day. If you see the grain split open right before bedtime, morning is too far away to let the sprouting continue. Trust me. Put the whole bowl in the fridge and take it out again in the morning to restart the process. This works just fine and saves a potential botched loaf.

**If you really get into this sprouted bread, you will at some point let the sprouting process get away from you. You’ll suddenly remember your grain after coffee the next morning and run panicking into the kitchen. The tails will be winding down through the mesh sieve looking for dirt. Don’t dump the bowl out for chickens (although they would love you for it, and it’s hardly a loss) just whiz the sprouts up in the food processor and freeze in four approximately cup sized portions. You can add these into a recipe of regular flour based bread and they work just fine, adding great flavor and texture.

these tails are WAY too long, but still great for adding into regular bread in small quantities

Other than timing, my main improvement has come from using a small portion of white flour. I use about 75% sprouted wheat (by dry weight) and 25% white flour. I realize this could get some Ezekiel panties in a bunch, but I’m no purist. I just want to make delicious toothsome bread that can truly fill my belly for breakfast, eggs optional. This is the stuff. So damned satisfying, on an almost primal level.

Please note that I do not recommend trying this recipe unless you are already a seasoned bread baker. Sorry. It is quite a bit more tricky than making bread from flour, with a much wider possibility for error. Might I recommend my Cherry Popper Recipe instead? If you are a seasoned bread maker, and you find the whole process as fascinating as me, check out my two part series on 20 years of recipe-less whole wheat bread baking Bread Every Day, Part One: Ingredients and Part Two: Technique.

Approaching Perfection Sprouted Wheat Bread

  • 2 cups hard red or hard white wheat berries
  • 1/4 cup lentils
  • 2 Tablespoons flax seeds
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon yeast
  • 1-2 Tablespoons honey
  • 3/4 – 1+ cups white bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • big squirt flax oil

Soak wheat, lentils and flax seeds in plenty of water for about eight hours. Drain through a fine meshed sieve, rinse thoroughly, and leave the grain in the sieve, set over a bowl and covered. Rinse again before you go to bed and take a close look at the grain. You probably won’t see any signs of sprouting yet, if you do, stick the whole thing in the fridge for the night.

In the morning, rinse and check your grain again. If you have to leave the house and you are concerned your grain might sprout too much in your absence, or if it’s ready but you aren’t ready to make the dough, just stick it in the fridge and continue later.

Whenever both you and the wheat are ready, begin with the recipe.

Warm the milk to child-bath temperature, stir in the yeast and let sit five minutes. Pour half the milk into your food processor, add half the sprouted grain (unless you have a commercial size processor you will have to do this in two batches, annoying but true) and turn it on. It will take several minutes per batch, first it will look like this:

Then like this:

And finally you will see lots of good gluten strands and a real (albeit wet and chunky) dough forming, like this:

Transfer the first batch to a stand mixer or large bowl, and process the remaining grain, mixed with the other half of the milk/yeast.

When it’s all done, pour the honey, salt and oil on top of the mushy dough, then add the 3/4 cup of white bread flour. Mix on low for a few minutes, or hand knead for 5. Add more flour as necessary to make a moderately soft dough (it will be very sticky, in fact I haven’t tried this by hand, it might be challenging… But resist the temptation to add too much flour or your dough will be stiff and your loaf dry)

Let rise for an hour or two, until a finger poke does not bounce back. (Keep in mind, both now and when rising the loaf that this dough doesn’t have nearly as much gluten as a flour based dough, so it won’t rise nearly as high.) Pat the dough out into a rough rectangle and roll up into a tight log the length of your bread pan. Butter the pan generously and nestle the dough in. Cover with plastic and let rise for 45 minutes to an hour and a half, or until just shy of the finger poke spring back test. Turn the oven on to 350 F about halfway through the rising process. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until golden brown and hollow sounding when thumped. Remove from the pan and wrap the hot loaf in a clean tea towel to keep the crust from getting too hard. Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing! No cheating, you’ll gum up the bread slicing it too soon.

Like all real bread, this will only last a few days sitting out on the counter. Store in the fridge to keep up to a week, or slice and freeze if you want it to last longer.

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**2013 Sprouted Bread Update**

Since this has turned out to be the enduringly viewed article on my entire blog (!) I thought I would post an update.

I have continued to make this bread, and enjoy it so much it’s almost an addiction. Once you taste it, it’s hard to go back to regular flour bread, which tastes flat to me now. My first improvement on the above technique was to sprout large batches of grain, grind it all at once, then store individual recipe sized lumps in the freezer for later use. I find this a little easier than the weekly sprouting, and makes each washing of the grinding equipment (a large portion of the work) worth 4 loaves of bread, instead of just one. I highly recommend it.

My second improvement was purely accidental. Poor housekeeping. I took out one of those frozen chunks of ground wheat to make bread with the following day, but forgot about it on the counter. A few days later when I remembered, it smelled like sourdough! I made up my dough with just water (instead of milk) and nixed the honey. I cut the yeast in half. I let the formed loaves rise in our cold garage overnight. The resultant sourdough sprouted wheat bread was the best loaf I think I have ever made or tasted. Unbelievable.

Since then I have attempted to repeat this, with variable success. I do find it needs a greater proportion of white bread flour (and water to match) to come out well. Sourdough and sprouted wheat can both make bread gummy and overly heavy, and when you combine them, the danger increases. I would recommend starting at 50/50 sprouted wheat to white bread flour, meaning apx 2 cups of sprouted grain, 3/4 cup of water and 1 1/2 to 2 cups of bread flour. After you get the hang of it, you can play around with increasing the percentage of sprouted wheat, or using some whole wheat flour in place of some of that white flour.

Normally I don’t like to make my staple bread less than 75% wheat. But I feel like with the combined health benefits of the sprouted wheat and the sourdough, and the outrageously good flavor and texture, it’s worth it.

Note that I am still using regular yeast, so this isn’t any pure kind of sourdough. I’m not a purist. For a wild yeast strong enough to rise bread, you’d have to feed it and grow it out several times. This ‘just leave it on the counter’ method is a quick and easy way to get a delicious half-soured bread. In our cool home (avg 65 degrees) I thaw my sprouted wheat two full days before I want to bake the bread, that seems to give the right amount of tang.

One last thing– in my experience with whole wheat sourdoughs, I find that they often get a very odd smell. It doesn’t necessarily smell like deliciously tangy sourdough. Mine often smells downright weird, not rotten but just strangely musty. Somehow in the baking process that musty smell nevertheless turns into yummy sourdough flavor. I do feel the need to stress however that if you suspect your soured dough is actually rotten or bad, please do not eat it!

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2016 Update: Just wanted to tell you all that I am still following the above formula for half-soured sprouted wheat bread and loving it! I don’t manage to keep it on hand at all times, life is full and complex after all, but I go through good phases of making a loaf a week and eating a slice every morning with my (homegrown) egg. Breakfast of champions!

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The Juicer Story

With the threat of radiation therapy hanging in our future several months ago, I researched and bought a $300 masticating juicer. I was convinced that I was going to start making healthful carrot-apple juices for My Man, and start growing and juicing wheatgrass, all of which are cancer fighting goodness. I read a lot about juicers in a fear induced researching bender, trying in my little way I suppose to feel like I had any control whatsoever over the outcome.

I admit that, even as I entered my credit card information, I knew on some level that I would not use the juicer to make juice. Sometimes I just get it into my head that I have to do or buy something and I cannot rest until the deed is done. Not surprising to anyone, least of all me– my juicing days didn’t last more than a few weeks. Cutting up all those apples and carrots was a lot of work! And watching the juice go undrunk in the fridge just about killed me. But I patted myself reassuringly on the back with the idea that, given my circumstances, wasting $300 on something that I had hoped would help My Man’s health was entirely forgivable.

Plus, I had a fall back plan. Or perhaps it was an ulterior motive. Because I bought a very high quality masticating juicer, it doubles as a food grinder, you just have to remove the screen. Grinding sprouted grain for bread dough is much more effective than chopping it into oblivion in the food processor, and my Omega 8004 Masticating Juicer has become a workhorse of an entirely different color. I’m guessing that it works better than a meat grinder and might be the perfect home power tool for sprouted wheat bread.

If you too would like to try using a masticating juicer to grind sprouted wheat, you can pretty much follow the recipe above. The Omega 8004 has a special extra hard auger, the manual specified that you could grind grain in it (though, I would be afraid to try it on un-sprouted dry grain) and it has a 15 year warranty. I’m not sure I’d try using a lesser juicer unless I didn’t care if it broke, or had specific okay from the manufacturer. Sprouted grain is obviously not what these things were designed for, though it is surprisingly smashable once sprouted, you can even chew the grains.

The grinding is very straightforward, just pour the sprouted grain in a little bit at a time– don’t fill the hopper or it can get bogged down. Interestingly, the bogging down doesn’t happen when the grains are more sprouted, then I can fill the hopper and even plunge it down, and they go through fine. But it definitely happens when the grain is on the less sprouted side of things. Just go slow at first while you figure things out.

I put mine through twice. After the first grind it is still pretty chunky, though probably as good as the food processor. After the second grind it comes out as a hollow dough tube. I like to put the warm milk and yeast into my Kitchen-Aid bowl, then grind the wheat in on top of it. After the first grind, I scoop up the majority of the wheat one handful at a time to re-grind. Then I add the flour, salt, honey and oil and mix it on low for 10 minutes.

If you want to make 100% sprouted wheat bread, I would recommend a third grind to really release the maximum amount of gluten.

Enjoy your primal bread experience, and please leave a comment telling me it how it goes for you!

Chewy Granola Bars

To me, chewy granola bars are the Holy Grail of ‘making at home what other people buy at the store.’ I’ve tried a lot of granola bar recipes that are basically just bar cookies, and they’re good. But they’re not granola bars… And they fall into a crumble if you ever try to pack them anywhere. Which is the point of granola bars, right?

I thought it just wasn’t possible. Until a few years ago, a friend told me a secret. It went something like this.

Marshmallows.

If you follow a recipe for rice krispie bars, melting butter and marshmallows, but stir in toasted oats instead of ricerofoam, you get what you always craved. A perfect, luscious but sturdy, chewy granola bar. My Man was an instant convert. It became one of those cute couple things. Whenever he was heading out on some ground-truthing expedition or long road trip I’d pack up an entire pan of granola bars, fortified with nuts, seeds, raisins, and if he was lucky, M&Ms. He would offer in return a slavish devotion to my “cooking” skills.

But, c’mon. Marshmallows? Could I really go forward into the world with a straight face and sense of dignity? I wondered for years how marshmallows are made, and what about them worked so well. I considered trying to make my own marshmallows, but a glance at a recipe scared me off. Besides, I was pretty sure the fluff of them was not what did the trick. What are marshmallows without fluff? This question macerated in my brain, and the answer slowly surfaced.

Sugar cooked to the soft candy stage. Right? Maybe. I was summoning courage to experiment with this idea when, as it tends to go, life threw me the answer again. And again. First a recipe on smitten kitchen, which I bookmarked but didn’t act on, then another in my new fave, Good to the Grain.

My first try at GttG’s recipe I overbaked. They were too darkly caramelized for my taste, and hell to get out of the pan. My Man still thought they were great, and they definitely had The Chew. So I tried again this morning, with some tweaks to the recipe which I thought much, much too sweet. After mixing the toasted oats with the honey syrup I noticed how much it looked like my old marshmallow granola bar recipe. Hmmm. The book calls for baking them, even though the components have already been cooked, more or less. But as an experiment, I just scooped it straight into a pan and let it cool. With a sharp knife I cut squares. They looked just like my old recipe, but glassier. Removal from the pan? Easy. Chewiness? Perfect. Flavor? Delicious. Still too sweet for my teeth, but a little more monkeying ought to get it right. And in the meantime My Man will love them.

The book warns that these are “more cookie than health food” but I think her recipe is actually more candy than cookie. Here’s the version I used this morning, which has 1/2 cup more oats than the original, plus a cup of nuts instead of the half cup of raisins. I will be adding even more oats next time, and maybe some peanut butter too.

Perfect Granola Bars (in Progress)

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups oats, she called for old fashioned rolled oats, but I used three-minute oats cuz that’s what I stock in my kitchen**
1 cup chopped pecans (or whatever nuts you’ve got)
1/2 cup ground flax seeds (grind in your coffee grinder), optional
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon blackstrap molasses
1/2 teaspoon salt

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the oats and stir to coat. Cook for ten or fifteen minutes, stirring often, until many of the oats have turned a toasty brown and the whole smells rich and nutty. It’s important to toast the oats thoroughly since these bars don’t get baked.

When the oats are done pour them off into a large bowl and add the pecans to the pan. Toast the pecans as per the oats. Meanwhile (if you’re a multi-tasker, or next if not) measure the honey, sugar, molasses and salt into a small saucepan. Stir together and set over low heat. Cook for five or six minutes. This is the only tricky part, and unfortunately I think the whole success of the recipe depends on it, and I might have just lucked out last time. You are basically candying, of which legions of literature has been written. In GttG, she says simply “cook for 6 minutes, until thoroughly boiling.” But I suspect there’s more to it. Because how can you quote a time, when you don’t know the exact amount of heat being applied? I stopped my syrup after 5 minutes, because I was afraid it was getting too hot.

If you’re not familiar with cooking sugar, it passes through several stages, starting with syrup and ending at hard candy. I don’t know too much about it. But somewhere in the middle I think is the “soft ball stage” when a drop of syrup into a glass of cold water congeals into a soft but cohesive ball. I think that’s what you’re looking for.

I didn’t use the water test though, I just winged it. Basically, you should have a vigorous looking boil for some minutes. When you feel the muses breath over your shoulder, remove the syrup from the heat and pour over the oats and pecans. Stir it all up very thoroughly, you want every oat coated. Scoop it out into a greased pan, I used a 7×11 inch pyrex. GttG called for a 9×9.

Let sit till completely cool, loosen the edges with a butter knife, then tip the block out onto a cutting board and cut into whatever size you like. Store in the fridge, or individually wrapped if at room temperature, to keep them from fusing back together.

If you were feeling decadent, you could melt some bittersweet chocolate and dip the bars. But that would kind of defeat the ‘workhorse’ nature of these easy to pack appetite satisfiers.

**3 minute, or “quick” oats are not any more processed than old fashioned oats, both are steamed before being rolled. 3 minute oats are just rolled thinner. Although they are much less fashionable, I like them better in almost every application. Cooked into oatmeal they make a creamier porridge, and as granola I feel like they digest better.

Calamity in the Kitchen: Day 1

Oh I’m so excited that you all actually want to hear me ramble on and on about food, cooking and my own brain’s inner workings!

I just wish I had so, so, so much more time. I know I won’t really be able to write a post every day, but we’ll see how she goes.

Okay, Day 1!

[Caution: The following is a description of one of my ‘cooking frenzy’ days. This is not necessarily to be emulated or envied folks.]

I don’t know why I do this to myself. One thing leads to another, and then there I am, in the middle of 16 cooking projects at once, and I never even got the kitchen clean. It happens once every couple of weeks. If it coincides with a kids’ good day, it might pan out. If it coincides with a bad day, take cover.

How it went was this, and I’m going to tell the whole story, because this is not about how to cook, it’s about How to Be a Home Cook, which includes all aspects of food in your life, right?

So. Start scene at 8:30, when I am otherwise ready to go, and trying to rally the 3YO for our morning outing. The Babe needs an outing round about that time, or he just fusses and fusses endlessly and drives me up the wall. Understandably, the 3YO likes to stay in her home and play in the morning, . It’s an ongoing clash. A part of motherhood that really confounds me. Let alone one’s own needs, how are you supposed to balance two separate kiddos’ needs with a mere one life?

The reason this has anything to do with anything is that it was Tuesday. Farmer’s market. In order to get there, do our business, and get back before the Babe is falling asleep all floppy headed in the bike trailer, we have to leave by 8:30.

This is pertinent because even though we did leave shortly after, he was tired early, and fell asleep in the Ergo at the market. Thus completely destroying his nap schedule for the day.

Do I need to explain why that is pertinent?

At the farmer’s market I usually get eggs and some kind of produce. Whatever looks good, which is of course how fresh markets work. But yesterday I was in the mood for some protein as well. What I wanted was fish, but get this– fish at the market is more expensive than shrimp. Jumbo shrimp were $5/lb (!) so I figured, better enjoy those Gulf shrimp before their stocks are all decimated, right? Then a small whole chicken from a nice older farmer couple selling all manner of fowl. A 2 1/2 lb chicken at $3/lb. And, it’s hot so we eat a lot of fruit here, a 3 lb box of peaches, $6. I was on my way out at that point, but Holy Shit, could it be? Eggplants 3 for $1 ?!?!?! Wow. Mostly I’ve found the farmer’s market prices not that exciting. But geez, I’ve payed $4 a piece for eggplant before in Cordova. So of course, I got 6. They were small. Ish.

Now. Do you see now how this sets the scene for the day?

In fact, the shrimp were the only things needing immediate using. If I were a saner person, I could have put the rest in the fridge for tomorrow.

But.

As soon as I saw those eggplants I remembered something I made for my last big birthday dinner which has haunted me since. An eggplant and walnut ‘pate’ with pistachio oil a friend gave me drizzled on top. Dynamite, I tell you.

The recipe was from Paula Wolfert’s Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, an incredibly gorgeous, drool inspiring book. I didn’t bring it to New Orleans with us, dammit, but I remember that the recipe started with roasting the eggplants over open flames. (I remember because, not having a grill back home, I raked the hot coals in the woodstove to one side, layed a short piece of 2×4 down opposite, and set the eggplant on that, turning it every time one side was blackened. When I pulled it out I thought, shit, I overdid it. It’s completely torched. What a waste. But no, it was magnificent.)

So. That is how I determined to fire up the grill. Then (and here’s what always happens with me, that I can not necessarily recommend, particularly to mothers of two) I thought ‘weeeell, if I’m gonna grill… I might as well grill the shrimp, that would be delicious. And heck, if I grill the chicken, it will be all cooked and ready to throw into whatever later in the week.’ And, oh yeah, I recently discovered baking flatbread on the grill. I’ve never read anything about this, but surely others have figured it out because it is absolutely brilliant. I love flatbreads. Not the cardboard pita from the grocery store, have mercy! But good fresh, chewy flatbreads, like you get at Lebanese restaurants. I have a wonderful recipe I got ages ago while traveling. But you have to bake them at 500 degrees, and even when I live in a cold place it’s hard to justify all that heat.

Enter my new propane grill. It works fantastically. They’re just like from a restaurant, in fact I suspect that must be how they do it. I’m still working on the technique a bit. More later.

So. There’s my mental line-up.

  • make flatbread dough
  • carve chicken
  • grill eggplant
  • + shrimp
  • + chicken
  • + flatbreads

But even though my brain was tick-tick-ticking all the way home, it’s not like I get to set straight to work, remember. Oh, no. The Babe, having taken a cat nap at 10 am, wouldn’t go down until noon. And then finally, with the 3YO plugged into Curious George, I got started. Like so:

Yup, a little mental space is a necessity. And, oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I was also too excited to not try the second batch of ice cream in my new ($3 at a garage sale) ice cream maker. Chocolate gelato, there’s no way I was going to put that off for a more sane day.

Now, after ten minutes of recipe perusal (can’t linger long, with a 45-90 minute timer ticking away in the other room), I was ready to face the kitchen.

And here’s the truly insane part about my ‘cooking frenzy’ days. Almost never do I start them with a clean kitchen, because almost never is my kitchen clean. And although it would make (heaps of!) sense to say, ‘okay, gotta clean the kitchen and then I can get cooking,’ do I? Oh hell no. I tell myself, ‘I’ll just get this one thing started, and then I’ll clean in between times, in the lulls.’

A truly disappointing thing to me about life is how, even now after a good 33 trips round, I fail to learn from my past. How, how? can I tell myself the same fairy tale day after day after day, for years running, and never catch my own lie?

Note to self: There will be no lulls.

Do I need to get it tatoo-ed on my arm?

So, after clearing a space just large enough for a bowl to mix up the gelato, I told myself (in earnest even! What a fool!) ‘I’ll just get this gelato going so it can be cooling. Then I’ll clean up.’

gelato is basically a cooked pudding that has to cool completely before churning it in an ice cream maker

Once the gelato was in the fridge, I remembered that the flatbread dough really needed to be started, so it could be rising. Okay. Then I’ll clean up.

I use a big white garbage bag, cut open, as a reusable cover for rising dough. Works great.

Once the dough was rising, I started looking around with my cleaning eye, and realized there was The Cantaloupe to deal with. Shit.

I had gotten the cantaloupe the day before at Whole Foods. Seduced by memories of What Melons Can Taste Like (in Italy). It had an unusual look to it, not the regular cantaloupe look, and I thought, ‘What if it’s actually good?’ So I bought it.

Of course, it was just another American cantaloupe. Almost crunchy even. Fortunately, in Central America I discovered ‘liquados.’ They take any kind of fruit and stick it in a blender with water and sugar, and mi amor! the most amazing things happen. I did this recently with a watermelon, and it was divine. A perfect answer to sub-standard fruit. So, instead of getting on to cleaning, I chopped up a less-than-desirable cantaloupe, whizzed it with water and a little sugar, and yes, made it 12 times more desirable. Magic.

the rest of the cantaloupe juice got put in the freezer in popsicle molds

But, by now, The Babe had woken up. My kitchen time was over till the afternoon nap. Sometimes he’ll play happily on the floor with tupperwares and clangey lids for awhile, but lately he’s been too fussy.

So I left the kitchen, and my half finished projects thusly:

wait a minute. I can't just leave a chicken thawing on the cutting board. Even I have some standards.

After an exhaustingly difficult mid-day, a very long lay down session, then infuriatingly a wake-up-by-3YO and subsequent re-lay-down session, I was ready to get back to my projects.

I cut up the thawed chicken (photo shoot to follow in separate post). Rolled out my flatbreads. Cut one of the eggplants up for dinner, and picked my first ever red pepper (!) for the grill as well. The 3YO played in her new trash-find swimming pool while I fired up the grill.

rolling flat breads on an oiled (virgin) trash bag

Now you’re wondering how and what exactly we are going to eat for dinner, because isn’t it about that time by now? Well, with all my projects going on, I wasn’t about to do anything else complicated. I knew I wanted to eat those shrimp, so I boiled some pasta in Trixie, then I just tossed it with garlic and shrimp. A quick dressing for the grilled eggplant slices, and at the last minute while I am trying to rally the family to the table, I am peeling the red pepper to go with the eggplant salad. Chop, chop, stir, stir.

Me: Yes, dinner really is ready. Can’t you guys set the table? (Insert last minute cooking annoyance)

My Man: Is it really ready though? You look like you’re still cooking.

Me: Listen. Set the table. By the time you are actually sitting down with your plates and forks in hand, this will be on the table.

Real Life Dinner Night #1: Shrimp and Garlic Fettucine

This is super simple once you’ve cooked and peeled the shrimp. If you aren’t grilling them like I did, just toss peeled shrimp around in a hot skillet with garlic and butter/oil until barely cooked through.

  • 1 lb whole shrimp
  • 1/2 lb whole wheat fettucine
  • 3 + Tablespoons butter
  • 3 cloves mashed roasted garlic (you know I am now addicted to that Trixified garlic but if you don’t have such Tom-foolery, just saute up 3 cloves)
  • 1 clove freshly crushed garlic
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper

Grill shrimp, cool and peel. Cook pasta. (See post about whole wheat pasta to follow. Soon, really. It’s already half writ.) Drain, reserving a little of the cooking water (1/2 cup?). Heat butter and roasted garlic, or saute your 3 cloves, whichever. Add shrimp. S & P to taste. Stir in fresh crushed garlic for a few seconds, then mix in pasta. Serve!

Grilled Eggplant and Red Pepper Salad

Cut one eggplant into rounds. Cut a red pepper in quarters. Brush each with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill all till tender, placing pepper skin side down so that the skin gets all black and charred. Yum! While they’re cooking, in the ‘lull’ you’re supposed to use for cleaning, make a simple dressing, then toss hot eggplant with it. ‘Sweat’ red pepper under an overturned bowl for a few minutes, then remove peel. Chop and add to salad. Get on the table before the Husband sets the silverware so you can say, “Nyah.”

Culinary lessons to be learned tonight kids:

  • Always save a little pasta water to use in your sauce. Especially if your “sauce” is just butter and garlic.
  • Cooked plus fresh garlic equals zinga-dinga-bing-bong!!
  • Butter is good.
  • Grilling is good.
  • If you’re making a cold salad out of cooked veggies, dress them while they’re still hot, for maximum flavor, baby.

Sunday Dinner Any Day of the Week

What I’m talking about here folks is good old fashioned Pot Roast.

You know you love it. Unless you’re among my vegetarian readers, in which case you’re already clicking your back button. See ya later, in a veggie post.

Pot roast has some unexplainable mystique surrounding it. As if it’s difficult, or expensive, or otherwise unattainable. Let me tell you, it is not. I think it’s funny (and sad) when old fashioned ‘make do’ arts become new fashioned high ticket items. Like quilting. Invented to use up scraps, therefore as thrifty as you can get. Now if you go into quilting, you’d better hope your hubby doesn’t do the books! (Let alone the woolly arts my friends. You know what I mean.)

But back to the reason our vegetarian friends left– meat! I hope you have found a source for locally raised humane meat. If you have, you certainly can’t afford steaks! Hamburger is of course your cheapest option. But second to that, go pot roast! Pretty much the cheaper the cut, the better (of course, I mean a cheap cut, not cheap meat.) All that gristle and fat melt into the meat for a succulent roast. It’s a thrifty revelation!

You’ll find lots of dressed up fancy pot roast recipes, but like I said, this is down home food. Here’s how I cook pot roast, actually about as simple as dinner gets. The only catch is you have to start early, pretty much right after breakfast, which can be a hard leap to make. If your meat is frozen, you have to start after breakfast the day before, by taking it out to thaw. But then, the trade-off is that you’re good to go come 5:00. Just keep working on whatever project you got going till you feel hungry!

Calamity Jane’s Down and Dirty Pot Roast

  • one piece of otherwise undesirable tough, gristly meat, 2-4 lbs
  • onions, 1 or 2 or 3
  • carrots, my family can eat an unending supply of meat soaked carrots, so I do ’em up big
  • potatoes (quickest and easiest to cook with the meat, but I prefer ’em cooked seperate and mashed myself)
  • celery
  • stock of some kind, preferably homemade

Throw it all in the crock pot, carrots then taters then meat then onions and celery. Pour in enough stock to come about halfway up sides of meat. Cook on high 3-4 hours, or low 6-8 hours. It should be tender. If you need a knife, it ain’t done. As my Dad likes to say, “You should be able to cut it with a stern glance.”

circa 1958, this original Crock Pot doesn't even have a removable dish-- it's all one piece. You have to carefully wash the damn thing as is!

Calamity’s Slightly Fancified Pot Roast

Throwing it all cold into the crock pot makes a fine roast. But I think the flavor is much more spectacular if you do a few extries. It’s still one of the easiest dinners I make. Just brown the meat, caramelize the onions, and deglaze the pan with a little stout beer, and you’ve got yourself a roast worth Sundafying.

It’s important to brown meat the right way if you want all the lovely complex caramely flavor to come out, which you do. Heat your big cast iron skillet till it’s almost smoking. Add a splash of oil and real quick throw the meat in there. The authorities say to pat it all over first with paper towels so the surface is dry, but I have fine results forgoing this wasteful practice. You do have to not crowd the pan. You should see lots of bare pan around the edge of your meat. This allows moisture to escape and keeps the pan hot. If you crowd a pan of browning meat, you’ll just gray it instead, as it boils in it’s own juices. Not the end of the world, but no caramely deep flavors.

Proper browning just takes a few minutes on each side. You're not even remotely cooking it, just getting a nice deep chestnut-y brown crust.

When you’re done browning the meat, add a good knob of butter (especially big if you’re meat is wild) and saute the onions. Caramelizing onions is a lot like browning meat, caramelizing happens at a higher temperature than boiling water, so if you crowd the pan and trap the steam, it won’t happen. I like to start with the stove at medium high, then as the onions start to brown, turn it down to a lowish medium. You might have to turn it down even more. The object is a deep golden brown color, but don’t let them burn! This will take awhile. 10 or 15 minutes, so wash up or cut carrots or something, just don’t forget to stir once every few minutes.

Dump carrots into your vessel of choice. Set the roast on top and cover liberally with salt (better yet celery salt) black pepper, garlic powder, thyme, and/or whatever blows yer skirt up, honey. Dump celery on top. By now your onions should be perfectly caramelized. Scoop ’em out and throw into the pot.

Keep the empty onion pan on the stove, and turn the heat up to high. When it’s good and hot, throw in a third or half a dark beer* and let it roil and boil like crazy for two or three minutes. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a fork or something to get off the sticky bits (loving dubbed “fond” by the Frenchies). Now pour in your stock, bring the lot to a boil, and pour all this lovely goodness into the roast pot.

Pour broth to about halway up sides of meat. As it cooks, it'll make more juice and submerge itself.

When the roast is done, an essential part of the work is still to come. What’s roast without gravy? Fish out the meat (it should be falling apart) and all the veggies, put ’em in a covered pan and keep warm in the oven (200-ish). Make a rich brown roux*, and gravify the juices. Generally speaking, 1 Tablespoon butter : 1 Tablespoon flour thickens 1 cup liquid. I like to make it a little thin, then boil hard till thick enough, this intensifies the flavors. Num, num.

As I said, I like to serve with mashed tater-aters. Do not mar the perfect heaviness of this meal with something like a steamed vegetable or salad. Enjoy it for what it is, a meat glut. Eat your veggies tomorrow.

What to Cook In

A slow cooker works a treat (read crock pot) but also great, if you’re running one, is a woodstove. If you don’t have either of these, the oven is next easiest (make sure you have a good sized oven proof pan with good fitting lid).  The oven unfortunately is fairly inefficient energy-wise, lots of lost heat. You can do it stovetop, it will just take a much closer monitoring. You don’t want it to boil, just the tiniest whisper of a simmer.

I know, you want times! But it’s all so variable, your method and temperature of cooking, how big and what type your meat is. I’ve only ever roasted wild game, which I suspect takes longer than beef, but maybe not longer than good grass fed, free roaming beef…?

I’ve only just started using a slow cooker, always did it on the woodstove at home. I got a book which said 8 hours on low would be okay (ie: you can start it and then go to work and have dinner ready when you get home, of course they never count transport time…), but that it would be done really before that. I’ve found that on high, it takes somewhere’s round 4 hours, but then again, that is wild game…

Cooking on a woodstove takes some practice, and intuitiveness. I can’t tell you how long it will take, because it depends entirely how hot you run your stove. On our stove back home in Cordova, which we run pretty cool, it takes a full day, and sometimes I have to move it to the kitchen stove to get it done before dinner. Mess around and see what your stove takes.

With the oven, according to my Joy (of Cooking) a 3-4 lb roast at 300 – 325 should take 3-4 hours. But Paula Wolfert, queen of ultra slow cooking, has recipes which roast meat for like 12 hours, at temps as low as 250. So obviously, there is a wide range. Again, just play around. Generally the slower the cooking, the more succulently tender your meat will be.

As far as planning your day, my advice is, start early. A roast is easy to hold warm for up to an hour, or even rewarm. But if you have a hungry family waiting for tough meat to cook, you’d better give up and order pizza!

*Roux

I tried to find a good tutorial for any of y’all who’ve never made a roux, but they’re all unnecessarily complicated. Roux is just a mix of fat and flour, for thickening gravies and sauces. Here’s how I do it:

Melt butter in small skillet over medium heat (oil works too), add flour and whisk. Keep whisking, make sure you’re getting in the corners too and all that. If you’re making roux for a white sauce (like mac n’ cheese) just cook a few minutes. For meaty gravies and such, it makes a good deep flavor if you cook your roux to a rich brown. This takes 5 or 10 minutes over medium heat. You do have to stand there and whisk the whole time (ok, I do cheat, but I also sometimes have to throw out a burned roux) and when it starts to color, watch carefully. If you’re using a cast iron skillet, remove from the heat before it’s as brown as you want, the heat of the pan will keep cooking it another minute. When you’ve got the color you want, the tricky part comes. Slowly pour in about half your liquid in a steady stream, whisking vigorously as you do. When you’re sure there’s no lumps, pour in the rest of the liquid. Continue heating and whisking until boiling vigorously. If it’s not as thick as you like, boil it down some. If it’s too thick, of course add more liquid. It might be good to check out some photos from a tutorial (just google it) if you feel unsure of yourself. It does take a little practice. You’ll get the hang of it.

sorry this is such a disgustingly bad photo, but I thought you should know what it looks like while it's cooking. No, it should not be this baby poop green color. My kitchen has horrible light stove-side.

Baking Bonanza!

As promised by the weatherman, the temperature dipped enormously last night. There was a helluva storm bringing it in too. Even though the sliver of sky I can see from our bed is small, when there’s lightening it flashes white even through my eyelids. I love to lay there with my eyes closed and “see” the lightning, and count till the thunder. Last night though, there was so much of both, you could hardly tell which thunder belonged to which lightning. Impressive storm.

And oh the cool it brought! When Hubby first opened the door this morning, cold air sucked through! I was gleeful. I almost immediately started planning my baking day.

Bread for sure, and granola. I am tired of paying $5 a loaf for decent bread, and you can’t even buy very good granola, it’s always too sweet. Then, since the oven would be on anyway, I’d been wanting to make blondies forever, and I had a thing of cottage cheese in the freezer needing used, and some leftover spaghetti sauce– lasagna! Also a few yams I might as well throw in.

I haven’t even turned on the oven since we got here. Can’t bear to when it’s so hot, and besides it would be absurd when we’re running the AC to cool our house. But in Cordova I baked all the time. Like at least every other day. All our bread, muffins, pies, granola, etc, etc. I haven’t exactly missed the baking, I’ve had a real lazy energy since we got here, but I miss the homemade, wholesome baked goods like crazy.

So right off I started a batch of bread. Should have known better how things go.

I thought we’d walk to the store while the dough rose, because of course, I wasn’t prepared for my baking day. I needed oats, honey and lasagna noodles. But the Toddler was not keen on a walk, for some reason. Just for the sake of contrary-ness I figure. We puttered around the house until Husband came home, then I shot out on my own to the store (on my own of course means with Baby strapped on front). I tried to be quick, was quick really. But the bread was ready to go into the oven by the time I got back. Which made the rest of my cooking somewhat of a frenzy.

crash kitchen
crash kitchen: this is basically all of the counter space in my New Orleans kitchen

If I had any sense I would have taken the not-walking-to-the-store time to clean the kitchen and prep a few things. I mean the whole point of this was to get everything in the oven at roughly the same time, right? Instead I madly dashed around the kitchen, making flour clouds and tomato sauce spills, and quite a pile of dishes. Finally got the lasagna and blondies in a little after one, about halfway through the bread’s hour.

Now all the 350s are done, the oven’s down to 250, and the granola’s cookin. Fun, fun, fun. Still dirty dishes in the sink, but hell– Husband took Toddler to the zoo, Baby’s sleeping delightfully, what’s a Mama to do but steal a few minutes to herself, with a cup of coffee she doesn’t need (oooh, I can feel the headache coming on already. I’m too hot, nursing, and always bordering on dehydration here to have a second, afternoon cup) and try to make her morning feel valid and productive…

Here’s a link to my Grrr-Nola:  Make Your Own Breakfast Cereal and Stick it to the Kellog Corp. recipe from my old blog.

My No-Nonsense Every Day Bread recipe will have to wait for another post.

In the meantime, here’s my favorite “Perfect” lasagna recipe, roughly following the Cook’s Illustrated one

**No boil lasagna noodles took me years to come around to, but, I finally discovered that they really are pretty good. And wow does it make lasagna more actually do-able, on a real day, in real life. If you use leftover spaghetti sauce like I did today (I stretched it out by mixing it with a can each of chopped tomatoes and paste, whizzed up in the blender, don’t forget salt and a little basil or something) it comes together super quick. Mostly just a matter of thawing frozen stuff.

1- 15oz carton ricotta or cottage cheese (cheaper, and almost as good)

1 egg

1/2 to 1 lb frozen spinach, thawed, all the liquid squeezed out

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup grated parmesan

15 no-boil lasagna noodles, CI recommends Barilla brand

about 3/4 lb (3 cups) grated mozzarella

at least 2 quarts of sauce, slightly on the thin side, so the noodles can suck some up

Mix the first 5 ingredients. Don’t forget to squeeze the spinach out, you can save the juice if you want for bread, soup, or even to thin your tomato sauce if need be.

Layer as usual (sauce first, then noodles, ricotta/spinach mixture, cheese, sauce, noodles, etc, finishing with noodles, then sauce, then cheese) being careful to make your layers super thin. That’s what I think makes it “Perfect,” and what took me years (and the CI recipe) to make myself do. Oh, yeah, 3 noodles per layer, in a 9 x 13 in pan. There will be a good inch between noodles, and around edges. That’s ok, they expand as they cook and fill those gaps. Also, when you lay down the ricotta mixture, spread as thin as you can over each noodle, don’t put any in those gaps.

Cover with aluminum foil (that’s the bummer about this recipe. You can use a baking sheet as a lid if you’ve got a big enough one that’s not warped. The no-boil noodles need all the moisture though, so don’t leave it uncovered, or poorly covered) and put in a 375 oven. After 15 mins, remove the foil. Bake 25 mins more, or until golden and bubbly-icious. Cool 10 mins (don’t skip the cooling, or it will be way too soupy, not to mention burn your tongue right out of your mouth!)