Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Banana Muffins with Crystallized Ginger

I know, it's been a week -- a long time to go incommunicado in blog-land. I swear, I have a good reason: I'm busy! Very, very, busy. Also? Very, very stressed: lots of decision-making looms ahead, and being the type of person that can't even decide what to eat for lunch most days means that making real decisions is extremely difficult. But I asked for it, and it's the best type of decision-making to do, choosing between wonderful things. It could be much worse. Good thing I had some banana-nut muffins to soothe me through last week; without them, I would have simply melted under the pressure.
I mentioned this when I made the Red Fire Brownies, but I'll say it again: although I'm not the type of person to throw a recipe together from scratch, by my lonesome (with plenty of references, I admit) I'm trying to work on that. I want to be confident in the kitchen, and confidence requires experimentation -- at least in this case. So after making those delicious, almost-fudge brownies, I had to forge ahead and try another recipe of my own creation. It didn't hurt that the brownies were a complete success. I'd been eying Molly's delicious-sounding "Glenn's Banana Bread with Chocolate Chips and Candied Ginger" for quite some time, but I wasn't that interested in a bread. I wanted something more compact, something easy to eat with one hand while walking to work in the morning, something that required only four large bites to consume. I wanted a muffin. Muffins are one of my favorite types of baked goods, aside from popovers, scones, croissants -- oh, I can't pick a favorite. I like all baked goods equally, especially those made for consumption in the morning, when the dew hasn't yet dried and the air is heavy with promise. But don't get me wrong: these muffins are just as delicious at midnight as they are at six in the morning: they've got a perfect, crunchy exterior that lifts away to reveal a moist, chocolate-filled interior. Crumbs are non-existent: you'll gobble what little there is of them right up, using the last bite of muffin to squeeze them off of your plate. They're absolutely delicious, and I'm not kidding when I say that you'll make a batch and soon regret not doubling or tripling the batter. The chocolate and nuts are ordinary additions to most banana muffins (or to banana bread, for that matter) but the ginger brings out the sweetness of the chocolate and provides a wonderful contrast to the bits of walnuts strewn about in the muffin. These three ingredients dot the inside of the muffin with an array of pleasing tastes and textures, and the banana provides a smooth underlying note of sweetness, enveloping the entire muffin with a mildly fruity, pleasing taste.

Banana Nut Muffins with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger
Begin by bringing all ingredients to 70º. This prevents them from seizing up when they're mixed together. Cold eggs, especially, tend to "freak out" when they're beaten with sugar and butter, making your batter tough. Besides, it's nearly impossible to cream cold butter: I dare you to try it. If you succeed, your muffins won't: they'll turn out rough and brittle, scattering crumbs every which way while you try to eat the darn things.
Preheat the oven to 400º and grease a muffin tin with six spots. This recipe makes only six glorious muffins, which is why I recommend doubling or even tripling the size; however, I'd caution against using just one muffin tin for multiple batches without cooling it down completely between sets. These have just the right amount of crunch in their crust, and putting the batter into a hot pan would give them too much of a hard outer shell, in my opinion.
Now we're ready to get our hands dirty. Start by creaming 1/2 a cup of sugar with 1/2 a stick of butter (that's 1/4 cup for all of you with fancy butter like mine) and 1 large egg. In a separate bowl, mash 1 large, ripe banana and stir in 1-1/2 tablespoons of milk. Speaking of ripe bananas, you can take ripened (to the point of nearly rotten) bananas and chuck them right into the freezer until you're ready to bake with them. Simply remove them from the freezer a bit before you're going to bake and allow them to thaw. The fruit will slide right out of the jacket in a slippery mess. Once they are completely thawed, the bananas are very easy to mash.
In a third bowl, sift together 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 a teaspoon baking powder, and 1/4 a teaspoon baking soda. Mix half of the flour mixture into the creamed butter, sugar, and egg; then, add the bananas and milk and stir until just combined. Stir in the remaining flour. Be sure not to overmix the batter -- that makes the resulting muffin tough and unappetizing. Once the batter is combined, fold in 3 tablespoons of crystallized ginger, reserving an additional tablespoon to top the muffins, along with 1/3 a cup of chopped walnuts and 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips. I used Ghirardelli bittersweet chips with fantastic results -- they've got a slightly flowery taste and are cloyingly mellow. Next time I make these, however, I'm going to use another Vosges bar: Black Pearl, which has hints of ginger and wasabi. As you may know, I am partial to chopped chocolate -- chips are too uniform for my taste -- and I'm excited to try another one of these delectable savory/sweet chocolate combination bars with these muffins, which are already crammed to the gills with flavor. I only hope that it isn't too overpowering.
After folding in the nuts, chips, and ginger, spoon the batter into your muffin cups. Be sure to fill them nearly to the brim: I like the tops of muffins best of all, and you can only achieve a tasty, puffy top by nearly overfilling the muffin cups. Top the muffins with a sprinkle of sugar and a healthy pinch of crystallized ginger. Bake in the 400º oven for about 25 minutes, removing when they just begin to brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few stray crumbs clinging to its sides. Allow to cool for 5 minutes while still in the pan, then remove and finish cooling on a wire rack. They're absolutely drop-dead-delicious with coffee or tea, by the way.
You can purchase crystallized ginger, also known as candied ginger, at many stores. Spice Island even offers it in a spice jar for your convenience, which means that it's easy to procure at nearly every grocery store. If you're not interested in paying ten dollars for a miniature jar of ginger and you're not able to get to a Trader Joe's or a Whole Foods -- they both sell it for less than Spice Island, naturally -- you can try making your own. It's similar to the process I discussed in the comments section of the Red Fire Brownies for candying hot peppers.
Purchase some fresh ginger at your supermarket. Be on the lookout for thin, tender, evenly-skinned ginger that smells pleasant and feels firm. Spongy ginger should be avoided. Purchasing about 10 ounces of ginger will yield 6 ounces of crystallized ginger, which works out to 12 full tablespoons -- and 12 tablespoons will not seem like enough once you start using the stuff. It can be stored, though, in a cool dry place, so making more than necessary is definitely a good idea. Carefully peel the ginger and remove any rough or darkened spots. In addition, cut off any of the knobs and reserve to use in a separate dish. Cut into long, thin strips -- about 2 inches by 1/8 of an inch -- and poke holes in the flesh with a sharp knife. Place the slices in a bowl filled with 2 cups of sugar and toss to coat.
Heat a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add 1 tablespoon of water to the hot pan. Pour in the ginger and sugar and bring it up to a very low simmer. Keep your eye on the stuff for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Don't allow it to boil; keep the mixture at a very low simmer and on a relatively low heat. After an hour has passed, lower the heat and allow the mixture to simmer again, stirring all the while and separating the slices from one another with your spoon. Soon, the mixture will begin to crystallize and become thick; a rim of sugar will collect around the sides of the pan. The mixture will start to bubble over the surface, at which point you must stir to prevent the mixture from caramelizing. Don't allow the sugar to caramelize -- if it does, you've gone too far and the ginger will be unusable. Stir until the syrup is mostly crystals and you can gather the sugar in the center of the pan in a mound without much liquid escaping. At this point, remove from the heat and continue to toss as it cools, being sure that the slices stay separated. The ginger should separate from the sugar at this point. Lay the ginger on a clean cookie tray or on a plate to cool and store in a dark, dry place.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Well, St. Patrick's day has come and gone, and since I wasn't about to eat two corned beefs this year -- a test recipe and then some on the actual day, although D would have jumped for joy -- I wasn't able to post this recipe before the actual holiday. So sue me -- it's late, but better late than never. I suppose I could have live-blogged the whole thing, but... corned beef just isn't that interesting. It's pretty basic: throw some spices and a lump of beef into a pot, add some water, and simmer. For hours. See, not a very wild and crazy event that necessitates live-blogging -- lots of down time and wasted minutes peering into a pot of meat. But the results are fabulous, about what you'd expect from boiling four pounds of beef for three hours, so it's certainly something worth making. We selected a 3-pound brisket made by Vienna Beef.
Vienna Beef is one of Chicago's true treasures. They claim to have invented the Chicago hot dog, which is the best type of hot dog in the entire universe: an all-beef kosher dog, eight to the pound, nestled in a poppyseed bun and topped with yellow mustard, chopped onion, neon relish, tomato wedges, a whole pickle spear, celery salt, and sport peppers. If you want to see a handy, clickable chart (which has an error: ketchup is not permitted on Chicago-style dogs no matter what you say, Vienna Beef People, and I know this as fact: Hot Diggity Dogs, one of my favorite hot dog shacks, has a pretty strict rule about this that necessitates a stern warning sign) head on over to Vienna Beef's Periodic Table of Hot Dog Elements. I promise this now: I will force D to do a guest post on hot dogs, done up proper Chicago-style, sometime in the near future. They're one of his favorite things about Chicago, and for good reason. Anyhow, Vienna Beef is also good for other meat-based and meat-related products, such as corned beef. Did you know, by the way, that the corned beef we know and love isn't what they eat in Ireland? Surprise! It's been Americanized! While we cure our corned beef by brining or pickling it, the traditional method was to cure it by rubbing a side of pork using large grains -- or corns -- of salt. So the dish is very different than traditional Irish fare, which is more like boiled bacon. Do you want to try and make that? Be my guest: check out this wonderful recipe for authentic "corned beef" -- they call it Boiled Bacon -- at EuropeanCuisines.com. But that's not what we made: I was raised on American Corned Beef, and that's what I have to have in my kitchen on St. Patrick's Day.
One of the best things about cooking corned beef is that it's a one-pot recipe, which I always enjoy. Instead of mucking around with the entire stove, four pots boiling away, you only need one large pot for this recipe. We used our lobster pot, which isn't good for much but taking up room in the cabinet -- it's got a very thin bottom -- but it's perfect for boiling a large hunk of meat. You'll need at least an 8-quart stockpot for this recipe, but the larger your pot is, the better your dish will be: more water means more leftover stock, which can turn ordinary rice, couscous, soups, and stews into phenomenal culinary masterpieces.

Corned Beef and Cabbage
Begin by rinsing one corned beef brisket -- we chose one that was 3 pounds -- and place it in your stockpot, fatty side up. You need a stockpot that's at least 8 quarts. Make five to eight deep X marks in the beef using a sharp knife. Insert 2 to 3 whole cloves in some of the X's and 5 whole cloves of peeled garlic into the remaining X-marks. Our beef had slightly too many cloves in it -- we used four whole cloves total -- and I'd recommend only using two for better results. Cover the meat with water until the meat is about three inches below the water level (we used about 12 cups of water total).
Add spices: the Vienna Beef recipe requires 1/2 a teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning, which isn't something I keep on hand, so I improvised. Old Bay is just a blend of spices, typically made with bay leaves, dry mustard, celery salt, ground black and white pepper, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, ginger, paprika, crushed red pepper flakes, mace, cardamom, and salt, so it's fairly easy to replicate. I simply put a dash of whatever I had in my pantry from that list (see photograph) and the resulting blend was intoxicating. In addition to the Old Bay seasoning, add 2 cinnamon sticks (again: don't keep those in my house, but I probably should: a simple shake of cinnamon worked just fine) along with 2 bay leaves and 8 whole peppercorns.
Slice two large carrots and one stalk of celery into 2-inch long chunks and add those to the pot as well. Now that all of the major ingredients are in the pot, add some heat. Bring the entire thing to a boil and skim off any of the foam that rises to the top of the water, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for two to three hours, until the meat is tender, then add vegetables.
We used cabbage, of course, and simply quartered one large head into manageable chunks. In addition, we threw in about 1-1/2 pounds of scrubbed baby red potatoes, skin on; 4 parsnips, peeled and sliced into 1-inch chunks; 2 turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes; and 1 pound of carrots, peeled and chopped into 2-inch pieces. When you have about 30 to 45 minutes remaining, add the vegetables to the pot and simmer until they're tender. The beef should be 160º before serving, and will still look pink when served.
The best thing about corned beef and cabbage has got to be the leftovers. Not only do you end up with a fantastic stock, you'll undoubtedly have at least some meat leftover. It's perfect in sandwiches, delicious when cut into small cubes and fried with potatoes into corned beef hash, and is a great appetizer when served with capers and mustard. Of course, a cold corned beef sandwich is the perfect way to get rid of any remaining meat: simply throw some on a roll with a generous slather of mustard and top with leftover cabbage.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Red Fire Brownies

Ever since Valentine's day, when D got me those spectacular Vosges truffles, I've been itching to bake with some of their specialty chocolate. They make all sorts of flavors: Red Fire, a kicking combination of Mexican ancho and chipotle chili peppers with Ceylon cinnamon; d'Oliva, Venezuelan white chocolate spiked with dried kalamata olives; Calindia, a rich, dark chocolate bar infused with green cardamom, organic walnuts, and flecked with dried bits of plum. They're expensive -- $7.00 a bar -- but the price is worth it. The second we walked into the store, we were greeted by the only saleswoman, who then proceeded to bring out plates filled with chocolate nibs, trays of chocolate matzos, and crumbly bits of spicy cookies. Every time we glanced at something on the shelf, we were offered a taste -- which meant that we ate about $5.00 worth of chocolate during our short stay.
We settled on one bar and one bag of chocolate chips, which contains an extra ounce of chocolate for a mere $1.50 more. I wanted to make some ultra decadent, fiery brownies, and three ounces of chocolate just wasn't going to be enough. Obviously, we chose the Red Fire chips: a compact white bag of chocolate discs that smelled hot before the bag was even opened. The bar that we bought is Black Pearl (an intensely dark, spicy brick of chocolate, ginger, wasabi, and sesame seeds) which I'll be using on another batch of banana nut muffins with chocolate chips and candied ginger -- stay tuned for that delicious post. I've never made more successful muffins. Ever. And I'm extremely excited to notch up their flavor even more with the black pearl chocolate.
As I mentioned, the Red Fire chocolate is a rich, dark chocolate -- vegan and gluten free, by the way -- that contains flecks of both ancho and chipotle chili peppers. The moderate cacao content of this particular chocolate (55%) makes it less intensely bitter than, say, their Oaxaca chocolate, which is also made with chili peppers but contains a much lower percentage of sugar. I find their Oaxaca flavor a bit bland, as a matter of fact -- the amount of sugar really contrasts with the chilies in the Red Fire, heightening the sensation that one is eating something simultaneously sweet and hot. In the Oaxaca blend, the lower ratio of sugar to spice kind of dulls that sensation. The texture, too, of the Red Fire bar is superior to any other chocolate I've tasted. The chilies are carefully crushed, and they bring a layer of roughness to the smooth chocolate. This roughness didn't translate into the brownies, exactly, but the spiciness certainly did. I would have liked to have added some more chili peppers directly into the batter -- the chips come with a recipe for BB Brooklyn Red Fire Brownies that includes freshly ground Guajillo chilies (along with 10 whole ounces of the Red Fire chocolate, a huge amount compared to my recipe, which contains a paltry 4 oz.) -- but I didn't have those peppers on hand, and I wasn't going to make a separate trip for one teaspoon of chili peppers. Besides, I was trying my hand at creating my own brownie recipe, a task that I believe was extremely successful. While I do love experimenting in the kitchen, I'm often afraid to deviate too far from any given recipe, especially when I'm baking. This weekend, though, was a nice break from that standard: I hauled out eight or ten cookbooks and compared all the brownie recipes (as well as all the muffin recipes, for those aforementioned banana muffins) and was able to concoct a recipe of my very own. It was quite simple, actually: especially for something like brownies or muffins, the recipes are all going to be about the same. There are slight differences in the amount of eggs and sugar, sure, and the temperatures and cooking times are bound to be different, but it's not too difficult to pull apart the pieces and end up with something that works. So, without further ado: Red Fire Brownies. And as a quick aside: if you can't find Vosges Chocolate in your area (it's a Chicago-based brand, with few stores outside of the Chicago area: there's one in New York City, London, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Las Vegas) it's available to purchase online at their website: http://www.vosgeschocolate.com/. They recommend using 2-day air shipping, however, because the chocolates may melt in transit, so be ready to pay a good deal for shipping. Or! You could always ask me to pick some up for you and send it out: I'm more than happy for an excuse to go back to their store. If you're in the Chicago area, I urge you to stop by: they have a Michigan Ave. location at 520 North, which is small but has everything edible that they sell in stock, and the staff is both knowledgeable and extremely friendly. There's also a larger store at 951 W. Armitage in Lincoln Park, which stocks clothing and yoga gear in addition to the chocolates.

Red Fire Brownies
This is a fairly simple brownie recipe that requires little beyond melting some chocolate and butter, stirring it into a few eggs and sugar, and adding just a bit of flour and a few handfuls of nuts to round everything out. The results, though, are far from mundane: using the red fire chocolate and adding an additional swig of cinnamon and cayenne pepper makes these brownies deliciously complex, with a crunchy outer shell and a gooey, fudge-like center. The addition of two eggs makes the batter even gooier than a standard brownie, which creates a pool of spicy chocolate that quite literally melts in your mouth. Eating them warm only enhances the sensation that you're doing something terribly, terribly naughty, but they're just as good chilled -- and they stay together much better after they've cooled completely. I imagine the perfect dessert would be one of these brownies topped with a heaping scoop of cinnamon ice cream, drowned in extra melted chocolate, and garnished with a single dried red pepper.
Before you begin working with the ingredients, remove two eggs from the fridge and preheat the oven to 350º. You want the eggs to be at about 70º before you begin baking; otherwise, they'll begin to cook when you add the warm chocolate to the egg mixture. You will cool down the chocolate a bit before adding it to the batter, so this isn't too dire; however, if you forget to remove the eggs from the fridge in time, simply bathe them in a bowl of warm water for about 5 to 10 minutes until they're no longer chilly to the touch.
Begin by melting 4 ounces of Vosges Red Fire chocolate chips with 1/2 a cup of butter cut into squares. Do this over a double boiler. If you don't own a double boiler, make your own by placing a glass or metal bowl on top of a saucepan filled halfway with water. Just be sure that your homemade double boiler works properly by not allowing the bottom of the bowl to touch the top of the water. Another good double-boiler tip is to make sure that the water doesn't actually boil: you don't want to make your chocolate hotter than about 115º, so be careful when you heat the pot. Good chocolate melts at about 93º -- just below body temperature -- so it's not essential to heat it up that much to get it to melt properly. Melting chocolate isn't as easy as it seems: you can't get it too hot, as I mentioned, because that will begin to separate the cocoa solids from the cocoa butter, streaking the chocolate gray and making it grainy and unappetizing. Also, you must take great care to never allow any moisture to touch the chocolate as it melts: this is one reason that you shouldn't boil the water in the double-boiler: steam will rise and hit the chocolate, causing it to seize up and behave as if it was overheated.
Once most of the chocolate pieces have melted, remove the bowl from the hot saucepan and discard the water so that any remaining steam won't permeate the chocolate. It will continue to melt even after it has been removed from the heat source, so don't be alarmed if there are some small chunks of chocolate swimming about: like I mentioned before, you want to err on the side of cool chocolate rather than chocolate that's been overheated. Allow the mixture to cool -- if you add it to the eggs and sugar while it's still hot, your brownies will turn out heavy and dry rather than rich and gooey.
While the chocolate cools, rapidly beat two eggs and a pinch (less than 1/4 teaspoon) of salt in a large bowl with a whisk, until the mixture is light and foamy. At this point, I also added two shakes of cinnamon and two shakes of cayenne pepper. To the foamy eggs, gradually add 1 cup of white sugar -- I like to use superfine sugar. In baking, sugar is technically a liquid ingredient, and the finer it is, the less likely you are to end up with grainy bits in your brownies. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and continue to whisk until the mixture is smooth.
With just a few quick strokes of the spoon, mix in the melted chocolate. Even if you use an electric mixer for everything, this recipe is best mixed by hand -- not literally, of course, but by using a spoon or spatula -- because using a mixer can easily lead to over-beating. Before the mixture is entirely combined and becomes a uniform color, fold in 1/2 a cup of sifted flour. Folding the mixture carefully is a key to creating the right texture brownie. Before the mixture is entirely combined again, add 1/2 a cup of chopped nuts -- walnuts are a wonderful addition to any brownie, and in this recipe they add a wholesome flavor and welcome texture to an otherwise bold kick of fudge-like chocolate. You could also add 1 to 2 teaspoons of chopped dried red chili pepper at this point, which I will certainly do the next time I make these.
Bake at 350º for 25 to 30 minutes -- mine needed the entire time -- in a 9-inch round pan or an 8x8 inch square pan. Check out this handy pan size conversion chart for more pan sizes you could use at baking911.
Pan size, by the way, is very important when baking: using a smaller pan will result in brownies that are over or under cooked, too flat or too puffy, and can create a disaster out of a perfectly great recipe. When they're cooked, remove from the oven (they should still yield to pressure, however -- you want a soft brownie, not a brick) and allow them to cool for 10 to 20 minutes in the pan, then remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack, if possible -- my brownies were much too gooey when warm, even after 20 minutes cooling, but I was impatient and they were certainly cooked through. I love eating brownies straight from the oven. These brownies in particular are a treat to eat while hot because it adds another layer to the spice and heat. And the chili peppers? Wonderful. Addictive, even. They really make the chocolate taste richer and sweeter than you could imagine. I only wish they had even more of a kick -- perhaps next time I'll throw in a few more shakes of cayenne pepper and a few minuscule squares of chili to really spice things up.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Fried Yukon Gold Potato Chips

This isn't revolutionary, by any means, but it's thrilling: last night, we made our own potato chips. Ever since last week, when I made those scrumptious scallion cakes, I've been chomping at the bit to get frying. It's exhilarating, frying food: not only does it make a glorious mess, the result is addictive. I couldn't stop thinking about those scallion cakes -- their crunchy edges, their soft middles, their bold flavor... see, now I want some this instant! But the key to those little buggers is that they are fried: you could fry a shoe and it wouldn't taste half-bad. But when you fry something that already tastes good -- say, Yukon Gold Potatoes -- the result is nearly always to die for. Oh, I know, it's bad for you. Very, very bad. But once in awhile? It's ok -- especially since I don't usually eat fried food when I go out. That's sort of a lie, but we don't even stock potato chips in our apartment anymore. And I haven't eaten McDonald's in months -- I suppose this isn't something that I should be too proud of, but I live in America. There are always at least three McDonald's within walking distance, no matter where I am. I can see one from my office window, for crying out loud: fried food is everywhere. At least I'm making these potatoes myself, so I have some kind of control over the whole thing. We dried the chips pretty thoroughly and didn't salt them too heavily, which are two things that you could rarely ever say about fried food you get in a restaurant, fast food or otherwise.
So, to satisfy my craving for both eating and making fried food, we sliced up two round Yukon Gold potatoes and got to frying yesterday as a nice peppered roast broiled in the oven. It's fairly easy to fry things: all you need is a semi-deep frying pan, a set of tongs, and oil. We used Crisco vegetable oil, which is made from soybeans. Soybean oil has a very high smoke point* -- of about 440º -- which makes it ideal for deep-frying. The concept of smoke points is an essential one to master, especially if you frequently use fats while cooking. It refers to the point at which the fat (usually oil or butter) begins to smoke, which indicates that it is beginning to break down and is no longer good to consume. Essentially, when a fat reaches its smoking point, it burns and becomes unusable. Therefore, a higher smoke point allows one to heat the oil to a temperature that ensures quick, easy, and successful frying. Soybean oil is also wonderful to fry with because it has a mild taste and virtually no discernible flavor, allowing you to fry more delicate foods without fearing that their unique taste will be lost in the process. This is especially true with something like potato chips, which I like to cut extremely thin: they'll still taste like potatoes if you fry them in a mild oil, even if they're skinnier than a sheet of paper.

Fried Yukon Gold Potato Chips
Speaking of cutting the potatoes, D and I tried a new method yesterday, and it was fairly successful. Since we didn't want to stand in the kitchen all day, we decided to only fry two Yukon Gold potatoes, on the large side -- this whole debacle was a test, really, of our frying prowess, especially since I didn't let D participate very much when I made the scallion cakes. We each took a potato and tried separate methods. I did a standard knife-chop while D put our new box-grater to the test: it has three razor-like cuts along one side, sort of like a low-end vertical mandoline. Well, not exactly, but that's the closest thing I can imagine. If you own a box-grater, you'll know what I'm talking about. Anyhow, since this was a new kitchen item, D couldn't resist gliding a potato over it to see exactly how it would slice. It worked fairly well, although the potato was a bit large and kept getting caught on the second blade, and the slices weren't very uniform looking. Some of them were a bit raggedy for my tastes, but that didn't really effect the outcome, so it was fine. I would recommend using a real mandoline or just chopping by hand, though -- it seemed like more trouble than it was worth, especially given the results.
After chopping the potatoes, we poured about 1/2 to 3/4 cups of soybean oil into a frying pan over medium heat. We let the oil sit on the burner until it was wavy and shimmering, then we added about seven slices of potatoes to the oil. They began frying immediately, bubbling and jumping about recklessly. About 2 minutes in, we flipped them over with the tongs and allowed them to cook until both sides were beautifully golden -- about five minutes, total (2 minutes on the first side and 3 on the second.) Since the potatoes are essentially dunked and bathed in the hot oil, there's no need to watch them obsessively to make sure that both sides brown evenly -- the one flip should ensure a pretty even coloring. When they looked crispy, we removed them, one at a time, from the oil and allowed the excess to drip back into the pan. Then, we transferred them to a plate on two paper towels, sprinkled a tiny bit of salt over them, and placed three more towels on top of the potatoes. I patted them dry while D added the next batch to the oil. It took about 30 minutes to complete the entire batch (we got lazy at the end, a bit, and added many more than 7 to the oil) but the labor was well worth it. It was the perfect amount of chips for two people, and I found myself hankering for more. But I'm good -- I had a banana instead. See? Eating fried food doesn't totally ruin you! Especially if you follow it with fruit.
Wow: I just had a thought: fried fruit. Everybody wins!

*For more information on smoke points of other fats, visit this article at Cooking for Engineers, which is one of my favorite cooking websites. Check out the handy conversion window in the top right corner!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Irish Soda Bread

The Joy of Cooking should be in every kitchen -- although some of the techniques and recipes are extremely outdated (I don't know anyone who really needs instructions on how to properly skin a seal and save the blubber) most of the information is relevant to the modern cook. It's especially helpful if you're looking for a basic recipe to build upon: their soup chapter, for example, is fabulous and offers unlimited opportunity to tweak and refine, which is something I often do in the kitchen. I'm especially partial to their chapter on Breads and Coffee Cakes, especially the Quick Breads section. In fact, most of their baking instructions are both simple and methodical, offering opportunity to experiment but retaining the essentials. Baking is basically chemistry, and I'm always concerned that a key part of my experiment will go awry if I deviate too much, but nothing that I've ever made from this cookbook has turned out wrong.
I mentioned their Quick Breads section, and I have to say that I'm quite averse to using yeast in doughs. It's not because I don't like it, per say, it just seems kind of frightening to me. I've branched out a bit recently: I've been making some pizza dough with surprising success that contains yeast, and I'm going to try a real loaf of bread at some point in the near future. I must conquer my fear of baking with yeast! I love baking, though, and I love breads, so I've made a whole slew of these quick breads from Joy. They're easy, fast, and most of them don't include yeast. Score! I always have success with their Zucchini Bread, and their Banana Bread recipe is great (although a bit boring, considering that there are banana breads out there that sound much more enticing. Ones with candied ginger and coconut. Hold me!) I have yet to try many of these quick loafs, however: honey bread, Sally Lunn (described as light and brioche-like) or Gugelhupf (which has white raisins in it!)
Last year for St. Patrick's day we made their quick Irish Soda bread, and it was both simple and fantastic. We'll certainly make it again this year, but with a few minor tweaks: I recall it being a bit bland. I will probably use a combination of butter and shortening instead of just shortening and I'll put in an extra pinch or two of sugar and salt. Also, this time I'll use real buttermilk: I have a habit of mixing white vinegar with regular milk to make buttermilk (did you know this trick? It works, but it's not as great -- at all -- as pure buttermilk. Simply add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to each 1 cup milk and stir. Allow it to sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes until the milk thickens: instant buttermilk!) I'll probably throw in an extra handful of raisins (which the recipe calls for instead of currants, a more traditional ingredient in Irish soda bread) and a few more caraway seeds for good measure. On the whole, though, this bread was extremely easy to make and has a wonderful texture. It's pretty hearty, and the recipe makes a gigantic loaf, so I might split it in half this time around: an 8-inch-round loaf that rises a few inches is a lot of bread for two people.

Quick Irish Soda Bread
Begin by preheating the oven to 375º and greasing an 8-inch round loaf pan. I always use a springform pan when I bake, not because it's any easier to deal with (although it is much easier to remove the bread from the pan!) but because I own three of them, in varying sizes. They were on sale and cost less than just buying one! How fortuitious. I recommend using a springform pan if you have one, because as I said before: it makes removing the bread extremely easy, but it's not necessary: a normal loaf pan should do just fine. Keep in mind, though, that the traditional way to serve Irish soda bread is in a round. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it's the traditional shape. Most likely because it's an easy shape to make. In case you were wondering, there are two types of traditional Irish soda bread: the round, which is crossed on the top in order to allow the loaf to expand, and a flat variety, called farl, which is found only in Northern Ireland.
As the oven preheats, mix together the following dry ingredients: 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour, 1-1/2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon sugar. As I said above, I may tweak this a bit, adding an extra pinch or two of the sugar and salt the next time around. I'm not sure, though -- I'm always afraid to mess with recipes like this! It's hard for me to tell what parts of it are integral to the "chemistry" aspect of baking and what parts are more malleable.
The next part of this recipe calls for chilled shortening, which is always a bit of a bugger. I keep my shortening in the pantry -- cool, but not chilly, by any means. So when I have to chill it, I simply measure the amount I need and pop it in the freezer for a few minutes until it's cold. In this case, I'll measure out 1/4 cup of shortening. After it's sufficiently chilly, cut it into the flour with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles cornmeal. As you probably guessed, I use my KitchenAid stand mixer for this and have never had any issues. What a great friend that little monster is! After the dough looks crumbly enough, add 1/2 a cup to 1 cup raisins (err on the side of too many, folks) and 2 teaspoons caraway seeds -- again, maybe 2 heaping teaspoons. On the side, mix together 1 egg and 2/3 a cup of buttermilk. Add to the dry ingredients and combine, but do not overmix. Overmixing causes the dough to be tough, resulting in a funny texture. Once the mixture is just combined, place the dough on a surface and knead, lightly, until the dough is smooth (or as smooth as it can possibly be, what with all the raisins and caraway seeds that are in there.) Place the dough in your greased pan and press down so it fills the pan entirely. With a knife, cut a "bold cross" in the top of the loaf -- this helps the bread expand and prevents cracking -- and brush the entire top with milk. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the loaf has risen and is lightly browned.
This bread is an excellent accompaniment to stew or soup and is a delightful morning treat. It has to be eaten fairly quickly -- within two or three days -- due to the small air pockets in the loaf (formed by the reaction of the baking powder with the buttermilk, which has lactic acid in it) but you can stretch its life by toasting slices for breakfast.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Potato and Green Olive Stew

I'm back from the dead! Well, back, at least -- I feel quite close to not-alive, as a matter of fact. Although the weekend was wonderful and super relaxing (as well as warm! I think Spring is finally here!) I had one of those nights where my eyes just wouldn't stay shut. So Spring Break begins in exhaustion, for me. It's really a pity that they don't give us a little time off at the library, although I suppose I can't really complain: I get to come in almost two hours later than usual.
This past weekend spring was in the air, as I mentioned, and we couldn't think of a better way to welcome it into our home than opening all the windows, scrubbing everything down, and preparing a fresh springy stew. D chose this one, and I must admit that I was wary at first. Olives and lemons with potatoes? Sounded weird to me. I was imagining a very briny, bitter tasting mush. Boy, was I wrong. I mean seriously, seriously wrong: this stew was far from bitter or briny. It didn't have an acidic taste at all; in fact, it was extremely mild, with just a hint of spiciness. And the potatoes were fabulous -- they made up most of the stew, really. It wasn't much of a stew, since there is less than one cup of water in the whole dish; instead, it was more like a vegetarian goulash. I can't wait to try some of it cold -- I feel like the flavors will really stand out more solidly after it has chilled, and I'm sure that the remaining liquid will turn into a wonderful starchy mush, coating the potatoes and olives splendidly.

Potato and Green Olive Stew
This stew only takes about 40 minutes on the stove, from start to finish, which makes it a really easy dinner to whip up. Unfortunately, you have to marinate the olives for a few hours before beginning -- outside of the fridge -- so that adds a big chunk of time to the preparation of this stew. I suppose you could set them on the counter right when you get home from work if you're planning on a late dinner; alternatively, they would be fine if you left them to sauce around in the fridge for a day in the lemon juice. The marinating part is extremely simple: mix 1/2 a pound (8 oz.) of cracked green olives with 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and allow to rest on the counter, stirring occasionally, for at least three hours. Cracked green olives shouldn't be too hard to find: they're usually at the olive bar and are fresher than those that come in a jar or a can. They're unpitted and scored along the sides (cracked) in order to allow the marinade to seep into them more readily. You should not use pitted olives for this recipe: the pit helps the olive hold its shape when you add it to the stew. Without the pit, it would most likely break apart and become mushy, absorbing all the flavors without retaining its essential oliveness.
Now that the olives are marinating, you're free for a few hours. If you're anything like D and I, however, you'll stay in the kitchen to prepare the rest of your ingredients. Besides, peeling and cutting three pounds of red baby potatoes into 1/3-inch-thick slices takes a bit of time. We soaked them in cold water to prevent them from turning brown or mushy, and drained them when we were ready to add them to the stew. We also chopped two medium-sized yellow onions (to make two cups diced onions, total) and 3/4 a pound plum tomatoes -- diced as finely as possible after removing the seeds and liquid. The tomatoes, by the way, are an essential part of this dish. Until we added the tomatoes, I remained skeptical about this whole affair; after the tomatoes were added, the stew finally started to look like something I wanted to eat.
Once the olives have marinated for at least three hours, heat 1/3 a cup of olive oil in a large, heavy stew pot until it begins to shimmer and wave. Add the two cups diced onions at this point and sauté for five minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should be translucent, not burned, when they are ready. To the onions, add 1-1/4 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika, 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Stir to coat, then add the drained potatoes, marinated olives, and lemon juice that the olives were marinating in to the pot. Stir again until the ingredients and spices are blended.
Add 1-1/2 cups of water and bring the mixture to a boil. The water level won't seem high enough, but don't worry: once you add the tomatoes, the dish will become appropriately saucy and stew-like. After the water boils, reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook until the potatoes are tender -- about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of your potato slices -- stirring occasionally. After the potatoes are tender, add the 3/4 pound diced plum tomatoes and stir. Continue to simmer until the flavors have blended together, which doesn't take long: about ten minutes should do it. Season with a pinch of salt and serve with a lemon wedge and a small dish for the olive pits to rest in. D and I discussed the possibility of removing all the olives from the stew and pitting them before serving, which we would do for company, but it's far too much work (and we knew there would be leftovers, so the pits needed to be intact in order to preserve the olives) for just us two.
This is such a bright, invigorating surprise of a stew. I wasn't expecting it to taste so spring-like. It has the most wonderful underlying hint of lemon -- not overwhelming, by any means, but the taste is there -- and the olives and potatoes are such a unique combination of ingredients. We'll definitely be making this stew again.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Clarendon Hills Whipped Butter

Butter. I love butter. I suppose that's a given -- most people are at least fond of butter, but I? I write poems about butter, I dream about butter, I find myself constantly thinking about it at inappropriate times and in strange places, like on the El.... I'm stretching. I'm not a butter fiend, by any means, and I don't think I've had a butter-based dream for quite some time, now, but in any case: butter and I go way back. We're pals. Oh, sometimes we get into the occasional squabble, and I swear never to speak to it again, but a few days later? I'm back with my knife and bread, ready to kiss and make up.
Of course, we're not talking about any old kind of butter here. No, if I'm going to smother something in butter, it's got to be goooood butter. Land-O-Lakes is fine and all, if you're having a butter emergency, but my preference? Clarendon Hills Whipped Butter. Call me needlessly fancy if you must, but I love this butter. It comes wrapped in a sheet of parchment paper in an irregularly shaped 8-ounce block, with no other indications of measurement. It's old-fashioned, really, because my whole life I've been accustomed to standard butter: four neat rectangles wrapped in parchment, stamped by the tablespoon, and snugly packed into a bright yellow box. Until Clarendon Hills, I'd never seen anything different. It is nothing like standard butter, and it tastes nothing like it, either.
This butter is made in Wisconsin, and labeled "Wis. Grade AA." Not being an expert on food codes, I did a little sleuthing and found, unsurprisingly, that in Wisconsin, Grade AA butter indicates a superior breed of butter. It possesses the highly pleasing butter flavor required, has only a slight (I taste none, but I'm not a butter expert, by any means) taste of feed and/or culture. For comparison, Grade B butter is described thusly: "It may possess any of the following flavors to a slight degree: malty, musty, neutralizer, scorched, utensil, weed and whey. It may possess any of the following flavors to a definite degree: acid, aged, bitter, coarse, flat, smothered, storage and old cream." Oooo, bitter-acid-storage butter! I love that stuff! I just can't get enough of that scorched old cream taste! Clearly, Grade AA is the "creme de la creme" of butters, at least by Wisconsin's standard.
They sell this stuff at Treasure Island, which is a great "European-style" grocery store in Chicago. There's one right in D's office building, so although it's a bit more expensive than Dominick's (which is just shy of out-of-the way on the walk home) he'll stop there sometimes after work to get us some food -- especially if we need butter. They have a small but thorough produce section and lots of different types of hard-to-find foods (we were able, by the way, to purchase some olivada -- black olive paste -- there, as I originally thought.) Unfortunately, they don't have a functioning website (it's been "under construction" for quite some time) but if you find that you're lacking something strange and generically European in your pantry, they most likely have it there. And they carry Clarendon Hills butter, which makes it worthy of a special trip. Just for the butter. And if you walk there, you might be able to work off the calories that you'd consume after baking some cookies with this rich, creamy, Grade AA butter. By the way: while it's wonderful for baking, it's good in any recipe that calls for butter or margarine. Try it on these thin chocolate chip cookies, then move on to baked dijon chicken (substitute it for the oil) and smashed potatoes. Speaking of potatoes: just throw a hunk of this stuff on top of a baked potato with a salad on the side and you have yourself the tastiest quick meal known to man. I'm serious.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Eggplant Pepper Pizza

I'm pretty... freaked out today, but I can't tell why. This whole applying to grad school thing is starting to make my head spin. I've gotten into a whopping 12 programs -- for a master's in library and information science -- and am still waiting for the word on 2, but the financial situation isn't as bright as I hoped it would be: I've gotten a few nibbles, but nothing serious. For some reason, it started to get under my skin today, of all days, and I'm about to bite off the rest of my nails in anticipation. Since I received three -- three -- letters in my e-mail regarding financial aid yesterday alone, I'm waiting for more, and the wait is just... freaking. me. out.
In other news, the scallion cakes went over pretty well -- there were only two halves left over, which I packed up and brought home to D. Poor guy: I didn't even let him taste them when I made them (ok, maybe a tiny nibble, but that's just not enough) so I was happy that there were a few left for me to bring home for him. When I got home, I headed back into the kitchen. I'd promised D pizza last night, and you've got to start the dough early to give it time to rise. First, I had to stop at the grocery store for vegetables. Food shopping always takes me forever, especially if I don't have a list, and at a place like Dominick's, the produce is plentiful but mostly rotten, so it takes time to find something edible.
After a half hour of searching, I was able to locate a juicy looking eggplant -- on sale! -- and some green peppers -- also on sale! I sprung for one treat: an orange pepper, which was extremely expensive (especially in comparison to the green, which cost less than 50 cents) but it was worth it. I like a bit of color on my pizza, and since the eggplant was going to be hiding under the cheese, I had to get something else that looked nice for the top. No dice on the yellow or red peppers, though: too expensive and all had nearly gone bad at the store. This is why I dislike Dominick's: by the time you get most of their produce home, it's gone bad. Gross. I also picked up a purple onion. Again, I had to fight for it: those onions must have camped out there for a long time, because this was the only one that didn't look completely mangled.
By the time I got home, it was after four, so I had to start working straight away. Lucky for us I had some sauce in the fridge, left over from a sauce-making binge, so the hardest part of the pizza was taken care of. All I had to do was make the dough and roast the veggies, and the pizza was practically made.

Eggplant Pepper Pizza
Begin by making the dough. I used the same dough as I did in my Baby Bella Mushroom Pizza, which is a Giada De Laurentiis recipe, but I'll reprint the recipe here for ease. This dough is great, because it creates a sturdy, flat surface for the vegetables to rest on. I piled a whole eggplant, two cups of sauce, two cups of cheese, two peppers, and an onion (split between two rounds of dough) and it wasn't the least bit soggy or difficult to manage in slices. I'd like to experiment with other types of dough -- softer, with more rise -- but I needed something flatter and sturdier for that many vegetables.
Pour 3/4 a cup of warm (105º to 115º) water into a small bowl, then stir in 1 envelope of active dry yeast. Let the water mixture stand until the yeast powder has dissolved, which usually takes about five minutes.
Brush a large bowl lightly with olive oil -- not very much, a teaspoon or so should suffice -- and set aside. Mix together, in a new, non-oily bowl, 2 cups all purpose flour, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 3/4 teaspoon salt (or less, depending on how much sodium you're willing to digest.) I did about 1/2 a teaspoon, which turned out fine. You might be wondering: why all that sugar? Sugar helps the yeast grow by supplying energy to the yeast, which makes it grow at a faster rate. Hooray for science!
Giada says that you should make this dough in a food processor (including mixing the dry ingredients by pulsing them a few times) but I used my handy KitchenAid Mixer. I think that I talk about this thing too much, but so what: it is my best friend in the kitchen (besides D.) You really do need a machine to process this dough, though -- I don't think that you could get the proper results mixing by hand. It is worth a try, though, if you don't have any blending tools handy. I just would be concerned about the dough becoming too tough as you work to incorporate the liquid ingredients with the flour mixture.
By now, your yeast should be dissolved. With the mixer (or processor) on low, add 3 tablespoons olive oil and the water/yeast combo. Mix (or process) until the dough forms a sticky ball. Transfer said sticky ball to a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth, which should take only one or two minutes, tops. You can add more flour, one tablespoon at a time, if the dough is too sticky.
Transfer the dough to your oiled bowl, turning over once to coat it evenly in oil. Wrap the bowl -- not the dough itself -- with saran wrap and let sit for one hour, or until the dough has risen to be about double its original size. The bowl needs to be in a relatively warm, draft-free area; otherwise, it will take longer to rise and may not rise properly. When the dough has risen to twice its size, punch down to remove air bubbles.
As the dough rests and doubles, begin to prepare the vegetables. Slice one eggplant into extremely thin discs along the bias. Lightly brush both sides of every slice with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with a tiny bit of salt. Put under a hot broiler for 6 minutes, flipping halfway through. Set aside. Since your oven is already kind of hot at this point, I'd suggest pre-heating it now for the pizza: 500º is the temperature you want for this pie.
Julienne half of a purple onion -- long, thin strips are better for pizza toppings -- and throw it into a hot pan with about 1 tablespoon of melted butter. The butter should not be foamy -- wait until the foam subsides before putting the onions in the pan, as this indicates that the butter is hot enough to cook the onions. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the onions and stir to evenly coat, then place a lid on the pan. This allows the onions to sweat a bit and steam themselves. Stir occasionally to prevent stickage.
While the onion begins to cook, julienne two bell peppers, preferably bright-colored ones. Throw those into the pan as well and stir, then place the lid back on to allow them to steam as well. Stir occasionally until all the vegetables are soft and pliable.
By this time, the dough should be ready. Punch down and knead for a minute or two until it is smooth. Cut the dough in half, shape into balls, and roll out each ball into a thin sheet: this, obviously, will be the pizza crust. Brush each one with a bit of olive oil. This is the fun part: topping time.
Spread about half a jar (one cup or so) of red tomato sauce on each flattened round of dough. I used homemade sauce, but one great thing about pizza is that jarred sauce doesn't really take away from the flavor; in fact, sometimes the sauce in the jar is a better consistency for pizza than the homemade stuff. Sprinkle each pizza with about 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese. Layer the eggplant slices on each pizza and sprinkle with another 1/2 cup shredded cheese. I also grated a bit of fontina cheese and put it on the pizzas at this stage for a more complex flabor. Next, I added half the pepper/onion mixture to each pizza. Assembly complete!
The easy part is the baking: slide each pizza in the oven for about 12 to 15 minutes (the oven, remember, is preheated to 500º) until the cheese is bubbly and the crust edges have browned. Remove from the oven and cut into wedges. I love how easy this stuff is to make, and how healthy it ends up being: you can't go wrong with a mountain of fresh vegetables, zero preservatives, and homemade crust, can you? By the way: obviously, these are pretty large pizzas, and we don't eat both in one sitting. It keeps very well if you just wrap it in foil and chuck it in the fridge, and is perfect cold for lunch -- or for dinner again the next day!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Scallion Cakes

I know, I know -- Chinese New Year has come and gone, already, but my office is having a Chinese New Year celebration today. It involves a lot of homemade food, a large group of people crammed into a very small kitchen, and is the perfect opportunity for me to try something new in the kitchen. By the time I got around to thinking about what to make, the good stuff was taken: soba noodles, almond cookies, pot stickers... I wanted to bake something, preferably sweet, but it seems like everyone was leaning that direction. So in the spirit of culinary adventure, I decided to make scallion cakes. Scallion cakes are round bits of dough sprinkled with oil, salt, and scallions then rolled into a bun, flattened, and fried. Far from baking cookies, but perhaps a bit more adventurous -- and I'm always game for kitchen chaos.
I was nervous about the frying part, and about the whole venture entirely, so I whipped up a half-batch over the weekend as a test. They turned out ok, but they were too big -- very doughy in the center and burned on the outside -- and didn't have enough scallions or oil in them, in my opinion. So I made one and a half recipes worth for the office and made them much smaller and flatter, adding a hefty amount of scallions to each cake rather than the paltry 1 teaspoon called for in the recipe. I think it was a success, although I ran out of scallions at the end and was left with a bit of extra dough. At least it's only flour mixed with water and I wasn't throwing away much -- just one recipe's amount of dough would have been too small, so I suppose all I really needed was another scallion or two to make it right. I used a total of fifteen scallions, a whopping 5 tablespoons of sesame oil, and an additional (brace yourselves) cup of vegetable oil to fry them in. Obviously all of the frying oil isn't consumed, but it's still quite a monstrous amount of oil to put in a pan. Like I said, this was my first stint truly frying something, and I must say it was a pretty successful venture. I'm already planning my next fry: latkes.

Scallion Cakes
This is a recipe for about ten small scallion cakes -- they're better small, if you want my honest opinion -- but you could also make four or five large cakes, as the recipe recommends. If you roll the dough out very thin, though, I think they end up tasting better because of the way they are rolled and fried, so you're better off erring on the side of having more rather than having bulkier cakes.
Begin by combining 2 cups of all-purpose flour with 3/4 teaspoon of sugar. I believe that the sugar helps the dough brown more evenly as it fries, but I'm not sure -- most of the recipes I found don't actually contain sugar, but this dough was pretty stellar, so I didn't want to mess with it. I toyed with the idea of adding salt to the dough, but decided against it: the salt might make the scallions soggier, I reasoned. I'm not sure if this is logical, but there's enough salt in this recipe already, so it's worth skipping it in the dough.
Stir 2/3 a cup boiling water into the flour mixture and mix just until the flour absorbs all of the water. Gradually -- the key here is gradually -- stir in enough cold water (1/4 to 1/3 a cup) until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a ball. The dough should not be sticky; if it is, you added too much water. This can be remedied by adding a bit more flour until the dough smooths out and is no longer sticky.
You want to keep all surfaces that the dough will come in contact with, including your hands, well-floured throughout this escapade. After the dough has begun to come together, remove it from the bowl and knead for a few minutes on a lightly floured surface until it becomes smooth and elastic. You can add more flour at this stage, if necessary. Cover the dough with a slightly damp cloth and let rest for an hour. Chop up your scallions at this point: about fifteen stalks total, less if you desire more doughy cakes. You want to slice them very thinly, along the bias. Use some of the white part of the scallion as well as the entirety of the green portion.After the hour has passed, re-dust your surface and your hands with more flour and knead the dough until it is smooth. Place the dough back under the damp towel and remove about 1/10 of the dough -- no more than about two tablespoons worth -- and shape into a smooth ball. Using a floured rolling pin, roll the ball into an extremely flat round. Lightly brush the round with a good amount of sesame oil, until the entire surface is evenly coated, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Cover the surface with minced scallions -- about 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons total.
Tightly roll the rounds into a fat rope and coil the rope into a small bun. Make sure to pinch the end of the rope into the roll to seal it together. Cover with a damp cloth and allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat these steps until all of your dough and scallions are gone -- the scallions may go first, which is what happened to me, but you can use less scallions per cake if necessary.
While you wait for the dough to rest, heat up about 2/3 to 1 cup of vegetable oil in a large skillet or a wok, if you have one. The oil should be wiggling but not smoking when it is hot enough to fry. After the dough has rested, re-dust the surface and your rolling pin with more flour and roll out one roll into a flat round. The scallions will begin to poke through, and this indicates that you should stop rolling: the less covered by dough the scallions are, the more likely they are to burn. They still taste great, but aesthetically they're not as pleasing. If you coiled the dough properly, the scallions should make a nifty spiral shape within the round. Don't flatten the dough too much: the pockets of air contained within the coil make for more air in the dough, which translates to a puffier fried cake. So watch it with that rolling pin -- easy does it.
Now it's time to fry the cake! Fry each round one at a time in the oil, carefully turning about two to four minutes in, when the bottom has turned golden brown. You might need to poke the center down to make sure that the round cooks evenly, but don't press too hard or the dough will flatten out and lose its nice puffy quality. Also, as you're frying, periodically take the cake out of the oil and dump any excess that has pooled on the top back into the pan. It gets chilly on top and the cake won't fry as evenly with a cold pool of oil on top of it. I used tongs to flip the dough, and since I don't own a splatter screen. Bad! Bad! I had one in my hand this weekend at the store and put it back on the shelf, thinking: "I don't want to invest three dollars in this frying business, I'm only going to use it once." Shame on me: I want to fry everything now. It's addictive, both the process and the actual food. When the cake has evenly browned on both sides, remove from the oil and shake a bit to get rid of any excess oil. Place on a bed of paper towels and sprinkle the top with a pinch of salt; then, place two paper towels on top and press lightly to remove even more of the frying oil. Allow it to cool between the towels as you fry the remainder of the cakes.
These are best served hot, but since they're for an office party, I brought them cold and cut them in half so that they were more bite-sized and plentiful. I personally love the taste of cold fried food, especially Chinese food, because it tastes like leftover takeout, but I'm not sure my office-mates will agree. I'm crossing my fingers, because I ate a quarter-slice this morning and it was terrific. If no one else agrees? I must be crazy. They're just as good hot as they are cold, if you ask me.
Wish me luck! I love to cook for other people, but I fear the aftermath: will they like it? Will everyone in the office now hate me because my scallion cakes weren't perfectly round, and also some of them are a bit burned around the edges? Hopefully not: this was my first time frying anything, and amidst the oil splatters, narrowly-thwarted burns, and slippery floor (oil gets everywhere when you fry) emerged some decent -- in my opinion -- scallion cakes.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Mitsuwa Marketplace

Forgive me if this post makes no sense: the coffee machine spat out water speckled with grinds this morning instead of the usual normal coffee, so I'm flying without the assistance of caffeine. Unfortunately, we didn't do too much cooking over the weekend. We spent the majority of the day on Saturday in the suburbs, running various errands and having dinner with D's family. I was somehow able to convince D to take me to this wonderful Asian marketplace we'd heard about on Check, Please! which is one of the best local shows on PBS. Each week, the guests on the show visit three Chicago-area restaurants -- each guest picks one restaurant -- and they sit down to discuss the places and their experiences with host Alpana Singh. Alpana is fun to watch on television -- she's quite a personality -- and you know she knows her food, and her wine: she's the youngest person to ever pass the Master Sommelier exam, which is quite a feat.
A few weeks ago, Check, Please! featured Mitsuwa Marketplace, the largest Japanese grocery store in the Midwest. It's actually a chain, with most locations in California (and one, mysteriously, in Jersey) but it was far from a big-box experience. Although it is quite large, and the majority of the building is occupied by the grocery store, there is a sizable food court (which is what our visit was mostly for, aside from picking up some sesame oil and scallions) as well as a travel agency and a bookstore. Aside from the oil and onions, we had a third mission: a bentō box. D picked me up the cutest, greenest bentō in the store, complete with strange slogan: It Is So Wonderful To Be Able to Maintain Your Dreams is scrawled across the top of the box, as well as on the accompanying bag. I was kind of nonplussed by the selection of bentō boxes, but I was able to find the perfect one anyhow. In case you don't know, a bentō box is a Japanese-style take-out container or lunch-box, complete with small compartments for different types of food. It's all about pleasing presentation and compactness, which are two things that I am quite fond of.
The marketplace is overwhelming: since I don't speak Japanese, it was kind of a confusing venture, but we made out perfectly. We had a bit of luck: at the food court, everything is written in Japanese (with English titles that mean very little to me) but all the vendors have display cases with each meal inside, numbered and titled to make it easy to order. I wanted something noodle-based, and although many places had lots of soups that looked heavy on the noodles, I wasn't looking for liquid. I wanted a solid, stir-fried mass of wiggling noodles in sauce. Enter yakisoba!
Yakisoba is a fried-noodle dish made with cabbage, onions, bean sprouts, carrots, ginger, seaweed, and fish flakes. It's not too spicy, but it has a bit of a kick -- at least the version that we ate did. It's also quite healthy, aside from the sodium in the sauce, which is typically made from sosu, a Japanese worcestershire sauce. We split a gigantic plate between us for $3.40, which is a steal, especially since you get to stand there and watch it being prepared, which is extremely fun. They make it on a giant grill, and while we waited, three more people ordered yakisoba, which meant that they just kept adding more noodles and sauce and veggies to the pile. By the end, the entire grill was nearly covered in noodles.
It was fantastic, and we ate the entire plate in no time. I was full, but D wasn't. Good, because we hadn't tried the sushi, which was, according to D, downright fabulous. I personally don't eat raw fish, so I wasn't even able to try a bite of the tuna maki, but for $3.00 D got a large tray-full (twelve pieces total) which he says was delicious. The look on his face while he ate it confirms this fact: that's got to be some great sushi. They also sell sushi-quality fish in the grocery component of the marketplace, which is obviously very good. I considered buying a slab or two, but we weren't done with our errands, and it would have gone wrong by the time we were able to refrigerate it. I'm cool with that, though: just means we'll have to take another trip back!

Yakisoba (Adapted from Mitsuwa Marketplace recipe)
Peel and julienne one large carrot and one half an onion. Remove the core from one half cabbage and cut into long, bite-sized strips. Rinse a cup of bean sprouts and drain well.
Rinse a package of yakisoba noodles and place on a plate. Cover with saran wrap and microwave for one minute -- this keeps the noodles from sticking together when you stir-fry them.
Heat one tablespoon oil in a frying pan -- or, you can cook one slice of bacon, diced, in the pan, which is what they did at the marketplace -- and add the vegetables. Stir-fry the veggies until they begin to wilt. Add the bean sprouts last, however -- you want them to retain some crunchiness. Add the noodles and mix well. Once everything is incorporated, add the sauce. Most noodle packages come with a sauce packet; if not, you can use about 1/4 cup Japanese worcestershire sauce. Coat the noodles and vegetables with the sauce and heat through.
Serve with some grated ginger, seaweed flakes, and fish flakes on top.
Oishii! (Delicious!)

Friday, March 2, 2007

Scalloped Potatoes

It was so foggy out on my walk home yesterday that I could barely see past the tip of my nose. It certainly made for interesting travel, although it was a bit dangerous -- I nearly got smashed by a bicyclist, a bus, and two cabs in my short walk from the bus stop to my apartment. I'd say that I have to be a bit more careful, but this was all on them: stop driving so quickly without paying attention to lights and traffic signals and people! Just because you're riding around in a metal box doesn't mean it's safe to speed.
Anyhow. The fog makes me sad -- it's so drippy and dreary and downright depressing that it's hard to do anything with that outside the window. It wasn't pretty fog, either -- just a mass of grey-white wetness. I am so ready for this weather to disappear, by the way. Where's the sun? Where's my promised early spring, Mr. Groundhog?! While I wait, I'll busy myself with some more winter food -- time is running out for those heavy, oven-intensive casserole type dishes. There's a bright side to every foggy day, and yesterday, that bright side was found in a hot dish of scalloped potatoes. We used to make these when I was growing up, and they're major comfort food. Just the smell makes me feel cozy, like I'm sitting in front of a fireplace with my favorite book, curled up like a cat. Is it time to go home and get under the covers, yet?
Although this is a slightly time-intensive recipe for what amounts to a side dish, it's well worth the effort. We ate the entire thing in one sitting -- but we made a half-recipe, so I suppose that's fair. It's really not all that bad for you, especially since I used skim milk and only two tablespoons of butter instead of the required four. It took me about an hour and a half, from start to finish -- that's with about 45 minutes in the oven, mind you, so it really only took 45 minutes of pure kitchen work and an additional 45 of agonized waiting.
This is a slight adaptation of Julia Child's recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 (page 523) and the only change I made was adding a middle layer of caramelized onions. Since we only had half of a bag of potatoes -- remember those rainbow beauties I used for the potato soup? -- I was working with a smaller amount of food that I needed to succeed. So I added an onion to the dish to round it out and give it more heft, and by golly, it totally worked; in fact, I think the onion might have been the best part of the whole dish. She calls them Gratin Dauphinois [Scalloped Potatoes with Milk, Cheese, and a Pinch of Garlic]. The garlic, by the way? Totally can't taste it. It's kind of a pointless step, actually, and the only thing it did was make my hands smell like garlic for the rest of the night. But I actually like that.

Scalloped Potatoes with Caramelized Onion
Begin by preheating the oven to 425º.
Slice a medium sized white or yellow onion into long thin strips -- I do this by halving it, taking off the outer layer of tough skin, and slicing it into sections from the tip down towards the root with your knife parallel to the cutting board. Don't slice through the root, however -- it holds the onion together and makes it easier to chop. Besides, it's one of the juiciest parts of the onion and caramelizes wonderfully. After slicing it down the middle, bring your knife to the top, rounded part of the onion and slice into thin strips from the side to the middle and back to the other side. Halfway through the process, your knife will be at a 90º with the board and the onion. It's hard to explain; perhaps I'll take some photos next time.
Heat a heavy frying pan on the stove and add about a tablespoon of butter. When the foam begins to subside, add the onions to the pot. They should make a satisfying sizzle when they hit the pan; if not, the butter wasn't hot enough. This is a trick to master in the kitchen, the butter/foam/heat skill, because the foam is an indication of how hot the butter is. See this wonderful post from cookthink for more details and procedures regarding heating butter over the stove. Throw a pinch or two of salt on the onions -- it helps them sweat, releasing their juices and allowing them to steam -- and cover the pan. Lower the heat to medium-low and allow the onions to cook while you chop the potatoes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. If they do begin to burn, simply turn the heat down and stir more often.
Child suggests that you peel the 2-1/2 pounds of potatoes, and if I were using russets or something with a tougher skin, I would go with that advice; however, I had those little rainbow babies that just look better skin-on -- and the blue potatoes made the top of my dish look extra-crispy, to the point of being burned, but they weren't burned at all: just blue! Slice them thinly: 1/8 of an inch, maximum, but thinner, if you can. After they are sliced, place them in a bowl filled with cold water and allow them to soak. When you are ready to use them, strain and dry with paper towels.
You need a heavy, shallow baking dish for this recipe, three inches deep, maximum, and about eight inches in diameter. Grab a clove of garlic and cut in half. Rub the garlic on the inside of the pan. Next, coat the inside of the pan with about 1 teaspoon of butter. Remove the potatoes from the water and dry with a towel. Layer half the potatoes on the bottom of the baking dish and top with a shake of salt, a nice dose of fresh ground pepper, and 1/4 cup of grated swiss cheese. I actually used fontina, a cows-milk cheese from Italy, which has a smoky, rich, and creamy flavor. Dot with about a tablespoon of butter, divided. Top this with the caramelized onions, which should be done enough at this point -- they'll be light brown in color (perhaps with a few dark spots where they burned, which is fine) and soft.
Layer the rest of the potatoes over the onions and season as you did with the first layer, with salt and pepper. Top with the remainder of the grated cheese and another tablespoon of butter, dotted across the top. Set the entire dish aside. Measure out about 1/2 to 3/4 a cup of milk -- I used skim, which turned out excellently, but obviously whole would be tastier -- and pour into a saucepan. Heat the milk, whisking all the while, until it boils, then pour it over the potatoes.
Pop the potatoes into the oven for about 35 to 45 minutes, testing after you reach the 35 minute marker. The potatoes will be perfectly soft all the way through with no resistance or firmness when they hit your fork. When they're soft throughout, the dish is ready to serve. D added a dash of red pepper flakes for flavor as he ate them, but they're just as delicious with no extras -- I know, because that's how I ate mine.
I can see why Child's cookbook is slightly daunting after completing this recipe. Although it's fairly simple fare when all is said and done the task of slicing those potatoes as thinly as possible -- with a substandard knife -- was difficult, but well worth the effort. I suppose that's why she begins her book thusly:
This is a book for the serventless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time-schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat. (Child, Julia, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1961, 523.)
I may be serventless, but I certainly am concerned with both my budget and my waistline, as well as my time-schedule. Whatever that may be. Still, though, this was a fairly inexpensive dish, and it tasted so fabulous that I feel no guilt over my plans to make it as soon as I get more potatoes in my house -- which may be tomorrow.

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