What’s Cooking Wednesday: A Party, Gifts, and Restaurant Week

I hosted my first holiday party last weekend and…well, I think I kind of love having parties. There is absolutely, 100%, nothing more satisfying than seeing my friends happy and well-fed in my home.

Party spread, and a tree!

Ready for entertaining!

As for what I made, this was the menu:

  • Smoked salmon
  • Mustard batons (I loved these, they were dead simple and tasted great–I’ll share the recipe soon)
  • French Onion Soup palmiers (puff pastry covered with caramelized onions and gruyere, rolled, and sliced)
  • Gougeres with gruyere (from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, but you can find the recipe at West of the Loop)
  • Muhammara
  • Mustard (I made three kinds: white wine, hard cider, and blueberry stout)
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Herb marinated olives (from Around My French Table)
  • Baked brie/cheese plate/salami
  • Mulled wine (recipe to come soon)
  • Hot chocolate (from Smitten Kitchen)
  • Damson plum gin (this turned out spectacularly, and went amazingly well with champagne)
  • Cookies (full list in the next post)

Plus the usual bread, crackers, nuts, beer, sparkling wine. It was quite the spread if I do say so myself!

Party spread

In other news, while I didn’t put together a gift guide, the Chicago Food Bloggers saved me the trouble and put together a great one. My fellow foodies gave some awesome suggestions–books, edibles, experiences, gadgets–for just about anyone on your list. If I had remembered to contribute, I would have suggested a cooking class or two at the Peterson Garden Project.

And finally the Chicago Restaurant Week(s) lineup was announced today! These two weeks starting January 30 are great for getting out and trying new places around the city. My favorite discovery from last year was Ada Street and their amazing cocktails, creative (and, more importantly, delicious) small plates, and the most spectacular buttermilk pannacotta. Yum. This year they’re doing a pretty funky menu based on the last meals of criminals–a bit morbid, but intriguing.

I always end up over-analyzing my options and then only end up going to one place, but this year I want to hit at least 3. Now I just have to pick some places and actually go!

 

 

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cookies and parties and tiny pies

My head is a bit all over the place this week. I’ve been trying to get a head start on cookie-making, planning cookies for baking this weekend, plus thinking about what I’ll be bringing to a cookie swap hosted by one of my local spice shops. I promised myself I wasn’t going to overdo it on cookies this year–the problem is picking my favorites! Biscotti, pecan tassies, peanut butter blossoms, chocolate snowcaps, maybe one or two others, and then I’m cutting myself off.

Boxed up

I’m also thinking about what to make for my holiday party. Salmon, definitely; red pepper dip, likely; the rest of the menu is still in draft mode. As with the cookies, I keep having to reign myself in–but there’s so many recipes that sound so good! I figure as long as there’s plenty of wine (mulled and non-), beer, and perhaps some of that plum gin (which should be just about ready), I should be pretty well set.

Finished smoked salmon

I also realized I never shared with you my two contributions to my mom’s Thanksgiving table. I made tiny versions of Smitten Kitchen’s cranberry pie in tiny mason jars that were completely adorable and essentially the fall version of sour cherry pie (and we know how much I love sour cherries). I also contributed some pretty amazing (if I say so myself) Parker house rolls.

Baby pies in baby jars

Perfect rolls

Even with all the cookies and parties and food and planning, I’m not quite feeling like it’s really the holiday season yet. Maybe once I pick up a tree and do my decorating (and figure out how to turn on my new fireplace! I’m inordinately excited about that part) and do my annual viewing of Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! it will sink in.

Happy baking season: The perfect chocolate chip cookie

It’s kind of adorable when cookie recipes say “Cool completely before serving.” Who are they kidding, really? They’re lucky if the dough makes it to the oven before disappearing by the spoonful in the name of “taste testing.” And let’s be honest, a warm cookie oozing chocolate may be one of life’s small perfections. “Cool before serving”–bah, humbug.

It's all worth it

So starts December, month of cookies and baked goods coming at you from every direction. (I know, we’ve barely finished the last bites of turkey and pie. Time flies when you’re having fun eating all the things.)

Simple ingredients
Butter, browned

I’ve said before I’m much more a fan of savory than sweet (pretty obviously so if you look at my recipe archive), but I’ll make an exception on occasion. And an exceptionally good chocolate chip cookie is just one of those occasions.

Add the egg
And we whisk

These cookies also happened to be the first use for the 6.5 pound bag of bittersweet chocolate I brought back from Paris. While you can of course use whatever chocolate you like, I’ve found I like the less-sweet dark chocolate. And while chips are traditional, I also prefer chopping up a big chocolate bar instead. I love how the pieces end up in varying sizes so I get a mix of nice chocolate chunks along with shards that melt into thin chocolate layers throughout the cookie. If you can find these fun little coin shapes, use them, or simply chop up a thick chocolate bar (I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars).

This smells exactly like caramel Flour goes in Don't over-mix

And of course chocolate chip cookies require nuts (preferably walnuts). If you leave them out…well I just don’t know why you’d do such a thing (barring a deathly allergy, in which case you get a pass).

More good stuff It is physically impossible not to sneak a bite at this point Nearly cookies

What I absolutely love about this recipe though is the browned butter. I know, browned butter has become as irritatingly trendy as pumpkin spice or the cronut (a terribly obnoxious word that will keep me from ever eating one, by the way), which is unfortunate as toasty brown butter just so damn good. Honestly after you mix the butter with the sugars, salt, and vanilla, it smells exactly like the best caramel on earth. (I will not admit to pretty much huffing the dough as I was stirring it. Nope.) And then come the aforementioned chocolate and nuts, and why are you still reading? Go. Make cookies. I won’t tell if you eat them before they’re cool.

Best chocolate chip cookies

(I also won’t tell you that it’s super easy to freeze this cookie dough in balls so you can bake one or two cookies at a time, because do you know how good frozen cookie dough is? Just trust me, the cookies will be even less likely to make it to the oven.)

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
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Recipes with roots

The more I discover about food, the more I find that the dishes I’m drawn to are the ones with history, with deep roots in the land and the people who live on it. Usually these are not particularly complicated recipes, nor do they call for particularly fancy ingredients or preparations. I love the infinite variety that comes from the simplest ingredients–flour, sugar, butter, eggs, salt, lemon, yeast–and how each family, town, country, culture can make something that is completely and uniquely theirs.

Golden brown and delicious

Of the (many) food-related souvenirs I brought home from Paris, the absolutely beautiful–in picture and word–cookbook A Kitchen in France may be one of my favorites. I stumbled on Mimi Thorisson’s blog, Manger, a few years ago but somehow managed to forget about it until I was flipping through her newly published first book in a tiny cramped aisle of Shakespeare & Co. The pictures of her food, home, and the Medoc countryside are stunning; the stories are the stuff of my daydreams. Most important of all, though, are the recipes.

Six basic ingredients
Butter, sugar, egg, lemon

The recipes in this book are everything I mentioned at the beginning of this post. They’re recipes with roots; roots either in a particular area of France, in Mimi’s family or her neighbors’ history, in a unique local ingredient, in a particular season. Some are incredibly simple, like the recipe below, some with a few more steps, like the bouillabaisse, but what I love about all of them is that it’s easy to feel their history.

Add flour
Risen
Sticky dough

I don’t think it was coincidence that flipping through this book over the course of a week, it kept falling open to this particular recipe. I took it as a sign and as soon as I started mixing the ingredients together, I had an immediate feeling of being home. I knew this smell, the rich combination of butter, sugar, lemon, yeast. I don’t even know exactly what recipe this reminded me of (maybe my grandma’s lemon cream cheese swirls?), but it struck something deep and nostalgic.

There’s nothing particularly local or seasonal about this recipe–it is, after all, only six of the most basic ingredients in baking–but it’s easy to feel the history in it, from when butter and sugar were special treats because they were rare (according to the cookbook, this is a medieval recipe from the town of Pérouges) to when butter and sugar are special treats because they’re a welcome break from multi-syllabic preservatives.

Beyond that, it’s easy and just tastes really, really good–it’s hard to go wrong with warm lemony, buttery brioche dough topped with melted butter and slightly crunchy caramelized sugar. It’s impossible to go wrong actually, which is why you should make this immediately.

Pinch up the edges
Sugared
One delicious slice

Galette Pérougienne (Lemon Sugar Bread) 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.

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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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