Five for Me, Five for You...
30 August 2006
Ann over at A Chicken in Every Granny Cart tagged me for this meme that's going around - Five Things to Eat Before You Die. This was started by Melissa at The Traveler's Lunchbox, a lovely weblog where you can see the list thus far. The most interesting thing about this little project is how each person's items point to their culture and their personal history. A lot of people share anecdotes about travel, relationships, first cooking experiences - they are all tied into the foods they feel are most essential and meaningful...
Five Things to Eat Before You Die
....and my list is no different. I tried not to overthink it; it's too hard to name just five as it is. I put down the first ones that really popped out in my mind.
To continue, I tag these people, and my apologies to anyone if you (a) have been tagged already, or (b) are generally indisposed towards memes. No problem.
1. Grant, over at Well Fed in New York City, because he says if you're going to put something in your mouth, make it good. Absolutely.
2. Manisha of Indian Food Rocks, in Colorado, because Indian food does indeed rock and so does Manisha. She was one of the first food bloggers I read regularly.
3. Anna of Baking for Britain in London, just because I love her writing and her focus on a theme.
4. Becke of Columbus Foodie in Columbus, OH, because she's blogging about my hometown.
5. Lucette of Cooking Vintage just because I like her and she's in Cleveland, Ohio.
My Ultimate Banana Bread
29 August 2006
I have been diligently working out this month. This means one thing: Food Network TV! Yes, I only get to watch cable at the gym. I try to plan my treadmill time around Good Eats, but I'll watch pretty much anything on FoodTV. Except Rachael Ray. I tried to give her a chance, but the perkiness, the perky, perky acronyms - it's too much. Bobby Flay is an incredible jerk but just watchable, and I admit I find Emeril rather charming. Sandra Lee is a slow, mesmerizing train wreck of entertainment, and Ina Garten is sweet. Michael Chiarello is a little insufferable, but I can't help but love his menus. Even dumbed-down food programming is enough to keep me going at the gym; it gives me something to work out for!
And then a couple days ago I saw Tyler's Ultimate for the first time, immediately enchanted by the huge honkin' meatloaf he was putting in the oven, lovingly lingered over by the camera. The camerawork on that show is lovely and cinematic through whorls of steam and filtered sunlight, and I am in love with that blue brick wall in his kitchen. Kitchen porn, that's what this one is.
But as luscious as Tyler's meatloaf looked, I found it typically grating of the Food Network to have a show called "Ultimate" anything, where their poor star has to come up with an "ultimate" recipe every single episode. How can you call anything the "Ultimate," in the world of cooking and taste? My ultimate anything is just that - mine. Might not be yours. Just mine.
I had that in mind yesterday as I was working over my recipe for banana bread. Some people think the ultimate banana bread is simple and wholesome - bananas, whole wheat flour, no sugar. Just plain bread. Others feel it should be super sweet like a cake with a light, fine-crumbed texture.
None of these for me. No sir. In the world of banana bread, my ultimate is the heavyweight version, the one so loaded with banana it's more properly a banana loaf, heavy with the weight of mashed fruit. It's the gussied-up version, with two kinds of flour, two kinds of sugar, pineapple, cream of coconut and roasted nuts. It's buttery and soft with a caramelized outer crust. No butter needed with this bread; a slice will hold you all morning.
This is my ultimate banana bread. What's your ultimate - banana bread or otherwise?
I am giving you a pretty big quantity, here. This makes three generous loaves, suitable for eating out of hand, freezing, or giving away to people you really, really like. Since it's so moist it will keep for a few days.
Original recipe based on Mark Bittman's in How To Cook Everything. Many alterations have subsequently occurred, obviously.
1 1/2 cups butter (3 sticks), softened
1 cup white sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 cups white flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
3 scant teaspoons salt
6 teaspoons baking powder
10 very ripe bananas
1 20 oz. can crushed pineapple
1 15 oz. can cream of coconut, like Coco Lopez
3 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups of roughly chopped toasted nuts - I use mostly hazelnuts, with some pecans
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease three standard 9x5 loaf pans.
2. Toast the nuts, if you haven't already.
3. Cream butter and sugars in a large bowl.
4. Mix in eggs.
5. Mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl.
6. Mash bananas thoroughly in a third bowl and stir in pineapple, cream of coconut, and vanilla.
7. Fold the contents of all three bowls together in the largest bowl you're using.
8. Fold in the nuts.
9. Pour batter into the prepared pans.
10. Bake for about an hour and 15 minutes.
11. Let the bread cool on a rack and turn out of the pans after about fifteen minutes. Let cool almost completely before slicing. The bread will be very dense and moist.
Sugar High Friday: Fig-Sesame Jam
25 August 2006
The first time I tried a fresh fig I was disappointed. Here I had been reading these incredibly loving descriptions of fresh figs, plump and ripe and dripping with juice, holding their own against prosciutto, baked duck, and heavy cream. But the first time I eagerly bit into a bright slice of fig I winced at the watery non-taste - a pale, remote sweetness that had none of the rich succulence I expected.
Now, maybe I just had bad figs. Maybe I still haven't found the right ones. But I was left with handfuls of figs and disillusionment. Nothing like having your foodie illusions a little dashed. Bummer.
So I was flipping through the web, looking for something to do with them. I ended up with a jam recipe from Epicurious. It couldn't hurt to try.
I sliced up the figs, piling them into a heavy pan, added some sugar and water and let them simmer for a long, long time. Pretty soon they smelled fantastic, like a rich, caramel fruit.
The recipe called for a final addition of toasted sesame seeds. I was somewhat suspicious about this. But I put them in anyway, and they turned out to be the toasty, savory note that this rich jam needs. It's a sweet, meaty, confection with toffee-like chunks of jammy fig, and the crunchy specks of fig and sesame seeds lend a wonderfully varied texture on a well-toasted English muffin. This was the rich fig taste I'd been imagining.
So with black figs cheap at the produce stand again, tempting in their green plastic baskets, the jam that showed me what figs are for, in my kitchen anyway, was the natural entry for Delicious Days' installment of Sugar High Friday: Can You Can? concerning all things jam, jelly, marmalade and preserve-related.
Even though I always have at least half a dozen jars of jams, jellies and marmalades in my refrigerator, it's always a delight to add one more! Besides, none of the current offerings are homemade. I have gooseberry and cloudberry, from IKEA, a jar of June Taylor's fabulous Meyer lemon and rosemary marmalade, the last precious bits of a boozy apricot hazelnut jam from Bakerina, some mango vanilla butter from the farmer's market, and a few well-respected stand-bys from the grocery: red currant, raspberry, and apricot. Actually writing all that down makes me realize that I may have a problem.
But in spite of its excellent competition, this really is my favorite jam - all the better for being fresh and homemade. I've mixed it into honey ice cream; I've eaten it on bread and toast; I've stirred it into plain yogurt for a sweet and nutty lunch. It's just that good, and it never lasts long.
Adapted from Epicurious
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup water, divided
2 lb firm-ripe fresh figs, trimmed and cut into small pieces
2 (3- by 1-inch) strips fresh lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons dark rum
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1. Toast sesame seeds in a heavy pan over medium heat until they are a shade darker. Set aside to cool.
2. Simmer sugar and 1 cup of water in a large heavy saucepan, stirring, until sugar is dissolved.
3. Gently stir in figs, zest, rum and lemon juice and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thick and syrupy. Depending on the size of your pan and heat level this could take just under an hour or twice that long.
4. As the jam becomes, well, jam-like, check the consistency. If it seems too thick and chunky for your taste, stir in a little of the remaining water.
5. When it looks properly jammy, remove from the heat and gently stir in the sesame seeds.
6. The jam will keep, covered in the fridge, for a month or two - if you can keep your hands off it that long.
Beginnings: Plain White Bread
21 August 2006
I have always been fascinated by yeast. Starting dough is like planting seeds in a box of dirt and then watching the first leaves uncurl damp from the earth, and holding your breath as your first green tomato balloons, impossibly, like a bubble on a pipe. A seed will grow, somehow, if you put it in the ground. All by itself, without much help, its small body unfolds into something completely unlike its beginning, something impossible to replicate with machines and mechanical parts, a tiny unstoppable power in a wrinkled seed.
This is all quite genuinely surprising to me - not some maudlin sentiment of beauty and nature and all that. That power of organic growth, often happening in darkness, in the quiet places where no one sees, the sheer quantity of silent growth and anti-entropy that happens every day in the smallest, weakest things on earth, it takes me aback when I remember to notice.
Yeast and seeds just seem to be so busy and powerful all on their own, without much notice from us. My weblog title, mekuno, is taken from the Greek (a bad transliteration, I suspect) from a word that means "to grow, to lengthen." It occurs once in the New Testament. In Mark, Jesus tells a story about a farmer who sows his seed and goes to bed, "and the seed sprouts and grows - how, he himself does not know."
This seems like such a profound spiritual and physical truth, that growth happens when we are not looking for it, that our own growth is happening in places we are not aware of, that we go to bed and get up in the day and do our thing and cook our food and live in our relationships, and somehow, somewhere, as inexorably as that leaf uncurling or that yeast multiplying silently, there is growth happening under the surface. If I didn't believe that on some level, that living things are meant to grow before they die, and that even their death brings life, and that there was hope for change, as gradual as it may be, I don't know how I would get up in the morning. It's hard enough as it is.
I believe this applies to cooking and the kitchen as well. As I cook and learn and repeat and make mistakes, there is some instinct that is slowly awakened, growing. The more I go about my business and cook, the more that will grow silently. At least, that's the idea.
In the spirit of this, I am returning to the veritable start point of the food chain, the "GO" square of human sustenance, the place we begin and end and where I should have by rights have begun myself: plain bread.
Plain white bread is nothing more than flour, water, salt, yeast - maybe a little sugar. None of these things are simple.
Flour is bruised and crushed grain, with millions of tiny bits of kernel and center, pulverized into soft, cool specks that swell and expand. Water and salt are elemental compounds that are universal all over the world - when you taste a grain of salt you are tasting your own sweat and tears.
And yeast - tiny living creatures that busily multiply into enormous families - rabbits have nothing on them - after waking up from their long, dark, cool sleep. Behind your back they grow silently and raise this simple mixture with their offspring, converting sugars into complex tastes of wheat, sweet and sour, savory and cool, with warrens of caves and pockets and air bubbles that give a different chewy texture in every bite.
Bread is nothing more nor less than the fruit of the ground, salt of our bodies, water of life and birth and the hot, hot burst of the sun and the oven.
The recipe below is an extremely basic white bread recipe, with some adjustments that I have been learning from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Perhaps the leading guru of bread at the moment, Reinhart has written extensively on bread and some of the newer techniques that are actually pushing the ancient art of bread into new places. This recipe uses, partially, his refrigeration technique, which allows the sugars and yeast in the bread to ripen into more complex flavors before the yeast goes crazy with multiplication. (How d'ya like that scientific explanation, eh?) His book is a treat, and I have been working my way through it.
This method may look a little complicated, but it's not, really. It just takes getting used to. All I know is that I've been baking bread, blindly, for a long time, and this method gives me the best loaves I have ever made in my kitchen. They are deliciously crusty on top and soft in the center, with a good firm crumb and a complex taste that brings out the best in your flour. Use good flour. I like King Arthur bread flour. It's wonderful to know that such basic, simple things can produce such deliciousness, handled in the right way, and I hope that more such discoveries are still to come. In the meantime, I have my eye on the yeast.
1 package active dry yeast (2 1/2 tsp)
1 1/2 cups water
1 tsp salt
3-4 cups all-purpose flour
1. Stir together the yeast and water and let sit for a few minutes until foamy.
2. Stir in the salt and about half the flour.
3. Add the flour gradually, half a cup at a time, mixing with a wooden spoon or in the bowl of an electric mixer equipped with a dough hook.
4. When the dough pulls away from the sides and the bottom of the bowl, turn it out onto a well-floured countertop. This is where the workout begins! Knead or slam the bread around for about 6-7 minutes, until it is silky elastic and a piece will stretch when pulled and become nearly translucent before breaking.
5. Oil a bowl (I use spray olive oil) and turn the ball of dough into it. Spray the top, cover with plastic wrap, and set in the back of the fridge overnight - or for a couple days.
6. The day you want to bake the bread, take the dough out of the fridge. It will have risen some, but not nearly as much as it would if it had been sitting out at room temperature.
7. Prepare a heavy baking sheet with parchment and scatter semolina or coarse cornmeal on top.
8. Shape the bread into a boule, tucking the ends under. Place on the sheet and lightly mist again with oil and cover lightly.
9. Let the dough proof for about 2 hours or until doubled in size. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 450F and place a heavy, shallow pan on the lowest rack.
10. Slash or cut the top of the bread with sharp scissors. This allows some steam to escape and the bread to rise.
11. Get some water boiling on the stove, and when the bread is ready to go in, pour a few cups of boiling water in the pan on the bottom rack. Slide the bread in quickly and shut the oven. After a few minutes of steaming, lower the temperature to 400F.
12. The bread should bake for about 25 minutes, depending on hot your oven runs. The most reliable way to check if it's done is to flip it over, insert an instant-read thermometer and check the temp. It should be between 200 and 210F.
13. Let the bread cool for at least an hour on a rack before slicing. This is very important! Resist temptation - it's much better after the initial heat has evaporated.
Summer Daze: Zucchini Ginger Cupcakes
10 August 2006
So, it's August. Right now I'm waiting for the light to turn from white to yellow, the trees to turn from green to scarlet, the muggy clouds to fade into... Oh wait - that's right, I live in Florida! We do have seasons here, but they go like this: tourist season, hurricane season, gorgeous cool-and-sparkly winter season, spring break season. Right now we're just sitting around nervously, waiting for the hurricanes to start.
In a yearning for the balmy summers and early autumns of the north, I made zucchini cupcakes from the inspiring July Gourmet; they just looked chunky, delicious, and wholesome, like they were designed to gobble up that overwhelming bounty of squash oozing out of Northern gardens by this time of year.
These cupcakes are not very sweet, and I was a little disappointed that the crystallized ginger didn't come through more. Next time I will double the amount and leave half of it in sparkly chunks. These could very easily do for breakfast muffins, sans icing. Or with, of course. Cream cheese - they put that on bagels, don't they? What's a little extra sugar?
And the cream cheese icing, it really is the best reason to make these anyway. I used fresh cinnamon, and extra orange zest, and it was delicious. I wanted to lick them all smooth.
But I didn't, of course. That would have been sorta unhygienic.
Reprinted from Gourmet/Epicurious
1/3 cup crystallized ginger (1 3/4 oz), coarsely chopped
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh orange zest
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups coarsely grated zucchini (2 medium)
3/4 cup mild olive oil
3/4 cup mild honey
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 oz cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh orange zest
Orange zest curls
1. Preheat oven to 350F and prep your muffin pans with paper liners.
2. Pulse crystallized ginger in food processor until finely ground, then add flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, zest, salt, baking soda, and baking powder and pulse until combined. (Fresh-ground spices make a difference in this recipe; I put in fresh cinnamon and it really shone through.)
3. Whisk together zucchini, oil, honey, eggs, and vanilla in a medium bowl, then stir in flour mixture until just combined.
4. Divide batter among muffin cups and bake until golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of a cupcake comes out clean, 20 to 24 minutes.
5. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pan and cool completely, 1 hour.
1. Beat together frosting ingredients with an electric mixer at high speed until combined well and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes.
2. Frost tops of cooled cupcakes.
3. Garnish with orange zest curls and raw sugar, if desired.
Makes about 18 cupcakes
Pork Meatballs with Lemon and Thyme
4 August 2006
When I was in Berkeley last month I got to do something I have wanted to do for a long time, and that is eat at The Café at Chez Panisse. The classic Chez Panisse cookbooks and Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard program were some of the very first things that really inspired me to look more closely at my food and to pay more attention to my cooking.
Chez Panisse itself, the original institution, is this warm and venerable bastion of good food, nestled in a beautifully crafted Art Deco setting with grape vines growing over the front porch and sunlight filtered in through the trees. The place has a dignified and yet homey air with deceptively simple food bursting with the flavor of the season. It's immensely appealing.
We had a perfect lunch that included some superb lamb sausage and a cherry tart that was rustic, simple, and again, for the ingredients and the season, just perfect. I also got to have their gingersnaps, which was amusing because I love the recipe for these that has been floating around the web for a few years, and it was pleasant to actually have them there.
After I came home I was flipping through the Café cookbook to find a recipe for a dinner party with friends. I just had a pound of ground pork in the freezer to use up, and I came across the book's simple meatball recipe. I subbed pork for the meatballs and improvised a lemon sauce instead of the more traditional tomato sauce.
These were delicious - tender, moist, and tangy from the sauce. They're a lovely little window into the simple yet delicious and balanced food that Chez Panisse is known for. I'm definitely making them again.
Pork and Sage Meatballs
(Adapted from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook)
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb ground pork
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
4 tablespoons freshly chopped sage
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1. Put the milk and breadcrumbs in a small bowl and mix with a fork. When the crumbs have softened squeeze out the milk and discard it.
2. Gently sauté the onion in a little olive oil until it is soft but not colored. Season with a pinch of salt and set it aside to cool.
3. Combine a medium bowl the pork, breadcrumbs, onion, egg, Parmesan, sage, thyme, cayenne, black pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt. Mix with hands thoroughly.
4. Shape the mixture into walnut-sized balls. This can be done several hours or even a day ahead.
5. To cook, heat a skillet large enough to hold all the meatballs in one uncrowded layer. Add a little olive oil.
6. When the skillet is heated, add the meatballs, shaking the pan to keep them from sticking.
7. Using tongs to turn so they brown evenly, cook the meatballs until they are no longer pink in the center and lightly browned on all sides.
8. Remove from the pan to a plate and immediately make the sauce.
Lemon Thyme Sauce
1.5 cups chicken broth
0.75 cup dry white wine
0.25 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (from one lemon)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Zest of one lemon, to garnish
Roughly chopped thyme, still on stems, to garnish
1. Remove meatballs from the pan, and deglaze it over medium heat with the chicken broth and wine.
2. Simmer until reduced by at least a third.
3. Add the lemon juice and thyme t and add the meatballs again as well.
4. Simmer until ready to serve - at least 10 minutes, but up to half an hour.
5. Serve meatballs with the sauce poured over and garnished with lemon zest curls and thyme sprigs.
Strawberries and Cream Tart
2 August 2006
Whipped this up last night for a relaxed dinner with a friend. We had chickpeas with artichokes, a summer salad of corn, tomatoes and cucumber, Indian flatbread and wilted spinach. I wanted something light for dessert and found a nice little surprise in my freezer: leftover sugar cookie dough! (I love it when I forget about things in my freezer.) I defrosted a bag, made a tart base and mounded a lot of tangy, not too sweet whipped cream on top, flavored with lime, rum and the strawberry juice.
The cookie base isn't too sweet either - this was a light-tasting, cool dessert. I left it in the fridge until we ate and it had softened a bit. The leftovers softened even more overnight into a real strawberry shortcake.
I just bought a ginger mint plant and I used a sprig for garnish but found that it was delicious eaten with the tart as well. I think I'm going to have to use it for something else soon...
3/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 3/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1. Cream butter and sugar.
2. Add egg and mix well.
3. Add cream, vanilla and lemon zest.
4. Mix the flour, soda and salt and add it to the butter mixture.
5. Roll out the dough and cut.
6. For a tart, cut out a round piece of parchment, place it on a heavy baking sheet and mold the dough on top.
7. Bake at 350 degrees until done, approximately 10 minutes for cookies, 15 minutes for a tart base.
8. Cool the tart base before assembly.
1 pint strawberries
2 tablespoons dark rum
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
3 tablespoons sour cream or Greek yogurt
Zest from one lemon
More lemon zest
1. Wash, hull and cut the strawberries.
2. Macerate the strawberries overnight with the rum, sugar, and lime juice.
3. An hour or two before serving, whip the cream until stiff, and add the confectioners sugar.
4. Then beat in the sour cream or yogurt and the lemon zest.
5. Drain the strawberries and gently fold their juice into the cream.
6. Mound the whipped cream on the tart base and arrange strawberries on top.
Note: If I ever make this again I think I would double or at least increase the cream. It was really good!