The light at the end of the tunnel

Do you know what I heard last week? Birds. More than one. Chirping. Making happy bird noises, the sweetest sound I’ve heard in months.

Pyramid of bars

I don’t know about you, but I am in desperate need of a treat to get me through right now, something to look forward to during a week (really, month) that just started and already feels forever long and speeding by at the same time. I can’t even talk about the weather anymore (forget Hoth, it’s like living on planet Winter, minus the androgynous natives–how’s that for an obscure literary reference?).

Instead, I’m thinking about good things on the horizon, the things I’m working on, towards, for that are requiring all my energy but will hopefully lead to even better things. Green things and the new little garden plot I just rented nearby (any suggestions of edibles to grow in a 4×8 raised bed are more than welcome, by the way). I’m eating carrots and oranges literally by the bag-ful; if I start to look like an Oompa Loompa, well, now you’ll know why. I’ve been making giant salads by the bowl with my newly acquired vinaigrette-making skills.

Bottom crust
JamCrumbled

I’m also working my way through/eating up/giving away my remaining jars of jam from last year (want some? I have more!) because, believe it or not, rhubarb and strawberries will be here not-soon-enough. I’ve been searching for an easy not-cookie baked-good-type use for jam for awhile and finally found this recipe months ago. Of course then I kept losing it before I had a chance to make it, finding it and losing it again. I wish I had made it the first time!

There they are!

This is a perfect all-purpose treat–it takes minimal effort to throw together, easy enough even to satisfy a craving after work on a weeknight. Use any type of jam (homemade or storebought that’s been languishing in your fridge since Christmas), any nuts (even some nut butter mixed into the dough), a mix of flours, any spices. The crust and crumble are deliciously cookie-like but sturdy enough to be a perfect counterpoint to the sticky, jammy center.

I’ve made it twice in two weeks, ending up with totally different treats each time (#1: all whole-wheat, orange zest, mace, toasted walnuts, blueberry-orange jam. #2: 2 parts whole wheat/1 part white flour, cinnamon, toasted almonds, raspberry-blackberry jam) and am excited to play with even more variations. Plum jam with cardamom and walnuts, maybe some rye flour? Strawberry or grape with peanuts and peanut butter in the dough? Peach or rhubarb with ginger?

Where'd they go?

So how are you doing, what’s getting you through? Am I the only one insanely excited about chirpy birds right now (please tell me I’m not)?

Jam and Nut Bars
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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

The art of simplicity

I do so love synchronicity. Also, soup.

Cauliflower soup with a drizzle of butterHere’s what happened:

  1. Bought a cauliflower 2 weeks ago with good intentions to use it in…something. It sat, staring at me, every time I opened the fridge.
  2. Randomly joined a cooking class! First class focused on learning tastes and flavors and how they interact (including the importance of acid and salt as essential components of a dish or meal).
  3. Received an email from my beloved America’s Test Kitchen the next day with a 5-ingredient recipe for cauliflower soup highlighting the simple flavor of cauliflower (and calling for the exact amount of cauliflower I had).

This soup turned out to be perfect, and with perfect timing, in so many ways. First, let me start with this–you know the traditional, creamy, potato-leek soup? This is its equally tasty, equally creamy (but without the cream), less carb-y cousin. It’s cozy and warm and filling and fast.
Simple head of cauliflower It was also the perfect vehicle for applying what I learned in last week’s Cooking Lab class. Try this: as you make the soup, taste the ingredients at different stages in the process. What does the raw cauliflower taste like? To me, a little bitter, maybe a little earthy (that’s umami), maybe a tiny bit sweet. How about raw leeks and onions? (I got an F in tasting on this one–I don’t like raw onions.)
Sliced cauliflower Split leek Thinly sliced onions How do the onions and leeks taste once they’ve softened with the salt? Kind of sweet, but also a little salty? What about the cauliflower once it’s cooked and softened? More sweet, less bitter.
Leeks and onions, softenedCauliflower, just addedSoftThe well-browned butter? Sweet and nutty, earthy. The browned cauliflower mixed with sherry vinegar? Sour, obviously from the acid, but also sweeter than I’d expected.
Butter-fried cauliflowerHow about when it all comes together? How does the flavor of the basic soup change with a little of the butter, a piece of the vinegar-ed cauliflower, the chives? A balance of all five flavors in a perfect little bowl.
Creamy cauliflower soup, garnishedIt’s so fascinating to me to intentionally taste how ingredients change as they cook, and in a soup like this with so few components, the changes are easier to taste. Plus, blah blah flavors and tastes, it’s the perfect warm and cozy when we’re in the midst of yet another cold snap (also known as “winter in Chicago”).

Creamy Cauliflower Soup 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

A little mustard seed

Halfway through, I’m officially declaring January the month of simple things. We’ve made tea, I have plans to share the most amazing, tangy cultured butter, and then there’s this mustard. Let me just say, telling people you made your own mustard? Ok, they may look at you crazy for a second, but then they’ll taste it and will be begging for a jar of their own.

Blend

This is quite literally a 4-ingredient recipe (5 if you want to add sugar or make honey mustard). Your best option for getting a good quantity of mustard seeds is to hit up a good spice shop (or order online from one if you don’t have one nearby). It’s also quite economical compared to what you would pay for a fancy whole grain mustard at the store!

Combine in a jarAnd 24 hours laterBlend some moreHard cider mustard

On a different note–how do you celebrate your birthday? Big, festive blowout? Something low key? Where do you fall on the question of making your own cake? Personally I love low-key and making my own cake–time to actually talk with the people who are important to me, and I know exactly the kind of cake I want and how I want it. I had grand plans to share the most amazing cake with you, with chocolate and red wine and marscapone cheese and…yeah, it’s as good as it sounds. But I also enjoy being kind of lazy on my birthday, so I didn’t actually get around to it–sorry to get your hopes up! Soon, I promise.

Hard Cider Mustard
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A simple cup of tea

We’re a week into the new year and It. Is. COLD. (As if you didn’t know that already.) I hope you’re staying warm wherever you are, maybe with something brewing on the stove or in the oven–a pot of soup, a roast chicken, homemade bread, a pan of brownies. Or, my preferred method, a big pot of tea.

Perfect

Tea is really simple enough–hot water+tea+optional honey and milk–but there’s a ritual to it, especially on sub-zero days, that adds an extra cozy factor and, I think, is a nice way to welcome the new year here. This is how I do tea.

All you need to combat the weather

Loose leaf black tea is my favorite, especially the chai blend from my local tea shop, with a little honey and milk. This teapot is great because it has a built-in strainer so the leaves don’t end up in my cup.

Hot pot

Adding boiling water from the kettle to the empty teapot warms the pot and keeps the tea from getting cold too fast. Once the pot is warm, I pour the hot water into my mug to warm it as well.

Tea

I like about 2 heaping teaspoons of tea per cup added to the now-warm teapot.

Brewing

Fill with more hot water and let tea steep at least 4 minutes. In the meantime, I pour out the hot water from the mug and add honey and milk. Adding these to the warm mug means the honey melts quickly and the milk is less likely to curdle when I add the tea.

Tea+Milk+Honey

Tea is served, blankets are found, and I’m warm inside and out.

Thankfully, with the -20 degree windchills, I have been the happy recipient of two (count ‘em, TWO) snow days this week. Turns out snow days are awesome at 30 years old as they are at 10 (but at 30 you can add something “extra” to your hot chocolate), but I’ll miss my tea ritual tomorrow when I’m back at work!

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.