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strawberry mezcal joy

By on Jun 22, 2015 in experimenting, fail... or not, libations, love | 0 comments

Once upon a time, a tall, cold-loving woman went to Austin, Texas. She left Chicago one abnormally chilly summer morning (and it secretly made her happy it was that chilly,) boarding a plane wearing a light sweatshirt, and two hours later when she strode forth through the sliding doors of the Austin airport, the heat and humidity hit her like a fist. And it technically was not even that bad. But this woman, this woman hated heat and humidity. But she embraced it, because inside this heat was a lovely, vibrant little city, surrounded by beautiful hill country. And of course… there was food. And that woman was me. And OH did I eat that food. There was the beet hummus that looked like a painting, found at Launderette. There was straight up family style BBQ at the Salt Lick, where I spent the entire meal dancing in my seat with joy. My Wisconsin heart leapt with joy at the prevalence of queso, almost always served with homemade tortilla chips. But my primary purpose was to celebrate the impending 40th birthday of a dear friend whom I have known for 15 years. And after I told her I felt the need to create a custom cocktail in her honor, even though libations are still not my forte, she jumped and sent a list of things she wanted to experiment with. Naturally, my eye lit upon strawberry, because, well, it said strawberry. Another was mezcal. Now this gave me pause. Mezcal. While this is by no means a new spirit, it is definitely new to me. And my head always associates it with tequila, which jumps straight to an unfortunate night in college that may or may not have involved swigging Jose Cuervo straight out of the bottle, and the subsequent morning which basically sealed the notion that I would never drink tequila again. Ever. Most people have that one thing. You know you do. But the nice thing about being a grown up is that you learn, and not just how to not get drunk because LORD you can not do the hangovers anymore. I have learned that there is tequila out there that is so smooth and lovely you want nothing more than to kick back with a little tipple, get a smidge tipsy, and watch life float by. And now… mezcal. Tequila comes specifically from the blue agave, but mezcal does not. It comes from the pina, the mature heart at the center of a maguey or agave plant, and it has quite the history. In reading up on it, I realized that it is traditionally served straight, not as a part of a cocktail. It has this incredibly complex smoky flavor, which is apparently best left appreciated for what it is. There was mention of topping with ground dried larvae. That… was not going to happen. I dithered about the internet, and of course found those who, like me, were about to profane the mezcal and make it a part of the cocktail. My friend bought just a ridiculously good bottle of mezcal (it is her birthday, after all,) and we set to it. First we tried it straight up, and it was indeed a revelation. It had this smoke that just rolled right back through the palate and released, letting a deep sweetness find its way to the surface. I had found references to strawberry and mezcal, using other splashes of ingredients to deepen the strawberry so it could play nice with the smoke of mezcal. And so it began. I chopped fresh strawberries, taking in their floral scent, as I always do. I minced up basil, since it pairs so beautifully with the berry, and I thought a hint of herbaceous flavor might be nice. And I needed to sweeten it just a hair, so I added sugar. But I added brown sugar, so I could keep some darker molasses in there, something to complement the smoke. A splash of balsamic, because I always add a splash of balsamic to strawberry anything, and a generous application of heat. More than generous. I placed the pot over the burner and stirred and stirred, watching that magical event where strawberries under heat collapse into sweet, lurid red goo. And then I realized I was making jam. A judicious quantity of water was added, in an attempt to make a thick syrup. When I was fairly sure I could not get it any more saucy, I painstakingly scraped the entire thing through a strainer, so we would not have to contend with seeds or the now black little scraps of basil. And then… the mix. I wish I had used a cocktail shaker, because really, James Bond had it right with “shaken, not stirred.” Trying to mix things in the glass was… messy. The strawberry conconction kept settling. I spanked a leaf of basil. (No really, this is a thing, spanking herbs.) I carefully balanced a slice of strawberry on the edge of the wondrous glasses my friend had procured. And it was… OK. We kept added a bit here, a dab there, and ultimately discovered it got WAY better when the ice had melted a bit and things were allowed to mingle. Then suddenly that round sweetness of the strawberry basil brown sugar syrup goodness actually showed up and started getting all friendly with the mezcal,...

(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...

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...

crepes for yoda

By on Feb 15, 2013 in experimenting, fail... or not | 0 comments

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, there was a wise, squat, and vaguely green fellow named Yoda. I have loved this wrinkly denizen of a mysterious swamp world since before I could remember. His cadence is unmistakable, his wisdom timeless (and yes, I am fully aware he is a fictional brain child of George Lucas with some heavy influence from Joseph Campbell, but in my childish mind we will say he is still real.) And one day in pondering my own life path, one of his more famous musings ran through my head: “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (and if you are anything like me, you now want to rush and watch Star Wars for the 800th time right now.) There are many ways to take this, and I’m sure people have written entire tomes tearing it apart, and I’m not going to do that. Mostly because… well… this is about food. And a little about creativity. In my mind, the “try” is the part where most creatives get hung up. I know I do. Not “try” in the literal sense of actually trying something. That is technically “doing” something. “Trying” in this sense is when an idea is borne, gets mapped out a hundred different ways, twisted, turned, poked, prodded, and then stays firmly in the brain of the creator, never going anywhere, because you are so convinced from what you already know that it will never live up to your shining imaginary expectations. But guess what? It has failed before it has even been done if you do not “do.” And really? You need failure to figure the rest of the stuff out. This applies to many a thing in life, but in my little very specific world of my kitchen, it applies to my idea to make crepes in honor of Yoda. Because I “did.” And they were an epic failure. What? A cooking blog entry about failure? Isn’t everything supposed to be succulent photographs of culinary perfection that induce jealousy and numerous comments about how you should host a dinner party? Probably. But for today, not this one. One grey December day, I got to thinking about the color green. This is not a rare occurrence in the depths of a Midwest winter, particularly when winters in Chicago have devolved into something more dull and grey than fluffy and white. And yes, this led me to think of Yoda. I can’t actually explain why. Maybe some Jedi mysticism creeping into my brain? Yoda came from Dagoba, notably a rather dreary looking swamp world. With a lot of vegetation. Sure, it looks pretty grey onscreen, but I’m sure if the sun actually shone in any of those scenes it would be green. And as per usual, in the dead of winter when green seems like a distance memory, I craved greens. But I wanted more than a salad. I had notions of making crepes for months. I had dutifully bought a steel crepe pan almost a year previous, just like Julia Child’s, even taking the time to season it just as the directions prescribed. And then promptly never used it. I had visions of crepes dancing in my head, to be sure, and in that magical wonderland I was masterfully doling out the batter, flipping whole crepes with a single sharp flick of the wrist, all the while laughing gregariously and entertaining guests with my crepe mastery. So I was “trying.” But imaginary crepes, while theoretically delicious, are not that filling. And so while flipping through one of my favorite cookbooks, I came across a recipe for spinach crepes that I had made with some assistance a couple of years prior in a regular ol’ non-stick skillet (non-stick has since been banned from my kitchen.) Spinach is green. This is in crepe form. Something I have yet to “do.” Green. Yoda. Of course! I had to make lurid green spinach crepes in my fancy little steel crepe pan and stuff them with even MORE greens in honor of Yoda. This would be how I would “do!” Yes! Do! No try! Six weeks later, I finally did it. I decided to make the spinach crepes and then stuff them with a creamy mixture of cottage cheese (an idea gleaned from an episode of America’s Test Kitchen and their lasagna recipe) and sauteed kale with garlic, and then a pile of mushrooms and shallots cooked into a glistening savory earthy mass. Surely this would be delicious! A nerdy homage to Yoda in savory crepe form! Crepes Dagoba! In my mind, where I had “tried” this over and over again for the better part of a month, it seemed like a grand idea. So I “did.” I cooked down the spinach, whirred it up with eggs, flour, milk, and melted butter in my food processor, and set it to rest. Kale was ripped apart and cooked down with some garlic. I dumped a container of cottage cheese into the food processor and proceeded to whir the kale in. I added some salt. I tasted it. The first red light began to pulse in my head. I ignored it, ground in some pepper, and moved on. I threw some shallots into a skillet with some olive oil. The heat was too high. I started to burn them, panicked, and threw in...

lemony bitchet cookies

By on Jan 8, 2013 in baking, dessert, experimenting, fail... or not | 0 comments

I know, I know… “lemony bitchet cookies? What the heck do you mean?” Well, obviously there is some reference to the delightful children’s books by the fictional Lemony Snicket wherein an unfortunate batch of orphaned siblings battle and endless string of disappointments, but still I know you are thinking, “yes, yes, but isn’t that a rather lame name for a cookie? Isn’t that a little bit much of a stretch?” And I would agree. Except it was catchy sounding and more, shall we say, ‘family-friendly’ than the alternative title I gave them. Which was “When life gives you lemons… well fuck you” cookies. Uncensored. Because who are those three asterisks after the ‘f’ really going to fool? And why, you ask? Well therein lies the story. We all know the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Which is all well and good, but sometimes it seems that life is more content to fling sacks and sacks of lemons at you all at once, and even the most optimistic people at some point just want to start flinging the lemons back, because frankly that much lemonade is just bad for your dental work. And sometimes those of us who are more on the more cynical/realistic end of things want to yell out obscenities in the face of flying citrus, since all that lemonade was starting to cause cavities. And they made me think of a couple of friends of mine, who shall remain nameless, but suffice to say they had a horrible year in 2012. Flaming lemons aplenty came pouring out of the sky. A series of unfortunate events, if you will. And they are definitely of the ilk to yell obscenities back at the flaming lemons while grabbing them out of the sky and winging them back at high velocity. Yes, this does relate to the cookies, just bear with me. The cookies begat their name on a sort of cold winter’s night (sorry, Mother Nature, but this Wisconsin girl thinks you are cheating Chicago out of another winter.) I needed to make cookies that evoked lady-like airs, or at least what I imagine lady-like airs to be, as I was going to a viewing of Downton Abbey (sidebar: I beg of anyone who has already downloaded and watched the 3rd season, do NOT tell me what goes on. I prefer the mystery.) I had plans for a light and delicate shortbread, laced with lemon zest and a hint of orange blossom liqueur. I would pull out the prettily patterned Swedish cookie stamps I had and imprint them all with a pretty little floral motif. It would be grand. Butter and sugar were whipped together, a hit of vanilla here, another hit of a fancy orange blossom liqueur I had on hand (Koval Orange Blossom Liqueur, it is a fantastic local distillery on the north side of Chicago), a bit of flour, and voila! A simple, succulent little log of cookie dough that was swiftly wrapped and set in the refrigerator to chill. And then I poured myself a glass of wine. This is where things went wrong. Not the wine part. The cookie part. I pulled the log of dough out, and it sliced up just fine and dandy. But then came the stamps. I stamped one into the waiting cookie as it laid innocently on the baking sheet. It smooshed out into an irregular oval, and then decided to exact its revenge upon the cookie stamp by refusing to let go and embed raw dough into the crevices. A small bit of oil was poured out, and a pastry brush deployed to delicately oil the surface of another stamp in an attempt to thwart the clinging phenomenon. Again the oval, and this time a small oil slick, pooling in some vague indentations. Ew. I rummaged around and eventually found the original instructions, which claim you are supposed to warm the damned things first in the oven as it pre-heated. Of course at that very moment the oven dinged, signalling it had finished pre-heating. I took a long, slow pull off of my wine glass and squinted at the cookies. I decided that a more simple form was ultimately more appealing, sponged the offending pooling oil off of the few experimental stampings gone wrong, and shoved the tray in the oven, deciding that the cookie stamps were more lemony than I suspected. I wrote it off to having a Norwegian heritage, and somehow, somewhere, the cookie stamps, which are from Sweden, knew this and decided to mess with me as a part of that age old Scandinavian rivalry. Yes, that’s right, the cookie stamps are sentient. Let’s move on. But of course in the spirit of making lemonade of a lemony situation, I still felt compelled to try something else. Maybe a lovely light icing would do, made with the lemon juice of the very lemon I had just zested to put in the cookie dough. I pulled out some organic powdered sugar, and I will stop right here to say… never buy organic powdered sugar. Maybe it was the brand, maybe it was my distrust of it from the beginning, but seriously? So bad for the icing I was attempting to make, and so unbelievably clumpy and every so slightly pale grey. I dutifully sifted the powdered sugar, and squeezed the lemon in. It turned…...

another cranberry

By on Nov 23, 2011 in breakfast, experimenting, fail... or not, fruit | 0 comments

Thanksgiving. Christmas. The food part of the holiday season kicks off in earnest tomorrow. Turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, with and without marshmallows, green beans doused in condensed soup and onions that emerge from a can and yet are suspiciously supposed to be “fried,” scads of warm dense pies filled with all manner of fruit and nut. And inevitably… the cranberry. A great deal of us were introduced to cranberry sauce via the can. If you were very lucky, you could make the “sauce” slide out in one solid quivering log. More often than not it had to be scooped out into an eery dark mass that was sparingly scooped onto the plate in an obligatory holiday act, then poked and pushed around to make more room for stuffing. In more recent times the home cook has been inundated with a hundred different ways to make cranberry sauce from scratch, a task only a few steps more complicated than opening a can. This garners our ruby friend a hair more respect on the plate, but it is still competing with the stalwart old standards that are set to bust the belts of everyone seated at the table. So why not make our tart little friend something other than a side at a holiday table? Why not enjoy the cranberry for simply being… a cranberry? A tart fruit that smacks you in the face and rises above other challenging strong flavors. A fruit that cooks so easily, needing no peeling or chopping, just drop into a pot and stir while watching the skins slowly stretch and pop (much like the bellies around the holiday table.) Why not use it to top off some yogurt? Scintillating cranberries play well with the mellowed out bite of crystallized ginger. Regular sugar is too blase for the feisty little berry. Honey, now there is a sweetener worth the time of the cranberry. Enough to add a little complexity, but not so much as to take away from our ruby diva. A splash of water, a bit of time in the pan, where the cook can take delight in smashing the bursting morsels, a little bit of cooling, and voila. A simple little compote, tartness tempered by a bit of sweet, topping off smooth, lovely, cool yogurt., a base that lets the diva swim around and sing like the Esther Williams of the breakfast world. Maybe you add orange zest in, maybe orange liqueur, maybe some jalapeno, or maybe you use only the cranberry and honey, just enough to take the edge off. This cranberry sings solo, it is no backup to turkey or any other vegetable. Try it. You might like it. Cranberry Sauce Option #543 6 oz. whole cranberries 3 Tbsp. honey (my preference, use more or less if you like… start out with 2, see how you like it, go from there) app. 2 Tbsp. crystallized ginger, finely chopped 1/4 c. water   Add all the ingredients (reserve 1 Tbsp honey) into a small saucepan. Set over medium heat. Stir often, especially once the cranberries start to cook and burst in earnest. It keeps the number of messes from the cranberry explosion down. Cook until all the berries have burst (making sure to take some childish joy in smooshing some of them against the walls of the saucepan.) Taste for sugar, add more if you like. Let cool to room temperature. Plop a good spoonful onto a bowl of straight up plain yogurt (or vanilla, if you don’t like plain.) Stir it up, enjoying the pink swirl. Add as much or as little as you want.   Notes: You will definitely notice the chunks of ginger, which will sort of turn jellyish when cooking. I might consider either pureeing this for real in a blender before adding, or trying ground ginger in place of the crystallized. It also might be good with a bit of a liqueur. I am not overly fond of cranberry and orange, although it does work well, but adding orange zest or Grand Marnier would likely work wonders in here, too. And I was totally serious about adding jalapeno. But that… that is another recipe....