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.

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

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

Final thoughts – The Cooking Lab, Part 4

So we come to the end. As a wrap-up, last week’s class had a great concept and was fun to execute–come to class and cook. That’s all. No recipes, just some ideas of what we’d like to try based on what we’ve learned the past three weeks.

What to choose...

Ok, there was a bit more to it than that, it wasn’t just an Iron Chef-style free-for-all. Shelley and Mario talked with each of us about our ideas during class, how to turn them into complete well-balanced meals; went over the importance of preparation, timing, and planning (I do love a good plan), concepts of plating and presentation (like a painting, white space on a plate is important). One of the best things I’ve taken away from this series, though, is that a single dish doesn’t need to be perfectly balanced with all flavors as long as the entire meal has balance: a rich, savory main course and a simple salad lightly dressed with an acidic vinaigrette can be perfect.

Shrimp salad with toasted mustard seeds

The two things I knew I wanted to try were making mayonnaise and a butter-based pan sauce, two things I haven’t gotten quite right at home. Since I love shrimp, Shelley helped me come up with two meals: a shrimp salad in an avocado half, topped with toasted mustard seeds (one of my favorite flavors from week one) and a few herbs; and shrimp sauteed with garlic, deglazed with chicken stock and lemon juice, finished with butter, and topped with an herb salad.

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Feeling saucy–The Cooking Lab, Part 3

What do cream of potato soup, mayonnaise, and a delicious, buttery pan sauce have in common? More than I realized after last week’s class, it turns out. (Also, we got to play with fire.)
It's like a Rorscach test in fire. I see a pterodactyl.In some ways, this session of Cooking Lab has been the most challenging to recap. We covered a lot, but (if you’ll excuse the pun) it boiled down to two simple words: fat and fond.

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Facing Fears – The Cooking Lab, Part 2

What intimidates you when you cook? For me—and plenty of others if the rest of my classmates were any indication—the fear of burning a dish is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to cooking intuitively. That was essentially the fear we confronted last week.

Examples of dry cooking methods

Officially the topic was understanding the parallels in dry cooking methods—mainly sautéing and roasting—to get that good, tasty brown crust on the outside with an evenly cooked interior. We learned the science of why it’s harder to get evenly cooked meat straight out of the fridge (let meat rest at least an hour at room temp before cooking) or straight off the pan (meat continues cooking off the heat). We learned how water slows down browning; that’s why it’s so important to pat meat and vegetables dry. Continue reading

Taste vs. Flavor – The Cooking Lab, Part 1

Indulge me a second: get a handful of Sour Patch Kids, close your eyes, and plug your nose. Pick a “kid” and chew it. What do you taste? Sour? Sweet? Anything else? Unplug your nose. Now what does it taste like?

In case you missed it on Facebook, I just started taking the new Cooking Lab series from The Chopping Block. Shelley, the owner and chef, wrote a fantastic post about the background for this class. I consider myself skilled enough to follow a recipe, even to make adjustments here and there; I can (more or less) put together a meal based on what I have in my fridge or cupboard. But I want to know how this all works. Shelley’s article gets at why I rarely take cooking classes and why I’m so incredibly excited for this opportunity.

I want to know why certain flavors go well together. How do different cooking methods complement different flavors or ingredients? If something tastes too sour, too sweet, too bitter, how do I fix it? Shelley calls this “intuitive cooking;” to me, knowing how to answer these questions will improve my cooking and, hopefully, how I write about food as well.

I wish I had the time and space to share everything I’m learning, but I thought it would be fun to share one or two of the best lessons from each class. First up, taste versus flavor and using herbs and spices.

Our teacher, Shelley, at The Chopping Block Continue reading

Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies

Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)

Biscotti three ways

Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)

Fig-date swirls

Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)

Rye pretzels

Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.

Spice cookeis

Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…

Suprise Insides

Surprise Insides (from my mom)

The surprise

The surprise

Raspberry almond meringues

Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)

Thumbprints

Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam

Peanut butter blossoms

Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)

Snowcaps

Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)

Chocolate crinkles

Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Third time’s the charm

On a whim, I signed up for my third Chicago Food Swap this past weekend. I had planned to give myself December off from swapping–it’s not like I don’t have enough going on–but um, I heard someone was bringing infused vodka. Can you think of a better way to spend your Saturday afternoon?

Swap goodies

This was what I came home with:

  • 6 duck eggs
  • 6 chicken eggs
  • rendered leaf lard
  • artichoke ravioli
  • pinot noir rosemary butter
  • brandied cranberries
  • cranberry anise bitters
  • apple ginger shrub
  • candied clementines
  • panforte
  • carrot ginger salad dressing
  • watermelon jelly
  • chili
  • pepper corn chowder
  • spring rolls
  • lavender chamomile kombucha
  • cranberry honey mustard
  • Christmas sauce

At each of these swaps, I learn a little bit more about the process, and I think this past weekend’s was the best so far in terms of low stress for me and stuff I’m really excited to try. I think these five tips pretty well sum up my approach, and might also be helpful if you’re planning to attend a swap:

Savory over sweet. Baked goods of all kinds are, as expected, incredibly popular for people to make and swap, but this leaves the “market” open for non-sweet treats. I tend to like savory over sweet anyways, and those items usually seem really popular with everyone else. People who bring pastas, mustards, dips, pestos, butters, soups, or homemade bacon (that was from the last swap, and they had a line around the room!) pretty much have their pick of things to swap for.

Limit the variety. Since this was a last-minute decision to attend this swap, I needed to make it easy on myself. I only brought two things: my red pepper dip (a hit at November’s swap,  and incredibly easy to make the night before), and a few small jars of hard cider mustard I was experimenting with last week (I’ll share the recipe for that soon). 20 items total, a good, manageable amount. In the past, I’ve brought a lot more, and a lot more variety, but that tends to be harder to write on the swap sheets and carry around to swap with.

Presentation/labeling matters. This could actually go either way: some people bring amazing food with no big deal setup or labels and some people go all-out with tablecloths and coordinated platters. For me, I appreciate when people include the name of the item (and if the name’s not obvious, what’s in it) and contact information (even an email address), since I love getting the recipes for many of the things I bring home. I label the stuff I bring with printable brown craft paper Avery labels with the name of the item and my URL. Based on comments, people seem to think these look nice (good, since no one wants to try to read my actual handwriting) and it’s an easy way to include my blog info when I inevitably forget my recipe/business cards.

Muhammara

Find 3 to 5 things you really want, and go for those first. I took pictures as I went around the room of the stuff that I absolutely knew I had to get in on: duck eggs, ravioli, rendered leaf lard, rosemary red wine butter, for instance. Those were the people I made a particular point to talk to and mention what I brought. Happily most people who bring savories are also interested in other savory things!

After swapping started, I headed to those tables with a dip and a mustard to see if they’d be interested. After I got the items I was really excited about, I headed back to my table to see what other people might want to swap. I think this was the best balance of seeking out/being sought.

Be open to new things (and don’t forget to ask how to use them)! That’s how I wound up with cranberry-anise bitters, which I can’t wait to try. My swapping “neighbors” brought some beautiful panforte, which I have no idea how to serve, but it tastes wonderful (and I hope they read this because I’d love the recipe). Also somewhat related, I apparently should have tried the marshmallows that one swapper brought because everyone has been raving about them (especially the salted caramel ones)! Oh well, maybe next time.

As always, the Chicago Food Swap does an amazing job of organizing these, so a huge thank you to them. Sorry for the lack of pictures of the actual swap, I hadn’t even planned on writing this post until I got home Saturday night. And it’s a particular shame since it was held in a great loft space in the city with a beautiful view–you’ll just have to take my word for it (or if you took pictures, please share a link in the comments)!

Perfect, fresh egg

The picture does not do justice to this beautiful, perfect chicken egg. It’s what I wish the eggs I pay stupid amounts for at the farmers market were like.