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

Pizza, pizza!

Normally when I find or create a recipe that I want to share with you, I mess around with it for at least a few weeks to make sure it’s just the way I want it; it’s relatively rare that I find a recipe and almost immediately want to post it. But last Thursday, Deb at the inimitable Smitten Kitchen posted the holy grail of pizza dough. I mixed up the dough that night, ate it for dinner the next, made it again yesterday, and did my damndest to share with you as quickly as possible, because, well, pizza.

Is there anything better?

Great pizza dough seems to have a similar mysterious quality as great pie dough. Tomes have been written about the process for both, which is horrifically intimidating (I’m supposed to read what?! I just want dinner, not a dissertation!) Since it takes so few ingredients, undue emphasis (some would say fanaticism) is placed on what type of flour, where the water was sourced. People get scared of dealing with yeast and rising dough. Some say great pizza can just never be replicated at home without a wood-burning oven or a baking stone or a full-blooded Italian in the kitchen.

I call bull.

Escaping cheese didn't get very far

Look, it’s really not as complicated as all that, so please don’t be scared. I’ve struggled with pizza dough too, I’ve had versions I’ve liked for various reasons, but the biggest killer to me is the timing, which is what is so absolutely perfect about this recipe. Make it in 5 minutes the night before and it will be ready just in time for dinner the next night (and will keep in the fridge for even a few days after that)–no 6 hours or 16 hours or some similarly inconvenient timing for someone who actually has a day job (which is not making pizza).

All you need for amazing pizza Sticky doughIt is risen!

This dough doesn’t require kneading or rolling out, another confidence killer when it comes to pizza (and pie, now that I think about it)–just poke and pat it into whatever shape you like. You can get fancy with the flour if you want (I like half white/half bread flour), but you don’t have to; you can use a pizza stone, but a pre-heated baking sheet works quite well. Once baked, the pizza crust has a crackly outside but the inside is tender and chewy.

Topped Cheesed Bubbly

The toppings are up to you (though try to use a light hand with ingredients like sausage–for a topping-heavy pizza, you may prefer this), and you can make it thinner or thicker depending on your preference.

Golden brown and delicious

I implore you, if you have ever wanted to make pizza at home, give this a try, it may just change your weekly dinner rotation and will most certainly change your mind about easy homemade pizza.

Easy Pizza Dough Continue reading

Resisting the siren call of takeout, aka red pepper soup

I confess, I can cook for the transition of fall to winter, winter to spring, spring to summer, but when it comes to the beginning of fall, I’ve drawn a blank. I know I should be reveling in squash and carrots and apples during what has really been a spectacular fall–and I will be savoring all those things soon, I promise–but I just haven’t had a taste for any of it yet.

Yum

It’s too dark too early to grill, and too (blissfully, gloriously) warm for me to want to turn on the oven for anything other than dessert (and I have an awesome one for you soon), meaning a lot more staring contests with my refrigerator and subsequent calls for takeout than I like to admit.

Everything good starts with onions and garlic Lots of peppers

Let’s ignore the takeout and instead talk about the soup I ended up making with the giant bowl of grilled peppers languishing after my last grilling session. These are the kind of impromptu dishes that make me feel like a good cook–random components assembled in the right order somehow end up as a really tasty, really easy dish…that I may have eaten with grilled cheese every night this week. Yeah, let’s not talk about that either.

Smoothed out Creamy

In any case, this is a great soup that you can easily make any season with ingredients you probably have on hand–a few jars of grilled peppers (or grill your own if they’re in season), onion, garlic, a few spices, a little honey and vinegar, some broth and some milk. A pretty good alternative to takeout, I’d say.

Needs cheese Loving my new lens!

(On a sidenote, thanks to my dad and especially my photographer sister Laura this week in helping me hunt down a new, better lens after mine had an unfortunate encounter with an imbalanced cooling rack and, subsequently, my floor. I love my new toy!)

Roasted Red Pepper Soup Continue reading

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

Seasonal identity crisis

Yes, it’s officially fall, leaves are changing, pumpkin lattes, blah blah blah. But I haven’t given up on you yet tomatoes!

Cherry tomatoesShiny

It usually takes me a week or so to fully embrace fall (by which time the season is half over) and get over my grumpiness that my beautiful sunlight is long gone by 8 p.m., so my cooking lately has been a weird mish-mash of summer freshness and fall coziness.

Cherry tomatoes Everything is better with cheese Best part of summer, hands down

Call it a seasonal identity crisis. Corn and tomatoes–summer! Apples everywhere–fall! Watermelons ripe and bursting–summer! Baking–fall! Fresh, raw everything–summer! It’s 60 degrees–fall! It’s 95–summer! (Ok, getting those last two in the same week was odd even for September in Chicago).

ThinThicker Polenta, goat-cheesed Dolloped

So I’m just embracing the identity crisis with baking and corn and tomatoes and basil and cheese. Everything is better with cheese. This little tart is such a perfect dish that I’m sad I only found it recently, but it will be one of the first things I make next summer when tomatoes and corn come around again. Hopefully you can find one last ear of corn and a few perfect tiny tomatoes for a final summer hurrah.

Summer on a plate

(And for someone who still says she doesn’t really like raw tomatoes, and says she doesn’t understand how people can eat little tomatoes like grapes, I definitely worked through half of these little beauties before I even got around to making this recipe. Can you possibly blame me? God I love summer.)

Cherry tomatoes Cherry tomatoes

Polenta Tarts with Goat Cheese and Roasted Tomatoes

Continue reading

Wait summer, we’re not done yet!

Somehow I blinked and summer almost got past me. Last thing I remember, I was elbow deep in berries and cherries, anxious for some really good beach days. The next thing I know baskets of plums, peaches, and even apples replaced the strawberries, shadows stretch too far across the path on my post-work jog, and September is really just too close for comfort.

Fried green tomatoes

I’ve been running all over this summer, it seems–Boulder, Cleveland, Rochester, here, there, everywhere. And if the precarious balancing act of plates, bowls, jars, bags and baskets of fruits and vegetables in my fridge and around my kitchen is any indication, I’ve also been cooking up a storm–but haven’t had time to share the treats I’ve made. Blueberry jam with orange and mint (my new favorite), buttermilk cake with blackberries as big as my thumb, sweet corn ice cream (don’t make that face, it’s really good!), blue cheese coleslaw, and my very first fried green tomatoes.

All in a row

I’d only tried fried green tomatoes once at a restaurant before I found myself with half a dozen unripe tomatoes sitting on my counter a few weeks ago. I’ve made them three times since and the recipe is earning its keep as a staple in my summer kitchen.  They’re incredibly good hot and fresh with homemade ranch dressing for dipping, but I’ve also found they’re amazing on a burger, or even cold the next day on a buttery, lightly toasted bun with lettuce and just a wee bit of mayo.

Little spill Cornmeal, parsley, paprika

The rest of August and September are shaping up to be just as jam-packed (also probably packed with jam) as the past few months. Next weekend I’m heading to a yoga/music festival I’ve been helping publicize over the past few months. Then my sister Erica will be here to sell her awesome jewelry (stop by the Renegade Craft Fair September 7-8!).

Starting to ripen First round of breading Buttermilk dunk

After that, my very first food swap! I’m not inclined to deal with the time/paperwork/money investment of actually selling what I make, and I can only foist so much off on my friends and family. A food swap is the perfect chance to get to try some new things, clear out some of the projects that are taking over my kitchen (I’m looking at you, pickle/pepper relish), and meet some like-minded Chicago cooking enthusiasts.

Breaded and ready Frying

Finally, I added my blog to the new Chicago Food Blogger directory and I’m hoping some fun get-togethers will come out of that. One of the things I was looking for  last year when I claimed this corner of the Internet was a list of other people around Chicago who loved to cook, and talk about cooking, as much as I do; this new directory fits the bill perfectly. I’ve already found some new sites to read, and hope there will be some fun chances to get to know other foodies nearby.

But before I get too ahead of myself with all these plans and doings and such, there’s still some summer-ing to eke out (especially watermelon-ing, I really need to get on that).

Fried green tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes
Continue reading

Too much of a good thing

Summer is a funny time for food. It starts with FRESH. EVERYTHING.

Skewered and fired

On one side of the coin, fruits and vegetables are so good I want to make every recipe I stumble on. I want to make a pie a day, fruit scones and sauces, ice cream and jam. I want salads of everything I can get my hands on, grilled anything, stuffed sandwiches spilling their juicy vegetable insides all down my arm while I try to pretend that I’m civilized and that I know how to use a napkin.

Kabobs

On the other side of that coin, though, I don’t want to cook at all. What could be more perfect than the freshest berries or sweet little peas eaten straight out of hand? Why mess with perfection like that? The most amazing lettuce tossed with a squeeze of lemon, drizzle of oil, sprinkle of salt—nothing else is called for or needed. A plate of vegetables and fruit, maybe a little sausage and cheese, a chunk of crusty bread and (hopefully! finally!) a sunny, not-too-humid evening on the porch with a glass of wine and the sounds of the city.

Smoky Garlic-y

(That all sounds much more romantic than the more frequent reality—it’s too hot or rainy to grill or I’m too tired to cook anything by the time I get home. I like the romantic version better.)

Sauced
That said, I think this recipe is a pretty good compromise between the two sides. Vegetables (whatever you like and is in season) are skewered and brushed with a smoky glaze before a quick sizzle on the grill to barely soften; shrimp and spicy smoked sausage are an optional, though delicious, addition. Add a chunk of salty Spanish cheese and that piece of crusty bread (along with that glass of wine) to elevate this to fancy party snack fare.

Grilling

Speaking of the sounds of the city, I’ve been on a Chicago reading kick this summer. The two books so far that I’ve been recommending to everyone are 1001 Nights in Chicago by Ben Hecht (I got the edition with the introduction by Bill Savage, expert in all things literary and Chicago, and my former professor and thesis advisor), and Never a City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz.

1001 Nights, a compilation of 2-3 page character sketches written for Hecht’s 1920′s newspaper column, is easy to pick up and put down or open to any page and start reading–nothing feels as break-the-rules summer-y as that to me. Kotlowitz’s book is short, only 160 pages, but it’s a great look at some of the less-talked-about parts of the city and its people: the Bud Billiken parade, the southwest side’s union past, an artist who paints murals in public housing, a lawyer who works at the county courthouse. Kotlowitz’s book is pretty current, Hecht’s is nearly 100 years old, but there’s a not-so-surprising continuity in the people, history, and feel of Chicago.

Next on my list, whenever I get my hands on a copy, is The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream by Thomas Dyja, along with some requisite summer fluff reading. Anything on your summer to-read list?

Continue reading

Rhubarb pie to celebrate

A year ago today I claimed this little corner of the Internet as my own. I wasn’t sure what to expect, not sure what to write, very little idea of how to take a decent picture, or even who would read what I had to say. And yet here we are, a year and 62 posts later, and I couldn’t be more thankful for everything. So here, have a slice of some birthday pie. Sorry, I forgot the candles, but I do have ice cream.

Rhubarb pie

This recipe embodies everything I hoped this blog would lead to. Last year was my first encounter with rhubarb and I shared it with you; this year, I couldn’t wait for it to show up so I could really explore what I’ve been missing.

ChoppedSugared and floured

Last year, making pie crust involved muttered swears and prayers over bowls and rolling pins, with no discernible rhyme or reason to success or failure. Through some crazy experiments, including learning to render my own lard, I’ve had three pie crust successes in a row–hardly mastery, but as least my confidence has grown leaps and bounds (…I’ve just jinxed myself, haven’t I?).

I love this pie crust

As much as I’ve learned about cooking over the past year, though, the best part by far has been sharing with you and reading your comments; those connections mean everything to me, so thank you.

When it comes to this pie, it seems a crying shame to wait until strawberries appear to enjoy rhubarb. Since their seasons overlap for just a few short weeks around here, half of rhubarb season is already gone by the time summer’s opening act takes stage. Why not enjoy spring’s sweetest offering on its own merits? I think it’s earned its moment in the spotlight.

Ready to mixLook like frosted sugar candiesPie in the makingReady to rollFilled with rhubarb

If you’re a rhubarb newbie like me, this pie is a great place to start. Rather than muddling flavors with strawberries, rhubarb stands on its own here. Its tartness is tamed with just enough sugar to make this a for-real dessert, juices are thickened simply with flour into the prettiest mauve-y pink oozy filling, cinnamon adds just enough to bring out the full range of rhubarb’s flavors.

Rhubarb pieNothing better

Cheers to year two everyone–thanks for sticking around. There’s pie on the counter and ice cream in the freezer, please help yourself.

Continue reading

Cure for the crazies

Sometimes I’m a little crazy. Five people coming to stay for three days in my two-bedroom apartment? Perfect time to  start a dozen different projects that have been on my list for a year into the few free hours I can eke out after work! And hey, can’t have my guests go hungry, best make granola, a batch of carrot cupcakes, blackstrap molasses ice cream with pecan praline (um, yum), and…well, at least I had one easy thing on my list.

Ready for dipping!

Everyone needs a go-to dish for when you’re slightly crazed–last minute guests, forgotten party you promised a dish for, or just bordering on hangry (my new favorite word=hungry+angry. Because who hasn’t been there?). For me, this is that dish.

More than a dip, kind of a spread, it’s all delicious however you use it. Plus–and this is key–it takes all of 30 seconds to make and can be made with pretty standard cupboard fare. Dump everything in the food processor, turn it on, scoop it into a pretty bowl (or don’t, I know how demanding the hangry can be), devour. Pita chips, crackers, vegetables, spread on a sandwich instead of hummus…all are perfectly valid and perfectly delicious options.

Ready to goDumb and blendWhirrrr

There is one thing that makes this dip extra special–namely, pomegranate molasses. If you’ve never tried–or heard of– it, it’s a great little secret ingredient in everything from salad dressings to a marinade for grilling meat or vegetables, or even drizzled over strawberries. Tangy and tart, it provides a depth to the dip that you can’t quite put your finger on. (Ok, maybe pomegranate molasses isn’t “standard” cupboard fare, but it should be! And it actually lasts a long time in the fridge, so if you can find some it’s worth a purchase. Otherwise you can easily cook down pomegranate juice with some sugar and lemon juice until it’s nice and syrupy–look, Alton Brown even has a recipe!)

In any case, thank god for easy recipes in between frantic project-doing, apartment-cleaning, cupcake-baking, and general chicken-sans-head-running. Molasses is blitzed together with toasty cumin and spicy cayenne, walnuts, roasted sweet peppers, olive oil, and bread crumbs. Done. If nothing else for my guests, I knew this would go over well.

So I may make myself crazy, but at least I make some damn good dip too.

Just a little chunky

Continue reading