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gingery peachy creamy good

By on Sep 15, 2013 in dessert, experimenting, fruit, vegetarian | 2 comments

Somewhere in my travels I have heard a person’s rump be compared to a ripe peach; so pert and juicy you want to take a bite out of it. I think I would rather be literal and take a bite out of an actual peach. All winter long I stare balefully at the stacks of hard peaches as they sit in pallid orange pyramids at the grocery store. Much like a tomato, I find it hard to buy them, knowing what is coming. Summer. July. August. September in my luckiest times. Farmer’s market peaches so juicy you have to stand over a sink due to the river of juice that bursts forth as you sink your teeth into the sunny sweet flesh. I’m sure there are several lovely derrieres out there in the world. I would still prefer to take a bite out of an actual peach.   I will eat peaches straight up, I adore making a succulent pie with a splash of dark rum, and who can deny the beauty of a jewel-toned peach preserve? But summer (even though we are technically just past it) brings out another deep and abiding love. Ice cream. Don’t get me wrong, I salivate over the thought of a certain dark chocolate ice cream from my favorite ice cream place in my neighborhood, but of course I had to explore making my own ice cream, and of course this had to involved fruit so fresh it almost seemed a shame to freeze it. Almost.   But of course, just straight peach? Peaches in vanilla? Seemed a little, well, vanilla. The peaches needed a home with a bit of zing to balance out their velvet sweet. Enter the ginger. Steeped in cream. I’ll just let you sit on that a while. Have you thought about it? Dense, creamy ice cream with this tantalizing streak of spicy ginger floating up out of the luscious icy creaminess as it dances across your tongue. Bright, smoothly sweet peaches swirled in, dancing a tango with the ginger. Do you want to make it? Good. This is not a quick ice cream. No homemade ice cream is. But once you have made it, you realize you have to do it again. Flavors start whirling through your mind, every spice and item of produce in the house becomes a likely candidate. No plain vanilla will ever do again. Unless you do it with a nice fat fresh vanilla bean, scraping out all the seeds. That’ll do. That’ll do. Ginger Peach Ice Cream   (this almost overflowed my 1 1/ 2 quart ice cream maker, especially once the peaches were added. I had to ultimately mix in the peaches after the churning.)   2 c. heavy cream (there is no such thing as good low fat ice cream. You can keep telling yourself that, but no.) 1 c. whole milk ¾ c. sugar, divided 1 tsp. good vanilla extract 2 ½” ginger root, peeled and finely chopped 1 ½ – 2 lbs. peaches (err lower, trust me) peeled and finely chopped 1 Tbsp. lemon juice 6 egg yolks   Combine peaches, ½ c. sugar, and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours, preferably overnight.   In a heavy saucepan, gently heat 1 c. cream, the whole milk, sugar, vanilla extract, and ginger. Do not let boil. Heat just until tiny bubbles start to appear around the edge. Remove from heat and let steep for one hour.   After one hour, grab another bowl and whisk the egg yolks until light and frothy. Strain and gently reheat cream mixture (remember, no boiling), and scoop ½ c. of the mixture out and add to the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Add the egg mix slowly back into the pan, whisking constantly. Keep stirring over gentle heat until mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon. (Conventional wisdom says to heat to 170-175 degrees. The back of the spoon thing works too.) Pour into a container with the remaining 1 c. cream and stir to combine. Cover and chill for at least three hours.   Now for the final fun! Remove the peaches and the cream mixture from the fridge, and strain the peach juice into the cream mixture, stirring to combine. Pour into ice cream maker and process according to maker’s instructions. In the last five minutes or so, add in the peaches. If your ice cream maker is almost overflowing like mine was, once the ice cream has reached the desired consistency, transfer to a freezer container and gently fold them in. Freeze the ice cream for at least two hours before eating. And then eat it. Merrily....

(un)sexy soba

By on Jul 14, 2013 in dinner, experimenting, fail... or not, process, vegetarian | 0 comments

Soba is not inherently sexy, at least not at the home cook level. In the past, I have been accused of describing food in an overly salacious, borderline obscene manner. Who am I to deny the seductive quality of a plump, juicy peach as it explodes under the fervent explorations of eager teeth? But these are noodles. Made of buckwheat flour. Even the sound of it… the hard consonants dropping out of the mouth, clattering about the ear. Buckwheat. (crash) Not sexy. But you see, there is a hidden seductive joy in the noodle. Perhaps it was implanted in my brain by a certain old Disney movie, leaving my brain to still believe that somewhere out there I will meet a scruffy fellow who will give me the last meatball and share a long, slow slurp of a last noodle, ending in a kiss. Perhaps it is simply that fact that one uses the word “slurp” a lot with noodles, and that has a certain… quality… Perhaps not. Food ricochets about the world, each culture having its own iteration of bread, pickles, soup, and of course, noodles. I love noodles. Adore them. Pasta, egg noodle, rice noodle, udon noodle… I will eat them all. As a child my mother would occasionally bust out and make egg noodles from scratch for soup. I can still see the cookie racks, carefully tented into one another, egg noodles drying over them, while my impatient little self pouted that we had to wait so long to eat them (even though in the end I always loved them more than the ones out of a bag.) When it comes to pure ingredients, there is not much to most noodle making processes. Mostly, it is about technique and time. You can definitely mess them up, some more easily than others. When I first started messing with traditional egg pasta dough, there were a few batches that ended in cursing and tears. Enter the soba noodle. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour, which is a flour with zero gluten, which means it has zero power to create the traditional stretchy dough one usually associates with a flour product. In Japan there are chefs who can do it totally with just buckwheat flour, but I imagine them to be serious men who have spent years studying with a former soba noodle master, shoulder muscles huge and taut from years of muscling about dense, gluten-free dough. I am but a woman in Chicago, lacking in years of careful culinary tutelage. I have the internet. The internet told me to add some regular flour. One day I ran across this post at The Kitchn, which is a remarkable site and a minor obsession of mine. It is how to make your own soba noodles. I had never made soba noodles or any noodle outside of European heritage. So of course I had to. I found some buckwheat flour, read the recipe through a few times, and dove in. I frowned at it, because my noodles were significantly… well… greyer than hers. My dough did not look nearly so appealing. It looked vaguely like it was meant to fill in scratches on wood surfaces. But it smelled… it smelled amazing. Straight flour has a clean scent. Whole wheat adds a bit of nuttiness to the nasal palate. But buckwheat… smelled warm. Inviting. Like it would have wrapped little buckwheat arms around me, had it the gluten content to form dough that could stretch that far out. I nibbled a bit. Even in my brief foray into kneading it, there was no trace of the nasty grittiness I normally associate with whole wheat pasta. (And no, I really do not like whole wheat pasta. It is fine in certain applications, and only a few brands don’t taste like carefully crafted sandpaper noodles, but it is no direct substitute for a classic plate of spaghetti. Not in my world. Putting my white pasta soapbox away now…)   Nothing about my noodles looked like the beautiful post I had read. They were thicker, due to my rash method of cutting, which of course I had to improvise rather than being a good person and following their recipe. And of course, because I do not have a prop kitchen or fancy prop dishes for this endeavor, just my tiny kitchen so small I had to move the rolling to my dining room table, a 1950s formica number, they were really not that sexy looking at all when I pointed my camera lens at them. I should point out that I did not use one of the two flours she recommends, I used Arrowhead Mills because it is what I could get my hands on, so it is entirely possible that I am not getting the full effect of these noodles from scratch. And yet, boiled in salted water and rinsed in cold water, just as prescribed, they were still divine. Chewy, nutty, smooth, proving the age old adage that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And it really does. I splashed in some sunflower oil, soy sauce, minced scallions, and red pepper flakes, almost entirely as described in the recipe (they call for dark sesame oil, which I did not have on hand.) Then I added on a bit fat chiffonade of shiso, a lively Japanese herb I found at the farmer’s...

tantalizing the microvilli

By on Jun 14, 2013 in cooking, dinner, experimenting | 0 comments

I have recently taken up reading a book on the subject of what really gets our human gustatory engines humming. Ostensibly, this book is about processed food, and how the sugar, salt, and fat therein are calibrated  by legions of food scientists to hit our deepest urges so we just want more and more, or at least that seems to be the trend. Fair enough. I have been known to mow down on a salty delicacy fished from the deepest recesses of a bag that crinkles just so as my fingers desperately search for that last little chip (and I must wonder if they engineer the crinkle of the bag as carefully as the food, because it is absolutely part of the sensory experience.). But this isn’t about the engineering of the chip or the bag. This is about a paragraph that basically debunked the long-held belief I have had that the tongue has different “taste zones.” Apparently, it really doesn’t. Apparently even the idea behind it was a misinterpretation. If you really want to read this paragraph, read the book and we’ll discuss. The thing that particularly caught my eye was where he talked about microvilli, tiny little hairs on each little bump on the tongue and how they were ultimately the taste receptors. And of course I tiptoed through the Wikipedia entries, and couldn’t find the word ‘microvilli’ in the taste bud entry, but plenty of info that ultimately led me to discover the term “gustatory hair,” but then I decided that was a far ickier headline than ‘microvilli’, since that word lacks association with hairs in food. And so here we are.   “Wait…” you might ask. “You were going somewhere with this? Seriously?” I am, dear reader, I am. You see, I am going to pull together sugar, salt, fat, sweet, salty, bitter, maybe even a hit of umami, if I really grasped what that meant (technically there is a description involving an aftertaste leaving a ‘furry taste’ on the roof of the mouth, but much like the gustatory hair of earlier, we are going to walk away from that for the moment so we don’t foment further negative associations.) So I give you… coy creamy cheese tortellini cooked to an al dente finish, spicy, salty Italian sausage, seductively earthy mushrooms, onions made sweet by low heat slowly coaxing forth the sugars nesting deep within their cells, a sharp bite of Parmesan, a subtle acid hit of lemon and crossing into a new realm for me, the vegetal  bitterness of broccoli rabe. (For those who have known me my whole life, they know broccoli and most cruciferous vegetables are my mortal enemy, but I accidentally ate some broccoli rabe one day at a restaurant and decided I should be a little more flexible.) And honestly… that’s actually about it. There are no fancy reductions, no little tricks, just simple ingredients combined simply and quickly. I’m sure proper chefs would have heart attacks at this, but sometimes… I only want to wash two pans. No hours of prep, just clean, fresh flavors, all mingling in a plate, each bite bringing different sensations to the table, each tickling the various taste receptors, tricking the brain into happy oblivion in a more satisfying manner than any crunchy item hatched from the labs of a major food magnate.   Tortellini for All the Microvilli Serves 4 hungry people, 6 people who have other stuff to eat as well.   1 lb. frozen cheese tortellini 1 lb. spicy Italian sausage (I get mine from Whole Foods, that makes a wickedly good one, and it’s pretty spicy… you can try sweet, but it just won’t be the same. Or you can go veggie and not use it at all) 1 lb. cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced 1/2 Vidalia or medium sweet onion, thinly wedged 1 bunch broccoli rabe, washed and roughly chopped olive oil a lemon, halved Parmesan for grating   Bring several quarts of water, salted, to a boil for the tortellini. While the water is boiling, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add in the onions and sprinkle with a generous pinch salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the onions have gotten all soft and luscious. Add in the sausage, breaking it up as much as you can while you cook it. When the sausage is almost fully cooked, add in the mushrooms. Keep stirring the whole time. Somewhere in here I am guessing your pasta water has come to a boil. Start cooking it. Keep an eye on it, since frozen pasta cooks very differently than the dried. Read the instructions on the package, since they might vary from brand to brand. You want it to be al dente. Do NOT drain fully when you are done. Trust me. Once the mushrooms look all deliciously moist and dark, taste one to test it and make sure it is fully cooked, then add in the broccoli rabe. Keep stirring until the broccoli rabe turns a vivid green. Squeeze the half a lemon over (I have decided that lemons are the most valuable thing in the world, and now add them and their brilliant acid hit to almost everything I make now) and cook for 30 more seconds. Taste again, and salt and pepper to taste. Now drain almost all of...

lamb rite of spring

By on May 21, 2013 in dinner, experimenting, fail... or not, roasting | 0 comments

One day it appeared. Spring. A warm breeze gently breathed through the windows, comfy tendrils of air wrapping themselves around bare arms. Carpets of green appearing where brown was two days earlier. Pollen flying willy nilly through the air, digging deep into the sinuses of many an allergy sufferer, causing a spike in the stock of facial tissue suppliers. So one fine day in the fresh light of spring, I decided it was time for lamb. Deciding to cook up a young, fresh animal may seem a macabre reaction, but there are some rituals of ancient times that require a lamb sacrifice. A sacrificial lamb, offered up so the seductively balmy breezes wafting through the window would be assured for a few months more. Granted, far from being a sacrificer, I was getting this from a small supplier, neatly ground and packaged, but surely that is a modern device for the old tradition of a sacrificial lamb? Surely?   This was no thought out recipe. There were no careful notations in notebooks. There was merely the heady rush of experimentation as ingredients were pulled hectically out of the fridge, making what was initially to be a simple preparation far more elaborate. A pound of ground lamb. A fistful of fresh parsley and mint. An onion, half slivered for sauteeing, the other half chopped for pureeing. A plump, heavy lemon, promising an extra burst of sun in citrus form. Parsley, mint, onion, and lemon zest were whirled in the magical food processor with a touch of olive oil until a verdant puree was made. The puree was added to the ground lamb, the whole slowly and thoroughly mixed with bare hands, herbaceous fresh scents drifting up with every knead of the hand. Meatballs so wet they were on the verge of falling apart were formed and carefully laid out on a greased cooking rack. They slid into the oven, in the ways of meatballs I have become so obsessed with. This would later prove to be problematic, but we’ll get there later. For now the rush of experimentation was overriding any form of common sense. Cumin and coriander, toasted in a small pan and ground, releasing the most delicious aromas. A single red pepper, slowly roasted until the skin bubbled and burst, then tucked away under cover to steam the charred bits away, leaving the silky sweetness only a roasted pepper can give. Pungent kalamata olives were pitted and sliced. The sliced onion was slowly reduced in olive oil to a pungently sweet stew. A pound of mushrooms were cleaned, sliced, and dropped in, salted so as to call forth their juices. The ground cumin and coriander were dropped in, making the whole pan release the smell of spice markets in far away lands. Pearl couscous was set to boil with a touch of onion and bay leaf. It was at this point the reverie was disturbed, for you see… if you did not already know it, lamb is quite the fatty little meat. I don’t mean that in any sort of denigrating way. I love fat. Used well, it tends to make the whole world taste delicious. But when you have lamb meatballs in a 400 degree oven, releasing their grease onto the hot pan below, so much that it begins to smoke intensely, you start to get billows of smoke coming out of the vent of your oven. And if you live in an apartment, you have no such thing as a hood or any sort of ventilation. You are generally lucky to have a stove from this century. The whole apartment was a little smoky, my glasses ever so slightly glazed with a film of smoky grease. Windows were thrown open, the smell of smoking fat, which is not actually that pleasant, growing larger and larger. The meatballs were left to finish, and notably shrank to half of their original size. A hesitant nibble at one of these brave explorers revealed that it had not actually absorbed any of the fatty lamby smoke that had been issuing forth earlier. It did take 12 hours to get it out of my lungs. Totally worth it, even though it took two scrubbings later on to clean the oven, that had been entirely coated in the intense spatter of the sputtering lamb fat.   After the lamb meatballs were spoken for, the rest came together swiftly. The couscous was tossed with the red peppers and kalamata olives into the skillet with the onions and mushrooms, along with a little extra of the cooking water that would hopefully help pull things together as it simmered down. An entire lemon was squeezed over the couscous and left to simmer for just a moment, just until the liquid disappeared. At the very last moment, another fistful of chopped parsley and mint were thrown in and the whole tossed about, the toasted spices mingling with the fresh green, the sharp olives getting entangled with the sweet red peppers, the venerable onions and mushrooms carrying it all. A dish was procured, a generous pile of the couscous ladled in, followed by a few choice meatballs and a few more sprinkles of freshly chopped mint. It was delicious. Especially the next day after the smoke had cleared out of my apartment and lungs.     I don’t really have a recipe for this. It really was...

springy spinach awakening

By on Apr 7, 2013 in dinner, experimenting, for one, love, vegetarian | 0 comments

  It is unclear to me how January 1st became some marker for a brand new year, particularly living here in the Midwest. All those resolutions, made giddily (or ponderously) the night previous, just inebriated enough to not notice the freezing temperatures outside. All these grand plans, fueled by this energy found solely in the idea that the year has flipped from 2012 to 2013. And then in the quite literal cold light of dawn, what you really want to do is curl up under that comforter on the couch with a cup of tea and watch reruns on television. Which is pretty much what you did the day before. You might get roused again around Groundhog’s Day, along with that lying rodent who relies solely on the random chance of sun being in the sky to tell us if we can look forward to a time sans bleak grey skies and naked brown trees. In recent winters with so little pretty blanketing snow, it just seems worse. But now… now… it is April. In the city as I walk along, there are sprigs of green pushing out from the layers of brown detritus that have been slowly decomposing all winter. Crocus are springing free, brazenly waving bright purples and yellows at the weather that still dumps into freezing at night. The tighter unfurled blooms in the middle are a floral middle finger to the cold. They are here. And with that, I say… spring is the time for resolutions, for fresh starts. And so it goes with this blog. It is spring. To put it bluntly, I want this to become something more. When I figure out what the specific definition of “more” is, it’ll be great. But for now I’m just saying “more” as in “more than once a month. The new calendar widget I installed has shamed me. So here it is. The first entry of an increasing deluge, using a brand new interface (that still bears some functionality tweaking). On the subject of spinach, so verdant, green, and full of life. Just ask Popeye. He burst with superpowers every time he sucked down a can of it. Of course, I could never go near a can of it. EW. I just like it fresh. So now the Patsy Cline is playing, the coffee is steaming in a mug next to my keyboard, and here we go. Spinach. Eggs. Two ingredients foreign to no one. I’m sure this could somehow be the opening to Eggs Florentine or some such thing, but this is far, far simpler. I have a lovely little book written by Judith Jones, the editor for the original “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It is called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” Some out there might find this a depressing thought, but don’t. Why? Sometimes you find yourself alone. Does this mean you deserve inferior food? To spend the evening meal with a beer and a bag of potato chips, noisily sucking the excess salt off your fingers, bemoaning the state of your solo moment? Absolutely not. Unless you really want that beer and potato chips. This cookbook kicked off a wave of inspiration and variations on things I could cook for me, toute seule. Simple things that felt fancy and complicated, deserving of a placemat. Enter the baked egg. I had never in my life encountered a baked egg. Having now eaten many, I feel a bit cheated. There is an absolute perfect smooth texture, the yolk elevated to the status of culinary velvet, that feels completely luxurious. From an egg. A standard egg. I could always bake an egg on its own and eat it, but that doesn’t seem a full proper meal, or any basis for experimentation. So I decided to bake the egg on a bed of spinach. Fresh spinach, cooked down into a brilliant green mass, ready to impart its green goodness. The first time I did this, I was merry, triumphantly smug in cooking down and devouring an entire bunch of spinach all by myself. How self-righteously healthy! Except for that part where about a quarter of the way in the inside of my mouth began to feel like a chalk mine. If there are chalk mines. It felt dry and tacky while eating juicy greens. What the hell? I engaged my nerd glasses (which happen to be my normal ones) and discovered that spinach has this element to it known as oxalic acid, and that particular acid is what makes solo spinach taste as if you have ground some fine sidewalk chalk into your dish. But of course, there are ways to alleviate the dry ways of this sly little acid. Lemon. Or bacon. Oh yes, that fetishized ingredient of the moment, it had more than a cosmetic purpose. On the day I discovered this, it was in one of those endless long streaks of grey that plagued Chicago this year. I wanted that comforter on the couch. Lemon just seemed like it would mock me with promises of sunshine. So of course I went with bacon. And cream. And romano cheese. Because dammit, it just needed to happen. The bacon version:   For one dish… a single slice of bacon is cut into small dice and cooked until it has become sizzling crispy red bits of porcine tastiness. They are removed to rest for...

things are sprouting

By on Mar 6, 2013 in experimenting | 0 comments

Sprouting some new ideas. And mung beans. More...