Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Mid-Winter Sunday

This is what the lower garden looked like at 7:30 this morning. So many shades of gray! And so cold...brrrr... mid-teens this morning. Just as cold yesterday morning....when my cat, Katie, began to wander into the forest because she had discovered that the snow was so frozen she could walk on top of it without falling in! She is a crazy one, a real tree-climber. She has even climbed up the post from the downstairs porch to the upper one. So far, I've managed to keep her off the roof. I think.

So what does all this have to do with food. Well, I needed something warm and comforting, so I took out some of my friend, Helen's, eggs for some soft boiled eggs on toast, with bread that I made yesterday, and for just a bit more protein, fried up some of Armandino Batali's finocchiona salami. Hmmm...delicious. And just what I needed on this cold winter day.

Actually my kitchen has been a buzz of activity since yesterday. I made some No-Knead Bread because we were completely out and it's my husband's favorite. For myself, and my Monday lunch customers, I started on the two-day bread recipe in Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery. I love her description and because of it, all the whys and hows and wherefores just came together for me. This is about the fourth time I've made the bread and I'm doing it consistently until it all becomes taken-for-granted. Then the whole process will be inside me and I can begin to innovate. I've been baking bread at least once a week for the past five years and I'm finally beginning to feel like I'm not a novice any more.

And there's more going on in my kitchen. I just love the suggestions for making a great veal stock from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, and that's what is filling my house with a wonderful and pervasive aroma this morning, and, all day. The first time I made it, it came out perfect! Now it's the way I always make my brown veal stock, or even the "ersatz demi." Actually it's the demi I prefer. I then freeze it in ice cube trays, put the frozen cubes in a freezer zip lock, and store it in my large basement freezer. It's just the perfect "over-the-top" addition to so many great dishes.

I've learned how to cook so many great meals from Julia, and the boys.... and the girls too! I've never met any of these chefs but they have certainly been a part of my life for many years. I still have the book club edition of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, that I bought as a teenager! It was formidable at the time, although I remember trying to make some fish dish for my grandma that actually came out tasting pretty good, even though I over-cooked the fish a bit....

Well, it's almost time to throw together some chocolate chip cookie dough, as well as the dough for six pizzas. Those are for my vegetarian son. I make one a day and he loves them! Then it will be time to put my bread in the oven. Given that I also have some lesson plans to write up, I guess I'd better head back to the kitchen.

Ciao, and bon appetít!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Food In The Four Fields

I haven't had access to the internet since Monday. The story is typical north Idaho. My ISP provider began to snowmobile up to the radio tower to fix some equipment, could only get so far on the snowmobile, snowshoed the rest of the way, worked on the equipment until it was too dark, then found himself being "rescued" by our local Search and Rescue guys who refused to let him spend the night there. It was four days before he could go back in and fix the equipment. I was never sure whether I should laugh or cry....

What made this so frustrating for me is that I started teaching at our local community college this week (90 miles away, giving new meaning to the term local), and needed internet access for all sorts of school related reasons. Luckily, things seem to be back to normal, so here I go again....

Interestingly, I have a student who is taking my Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology class because she is interested in cultural aspects of food and nutrition. How can I not love that? Food is a great topic for talking about anthropology because it can be approached through any and all of the four sub-fields of anthropology: physical (also called biological), archaeology, cultural, and linguistic.

Biological and physical aspects of diet, evolution, and health are prominent topics today. Food is an important part of the archaeological record, providing us with historical data about what and how people ate in a time without written record. Cultural and social aspects of food abound, from culture specific diets to the economics of shopping to social aspects of eating. And how we talk about food reveals much about our culture, ourselves, and how food is valued. Indeed, history, the environment, and economics also enter into discussions of food, while the politics of food is pervasive around the world. Given the popularity of food today, what with the food channel, trendy restaurants, sustainable eating, GMO crops, and so forth, the topic of food lends itself to a variety of questions and discussions within the four fields of anthropology and makes it easily accessible to beginning students. I could go on and on....

Instead I'll jump right into the food I made for Monday lunch this week, especially since it's one of my favorite comfort foods. I made an Italian sausage and lentil soup. I first had soup like this at a restaurant and I loved it. Of course, lentil soup was also childhood delight since it was one of my father's favorite foods although we only had it when he had time to make it. (My mother's favorite to make, and it hasn't wavered over the years, is reservations). Anyway, starting with some good Italian sausage (or ground pork with Italian seasonings like fennel, oregano, and hot pepper), I brown the meat, throw in some chopped onion, a bit of carrot and celery, garlic and salt, and before that garlic has time to do anything but yield its flavor into the fat, I add some homemade tomato sauce. Then come the lentils and the water, and I let it simmer until the lentils are edible. At the end I mix in some creme fraiche or sour cream and I just love the mix of flavors in this soup.

I found several years ago that my soups, stews and what have you always taste better when I use water instead of some canned or even worse, dried broth or bouillon. I was delighted to read last November that this is the very thing that author and blogger, Michael Ruhlman suggests. He said:

"I cannot say this strongly or loudly enough: DO NOT use canned stock/broth. Use WATER instead. I repeat. You DO NOT NEED to buy that crappy can of Swanson’s low sodium chicken broth! It will HURT your food. Use water instead. When that recipe says 1 cup of fresh chicken stock (or good quality canned broth), please know that your food, 90 percent of the time, will taste better if you use tap water instead of that "good quality" canned broth. Water is a miracle."

And he's absolutely right.

Continuing with lunch, salad consisted of celery, carrot and couscous with a lemony, dijon vinaigrette. My everyday white bread flour with wheat bran rolls took on some interesting shapes when I tried sliding them off the peel onto the preheated baking stone in my oven. I kind of liked the effect.

And dessert, well, I never go wrong when I make something out of Nick Malgieri's book Perfect Cakes, so this week I made the "Capriccio alle Nocciole" or Hazelnut Cake from Ticino. It was delicious!

Bon Appetit!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Monday Lunch

Today was Monday Lunch. I've been doing Monday lunch for about four years. Monday Lunch is lunch for friends who work in town and would just like a lunch made by me once a week. It all started with my friend, Elizabeth. Actually, the whole thing was her idea. In my small town in north Idaho, not many job opportunities exist and those that do are usually the real low pay jobs. In the restaurant industry that can be really low because this is a "Right-To-Work" state, which means waitresses and waiters, for example, might only be paid $3.15/hr. Hard to believe isn't it? Very sad but true. So, Elizabeth had this idea of delivering lunches for a business.

Well, with all the health requirements most home kitchens wouldn't pass inspection, so, she kind of gave it up. But at the time she was working at one of the local florists and requested that I make her lunch once a week. Well, the owner wanted lunch, as did the owner of the local bookstore, and my friend Julie, at the health food store, and so the business just blossomed. At one time I had too many customers, so much that I almost had to double up on everything. I cut back and now I have but a few who wait eagerly every week for lunch.

Lunch is a prix fixe deal. It's cheap, six smackeroos for an entree (usually soup, but could be risotto, panini, etc.), a side dish (usually salad, maybe a sandwich if lunch was soup, a veggie dish and so forth), homemade roll, and dessert (anything from tiramisu to dacquoise to bundt cake to creme brulee). Each business has their own decorated box (made by my friend, Diana). Their lunches come in glass containers and wax paper bags. They have to wash their dishes which I pick up later in the week. And they all get the same thing, and that's whatever I feel like making that day. I do take into consideration some serious likes and dislikes: John does not like raw onion, Alice refuses offal, and Julie doesn't do beets. But other than that, it's the cook's whim. And I love it! And I think they do too. Indeed, Diana eagerly awaits the description alone....and seems satisfied with the food....

Every Sunday is like Iron Chef America day. I scour the fridge and pantry to see what ingredients I have. Most of these lunches are organic, by default of my preferences, and many of the entrees include ingredients grown over the summer which have been canned or frozen. It's fun figuring out what to make. For desserts, it can be based on what's available, but I've also made it a point to try every recipe in Nick Malgieri's book, Perfect Cakes. So far every recipe has come out perfect and I've tried over half of them. Sometimes I do a vegetarian lunch but usually I use some of my local beef, pork, lamb and game.

Last week I made one of my customer's favorites: a multiple cheese panini. I included ham this time but the 3+ cheese paninis are always hits. Usually I take the end of strong cheese, chop it fine and mix it with cream cheese. This is the spread. Then I add slices of at least two, sometimes more cheese. If I have several cheese ends, I'll mix all of them with the cream cheese. The layers are always put on day old homemade bread and then the bread drizzled with olive oil before going into the panini maker. Being a cheese lover, this is also one of my favorites, but in the interest of good health, it's not frequent.

Today I made a corn and turkey chowder. I threw in onions; garlic; tomatillos concassé (I love that term, learned it while reading Michael Ruhlman's The Making of A Chef. It's used with tomatoes and concassé means crushed or pounded.); chopped bell and poblano peppers; a bit of roasted tomato; turkey; reduced turkey stock frozen in cubes; oregano, cumin, salt, and my own hot pepper (Baci di Satana). It was good! Thank goodness we have enough for our own lunch tomorrow. Salad was a simple green with tomatoes and Maytag Blue Cheese with a Dijon vinaigrette. Homemade rolls were, this week, the No-Knead Bread Recipe which I made into rolls. Finally, dessert was a homemade vanilla pudding with crushed amaretti and amaretto laced whipped cream. I hope they enjoyed it!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Raft

I have been wanting to write this blog for days.....but between snow, internet access problems, a computer taken over by malware (not mine, my husband's), crazy cabin-fever cats, filling out paperwork for a new job, and all those outside obligations, I have been swamped. But I've never stopped thinking about "the raft."

For Christmas, I finally received two books by Michael Ruhlman that I had wanted but had not yet read: The Making of A Chef and The Reach of A Chef. In The Making of A Chef I read about "the raft." This is something that a cook does when turning a stock into a consomme, so that it becomes so clear, one can read the date of a dime at the bottom of the consomme. Wow! Now that's like magic, and like magic, it takes some very skillful work. But it wasn't just the idea of "the raft," it was also Ruhlman's description that just took me in:

"The idea of making goop that looked like a ground-beef milk shake and dumping it into perfectly good stock offered childish pleasure--like making mudpies or dropping very large melons from very high places or seeing how far apart you and a friend could play catch with a raw egg before it smashed in one of your hands. And yet, despite these crude pleasures--indeed, because of them--the end result was one of ultimate refinement."

And then Chef Pardus gave the scientific explanation for this "ground-beef milk shake". Despite the science, it was difficult to shake this milk shake into a broth so clear I could read the newspaper through it. It intrigued me, beguiled me, and just sucked me in. I thought about this for a long time, and I found the recipe for this raft of ground beef, mirepoix, egg whites, and tomato and I was not only intrigued but down right impressed. It was a yucky thing to dump into a stock, or rather, on which to pour a perfectly good stock. But for the clarification, I had to stop and think, was it worth it? Well, for a true consomme, of course it was worth it.

But for the home chef, trying hard to be sustainable, not apt to serve a consomme, and usually just pleased with the tasty stock, the idea of ultimately "wasting" all that perfectly good ground beef which I could use for meatballs or a risotto, all those egg whites that would make a terrific almond meringue, and using those few homegrown tomatoes that I had scavenged from the garden this year, well, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

But someday I will. Because to me "the raft" has come to symbolize all that is good about professional cooking. It requires skill, knowledge, desire, and experience to make a perfect consomme, and that kind of perfection is what cooking is all about. Someday, I'll make it.

Because, for the rest of my life, I will never forget about "the raft." So magical, so professional, and ultimately, yielding such an ethereal tasting product. Mmm, I'm almost tempted right now....