Paella

You guys. I’m struggling to find the words. Tuesday’s class was the most tangible and immediate validation of my purpose for this blog, for nearly everything I do involving food: to give people the confidence to try something new in the kitchen, to show that cooking doesn’t have to be this big, intimidating, scary thing.

Digging in

At the beginning of the class I asked who had eaten paella–nearly everyone raised their hand. Who’s made paella? One, maybe two hands went up. But by the end, every one of the 24 people in the class (plus the amazing volunteers who cooked the “teacher’s” paella) could say yes, they’ve made (amazingly delicious!) paella. And they could all do it again, too!

Watching each group proudly unveil the beautiful meals they created at the end of class, the impressed comments from their classmates–I wanted to give them all a hug and say “Look! You made that!” Everyone sitting together to share conversation and food (and wine, there were some amazing sangrias at the table) had me mentally shouting “YES. This is what’s it’s about.” (I mostly restrained myself on the shouting and hugging; I only had one sangria–a much-appreciated glass beautifully prepared and with a pretty little lemon twist by one of the groups.)

Beautiful!
Saying hi to my first class
Lindsay arranging the final dishes

There were so many moments like that during the class, but this might have topped them all–one of the students came up to me at the end and told me she was really excited to try this at home. Then she said, “Honestly, I’ve had a paella pan sitting in the back of my closet for years and I’ve never used it. Now I have a reason!” Again I had to restrain myself from becoming a crazy hugging person, but I did tell her, “Yes!! You can totally do this!!”

Happy students
Ready to get started

And the comments on the feedback forms–I want to frame them, and not for my own ego. The best comments said that this intimidating dish was actually easy, that they tried or learned something new. Two of my favorite moments from the class were showing everyone a whole cuttlefish and walking around to let people smell smoked paprika, and it’s so rewarding to know that the class got something out of those moments too.

And I learned something in preparing for this class! I’ve never cooked cuttlefish before this week, but I love the stuff now (it’s like calamari, but thicker so less chance it will overcook). I added some to a salad last night and it was amazing.

Talking

For me, personally, there was a moment too. As anxious as I was in the days leading up to the class, as soon as I got to the kitchen and started setting up–it’s cliché, but I felt my nerves melt away. I know my way around a kitchen and a cutting board, I know how to cook.

Beyond the actual cooking portion of it, the years of practice I’ve had running web presentations at my day job were also surprisingly helpful. The speaking came easy because I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew how to handle questions and figure out if it bore repeating to the whole group; I could troubleshoot my slightly burned garlic or pans that were heating unevenly without panicking. There are definitely things that will improve with practice (like actually remembering I have a pan on the stove before the garlic burns), but for a first time, it couldn’t have possibly gone any better.

Paul, one of the excellent volunteers I had helping me

I also cannot say enough good things about the volunteers who did so much of the prep for the class (roasting the red peppers to steaming the seafood to cutting the cuttlefish and all the meat), who pretty much cooked “my” paella when I was busy teaching, and washed all the dishes. They (and Lindsay and Becky from PGP, who also get credit for most of the pictures) made the class happen without me feeling frantic. If you have a kitchen skill you want to share, Peterson Garden Project is the place to do it.

Making sangria for the volunteers

I’m already brainstorming more class ideas (and I want to do this one again too!) and can’t wait to share more with all of you.

Salud!

Paella Continue reading

Pan con Tomate

(Only a few spots left for my paella class on August 11! Sign up here or get a sneak peek at the class here.)

Why does bruschetta get all the toast-topped-with-tomatoes-and-olive-oil love? Nothing against half of my heritage, but the Spanish version, pan con tomate, deserves some attention too.

Pan con tomate

Tomatoes seem to be taking their sweet old time to get in gear this year, but with one lone tomato hanging out on my counter and having eaten my fill of tomato and lettuce sandwiches (for now anyways, I’m still planning a grand BLT with everything either grown or made by me. Yes, including the bacon and the mayonnaise), pan con tomate seemed like a perfect option. It helps that I’m obviously on a Spanish food kick lately.

Tomatoes, bread, garlic, oil, salt

Everyone’s pretty familiar with bruschetta at this point–toasted bread (where bruschetta gets its name) rubbed with garlic and usually topped with diced tomatoes, sometimes basil, and drizzled with olive oil. That’s the idea anyways. The concept has become so diffused that it seems like anything on a piece of bread shows up as bruschetta on a menu or in a Google search. Pan con tomate, on the other hand, at least requires tomatoes to be part of the equation.

Toasting
Bread on the grill is the best

Instead of dealing with my complete inability to ever keep the pieces of tomato from falling onto my clothes or the floor when I eat bruschetta (or requiring me to use a knife and fork, which is equally awkward), pan con tomate has you rub a tomato in all its juicy splendor right into the crusty bread. That is, of course, after a clove of raw garlic has been rubbed all over the toast that would, in any other application, tear up the inside of your mouth but instead grabs onto tiny bits of garlic. Rubbing the tomato into the bread is the messy part in this version, but it’s kind of fun. And at least more of the tomato has a fighting chance of getting to my mouth.

Rubbing the garlic
Mushing the tomato

Think this sounds like a recipe for soggy bread? Well…you’re not wrong, but if you toast it enough (or use day-old or slightly stale bread, which this is ideal for), the tomato juices soften the top and edges enough so that you aren’t risking a mouthful of tiny cuts with each bite. The inside of the bread retains some welcome texture and chew and, unlike bruschetta, which is more often just a vehicle for its toppings, pan con tomate actually melds the bread, garlic, and tomato into one delicious bite.

P8040056

Top it with a generous drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of flaky salt, add a gin and tonic (I saw more of these than of glasses of sangria in Barcelona), throw in a sunset view, and you’ve got about all I need on a summer night (with apologies to anyone who talked to me after dinner. Only in hindsight did it occur to me that I essentially ate several raw cloves of garlic.). Ok, maybe a salad or some slices of good Spanish cheese, ham, a spicy dried, cured meat…I’m sorry, where were we? Right, tomato bread.

Pan con Tomate, or Tomato Bread Continue reading

Paella in Barcelona (and I’m teaching a class!)

Remember that Barcelona trip I took back in April? There were honestly so many amazing things about it that I’ve struggled to put them all into words, but considering I’m teaching a class about part of the trip in two weeks, I figured now was a good time to share at least one story!

Paella, ready for eatingNice view

For the first vacation I’ve taken completely on my own, I left most of my time open for wandering, but I wanted a few things planned to give me a little direction. That’s how I spent three hours learning to cook paella from an amazing teacher in her home with a dozen other eager (and hungry) fellow students from all over the world. It was by far one of the best parts of the trip and one I would do again in a heartbeat. (Update: Want to know how the class turned out or looking for a good paella recipe? Check it out!) Continue reading

Elderflower Obsessed

Of the many things I love about my weekly farmers market trips, discovering new ingredients to play with might be the best of them all. Those discoveries led to my not-so-slight obsession with damson plums; my incessant crunching on a vegetable that most resembles something from a 1950s outer space comic book, kohlrabi; and the displacement of arugula as my favorite not-lettuce salad green by the lemon-y, spinach-y flavor of sorrel (which now also tops my list to plant in my garden in spring). One of the best discoveries so far this year, though, was a basket of these beautiful, and beautifully fragrant, flowers. Forget damsons, this year’s obsession? Elderflowers.

Handful of flowers

Elderflowers are the flowers used to flavor one of my favorite liqueurs, St.Germain. (The guy selling them kept telling me and a fellow curious buyer that’s its most commonly used to make a delicious and healthy tea. Personally, I like the liquor idea better.) Five quarts of flowers and a few half-gallon jars later, I had myself some projects.

If you, like me, are unfamiliar with elderflowers…you’re actually probably more familiar than you think. At least around Chicago, elderberry bushes are surprisingly common decorative shrubs. They’re what end up staining the sidewalks (and, more often than not, my car) dark purple from dropped berries come mid-summer. But before the berries, flowers. Incredibly sweet-smelling, almost cloyingly so, delicate sprays of creamy white flowers.

Elderflowers
A little bit of Googling led me to two ideas that seemed like good places to start: elderflower simple syrup and elderflower-infused vodka (essentially the starting point for making my own elderflower liqueur). Some citrus in the form of lemon and grapefruit (and a little extra citric acid for good measure), a pretty pink variation with some extra juicy strawberries, and I’m pretty much set for all my homemade soda and fancy cocktail needs this summer (and fall, winter, and next spring).

Elderflower syrup

The syrup is dead simple and utterly delicious. The grapefruit and lemon add a little bit of tart to balance out the could-be-too-flowery flavor of the steeped blossoms, but the flavor is bright, sweet summer all the way. The booze is still brewing, but, after I strain the flowers and add a good amount of sugar this week, I anticipate lazily watching more than a few summer sunsets under its influence. (And if you have any flowers left that you simply can’t cram into any other projects, elderflowers make very pretty ice cubes to fancy up your porch drinking.)

Elderflower soda

Elderflower Syrup and Elderflower Liqueur Continue reading

Spice-Rubbed Beer-Steamed Wood-Smoked Chicken

Usually when I share a recipe, I try to photograph important steps along the way or some part of the process that strikes me as particularly pretty. Trust me when I say this is the only picture of this recipe you need:

Golden brown and delicious

If you’re looking for the summer equivalent of fall and winter’s roast chicken, like smoked things, and have some beer hanging around, make this. This was one of those random dinner experiments that turned out miles beyond what I had hoped for. I was trying to make beer-can chicken, but my grill lid isn’t high enough to have the chicken stand up, so…I took the beer out of the can and put it under the chicken instead. And figured, what the heck, soak some wood chips in the beer while I’m at it. It looked gorgeous and tasted even better. I may have snuck a wing off this guy while I waited for my asparagus to grill.

I’ve made this with two different spice mixtures (a BBQ rub and a jerk spice rub) and two different kinds of beer (honestly just ones that have been kicking around my kitchen for far long–yes, I’m also that mythical person who has leftover wine). I’m planning to try this with cider next time and a spice blend like baharat or zatar. There are pretty much infinite variations and it can be as simple or as adventurous as you like. For a simple summer dinner (and great leftovers) with minimal prep, though, this cannot be beat.

Spice-Rubbed Beer-Steamed Wood-Smoked Chicken Continue reading

Chive-Cheddar Biscuits

Now that the flowers of my chives are put to work, on to more immediate gratification–biscuits.

Cheesy, chive-y layers Chive bouquet

I will eat biscuits (really, bread in any form) with anything and love them flavored with everything. For my overload of chives, I finely chopped a good handful of the chives I cut back along with two big handfuls of grated cheddar cheese and a few of the chive flowers for good measure, the hard blossom end plucked off and the flower sprinkled in. They were spectacular, perfect under a layer of spinach and an over-easy egg.

Curlicue of cheese Chopped chivesand an errant blossom Layers of color Biscuitt dough

With all the herbs I’ve planted, herb biscuits are going to be a great option to stash in the freezer for any future biscuit emergencies (…don’t look at me like that, that’s a real thing). I plan on doing at least one sweet biscuit with the lemon verbena (doesn’t that sound good as the base for a strawberry shortcake?) and another cheesy variation with the thyme (gruyere, perhaps?). Rosemary and black pepper biscuits would be amazing along side lemon chicken.

Baked biscuitChive bouquet

Chive Biscuits Continue reading

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.