Chive Blossom Vinegar

I’m going to be ruthless with my garden this year. One of my biggest mistakes last year was hesitating to cut back and thin out a lot of what I planted. It felt so heartless to pluck out perfectly good little lettuces (they just want to live up to their full lettuce-y potential!) or hack off the better part of my basil plant. What I’m learning is that both thinning out and cutting back is better for my plants in the long run–the plants I leave get bigger, cutting them back encourages more growth.

All that is why that big bushy chive plant from three weeks ago got a major haircut and is now about 5 inches tall. It’s also why I have a jar of chive flower vinegar on my counter rapidly turning a spectacular shade of magenta and a double batch of chive biscuits in my freezer (more on those next week).

And still more chives Ready for its close-up

Vinegar will definitely be one of my go-tos for my extra herbs this summer. I’ve certainly planted enough, both in pots on my porch and in my garden, to keep pretty much everyone I know well stocked and still have enough left over to play with. I’ve got chives (of course), garlic chives, oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil, bay, thyme, cilantro, epazote, lemon verbena, pineapple mint, and strawberry mint.

Infused vinegar is about as easy as it gets. Use white vinegar in the giant industrial bottle or go fancy with white wine or champagne vinegar. Light colored vinegars are my favorite purely for aesthetics, but you can infuse red wine, apple cider, or even balsamic vinegar (finally a use for the white balsamic I keep buying from Trader Joe’s and never, ever use). Use one herb or a combination; I’m interested in making infused vinegars with basil, lemon verbena, and the mints for some great vinaigrettes this summer.

Rinsed v 2 Blossoms in a jar

Throw a few mashed berries, zest, or peppers in the mix (strawberry basil vinegar? cilantro, lime zest, and jalapeno infused vinegar added to salsa or guacamole?). The big trick is patience–you have to let it sit at least two weeks before the vinegar really well-flavored.

Mashed and infused Glowing jar of vinegar

And when I still have more herbs to use (as I know I will), chopping them up, mixing with a little bit of olive oil and freezing in ice-cube trays will be an easy way to keep them handy all year. In the meantime, I’ll try not to keep holding this up to the window to see how pretty it looks.

48 hours later. Still 12 days to go.

Chive Flower Vinegar
Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Memorial Day Meals

Chicago can’t quite seem to commit to warm weather–we had four days of 80s and sun (perfect for working outside all last weekend at the plant sale and getting a little done in my garden), then, as soon as I get my tomatoes in the ground, down to 40s. Thankfully this weekend is supposed to be solidly beautiful, perfect for grilling, gardening, and generally being outside and eating all the almost-summer foods.

With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking about making during the long weekend.

IcyWith rhubarb season in full swing and strawberries close behind, it was a good opportunity tonight to clean out my freezer of some of both that I haven’t gotten around to using. Easiest thing? Rhubarb-strawberry syrup. A bag each of frozen rhubarb and strawberries, enough water to cover, a few cups of sugar, zest of a lemon, simmer about 20 minutes or until it tastes good. Take off the heat and add the juice of a lemon, refrigerate. I love it with seltzer (and maybe a splash of triple sec).

Don't forget to grill a few lemons I loved this grilled chicken I made last summer, and it would go perfectly with grilled asparagus tossed with green garlic and thinly sliced French radishes, a beautiful salad, a glass of wine, and some friends on my porch. Yum.

Arugula walnut pesto on grilled pizzaAs for any leftover chicken? A batch of this pesto on a warm flatbread or spread on a toasty pita with some of the lemony grilled chicken tucked inside sounds like a perfect lunch after I finish planting my garden with tomatoes and basil and some new herbs.

Rhubarb pie And because this is the start of pie season for me, rhubarb pie is a must. I made this to celebrate my first “blogiversary” because it represented so clearly what I wanted from this blog–a new skill learned or perfected (pie crust), a new favorite ingredient discovered (rhubarb) and a recipe to bring them together. And hey, May 21 also marks happy 3 years blogging to me!

Vive la Madeleine

What dessert or sweet treat defines Paris? The internet is littered with lists, debates rage, and more often than not, the macaron is crowned king (or queen, perhaps not an enviable role given Paris’ history). I would argue the madeleine, quietly observing from the wings, deserves its moment to shine.

A little bump

Delicious and beautiful and delicate as they are, macarons are also known for their fussiness and fanciness; they have a notorious reputation for tempermentality should you take on the challenge of making them yourself. Madeleines are confident in their simplicity, needing nothing more than a dusting of powdered sugar or basic sugar glaze.

Madeleine prep Lemon sugar

Madeleines, like Paris, have a bit of je ne sais quoi about them, just enough to make things interesting, but not intimidating if approached with the right attitude. Madeleines are, in fact, very approachable and not particularly complicated–you probably have every ingredient in your cupboard or fridge.

But they require a bit of dedication and a dedicated pan (madelelines are not madeleines if they’re baked in cupcake tins), a little patience, and some home-cook magic to create their iconic little bump. Madeleines also will not wait for you; once baked, their window of perfection is short, and it’s really best to cede to their schedule for the best experience–you’ll really be glad you did.

Whisk until right before your arm falls off Adding butter

The buttery, lemony, sweet little cakes themselves are pillow-soft but sturdy enough to stand up to a dunk in a cup of tea (memorably so, if Marcel Proust is any authority). If you look at a macaron sideways, its delicate shell might crack and crumble. The madeleines traditional shell shape is their one nod to decoration, but even that is relatively simple by necessity–too intricate and the detail is lost or they stick to the pan.

Flour-y shells Post rest

On the other hand, maybe the madeleine is best left out of the spotlight to be enjoyed by those who know what to look for. Maybe it doesn’t need a chain of ultra-high-end stores, fancy boxes, or a cult following, but just a pretty little plate and a pot of tea at a beat-up wooden table surrounded by friends and good conversation. Sounds like perfection to me.

Odd man outPerfect petite madeleines

And simply because no discussion of the madeleine would be complete without it:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

Madeleines Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: On the Grill

On the spectrum of grills and grilling, this is how I view things:

Charcoal grill > Any grill > No grill

Whisps

A few years ago, I moved into my first apartment with a porch and my first must-do was learn how to grill. Happily, I got a little cast iron Lodge hibachi grill as a housewarming gift (you know what’s really smart? giving a person who likes to cook stuff to cook with because they will often use it to cook for you).

Salad on the grill Grilling

For four years, I used the hell out of that thing. It’s just the right size to cook for one or two people, but I easily had enough space to grill a whole pizza or a few burgers when I needed to. It was fast to heat up, holds just enough charcoal for one meal (with enough left over to melt a few marshmallows), and took briquette (the kind most grocery stores sell in summer) and lump (the kind that looks like chunks of burnt wood) charcoal. I can guarantee there were weeks in summer I did not touch my stove in favor of cooking on my porch (yes, breakfast too–do you know how good grilled bacon is?).

As much as I love that grill, it has a few drawbacks. The lack of a lid is the biggest one, making it a challenge to cook larger pieces of meat for longer periods of time. Foil or a pot lid worked to melt cheese on a burger, but not so well for cooking, say, a whole chicken, or smoking anything. A little Weber or tabletop/tailgating grill would have solved this, but I really like how the cast iron maintained heat. That’s why my housewarming gift to myself with my new place (after I made sure there were no rules about grilling, and yes, being able to grill was one of my “must-haves” when I was looking to buy) was a small ceramic grill, a Kamado Joe Jr.

My baby

I love my new baby for a lot of reasons but it came with a bit of a learning curve. The biggest selling point for me: it’s easy to get temperatures really low (180º F), really high (900º F), and everything in between and hold that temperature steady for a very long time–the whole thing is essentially a brick oven with grill grates. The lid and the steady temperatures also mean I can cook larger things like chicken; smoke salmon, or even bake (some people get excited about a pulled pork on the grill, I’m excited about baking cobbler. Ok, and the pork too.).

Perfect way to end a warm spring day, strawberry rhubarb cobbler from #americastestkitchen cooked on my #kamadojoe. #atkgrams #grilling #bringonspring

Compared to my cast iron grill, the ceramic needs a little more attention and takes a little longer to get the hang of. It’s slower to heat up than my cast iron, and only uses lump charcoal. Also, with the cast iron I could see my food as it cooked and so was quicker to figure out how much charcoal to use, how to set my hot and cool spots, when to turn or otherwise fuss with the food. With the ceramic, the cooking is mostly hidden under the lid, so I’ve had to learn a bit more by trial and error (and a few overdone burgers). But as I figure it out, I realize how much I will be able do–baking pizzas at near-professional pizza-oven temperatures and smoking my own bacon, for instance.

Still smoking "Sasquatched" Don't forget to grill a few lemons

The difference between my two grills is essentially the difference between having a stovetop and having a full stove with an oven. I can cook nearly everything with just the first, but having the flexibility of the second gives me so many more options that it’s worth dealing with the learning curve.

If I had a porch big enough to have both grills out at the same time, I would, but for now I’m defaulting to my ceramic. My next place though…both grills.

Cassoulet

First, a note–before I made this, Chicago was well on its way to spring. It was 70 degrees, my winter coats and gloves and scarves were all put away. The day this went in the oven? Four inches of snow. I don’t know if that’s an endorsement or indictment. You’ve been warned.

Halfway there

There’s a particular kind of meal best served out of the dish it was made in, at a table crowded with full wine glasses, ready plates, and even more ready appetites. The kind of meal that lends itself to lingering at the table long after the food is gone, though the glasses never seem to run empty.

After my trip to Paris last fall, I’ve (hardly unexpectedly) been on a French food kick and all winter, the one dish I’ve been craving, but never quite got around to making until last week, is about as French as it gets and, I think, perfectly speaks to that kind of meal–cassoulet.

The basics Brined onions

If you’re not familiar with cassoulet, it’s a rib-sticking, richer-than-stew but not-really-a-casserole dish of white beans, chicken or duck, sausage, salt pork, broth, and a ton of garlic. Every person who makes it has their own recipe–which is of course the “right” way (the right way usually coinciding with the way they had it growing up–though in cassoulet’s case, it actually has a whole academie).

Salt pork Sausage Browned bits and onions

The dish has an intimidating reputation, even to me–see above re. L’académie Universelle du Cassoulet. There’s the duck confit (which many recipes include instructions to make yourself), a very specific type of bean, the multi-day cooking time, etc., etc. But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. I’m not advocating for a microwave version (I probably made a Frenchman roll over in his grave just by typing that), but, as with any dish borne out of using what you have and stretching it to serve a crowd, it can be–and was!–simple (and, if not exactly fast, at least doesn’t require a lot of standing-at-the-stove time).

Brined beans and a few vegetables Partially cooked beans Almost good enough to stop right here

I’ve had this recipe kicking around since October, but my favorite part isn’t the recipe itself (though it’s what I used and what I modified below), it’s the article that precedes it. It addresses perfectly the intimidation factor and how to make this the way I imagine it was made at the beginning–with ingredients you have or can pretty easily get, allowing for adjustments as needed, and to your own tastes. And pretty much however you make it, it will be amazing.

To unintentionally prove a point, I actually screwed up when I made this. In hindsight, I should have added more water while it was cooking, there should have been a bit more broth-yness to the beans by the time it was done. Ideally the crust forms from the liquid, not the beans or chicken. Not a problem–it was still delicious (and totally devoured and I basically had to stop myself from picking off all the crispy chicken skin bits) and I will make adjustments next time.

2 hours later 4 hours and done!

Cassoulet Continue reading

Brownies for my Grandpa

Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.

My grandparents

There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.

Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.

60th wedding anniversary

I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.

Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?

Nothing says love like fattening up your family

There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”

My graduation

My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.

Mom and Grandpa, dancing
Mom and Grandpa, dancing. He loved to dance.

Thanks, Grandpa. I made you some brownies.

Brownies with Walnuts
Continue reading

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
Continue reading

Take That, Snow!

Snow, snow, and more snow. Tis the season, I suppose, and in all fairness this has been a not-terrible winter. While I guarantee I will still whine and complain about the waiting-for-the-snow-plow-to-unbury-my-street and digging-out-my-car parts, it is nice to have a Sunday’s-worth of plans canceled in favor of a few cooking/baking projects to basically say “Take that, snow!” (after, of course, an emergency trip to the grocery store since I was out of eggs. And milk. And sugar. All set on bread though!).

Mushroom wild rice soup

After making a veritable cauldron of roasted beef stock, I was looking to put it to good use–something other than beef barley (want to guess what I forgot to put on my list for that emergency grocery run?). Beef goes well with mushrooms, and maybe…some wild rice? Sounded good to me.

Perfect wild riceMushrooms, onions, and other goodies

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a subscription on America’s Test Kitchen online recipe archive, so I’ve been on a bit of an ATK bender since the new year. Lucky me, one of the recipes in their archives was wild rice and mushroom soup, and easy enough to use beef broth instead of chicken. And since I had a bunch of beef cooked and shredded in bits and pieces left over from making stock, it went into the soup as well.

Cooked downMarbled soup

Well, if I can’t beat the weather (I did try!), I may as well embrace it, and this soup was basically a bowl of snow day winter coziness. Stick-to-your-ribs from the wild rice, beef, and mushrooms; a little bit bright with the lemon and chives; rich and creamy (but not so rich that you can’t have a second helping–we’re embracing winter after all, right?).

Bonus–it went perfectly with that monster loaf of rye bread.

Marbled cream

Wild Rice, Mushroom, and Beef Soup
Continue reading

Winter Comfort Bread

One of my long-time food quests has been to make a really good, crusty, crunchy loaf of bread. A loaf of bread that’s sturdy and solid and meant to stand up to a lengthy dunk in a steamy bowl of soup or stew. Not a soft, sweet, buttery sandwich bread, but winter comfort bread. I think I finally found it, and it’s the easiest bread I’ve ever made.

The most gorgeous loaf of bread to ever come out of my kitchen

In the past, I’ve tried using two different kinds of baking stones to get the heat of a wood-burning hearth oven, adding a pan of boiling water to my oven or spraying down the walls with water to replicate its steam, and plenty of other tricks. They all work, sort-of. But I didn’t want a sort-of loaf.

You'll need a lot of flour and some really big bowlsGluten-y

This is a loaf to be reckoned with. It uses four pounds of flour, first of all. It will take your biggest mixing bowl and the better part of two days. It’s easiest to cut into hunks and chunks, perfect for serving warm, slathering thickly with butter, and soaking up a rich broth.

Bread dough, post salt waterPretty round bread babies

Conveniently, this is also one of the easiest breads I’ve made. The two days is mostly just waiting. There’s no kneading; you don’t need a mixer. The timing works on your schedule–the pre-ferment can probably wait an extra day; the dough, after the first rise, can be put in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it (I didn’t get around to baking my second loaf for nearly a week–it was still delicious, though a little denser than my first loaf).

Scored and ready to bakeJust a quick peek!

Fair warning: this recipe makes two humongous loaves of bread–if you didn’t guess from the aforementioned four pounds of flour. Unless you have a giant cast iron pot, or just want a more wield-y option, I’d suggest splitting this into four loaves.

Perfect with soup

Crusty Bread Continue reading

Welcome 2015!

I’ve been a bit neglectful here over the past few weeks, but I hope everyone had wonderful holidays to end and start the year!

It was nice to reflect and realize what an incredible year 2014 was. It started with four weeks of the best cooking class I’ve taken, had a pretty nice midpoint with buying my first home and growing my first garden, and ended with my first of hopefully many visits to Paris, just to list the highlights. And of course continuing to share food, pictures, and stories with you all here. 2015 has a lot to measure up to!

Plus I got all kinds of new kitchen toys I can’t wait to play with–a madeleine pan, pretty kitchen towels, duck fat (very excited about this one! just making a note for next time not to try to put it in my carry-on as it managed to set off all kinds of alarms and earn me a TSA pat down for my efforts), cookbooks, a little chest freezer (can’t wait for farmers market season!).

For a final look back on 2014, the three post popular posts of the year (all of which happen to be three of my personal favorites as well):

Blend

Homemade Mustard
I first posted this last January and I’ve been making a batch about every two months since; it’s basically the only mustard I’ve eaten all year and it’s pretty popular at the Chicago Food Swaps too. Lately my favorite variation is with white wine and white wine vinegar, though it’s also good with stout (I’m tempted to try it with the Great Lakes Christmas Ale that’s so popular right now). The cider version was also a pretty spectacular addition to the glaze for my family’s Christmas ham.

I also love this post because it earned this comment in an email from none other than America’s Test Kitchen: “We actually saw your post yesterday and passed it around to people in our office because we loved it so much.” Still one of my proudest moments of 2014.

Cauliflower soup with a drizzle of butter

Cauliflower Soup
Another recipe from January, this has been one of my favorite fast meals, especially when it’s cold outside. It’s five simple ingredients–cauliflower, leek, onion, butter, vinegar–that end up being far more than the sum of their parts. It was also my favorite exercise in understanding taste and flavor.

Thick and jammy

Strawberry-Cranberry Jam
If you have any bags of cranberries left over from holiday celebrations, stick them in the freezer so you can make this when strawberry season comes around again (or you can make it now if you have strawberries stashed in the freezer). It’s by far my favorite jam and is an especially nice reminder this time of year that, really, strawberry season isn’t that far off.

Happy New Year everyone!