Meditation on a chicken

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

Don't forget to grill a few lemons

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

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

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

All you need

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

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

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

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

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

Grilled Chicken with Lemon and Pepper
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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!)

Savoring the season

Out of any season, I love, love, love how fall smells the most. I love the cinnamon and warm baking apples, roasting nuts, crisp, bright citrus mingled with cloves, the smokey burning leaves. They are some of the most comforting scents, cozy and homey, and they permeate everything like the best aromatherapy you can imagine.

The two preserves I made recently represent two of the most popular profiles this time of year–warm and spiced, and tart and citrus-y–but each offers a slight twist on the traditional.

How could these flavors possibly be wrong?

Warm and spiced (and spiked with wine)?

Fall flavors, take 2

Or tart and citrus-y?

The first is a variation on a riff of a traditional Jewish Passover dish called charoset or charoses, normally an uncooked mixture of apples, honey, nuts, cinnamon, and sweet red wine. Conveniently this also happens to taste exactly like all the delicious, warm, spiced flavors of fall, no religious affiliation needed.

Wine-y apples Best applesauce ever? PossiblyFinishing touches

I’ve spread this on a piece of whole grain bread  instead of jam and stirred it into oatmeal, and imagine a beautiful jar and a bottle of wine would not be unwelcome as a hostess gift (do people still give those?).

On the other end of the spectrum of fall flavors, this cranberry conserve tastes like all the crispness of fall contained in a little jar (given my love of all things tart and sour, say cherries, rhubarb, and plums, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that cranberries are also a favorite).

Simmering orange segments Cranberry, orange, and apricot Boiling

In this conserve, oranges are used whole–that is, skin and all–for a slightly bitter note under the sweet and sour of simmered cranberries and a bit of texture with the crunch of nuts (any you like–walnuts, almonds, or pecans would be traditional, but pistachios would be colorful and tasty as well). It’s amazing as an accompaniment to any upcoming turkey dinners you might have planned, but also delicious on a cream scone or warmed slightly and spread on a ham sandwich.

Jammy Cranberries, conserved

Either of these can be canned, but they can also easily be refrigerated if you aren’t comfortable with the process, or just don’t want to spend the time. It is nice to pop open a jar of fall flavors come mid-January though!

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Plum crazy

I always want to love plums. Their colors are perfectly fall and all my favorites–royal purples, deep-sea blues, ruby reds, sunshine yellows–but their flavor is a gamble. One bite, sweet and juicy enough to rival a peak season peach, the next tart enough to pucker your lips and twist your face. I’m not one to take bets lightly, so I gave up on hitting the jackpot with plums.

More plums in a bowl Plum crumble pie

But there are two things I’ve learned in the past few years when it comes to cooking. First, the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store are so not representative of the variety that is actually available, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a great market or farmstand nearby. Second, if I don’t like something prepared one way, another method could just be the answer.

Plums Freestone plums Sliced Plums all sliced

Both of these lessons prove true when it comes to plums. The first in the discovery of Italian/Stanley/prune plums–beautiful hazy deep blue fruit, which also happens to be freestone (yes, plums, like peaches, have clingstone and freestone varieties) so they’re easy to eat out of hand or chop and use in cooking. The second learned last fall as watched my (regrettably small) batches of plum jam and plum chutney cook down to an unbelievable color, texture, and flavor.

Simmering Chutney Plum filling

It was love at first velvety bite, and that chutney is still one of my top 3 favorite preserves.

With these two lessons in mind–the type of plum matters, and cooking it makes it better–and a new love of plum chutney, it was no surprise that this pie had me positively tapping my foot with impatience for plums to make their appearance at the market.

Crimped Par-baked and filled Ready to bake!

This pie surprised me. Yes, anything baking smells good, but this made my apartment smell out-of-this-world amazing. The juicy plum filling bubbling up through the crumbles looks beautifully homey, like that sweater you love but only wear around the house on a blustery day. And it tasted like everything that makes me happy–spiced and tart and just a little sweet.

Drippy

The biggest surprise? That I am so smitten with a crumble-topped pie, as the top crust is usually my favorite part. The reason it works is two-fold: first, the crumble allows enough steam to escape that the plum filling gets even jammier than it would with a solid top crust; second, the top of double-crust pie is really only perfect the first day when it’s crisp and crackly, but the crumble-top pie is delicious for at least a second day (if you have pie for more than two days, you are doing something wrong and clearly need to invite me over sooner).

Beautiful

Finally, I can’t believe I’m even mentioning this, but if you’re looking for a pie for the holidays, this is it. As it’s baking, it just smells like the holidays exploded. It’s not overly sweet, and the tartness reminds me in some ways of my favorite sour cherry pie. It’s really, really spectacular.

Plum crumble pie

(Look, I know how intimidating pie can be, but you know what? If you really don’t want to deal with making a crust, this works well as a cobbler baked in a 9×9 baking dish for 45 minutes to an hour, or you can be super adorable and make cobblers in jars. Because I just need more things to put in jars.)

Spiced Plum Crumb Pie
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New inspiration, and chili season

This post will be quick, but I had two tidbits I just had to share.

First, this time of year is the perfect time for chili what with football and changing leaves and the chill in the air after the sun sets. Coincidentally, the key ingredients of my favorite chili–tomatoes, corn, peppers, and zucchini–have just a week or so left in season at the market. I’ve shared the recipe for this chili here once before but it’s worth sharing again. Plus I recently entered it in a cooking contest that ends Tuesday, and you can vote for it by just clicking like!

Peak summer chili

Second, I have to quickly rave about the fantastic event I went to yesterday, the  first Chicago Food Bloggers get-together. I’ve mentioned the group before, and I’m sure I’ll talk about the event in more detail soon, but it was a perfect opportunity to put faces to names (and URLs), meet some new like-minded folks, and learn about their great blogs and other projects. I absolutely adore cooking for and feeding my supremely appreciative and patient friends and family (this blog wouldn’t exist without them!), but when I start blabbering about the finer points of pie crust testing, spice shopping, my latest recipe trials, or cry about daylight waning before I can take my pictures, I know it’s only a matter of time before their eyes start glazing over.

Yesterday it was exciting and inspiring to be able to talk about all this and more for 2+ hours with a community of people who are or have been or will be going through the same things. One of the best connections I made is with Kerry, the owner of the beautiful blog Milk Glass Kitchen. If you know me, you know anything vintage gets my vote! (But shhh, turns out we’re both competing in that chili cook-off I just mentioned!).

That’s all for now, but I can’t wait to learn and share more with you soon!

2013-09-29 12.39.50

Best Veggie Chili Continue reading

The problem with mediocrity

I can only plead ignorance. No one told me carrot cake was this good. True, I knew it included some of my favorite things–spices, nuts, and cream cheese frosting–but somehow every time I’ve encountered it, it’s just tasted of mass produced bleh that didn’t even seem worth trying to redeem. And so I didn’t.

Cooling

I was wrong. So, so wrong.

My few run-ins with carrot cake usually went like this: a half-eaten, generic, leftover grocery store cake appears by the communal coffee pot at work and I, who should know better by now, help myself to a slice. It doesn’t taste anything like carrot, only vaguely of spices, and the frosting (which tastes nothing like cream cheese and inevitably includes tiny frosted carrots, because how else would you know what flavor this cake is supposed to be?) peels off like putty. If there are nuts at all, they are sad little crumb-sized pieces not worthy of the warning label “This product may contain nuts.”

The cake isn’t offensive, I still eat my slice, but I won’t even remember it ten minutes later, the only evidence a wadded up paper napkin and a few rouge crumbs on my desk.

A good place to startDry ingredients

And this is why mediocre food is really terrible; it’s not that the cake actually tastes bad, it’s that it’s uninspiring. It’s easy for great food to be inspirational, and bad food at least inspires me to never ever combine those ingredients again. But mediocre food? It just makes me think I wasted calories eating it. And I really hate thinking about calories.

I’m not saying all food should be drop-your-fork-and-drop-to-your-knees amazing. Shoot, for every post here I probably made a dozen average dishes or meals that weren’t worth the effort to type up, but if I’m going to eat cake, it had better be some damn good cake.

Adding carrotsAdd-ins

Back to the carrot cake. Last weekend I tried a sample of grocery store carrot cake mix, which was just good enough for me to say “Oh. Hey. I could make this.” (Sometimes I feel bad for grocery stores and their samples. I’m sure it’s not their intention that I taste and forgo the box in favor of making it from scratch.)

Ready to bakePerfectly domed

Flipping through a few cookbooks and combining bits and pieces of recipes from two of my baking bibles, I think I came up with something that is definitely better than mediocre. I may have, in fact, taken a bite of slightly warm, gooey-frosted muffin/cupcake hybrids and actually mumbled through a mouthful of delicious, “Why didn’t anyone tell me carrot cake was this good?”

This carrot cake is packed with everything I think it should be. Carrot, of course, makes its presence known in no uncertain terms; crunchy chunks of walnut will not be ignored (sorry Alton Brown, you were wrong on this count);   raisins plump up to better, juicier versions of themselves. And the spices? Let me put it this way: these cupcakes were under a heavy glass cake dome and I could still smell them every time I walked past.

And last but not least, though these are delicious without any frosting at all (dare I suggest they’re almost breakfast-worthy?), I would actually suggest doubling the frosting recipe to make sure you get a good ratio of frosting to cake–this coming from someone who generally scrapes off frosting like a picky six-year-old.

Frosted

Now, of course, this discovery makes me question what other mediocre dishes I’ve eaten that could be spectacular. I think I have some more tasting to do.

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Projects, projects everywhere

Welcome February and good riddance January. You had some nice points (it was 60 degrees in Chicago for one glorious day, that was a pleasant surprise), but I am more than ready to dig into a new month. So I’m starting with a clean slate–or at least a clean kitchen and four kitchen projects that pretty well establish that I am a total and complete nerd.

Projects

These projects really all came out of the same place, literally and figuratively: as part of Apartment Therapy’s January Cure, one of the tasks was to clean my kitchen and to really look at what I could do to make it more efficient and fun to work in. I may have gone a bit overboard from even what they were asking.

Every cabinet and drawer (and refrigerator shelf) was emptied and scrubbed, and before anything went back in, I actually took time to think about how I use the space. This led to the four projects: re-jarred and labeled spices in a dedicated drawer, a new recipe binder (with labels!), magnet strips to hang recipes while I cook, and a magnetic in-cabinet measuring cup and spoon hanging-y…thing. Ok, so the descriptions kind of fell apart there, but still, whee! Organizing!

So prettyRecipes and things

I told you: nerd. But I just can’t stop petting them all, they’re just so pretty and make me so happy. Each project was really inexpensive too, probably $30 or less, which is always nice. Here are the basics of each project:

Organized and Labeled Spice Jars
I’ve mentioned before that I do love my spices, but it turns out that the rotating spice organizers really don’t work well when you have more  spices than fit the available slots. If you need any more evidence that I am an academic at heart, I researched probably a dozen different sizes/styles/price-points of containers before deciding that my ideal jar would be:

  • Under $1.50 per jar
  • Glass, with a glass lid and air-tight seal (some people said metal containers rusted or spices stuck in the lids)
  • 3-4 ounces, the standard volume of most commercial spice jars
  • Square-shaped, ideal for space efficiency

Clear as day

I ended up finding these 3 ounce and 5 ounce jars from World Market that hit three out of my four requirements. While they were round instead of square, the fact that they were under $1 a jar made them absolutely worth it. The 3 ounce jars fit 95% of my spices perfectly, and the 5 ounce jars are just right for spices I buy in slightly larger quantities, like peppercorns, or whole spices like star anise that just take up more space. The lids are also the perfect size to use these clear labels ($10) on the top, making them easy to identify in their newly designated drawer.

Powders and piecesLarger jars

I love opening this drawer now and looking at the pretty array of colors in their clean, clear jars.

Sometimes I just open the drawer to peek at them

Recipe Binder
I have to give my dad credit for this idea originally, because he used this exact setup when I was growing up for handwritten recipes, newspaper clippings, etc. (though personally I think mine looks prettier; sorry Dad!). If you just want functional, get any old binder (free if you have one laying around), some clear plastic sheet protectors (maybe $8?), and slide your recipes in them. Quick, easy, done!

Pretty cover

If you want pretty (as I usually do), buy or use a binder that has clear pockets on the cover and sides and buy some fancy paper ($2-3). I cut out templates on some scrap paper to fit in these pockets then traced it onto the nice paper for the best fit without too much fussing around. Also, since I clearly have way too many recipes, I also bought some dividers with pockets ($6). The kind of dividers are important–regular dividers are only designed to be wide enough for standard 8.5×11 sheets after they are in the binder, and won’t be wide enough to see the tabs if you use sheet protectors. It took me three packs of dividers to figure this out, so learn from my mistake.

Tabs

The tabs don’t actually stick out like this, the cover does, well, cover them, but they just look so colorful this way.

This is a great way not only to decrease the number of drips, splatters, and other flying food issues that inevitably come from being a not-exactly-meticulous cook, but also keep my huge stack of torn-out recipes organized. Plus they make really great, easy gifts for say, your mom or a wedding shower for a great friend who loves to cook.

Magnetic Board
In cleaning out the drawer to house my spices, I needed to find a new place for my measuring cups and spoons. I’ve been kind of obsessed with chalkboard and magnetic paint lately, and started trying to figure out how I could do something like that for my kitchen. I also wanted to keep the cups and spoons hidden, so the only logical place was inside a cabinet, but it had to be removable and/or not damage anything (ah the joys of renting).

Again with the research–turns out Home Depot etc. sells small pieces of sheet metal that will hold magnets (bring a magnet to check! I had to return one piece) for about $6. A few Velcro Command strips ($5), some magnetic hooks ($5), and voila!

Measuring up

If I really get ambitious, I can take it down, paint it with chalkboard paint, and stick it back up in the cabinet. And as my dad has warned me at least twice already, please do be aware that the edges of the sheet metal are sharp so you may want to cover them with something.

Recipe Strips
While I was playing with magnets, it occurred to me that it would be really nice if I could somehow get my recipes off of my limited counter space and protect them from the aforementioned flying food issues in my kitchen.

So much easier to see!

Re-enter the Command strips (or other double-sided tape) and these small magnetic strips from The Container Store (but you can really find something similar anywhere for about $5). I temporarily taped a recipe to the cabinet to figure the correct height, marked it, and then centered and leveled the magnet strip. I ended putting one up on the cabinet over my cutting board next to my stove, where I do most of my “regular” cooking, and another on the cabinet over my mixer, where I do most of my baking. It has worked fantastically so far!

So with those four projects done to make cooking a bit easier, and my kitchen spotless, I’m back to making a mess of things–recipes to come soon!