What’s Cooking Wednesday: Spring Rolls!

Technically this was what was cooking on Tuesday, but let’s not nitpick. Last night I went to my first class at the new Fearless Food Kitchen on making one of my favorite dishes on earth, fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. It was fantastic!

Shrimp and tofu was my favorite combination

If you ever had Vietnamese spring rolls, you know they bear little resemblance to the deep fried versions at Chinese restaurants. These delicious bites are about as fresh as it gets: delicate (but sturdier than you’d think) rice paper wrappers stuffed with fresh herbs and vegetables, noodles, plus shrimp, pork, and/or tofu and dipped in a sweet, salty, peanut-y sauce. They’re also great for using up whatever bits and pieces you have in the fridge.

The group was small, maybe eight people–perfect for chatting and asking our teacher plenty of questions. I’ve made these rolls before but what I loved about the class was learning the little tips that only someone who’s been making them for decades knows–things like what order to layer the ingredients (protein on the bottom so it looks pretty when it’s done, followed by noodles, vegetables, herbs, then lettuce), how to roll them to keep all the good stuff inside and look pretty too. She even taught us that you could make a simple light soup from the broth made after cooking the shrimp and pork to serve with the rolls.

Great class in a beautiful space!

After our lovely instructor gave us a spring roll assembly demo, we all got to make as many rolls as we liked with our favorite mix of ingredients. It was great fun to try different variations and especially to see what other people were making. The only think I’m bummed about is that I missed how to make the dipping sauce! I know it involves peanut butter and possibly hoisin. I hope someone in the class reads this and shares what I missed, it’s probably my hands-down favorite part of eating spring rolls.

Dipping the rice paper wrappers Beautiful!

If you’re looking for a fun way to spend an evening, try out one of the Fearless Food Kitchen classes (and class volunteers get to take the class for free in exchange for some help prepping and cleaning up–totally worth it in my opinion). They have a class tonight on making seasonal salads that sounds awesome and I’ve heard great things about the juicing and smoothie classes too.

Recipe to come soon!

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Grape Jam and Cooking Classes

You’re Turning Violet, Violet!
That’s how I felt this weekend as I made a veritable vat of grape jam, my fingers, mouth, and shirt (I have at least three aprons, do I ever wear any of them? of course not) almost immediately stained various shades of purple. I didn’t make grape jam last year–I probably got too busy canning 8 million jars of tomatoes–but now that I have a food mill, it’s infinitely easier than trying to press the grapes through a strainer or pick out the seeds by hand. Hence, a vat of jam.

Handful of grapes
Basket of Concord

I made plain grape, grape-Damson plum (I had a few cups of un-canned jam in my fridge from my last jam-fest featuring my favorite plums), and a batch of the grape-plum batch flavored with a few pieces of orange zest and a sprig of rosemary from my garden. Next time I’ll let these infuse longer, the flavor is very subtle but I can tell it’s a nice combination.

I love grape jam in part because when it’s done, it looks like “real” jam–it sets and spreads like you think jam should. It doesn’t hurt that the color is gorgeous and my home still smells like grapes. This is the part of fall that I love.

Grape jam in the making

Fearless Cooking at the Fearless Kitchen
I mentioned a few weeks ago that the new space for the Peterson Garden Project, the Fearless Food Kitchen, is open (and gorgeous) and last week their classes started up.  I’m really excited to see the offerings so far–canning, pickling, seasonal salads, South Indian cuisine–but the series I’m most interested in is the Taste Test series. These are classes taught by anyone in the community on a cooking topic of their choice, no teaching experience required, and they’re only $25.

There’s a class on making Vietnamese spring rolls, one of my favorite dishes ever (and not just because I end up eating the dipping sauce with a spoon), plus classes on cooking with kids, how to eat healthy, delicious meals when dealing with food restrictions–I expect the variety of these classes to be really interesting. If you’re looking for an inexpensive cooking class, check them out, they’re doing a “Buy one, bring a friend for free” discount right now on Facebook too; they’re also looking for volunteers to help with the classes (bonus–you get to take the class for free).

I’m hoping to figure out a topic and propose a class soon (maybe pie crust-making? too ambitious for my first time teaching anything food-related?). What kind of cooking class would you be interested in taking?

New home of the Chicago Food Swap

What’s Cooking Wednesday – Better Chicken Broth, Drunk Cooking, and My Favorite Restaurant

Vietnamese Chicken Soup, and My New Favorite Broth-Making Method
I caught my first cold of the season last week and before I got too far down the whiny, useless, tissue-strewn path, I made a huge pot of Vietnamese chicken soup (pho) from Smitten Kitchen. The soup itself is good (I think, I couldn’t really taste it due to the aforementioned cold) but I really loved the method for making broth. Simmer a quartered chicken plus a bunch of wings or bones for 30 minutes, take the chicken out and pick the meat off and reserve it, then add the bones (and skin if you want) back to the pot to simmer for another 2 hours, then strain. The broth was amazingly rich and the chicken meat wasn’t dried out. My test is always if it’s basically chicken jello the next day and this passed with flying colors. Delicious, delicious chicken jello.

Cure for all ills (hopefully including this stupid cold) courtesy of @smittenkitchen

My Drunk Kitchen
Have you heard of this? I don’t remember how I found it years ago, but I rediscovered it while I was home sick and watched through her entire catalog of cooking videos. Do yourself a favor and if you don’t watch any other videos, at least watch the one with Lance Bass, I about cried laughing. (And just in case the name of the series doesn’t suggest it, don’t watch if you’re easily offended by foul language or drinking in excess.)

French Method+Mexican Flavors=Mexique
In another recent, but rather more upscale, rediscovery, I went out for dinner last week to a restaurant, Mexique, I haven’t been to in probably 5 years. When I went the first time, right after they were named one of the best new restaurants in Chicago, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had–food to wine suggestions to service (the chef, Carlos Gaytan, came out to ask our table how everything was and I saw him check in with each table in the restaurant).

I hadn’t been back in part because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my first meal, but on a whim I went a few weekends ago and everything was as excellent as I remembered and the chef still came to every table. Now, as much as love food, I am sorely out of touch with the goings-on of the Chicago restaurant scene, which probably explains how I missed that the chef just placed fourth on Top Chef or that the restaurant was recently awarded a Michelin star–all after being on the verge of closing 2 years ago. I found this all out after the fact, but this was a great article about the restaurant’s ups and downs.

Pear and ginger muffins

I had the best of intentions last week, yet I still found myself with a half dozen pears sitting on my counter, too far gone for eating out of hand. That, of course, didn’t stop me from buying more pears at the market this past weekend. With an over-abundance of fruit and a decidedly fall chill in the air, it seemed as good an excuse as any for a little baking project.

Moody muffin

It would make a better story if this recipe came about after deep contemplation of a perfect bag of golden, freckled pears plucked from a tree with branches positively aching, overloaded with fruit; if I told you how the warming spice of ginger speaks to the new fall season and complements and contrasts the pear’s sweet flower smell. Or if I waxed poetic about the crisp fall leaves flying around me in eddies and waves of yellows, oranges, reds, purples, their sound the autumn equivalent of waves on the beach, while the sun’s angled rays stretches and pulls shadows across the ground.

Freckled pears

Truth? I stared at the pears on my counter on Sunday morning and had this conversation with myself: “These poor pears are not going to last a single day longer. You know, it’s been entirely too long since I made muffins. I wonder how pear muffins would be. And pears go so well with ginger and hey, don’t I have a bag of ginger bits somewhere? I bet if I mashed up the soft pears I could just add them to the liquid ingredients. Good enough, let’s try this.”

Streusel-ed

Like I said, the first version makes the better story, but sometimes the muffin is all you need.

Pear Ginger Muffins Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Leek Butter, Fancy Melty Cheese, and New (Easier) Canning Rules

Leek Butter, aka The Best Thing Ever
If you find yourself with an overabundance of leeks this time of year, I beg you to try this: slice and rinse leeks to remove any dirt or grit. In a big pot over medium low heat, melt a good hunk of butter (I used about 1/2 a stick for four monster-sized leeks). Add leeks, stir to coat with the butter, and add a good pinch of salt. Cover and cook the leeks, stirring occasionally, until they’re very soft and let off much of their liquid. Uncover, turn the heat up slightly and continue stirring occasionally until all the liquid has cooked off and they are just starting to brown and stick to the bottom of the pot. Turn off the heat, cool, and store in the fridge or freezer.

I’ve been eating through this like it’s going out of style. I’ve been spreading it on egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, and can’t wait to stir it into soups, pasta, or just eat it with a spoon. It’s the simplest, most delicious thing I’ve eaten so far this fall and I can’t get enough.

Speaking of Grilled Cheese…
I will never, ever get around to doing this but oh I would love fancy cheese that melts perfectly like good old American cheese in its plastic wrappers.

New Streamlined Canning Process
Most of canning season is over, with the exception of apples and cranberries, but it’s still worth noting that the guidelines have changed to make things a little easier and less intimidating. Here’s the detailed information about the change but the short version is that you don’t have to simmer the lids in water and you don’t have to pre-sterilize the jars as long as the recipe you’re making calls for at least 10 minutes of processing.

I think both of these things make sense, and honestly, I’ve been doing both since I got comfortable with the process. I wash my lids with soap and set them in a bowl of water I ladle out of my canning pot when it starts simmering (one less pot on my stove) and I put my jars in the pot while it heats up just so everything is close to the same temperature (less chance of shock and a cracked jar that way).

I have no pictures of any of the above, but this seems empty without a picture so enjoy this sunset from my porch earlier this summer.

Crazy storms mean very cool sunsets #Chicago #edgewater #sunset #summerinthecity #summerstorms #summer #nofilter #lovemyporchview

What’s Cooking Wednesdays – Drunken Plums, Food Swaps, and the City of Light

In an effort to share a bit more often, I’m starting a weekly post of random food-ish related things going on: recipes I’m trying (or want to try), things I’ve learned, community goings-on, whatever’s interesting at the moment. With that said…

Gin and Juice
Did you know sloe gin is actually gin flavored with the juice of a fruit called a sloe? And sloes are related to plums? I discovered that after I went a little overboard at the sight of damson plums at the market. Damsons were my favorite new fruit discovery from the market last fall; tiny, dark purple plums that are terrible for eating out of hand but make the most amazing jam, possibly tied with the strawberry cranberry jam as my favorite.

Random Wednesday night projects: my most favorite jam (damson plum), attempting damson gin (apparently damsons are related to sloes, as in sloe gin), and the last 3 quarts of tomatoes #canning #gin #jam #puttingup #preserves #foodinjars #drinksinjars #eve

Anyways, I have two quart jars of of gin, sugar, and half-smashed damsons hanging out in my liquor cabinet waiting until Christmas, so we’ll see how this goes. I followed instructions from Nigel Slater and used 1/2 pound of plums, 1/2 cup sugar, and 2 cups of gin. If nothing else, the ruby red color is gorgeous.

New Home for Chicago Food Swaps
This past weekend I went to the first Chicago Food Swap at the new Fearless Food Kitchen and I can’t even say how excited I am about this space. There’s tons of natural light (hello giant skylight), the equipment and setup are great, it’s huge. I can’t wait to start taking classes at the Kitchen and possibly dabbling in teaching a class or two–they’re going to have a cool program called Taste Tests for community members to teach what they know.
New home of the Chicago Food Swap

For the swap I made jam tarts (adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, who adapted her version from David Lobovitz) and a variation of one of my favorite fall chilis with black beans and orange zest (I added sweet potatoes and some different spices). I’m hoping to share my versions of both of these recipes soon as they both tasted and looked fantastic.

My goodies

Oui, Paris!
Not to bury the lede, but I’m going to Paris! For a few glorious days this fall, I’ll be indulging in all manner of treats (food and otherwise) and I. Cannot. Wait. I already have a list a mile long of places I want to check out, websites and books to read (The Greater Journey was nearly 600 pages of wonderful that I plowed through in a week), but I’m trying to rein in my planner side and remember to just go with the flow. I am practicing my macaron-eating though.

Very important to practice before the real thing #macaron #paris

End of summer garden update

Summer officially ends in a few hours, which made me realize I haven’t really talked about my garden since June. I’m calling this my “practice year”–for having no clue what I was doing, my garden did pretty well in its first year. Next year I’ll remember to fertilize much more often, be a little more on top of the weeds, and not be afraid to thin things out. The folks at Peterson Garden Project also deserve a lot of thanks for answering a ton of questions and saving my tomatoes!

How did your garden do?

June garden in full swing
First real slicing tomato
Wall of peas
Purple tomatillos

Successes Continue reading

Sharing food and my favorite recipe

In my post earlier this week, I talked about the challenges and possibilities of a home-cooked meal. It prompted some wonderful conversations that made me realize I didn’t clearly address the other half of this whole issue: the importance of how we share that meal with family, friends, and community. Conveniently this dovetails nicely with one of my all-time favorite recipes.


I, we, can talk all day long about how to make homemade meals possible given all the challenges and roadblocks in our society, making fresh food accessible, everything I said on Monday. But, I think, equally important is how we share food with the people around us.

If you’ve been to any one of my mom’s summer parties in the past, oh, 15 years, you probably recognize this. It’s a party stand-by, incredible payoff for minimal effort. Salmon is brined with salt and brown sugar, spiced with ginger, allspice, and bay. It’s coated with honey, freckled with peppercorns, and smoked with applewood for a perfect combination of sweet, salty, rich, spicy, spiced, and smoky. It’s heaven.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

As good as this salmon tastes (and if I haven’t made it clear, oh my god it is good), it’s memorable because of the people I associate it with. The family friends my mom got the recipe from, friends who also shared cookie day with us for more than two decades. My best friend and I sneaking a more than ample chunk to share at my mom’s house-warming and catching up on a rare summer day when we were both in town from our respective new cities (I know we are true and life-long friends because her first question when I mention a party at my mom’s is “Will the salmon be there?” She has her priorities straight). I remember it at big family parties on the bay and casual weekend barbecues, my high school graduation party, my sisters’ 18th birthdays.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

I know this as a dish to share with friends and family when warm weather comes, which is why it was the very first thing I knew I had to make for my own house-warming party in July (and a great excuse to test my new grill). Wrapped in its own little foil plate, it’s casual and low-fuss to serve and can even be made a few days in advance. But again, it’s what it represents with the people it brings together–circles of friends new and old sharing food and drinks and music on a warm, sunny, summer day.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercornsSmoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

My parents both showed me the importance of taking time to make a good home-cooked meal, they showed me how to cook. More than the food on the table, though, they showed me that it’s how and with whom that food is shared that matters; it’s about taking time and effort to acknowledge others. It was sitting at the dinner table with my dad and sisters talking about school, laughing about my teacher who wouldn’t let me wear an Ohio State Buckeyes sweatshirt because she thought the buckeye looked like pot. It was naming the best thing that happened during the day around the table with my mom.

Even on the affectionately named Hell Nights, when coordinating work schedules and activities for three kids meant dinner was picked up or eaten out, we still found a way to make the meal matter. I credit those Hell Night Chinese restaurant dinners with teaching me the math skills to calculate a tip. And that paper umbrellas and Shirley Temples are underrated.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

Yes, the quality of the food on the plate is important and I stand by everything I said Monday. But what I really, truly hope is that we continue to value the connections made over a shared meal. Those connections are deep and they are vital in the most literal sense of the word; they give life as truly as the food we eat. The food doesn’t need to be elaborate (or even homemade), the occasion doesn’t need to be special; all that’s required is genuine interest in the person across the table.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

(For another really thoughtful observation on this discussion, read Erica’s post at Northwest Edible Life, which inspired my original post.)

Smoked Salmon with Honey and Peppercorns
Continue reading

The reality of home-cooked meals

I don’t usually pull out my soapbox here, but last week, Slate published an article titled “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner” that addressed a study that argues “the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.” Then I read this rebuttal and I got angry.

Look, I absolutely believe to my core that we as a society need to prioritize home cooking, growing our own when and where possible, and making good, fresh, sustainable food available geographically and financially. But the way our culture is set up, that is not always easy or even possible, and those roadblocks need to be addressed.

More than a few studies show that women (even with a partner) still do a larger percentage of housework and childcare, including cooking/grocery shopping/cleaning up, even after working a full-time job. That’s not even taking into consideration single parents, parents who work multiple jobs with odd hours for low pay, food desserts, the challenges of getting those so-much-cheaper-than-chips multi-pound bags of potatoes home on a bus. The percent of people who face any one of these challenges, let alone multiple, is far more than the 2% the author in the second article cites (a number that is so wildly out of line with reality I really couldn’t take anything else he said seriously).

And it’s patently not true that “healthful ground beef from pastured cattle versus fast-food burgers” is cheaper by the pound, especially when you take into account the time, tools, and knowledge necessary to acquire, store, and cook said beef. But that’s honestly one of the problem(s) that we should be addressing, not shaming the people who aren’t cooking (or spending their time or money) the way we think they should be.

I am so incredibly lucky and privileged; I acknowledge that. I was lucky that a home-cooked family dinner was a priority for my parents at both of their houses growing up. My dad (a former farmer who had decades of know-how) had a big garden in our yard that supplied a lot of our fresh vegetables in spring, summer, fall and (frozen) throughout the winter. My mom liked food and cooking and trying new things and encouraged my sisters and I to do the same. But my parents also had jobs where they could be home for dinner at a reasonable hour, had the tools and stability to make cooking a reliable option, and knew enough to teach me and my sisters how to start dinner or fend for ourselves if, and when, needed.

I am also lucky in that I love to cook, I reliably get home before 6 p.m. every night, I don’t have kids to care for or cart around to activities, I have the money to spend on the organic pastured local chicken (which, by the way, $26 for two 3.5 pound birds at the farmers market this weekend, four times what a regular chicken would be at the grocery store) or the produce at the farmer’s market (which is rarely less expensive than the grocery store–a whole other frustrating myth–even if it might be fresher, tastier, or more healthful). And even I sometimes find cooking an obnoxious chore.

Idealizing a home-cooked family meal is as much of a problem as idealizing the stay-at-home mom from decades past (a whole other rant for another time, because many, many women did have to work outside the home in some capacity to make ends meet). It’s not always cheap, easy, fast, or pretty, though it most certainly can be all those things. We should not give people excuses so they don’t have to try, which is a fundamental problem of the original Slate article. But we also cannot, I repeat cannot, shame them when we don’t think they’re trying hard enough.

Do I think it would be great if we could all sit down for an hour for every meal, food made from scratch, with good conversation and no electronics? Of course. But everyone has their threshold. Who am I to say that a parent is wrong if they’d rather spend time reading with their kid, taking them to a sport, or helping with homework when they get home exhausted at 8 p.m. instead of spending that time in the kitchen (and yes, kids should be helping in the kitchen too, but “I was making dinner” isn’t going to fly when homework isn’t ready for class the next day).

You know what the fastest way is to get someone to tune you out? Start telling them how wrong they’re doing things. No matter how much you have to say about building a better food culture and community, how much knowledge you might want to share about growing or cooking healthful food on a budget or with limited time or resources, none of it will be heard when it starts with “You’re doing it wrong.”

Instead of blaming, let’s encourage; instead of judging, let’s help. Let’s challenge ourselves to start changing what we can, even if it’s one thing, even if it feels small–one night without tv; trying once a week, even once a month, to switch out a boxed meal with something more healthful. Let’s share the knowledge and tools we have with our community. We all have something to contribute to make this ideal of a home-cooked meal more of a reality.

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
Continue reading