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

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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