Life of Pie

Out of any interest or passion, cooking and eating is the only one I can think of that’s essential to life. This is actually pretty convenient in a lot of ways–if I have to eat anyways, why not make it as enjoyable and taste as good as possible? And I consider pie pretty essential to life, especially in summer, which has finally, blissfully made an appearance in Chicago.

Golden brown and delicious

I’m talking about peach pie, to be exact. And while I’m at it, maybe throw some blackberries in there too because, well, summer.

Peach season
Peaches and sugar
Peach syrup

America’s Test Kitchen’s weekly emails are one of my favorite cooking inspirations, especially since their recipes are so reliable (plus the taste tests and gadget reviews make my research-loving heart happy). At least one recipe usually gets bookmarked (and occasionally I actually get around to making it). Earlier this month, the email included peach pie. I don’t remember the last time I had homemade peach pie, which seemed a perfectly valid reason to buy armloads of peaches and give my pie crust another run.

Rumpled crust
Filled
Blackberries, why not?

If I get nothing else out of writing this blog, I’m happy to finally have and be able to share a reliable pie crust recipe and method. I still have a few tweaks to make–my crimps are hit-or-miss (I think the trick is refrigerating the pie after crimping so the crimps don’t disappear once the pie hits the oven) and I’m still trying to figure out how to brown the bottom crust more quickly in fruit pies (it usually works to put my pie plate on a preheated baking stone, but that didn’t work this time–did the tinfoil underneath make a difference?). And, happy day, I just discovered a pie shop in Chicago will sell, by request, the rendered lard they use in their own crust. As much as it’s a fun point of pride to say I can do it myself, it takes a bit of planning, which is not always my strong suit.

Crimps
Peach pie with lattice crust

I’m always amused to look at my Recipes page to see what it says about how I cook, or at least what I cook to share here. Lots and lots of fruits and vegetables, which is pretty true-to-life, and of course out of all the desserts or sweet treats I’ve shared, pies win. Not a bad trend, if I say so myself

Peach Pie with Blackberries
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Meditation on a chicken

This summer has been kind of crazy to say the least and I’ve found I’ve taken on fewer cooking projects that seem worth sharing (though if you’d like a post about blanching and freezing green beans or corn, I’d be happy to oblige). Lately the tasks I’ve gotten the most pleasure out of are the most mindless; the meals, the simplest.

Don't forget to grill a few lemons

Yes, it would be faster to cut the tips off green beans in a big bunch, but it’s nice standing at my new counter and breaking off the ends of a pile of beans one by one, getting into a rhythm–pick a bean from the pile on my right, snap the end with my left hand, ready bean goes in front of me, end goes to the trash bowl on my left.

Similar to the pleasure I’ve found in yoga, sometimes these repetitive actions are just what I need, a kind of moving meditation. Same with my meals lately–a simple open-faced tomato sandwich, a bowl of gazpacho, corn on the cob–they don’t require much effort and leave plenty of mental space to enjoy the sunset view from my new porch, a new book, or simply listening to the bells from the church around the corner.

I know, this is all a rather contemplative for a post about chicken. But it’s a really good chicken, I promise!

All you need

Over the 4th of July weekend, I got a new grill. I have lots of capital-T Thoughts on it I’ll share another time, but the relevant point is it has a lid, which means I could finally try a whole butterflied (or spatchcocked) chicken on the grill. (My mom has taken to calling it “sasquatched” chicken, which actually kind of makes sense–what else would a chicken look like if it were stepped on by a sasquatch?)

Marcella Hazan and her Essentials of Italian Cooking gave me exactly the recipe I needed. Five ingredients I have on hand always–salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil, chicken–requiring the barest amount of thought, but ending in a fantastic meal. Adding herbs, some garlic, maybe some lemon zest all occurred to me, but maybe another time.

Lemon juice, olive oil, pepper
On the grill
"Sasquatched"

Whether your mind is occupied with enjoying last-minute beach vacations or the busy-ness of getting back to school (or, in my case, preparing for the newest round of students to come to campus and oh, planning a trip to Paris in fall), give this a try. It’s not only an easy dinner, it makes amazing chicken sandwiches the next day, leaving plenty of time to savor the not-fall-yet season.

Crispy skin
Looks prettty, but just try flipping one side over without losing all the pieces
Best chicken sandwich, all assembled

Grilled Chicken with Lemon and Pepper
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A little sweet, a little sour

I know, strawberry season is a distant memory at this point. But I hope you’ve got a few stashed away in the freezer because, on my third summer of making jam, I’ve finally figured out a basic strawberry jam that I really, really love.

Little jar of jamA few months ago, I saw a demo by Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, the primary resource I’ve used to learn about canning. One of the best points she made was that when people want to learn to make preserves, the first things they try are strawberry jam and cucumber pickles–two of the hardest recipes to get right. I’m not a cucumber pickle fan (though I’m acquiring a taste for them), but I can attest that the strawberry jam I’ve made the past two years was more like strawberry sauce. Tasted good, but not quite what I wanted.

Another bowl o' berriesTurns out that since strawberries naturally are low in pectin, they either require more sugar or added pectin to get a real jammy texture. I don’t particularly like the idea of using essentially equal parts sugar and fruit, so I didn’t want to go that route. I don’t like dealing with pectin packets, but what about adding another fruit that’s really high in pectin? Here I took a cue from my favorite fall preserve, cranberry conserve, that sets amazingly well (in part because cranberries have a ton of pectin) and keeps its gorgeous red color. And how convenient, last fall I stuck a gallon bag of cranberries in the freezer.

Cooking
Molten strawberriesI’m not sure where I saw the initial idea to combine strawberries and cranberries, but let me tell you, while this takes a little forethought (either finding cranberries in summer or good strawberries in late fall), it is 100% worth it. The cranberries help set the texture of the jam, they contribute to the beautiful color, and they provide a little sour contrast to what can otherwise be a one-note preserve.

So while strawberry season may be over, I hope you’ll keep this in mind come fall when cranberries are everywhere. Use frozen strawberries to make this jam or freeze a few bags of cranberries  for next spring. (Tangent: this was the project I used to break in my new kitchen–can I just say how much I love having an island? Everyone should have one of these! This jam also made a great gift to introduce myself to my new neighbors. Tangent the second: a nice little profile from Paper/Plates on yours truly with some fun book and food questions.)

Thick and jammyJam and bread

Strawberry-Cranberry Jam Continue reading

Putting down roots

As my kitchen (really my entire apartment) is currently in a state of utter disarray, has been for the past few weeks, and will be for another few, my cooking of late has pretty much consisted of salad (and often take-out salad at that). I’ll explain in a minute, but for now, an update on the garden, which is so far blowing my expectations away. Here are a few highlights:

StrawberryBaby lettuce Tomatillo flower

As for the reason for the kitchen chaos? I’m moving! Today I’m officially a first-time homeowner in Chicago.

Keys

I did say I wanted a change and I think this counts. I wasn’t planning to leave the ranks of the apartment-dwelling when I started looking for a new place in April, but everything seemed fated to make this happen. I’ve never been one to take the view that renting is throwing money away, it definitely has its perks and benefits, but I’m really excited about this step–and my new porch! Kitchen! My own laundry! I can’t wait to start cooking and sharing projects from my new space soon.

One of the best parts about the new place though? It’s closer to my garden! Here are some more pictures, including my plot layout and how the view has changed since mid-May: Continue reading

In the garden

I have a garden! If you follow me on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, you probably know this already, but I’m so, so excited that this will be my first year growing more than a little pot of lettuce and some flowers on my porch.

Plant markers

I learned about Chicago’s Peterson Garden Project and their pop-up victory gardens last year, but finally joined after urging from a friend who’s gardened with them in the past. For $75, I get a 4×8 plot with organic soil that’s all mine from April through October. Most people with a garden this size use the square foot gardening method (I’ll share more about that in another post), so I’m following suit for now. It’s definitely different than what I remember from my dad’s garden growing up and its orderly rows of beans and carrots and lettuce and corn.

So far I’ve planted seeds for:

I also bought baby plants of:

Other plants I still need to buy are:

  • Cucumbers (I hope I can find a baby cucumber to use for making cornichons!)
  • Strawberries
  • Herbs: Genovese basil, parsley, thyme, chives/garlic chives, oregano, mint (only in a pot)
  • Hot pepper

Baby plants

The history of victory gardens goes back to World War II and, reassuringly, I learned that people back then knew about as much as I do about having a vegetable garden than I do (which is pretty much nil, but luckily I have plenty of green thumb-ed friends and family as guides)! The Peterson Garden Project is a lot more recent, but is doing great work in a lot of areas I’m passionate about: eating locally, making good food accessible to under-served communities, helping people (like me!) learn to grow their own food, putting neglected urban spaces to good use, and building strong communities around Chicago. They’re doing much more than that, which I’ll talk about in another post, but for now I’ll direct you to their website if you want to learn more.

I’m positively giddy to see how this experiment goes and how different this view looks come July!

My garden!

(P.S. I don’t have any association with PGP other than thinking what they do is worth sharing.)

On baking bread and other risky things

How often do you take risks? Considering how much I love to research and analyze and construct and deconstruct and plan, taking risks is not exactly what I’m known for.

Cinnamon braid

But the past few years, I’ve been stuck. I needed to change something. You won’t find me on stage doing sketch comedy any time soon, but I heard a great rule about it (thank you Tina Fey, you are my hero) that I took to heart–the sketch and the characters only move forward if you say “Yes, and….” You can’t move a sketch forward saying “No;” I realized I couldn’t move forward with changes by turning things down, second guessing whether I’d be good enough, if I have enough time, if I’m smart enough, if I’ll get rejected, if I have enough experience, etc., ad infinitum. Those are the fastest ways to make nothing happen.

Swirled and sliced

The biggest “Yes, and” I’ve taken on has been simply taking more risks more often. I don’t mean risking running a yellow light or skydiving. I mean just trying things–this blog was one of the first. I didn’t know anything about blogging but I loved talking about food; I forgot most everything I learned years ago about photography but I had a camera. I didn’t know anything about self-promotion but I already happily shared food and recipes I loved. I’ve learned a lot, failed more than a few times, but that’s really the  point.

Sifting the flours and grains
Kneading

Sometimes the risks I’ve taken have been frustrating. I’ve been angry and sad and disappointed; I’ve yelled and cried and sat in my car hitting my steering wheel more than once. I haven’t gotten the changes I wanted at the pace I wanted them; some risks have made me question what I’m really good at and where I want to be. And from the same risks, doors have opened. I’ve become part of amazing new communities and met new friends; I’ve learned so, so much. Not just new skills (I’m looking at you, mountains of water-bath-canned preserves), but how to approach and process those risks and use them for my next “Yes, and…”

Resting
Rise, poke

So, bread. (How’s that for a transition?) I’ve never tried improvising a recipe like this–yeast! braiding!–but what’s the worst that could possibly happen? I use a few cups of flour, some milk, and learn something. (I first wrote “I waste a few cups…” but no, it’s not waste.) And I figured it out! Yeah, I researched a bit, and my first attempt was not what I was looking for (it was still good!), but I learned and made this. And it’s honestly one of my proudest baking accomplishments.

Cinnamon sugar, ready for blending
Cinnamon sugar, powdered
Cinnamon sugar-ed

It’s really hard to end up with something bad when you bring together three of the most reliable cooking and baking resources, but this bread exceeded even what I had hoped for. Cinnamon swirl bread has never appealed to me–it always tasted more like raisins than cinnamon and usually too sweet with the actual bread as an afterthought–but when I saw it come up three times in a month, looking so delicious and swirly and I imagined what it would smell like baking in the oven, I had to give it a shot.

Rolled
Ready to braid
Braid 1
Braid 2
Braided

I picked the features I loved most from each recipe: the whole/multi-grain process from Smitten Kitchen; my favorite soft sandwich bread base from Joy of Cooking, and the incredibly impressive (but ridiculously easy) braiding technique from America’s Test Kitchen. Two tries later, it’s just the right amount of sweet, definitely cinnamon-y, tender from the milk and butter, chewy and textured from the combination of flours and grains (and no raisins!). Without the cinnamon, it also makes a great sandwich bread.

Multi-whole-grain sandwich bread
Cinnamon and sandwich bread
Braided bread

So for my 99th post here, I will say yes, and…I’ll have another slice (with butter this time).

Cinnamon Swirl Multigrain Bread (with a plain variation) Continue reading

Sweet as honey

Forget Christmas and my birthday and Thanksgiving and every other holiday that comes around once a year. My favorite day? Opening day of the outdoor farmers markets in Chicago.

Gooey strings of sugar, carmelized edgesStacks of bars

When my two favorite markets open in a few weeks, I know I won’t find the near-overwhelming cacophony of colors and textures and tastes that come in July and continue through October. That’s ok. For now I’ll be happy to ease into spring with little shoots of green, a color it feels like I haven’t really seen in months.

But green things aren’t what I’m talking about today. Among all the fruits and vegetables and amazingly colorful array of eggs is one of my all-time favorite stands even during the winter market–the honey guy. I can, and have, spent half an hour at his stand sampling and chatting with the quiet, unassuming owner about which flavors are best for what, tasting the amazingly apparent differences between varieties. I’ll watch him wave the bees away from his samples as he talks to other customers and I try to decide between tupelo, buckwheat, cranberry blossom, or (my favorite, as in I have a 5 pound bottle of it in my cupboard) basswood-linden.

Essentials
Butter, almond meal, flour, sugar
Eggs, homemade vanilla from a recent swap
Dough
Browned base

There are a million and one ways to use honey of course; my favorites are drizzled over really good yogurt with the freshest mid-summer fruit or on a warm, buttered biscuit. For the stronger, almost molasses-like honeys (buckwheat, chestnut, etc.), it’s a bit more of a challenge. Like really good chocolate, the sweetness has an underlying bitterness that makes it more interesting, but it can overwhelm in the same applications as the lighter honeys. I’ve been kind of stumped as to a good use. Then, I found these.

Sliced almonds
Essentials for the topping
Butter squares

I don’t know how it’s taken me so long to get on the bandwagon of David Lebovitz fans; maybe because Paris has never been at the top of my list of dream destinations (yes, I’m aware I’m insane). But his recipes hit on a lot of the things I love–simple and classic and delicious–and his writing is funny and so unpretentious. Plus, at least the past few months, he seems to post the exact thing I’m looking for before I even know I need it.

Such was the case in March with these gallette des rois I made in miniature for that month’s Chicago Food Swap. It happened again this month with his recipe for almond honey bars, the perfect use for the half bottle of buckwheat honey sitting in my cupboard that was destined for these (they also made for a big hit at this month’s swap).

Swirling butter, honey, sugar
Coating the almonds

The bars are a crisp, crumbly, almond-y shortbread topped with a butter/almond/orange/honey brittle that’s a perfect showcase for a great, strong honey. The funny thing is that I actually forgot the sugar the first time I made them and didn’t even realize it until I made a second batch. They’re amazingly good either way: with the sugar, the topping layer is thicker, stickier, sweeter (obviously); without the sugar, the honey bakes more fully into the shortbread and the bitterness comes through more with more crunch from the sliced almonds. The orange and almond compliment the honey perfectly in both versions.

Bits and piecesOne giant bar

With less than two weeks to go until the 2014 markets move outdoors, I’m obviously looking forward to those first fresh, beautiful, green things. But I really hope my honey guy is back too.

Honey Almond Bars Continue reading

Good food doesn’t need a label

A lot of vegetarian food gets a bad rap, undeservedly so. I’ve had bad dishes with meat in them; I’ve had bad dishes with no meat. Meat rarely makes a dish good or bad simply by being there. I think the “bad” vegetarian food that people have, and which colors their perception, is just bad food, period. And good food, with meat or without, is just so, so good. (Fair warning, a little bit of a soapbox ahead. I won’t mind if you just skip to the delicious recipe at the end.)

Yum

The vast majority of the food I try to eat falls into the vegetarian category, particularly the whole food vegetarian category (i.e. vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, grains as close to their original form as possible). I’ll be honest that I’m not a fan of tofu unless it’s fried or in miso soup, I don’t like seitan, I’m on the border with tempeh (I don’t mind it, it but it doesn’t like me). I don’t think frozen fake meat that has as many not-whole ingredients as a chicken nugget are doing anyone any favors.

But set me down in front of a well-seasoned portabella mushroom just off the grill with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, and cheese on a perfectly toasted bun, and watch it disappear as quickly as any beef burger. (P.S. I miss you summer, please come back so I can grill again.)

Spices
Walnuts
All ground up

I’m also not a fan of labeling “meatless” meals as such. It seems counter-intuitive to label them based on the thing that’s not there. You wouldn’t call a burger and fries a pasta-less meal, would you? Or a mid-summer salad of perfect tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce a grain-less meal. What sense does that make? As soon as you make the focus the thing that’s missing, you can’t focus on the delicious food that is actually in front of you.

A breakfast of fruit and yogurt is vegetarian, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is vegetarian, but it seems silly to label them that way, doesn’t it?

Ready for shaping
Patties

The thing I love about food, about cooking seasonally, about taking a pile of random things and turning them into a delicious dish, is that the final dish honors the flavors and textures of the ingredients. Meatless, meat-full, vegetarian, vegan, raw, gluten-free labels be damned–it’s not trying to be anything other than good food. That, to me, is cooking at its absolute best. (Ok, I’m off my soapbox now.)

Golden brown and delicious
Pita pocket-ed

I found this recipe forever ago, and only dug it up again recently. I don’t know why it fell out of my lunch and dinner rotation; it was one of my favorites for a long time. The cumin and coriander give it a sort-of middle eastern-y flavor similar to falafels. It’s easy to make a double batch, shape, and freeze for lunches at work or fast dinners on nights I really don’t feel like cooking.

Tzatziki-d

Lentil Walnut Burgers
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Butter makes everything better

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day and everyone in the food blogging world seems to have made Irish Soda Bread. I, on the other hand, made the thing it would be a crime to eat soda bread without.

Two ingredients become two new ingredients

Yep, that’s right. Butter. Cultured salted butter to be precise. Truth be told, I don’t really like soda bread, it tastes too much like a giant drop biscuit, and I’ve already told you where I stand on the biscuit front. But butter? There’s nothing to dislike about butter. Butter makes everything better. And as a bonus? Making your own butter means you’ll also have for-real, fresh, cultured buttermilk.

Making butter is as simple as over-whipping cream, but for something slightly more interesting with a little tang to it, cultured butter is what you want. It doesn’t take any more effort, just a little more patience as you, well, “culture” cream by adding a tiny bit of yogurt and letting it set for a day or two until it thickens. (Cultured cream is essentially creme fraiche, and I suspect you can also make cultured butter by whipping store-bought creme fraiche–but if I’m going to effort to make my own butter, clearly a shortcut is not what I’m looking for.)

Once the cream is cultured, it’s simply a matter of whipping, straining, rinsing, and eating (and I promise, that takes much less effort than it sounds).

The only ingredients you need
Thick and ready to be whipped
Whipped, but not butter yet

An insanely busy weekend means I didn’t get this up before the St. Patrick’s Day parade of the soda breads, but I hope you will make this anyways because let me tell you, it is so, so worth it. This butter is perfection thickly slathered on just about any baked good (seriously, now is not the time for being skimpy), melted over vegetables or tossed with homemade fresh pasta; it’s perfect anywhere its flavor can really come through.

(By the way, as delicious as this is, I actually wouldn’t suggest using it in baking simply because the butter you get at the store has a very particular, very consistent water-to-fat ratio necessary for reliable baked goods. Plus, using homemade butter in baking means the flavor tends to get a little lost and you just went to a decent amount of effort for this–you’ll really want to taste it.)

Butter curds and buttermilk
Draining
Butter and buttermilk
Rinsing the butter

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also fancy-up your butter with herbs or spices, nuts, or other flavorings (hello maple pecan butter). Making your own butter means you also have two of the four essentials for the best buttermilk pancakes you’ll ever have, just add pancakes and maple syrup. Or buttermilk biscuits. Or fruit smoothies (really, try a little homemade buttermilk in a smoothie, it’s like yogurt). Life is just better when there’s butter.

Salted butter ball

Cultured Butter (and Buttermilk)
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Happy Pi(e) Day!

It’s no secret if you look through my recipe archives that pie is my favorite dessert. I didn’t even realize it myself until I started this blog! Pie has the best parts of any treat–flaky, crispy, delicious crust (perfectly good on its own sprinkled with cinnamon sugar); juicy, fruity filling (or chocolate or custard or chicken or vegetables or potatoes). Pie is totally healthy for you (see: fruit, vegetables) and perfectly acceptable as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

In case you’re looking for a pie treat today or this weekend, check these out:

Coconut Custard Pie Perfect right now, no fresh fruit needed, and super fast and easy to make.
Filled, baked, puffed

Apple Pie The classic, courtesy of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.
Perfection, if I say so myself

Plum Chutney Crumble Pie It’s like plum chutney and pie had the most delicious baby.
Plum crumble pie

Rhubarb Pie We’re so close to making this again! Melt, snow, melt!
Rhubarb pie

Sour Cherry Pie My all-time favorite. I need to make one this weekend with the cherries I canned.
Cherry pie, cheater's lattice

Sour Cherry Crostata Still one of my favorites, but my oh my, how my photography has improved in two years!
Sour cherry crostata

Pie crust Can’t make pie without it!
Butter-lard pie crust

And you can’t make my favorite pie crust without lard!
Rendered and cooled leaf lard