Thursday, September 15, 2011

I've lost my mojo, Baby.

No really, I'm stuck in a rut, and it's kinda freaking me out.  More than kinda.  I started this blog with all kinds of crazy awesome ideas and they're still floating around in my head.  Between school starting and trying to fit in regular workouts and a social life, eating from scratch has kind of turned into eating monotonous. Seriously.  I eat a slice of bread in the morning (challah this week), a cup of coffee the size of my face on the way in to school, the same salad for lunch every day, and one of two dinners, it would seem.  All my meals are very healthy (I'm counting calories in a big way right now) but things are getting kind of boring.  I need to spice it up. Even my lunch box is getting bored, and it doesn't have tastebuds.  It is, however, rather tasteful.

And then we come to the mojo issue. I'm a good baker. I'm confident in that. Lately though, the pastries I've tried to make have come out wrong.  I have a killer recipe for a fig cake i was making to mail my sister.  It turned out deflated and bitter.  Some carrot muffins I made turned out like hockey pucks, despite the correct amount of baking soda (I'm neurotic about that).  My trash can has been eating more homemade pastries than anyone else in my life.   The only thing that seems to consistently turn out right is bread, which is strange. Most bakers I know struggle with bread above all else. I can make bread with my eyes closed. 

I'm going to spend some time this weekend baking and trying to get my mojo back.  I'm not entirely sure what to bake. Do I go for something totally foolproof like chocolate chip cookies? Do I go for something intensely delicious but complicated? If I mess up chocolate chip cookies, that's gonna be a way bigger blow to my unstable ego than messing up something that's actually difficult.  But I don't know if I have the time to make something supremely difficult. Perhaps I'll go for pie. I'm good at pie.  Or I was. . .

I've got a few posts in the pipeline that are way less angsty than this one.  There's one  about the challah i've been eating this week, one about the messed up fig cake, and a few more about dinners that were so exciting  I've forgotten about them. 

Now tell me, cooking friends --- how do you get out of a culinary rut?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Sometimes you just need a good cup of coffee

In the craziness of getting ready for school, working out like a madwoman, and trying to squeeze as much fun into my 3 week summer break as possible, I clearly haven't been writing a ton, or cooking much inspired.  This isn't to say I haven't been cooking.  I made some great caramelized onion jam, which I'll make again and photograph.  I've made some amazing salads, both fruit and regular, and some pretty normal dinners. There's been a lot of roast chicken, a lot of pork chops, and a lot of vegetable dishes. No pasta yet.  But that's coming. I promise. . . and one day I'll actually make good on that promise. Until then, it'll keep you reading, right?

On the plus side, there's not a whole lot of serious cooking that absolutely needs to be done during the summer.  Sometimes, the bounty of the season is enough. Especially in the summer, when everything is ripe all a once.  I've been eating a whole lot of fruit.  Just check out my giant bowl of plums, pluots, nectarines, and peaches.  Most of them went into a giant fruit salad. Some will go into a plum cake. Some will just be eaten. The yellow pluots are my favorite.  They may actually be sweeter than sugar. . .

I'm also eating a lot of nice nice vegetables right now. Sometimes, even with homemade pesto. Okra is good (though I'm apparently one of the few people on the planet who thinks so).  Zucchini are everywhere, tomatoes are perfectly ripe and sweet.  Not pictured here are the ton of really good salad greens and late-summer peas I got at the farmer's market.  Seriously, there's no need to cook anything right now. . .yes, this includes okra.  Not only do I love okra, I love raw okra.

Not only is the food good, but the beer in the summer is fairly awesome.  This stuff, out of S.F. is flavorful and refreshing and, unfortunately, only available in the summer. Perhaps this is because it isn't as beautiful in S.F. all year round as it is in LA.  I bought a couple 6 packs so I have some when it's October and still 90 degrees out. And since I don't drink a ton, I can make it last.  This particular one was enjoyed once  my apartment was clean.  Nothing like a nice beer and a slice of bread with homemade butter and jam to erase the memory of 2 days of cleaning.

And now we come to the fun portion of our mini blog post; Food Porn. I'm not sure about the term "food porn" as a whole, but I sure do love pretty, tantalizing, mouthwatering pictures of food.  These are largely not stellar photos. They are, in fact, mostly cell phone shots.  But they are pictures of some of the random meals out I've enjoyed over the past couple months.

Stellar Roast Beef from Manny's Deli
Unique and delicious floats at Medici

Shrimp Burrito at Poquito Mas

Cheap and good sushi and tempura at Ugly Roll  

Gelato at Gelato Bar. Addicted to their pistachio flavor

Cuban Pastries at Porto's Bakery

Ice cream Sandwiches from Coolhaus (Photo stolen from my lovely sister Kieran).  I haven't chased down the coolhaus truck in a while now.  They sell the sandwiches at Whole Foods, in cute little truck shaped boxes. Plus, they've supposedly got a store opening this summer, just down the street.  So far, it remains closed.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Home sweet (labor intensive) home.

I haven't done a lot of exciting cooking from scratch lately.   A lot of what you see above (Rice, Veggies, Egg).  Why?  Because I've been cleaning my apartment, and not just a cursory running a vacuum over the floor cleaning. I've pulled stuff out of every closet, out of every drawer. I've washed my clothes, dishes, furniture, floors, and everything else (except maybe the high up windows).

*** A disclaimer. This post isn't about cooking, exactly. I'm good with that. There's more in my life.***

Here's the kitchen.  I live in an apartment so it's not exactly big or blessed with storage. Especially considering the specialty equipment I have.  But it's a fairly functional apartment kitchen. . . especially given the extra storage I put in the living room . . .

Here's the extra storage, in my living room. I like that The espresso machine (my best friend at times) is plugged in where it is.  On these shelves I mostly have appliances (Mixer, Blender, Food Processor, Ice cream maker, spice mill), baking dishes, and big serving trays. My cabinets are fairly shallow, so anything bigger than maybe 14 inches in diameter doesn't fit. 

Also on these shelves are my pet lizards. They're on the bottom. I feel that's more sanitary. Allow me my delusions, please.

 My living and dining area is slightly odd shaped, but it works.  See that bookshelf? That's where the cookbooks live. The reading books live in my bedroom. I'm not joking. You can ask anyone who has been to my place.
This is the bedroom. I nap here after a particularly heavy meal. Or a long cleaning day.  I'm going to need a rest.  I like my room, despite my noisy bed. It makes a sound any time I move.  I can sleep through it.  I can't sleep through the flock of parrots who likes to land on my balcony at 4 am. They're loud.  Would feeding them rice be wrong?

This is my desk. It is upstairs on a little loft. The loft houses my desk, electric piano, and washer/dryer.  It's nice to have a space away from distractions to study. I do about half my studying (but all of my printing) at my desk. I do about a quarter on my couch, and a quarter at the table.  I don't study in bed. I always fall asleep when I try.

This is the view from my desk. See how clean it is?  When I finish laundry I throw it over the side of the loft and fold it on my couch.  That's fun to me (the throwing, not the folding).  It's the simple things.

This is the balcony. That's a big butcher block under the tarp. It was the counter space in my last apartment, which had no counter space whatsoever. Now i use it for drinks and stuff when I throw parties. The hammock is comfortable, a really nice place to nap.  

I feel like my balcony is way better looking than this picture shows. of course, if I could keep plants alive, it'd be better still, but we're taking baby steps here.

So that's my place. Pretty conducive to cooking from scratch, I think. I love living here.

As far as food goes, I need to make more bread this week. And I think I'm going to tackle pasta. We'll see. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Warding Off the Vampires -- Garlic for Dinner

So the other night I was in the mood to eat lots of garlic. Maybe there was a full moon, maybe I was just hungry. I knew I wouldn't be kissing anyone or trying to impress anyone with my garlic breath, so I went for it.  Garlic shrimp, garlic spinach, and quinoa. This entire dinner didn't take more than 15 minutes to cook, which was extra awesome! Garlic faster than the wait for takeout.

The Quinoa was easy.  See it there in the little yellow bowl?  I cooked it like I would cook rice, in my rice cooker. The rice cooker did all the work. It tastes amazing cooked in chicken stock, but since I haven't made any of that, I cooked it in water. That's pretty much as from-scratch as you can get.  Or something. . .

Quinoa is something more than a trendy grain for the Whole Foods set. It isn't in the grass family, but related to beets and spinach. Unlike rice, it is a complete protein source, making the shrimp somewhat redundant. Delicious, but redundant. It's also gluten free, though that isn't important to me. Clearly. I make bread. Finally, It's high in iron and magnesium. Clearly, it is as awesome for you as it is awesome tasting.

This was a one- pan meal (we're not counting the rice cooker here).  To start with, I put a whole lot of garlic in a pan with some olive oil. Eight cloves worth. You don't have to use this much. I just REALLY wanted garlic.   Cook the garlic over medium heat until it gets golden brown and delicious.  Remove everything from the pan as soon as it does.

The key thing to remember in cooking garlic is that toasted garlic is delicious, but burnt garlic is foul.  Because I removed my garlic from the heat as soon as it was done cooking, I wound up with delicious, not foul garlic.   I ended up draining most of the oil out this way too, including most of the stuff seen in the bottom of the ramekin in the picture.

 Next, i threw a bunch of raw, thawed shrimp in the same pan.  You can use fresh. I had frozen on hand so I just defrosted them and went to town. I think frozen shrimp are some of the most useful things to have in the freezer. They cook quickly, go with almost anything, and work with any meal of the day.  Yes, Even breakfast.  Don't believe me? We'll talk.
As the shrimp cook, they go from translucent and greyish to opaque and pinkish.  You want them cooked through, for sure, but barely.  Once shrimp get overcooked, they like to either get mealy or rubbery. Neither is delicious. In total, over a reasonably high heat, my shrimpies took about 4 minutes to cook.

Once the shrimp are almost cooked, add about half the garlic, plus a little oil back into the pan. If you like food spicy, like I do add some chile flakes. Not too many. A little goes a long way. Also, now would be a good time to salt your food. To taste. I like salty food.

Shrimp done? Good. Turn them out onto a plate. They can sit for a minute. They won't suffer.  Add some of the delicious oil from the garlic to the pan and crank the heat to high.  Dump a load of fresh, washed, dried spinach into the pan. This is baby spinach from the salad section, but grown up spinach will work too. Just make sure to rinse any grit out. 

Keep the spinach moving constantly in the pan. It just needs to wilt, and will do so quickly thanks to the hot oil. This amount of spinach took about a minute, maybe 2.

Put the spinach on your plate. Top with the remaining toasted garlic, salt,  and, if desired (and I desired) some sesame seeds.  Doesn't it look good?

This is one of those vegetable dishes that can go with anything, provided you're not a vampire or planning on doing any kissing.  It works with chicken, shrimp, fish, pork, beef, or on it's own.  It makes a nice, healthier substitute to creamed spinach if you're in the classic steakhouse mood, or a nice side to sushi if you're in an Japanese mood. Seriously versatile side dish.

Plated up, this made a really garlicky and delicious meal. It went great with a bottle of beer and my history textbook (I was studying for finals), but would be good any time.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dogs and Carrot Bread

So while I was in Chicago, I thought it would be nice to make something for my parents. I decided to go with a healthy carrot bread recipe.  They had all the ingredients and, more importantly, I didn't have to stay in the kitchen while the oven was on.  It was hot and humid in Chicago. I didn't want to be anywhere near the oven. So I made a simple Carrot Bread. It tastes like a carrot cake minus the frosting.  But It's way healthier, and ALMOST from scratch. I used store bought yogurt. This makes a good dessert, breakfast, or snack.

Shredded carrots look kinda like shredded cheddar.
1 pound carrots, peeled and shredded
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar (I used half sugar, half honey)
2 tbsp butter, melted
3/4 cup nonfat yogurt
2 large eggs
raisins, nuts, coconut or any carrot cake add ins you like, to taste. I used raisins.

Preheat the oven to 350. If you're in a hot, muggy climate, you'll want to leave the room at this point. But don't. You have carrot bread to make.

Dry ingredients and carrots
One of the best things about this recipe is it's simplicity.  You can pretty much dump everything in a bowl, mix, and go.  I do things a little less haphazardly than that, but not much.

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients and the carrots. I added the sugar at this point, even though sugar is often considered a wet ingredient in baking recipes.  

Adding the wet ingredients.

Next, add the wet ingredients. These are the eggs, yogurt, and melted butter.  You can also leave out a little of the yogurt and add some lemon juice if you'd like. I didn't. It tastes good, though. 

Once all the wet ingredients are added, add any add ins like raisins or nuts, and mix thoroughly.  I mixed and then added the raisins, because I forgot. It still worked fine. Or so I've been told.   There's a story coming.

Once everything is mixed, dump it in your VERY WELL GREASED baking vessel of choice.  This makes a good loaf, good muffins, and would probably make good layers for a carrot cake.  Unless you're making muffins and using paper liners, you need to grease the pan well. This cake/bread/muffin likes to stick. 

At this point, nothing left to do but bake the thing.  You're probably sweating from the heat of the oven on an already-muggy day, and want to get as far away from the oven as possible. Or maybe that was just my experience. . . .

Baking Times
This bakes at 350 no matter what form it takes.
- As a loaf like this, it took about an hour. The test is inserting a sharp knife or toothpick into it. If it comes out clean, or with just some moist crumbs clinging to it, you're good to go. I started checking at about 40 minutes.
- As muffins, they take about 20 minutes. Mini muffins would take way less. I don't like mini muffins. They're never moist enough.
- As a cake, a layer would probably take 30 minutes.

Let it cool in the pan until you can handle the pan comfortably. At that point, turn it out onto your enviably pretty granite countertop (the cheap counters work too. so does a plate).   You can either slice it right away, or wrap it in plastic for safe keeping. Once it's sliced into, this goes away fast. It's just that delicious. Or. . .

. . . You come into the kitchen with your mom after taking the dogs for a walk. You notice there's a slice missing so you go ask your dad if he liked it. Because one is always open for critique.  You go back downstairs, and find mom frantically gesturing at you. She's on the phone, but something is wrong. The cake is gone. Even though you both think you know where it is, you ask dad if, perhaps, you were seeing things, and he stashed it somewhere else.  You were not.  But this dog looks incredibly pleased with herself.

It's not that the carrot loaf was put where she could get to it easily. It was up on a counter that is almost chest high on me, wrapped in plastic.  My mother found the plastic on the floor and the cake gone.  There's no way the other dog could have reached. And no way that this dog (Ginger) would have shared.

I remade the carrot loaf as carrot muffins, since 2 of us didn't get to have any. I added walnuts the second time. They were delicious. I didn't take pictures. I was still mourning the loss of my beautiful carrot loaf. Didn't even to get a picture of it sliced and delicious. You'll have to ask Ginger how it tasted. . .

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Holy Plummy Deliciousness.

Seriously. If I were to form my own religion, or believe in organized religion at all (too personal?) I'd put this plum sorbet up on an altar and worship it. It's just that good.
Frosty Deliciousness

There's a bit of a stigma about making ice creams and sorbets. It has the reputation of being difficult, time consuming, a pain in the butt.   And it is a bit time consuming.  But not difficult, and not a pain in the butt. This could have taken twice as long and it would have been worth it.   All in all, my amazingly delicious plum sorbet took about 20 minutes to mix, 20 minutes to freeze in the ice cream machine (during which i edited a paper), and another hour in the freezer.  So with only 20ish minutes of active cook time, this is a breeze.

The recipe:

Now the recipe for this isn't precise. It doesn't need to be.  Sugar can be added to taste, certain, boozy ingredients and flavorings can be left out.  Here's what I did. I used Santa Rosa plums because they're relatively local and absolutely good. any good ripe plums can work though.

Mountain of delicious, ripe plums
5 cups ripe santa rosa plums, sliced, no pits. (skins are fine)
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
healthy pinch of salt
1/4 cup grand marnier

First step - Take my mountain of plums and make them pit-free. Now Santa Rosa plums aren't exactly freestone (meaning the pits stick to the fruit) so instead of trying to pit the fruit neatly I cut it away from the pits as closely as possible, and just ate the little bit of "wasted" fruit off the pit. SO not a waste.

Next, throw it all in the work bowl of the food processor, or in a blender. and BUZZZZZZ. you have a nice plum puree. It's pretty liquidy.  Puree the plums until they're a pretty consistently smooth.  There will be some slight texture going on where the skins are. we'll take care of this later.

Next, add the sugar, liquor, lemon juice, salt and extract.  Now if the mixture is sweet,  you don't need to add as much sugar.  Just add half, taste, and keep adding. 

If you don't like almond extract, you can use vanilla.  If you don't like grand marnier, you can use any other hard liquor. You do absolutely need the liquor in the recipe. It's low freezing point keeps the sorbet from turning into ice.  But vodka is flavorless and kirsch works well.  Experiment! You may come up with some magic flavor combo.  Once everything is added, puree some more.

Once everything is pureed and tasting right, time to strain. If you like the skins in the mixture, you can skip this step. but i like a pretty smooth sorbet so I strain.  I put a little bit of the skin back in at the end, just to add some visual texture to the sorbet, but just a little. I strain everything first. I'm kinda controlling when I cook.

Here's what my strainer looked like once it was almost done straining.  I honestly mixed the plum skin mixture with a little more of my leftover, store bought yogurt.  It was delicious. You can keep it to use on sandwiches in place of cranberry sauce too. Or just trash it if you don't like the texture. up to you.

Once the mixture is strained, and whatever bits of skin are added back in, chill the mixture in the fridge for at least an hour, ideally more.  Especially in little home ice cream machines, the colder the mixture is to start, the creamier the ice cream ends up after churning. I like creamy sorbet.

 Here's my ice cream machine. It's a good little Cuisinart counter top model with the core that I freeze separately.  I pretty much always keep the core in the freezer.  That way, whenever the spirit moves me, I can make sorbet, ice cream, or granita, and not have to wait for the core to freeze.
It took about 20-30 minutes for the sorbet to get to the consistency of soft serve. No matter what I make, it's not going to get much harder than that. That's what time in the freezer does.  In the picture to the right, It's almost there.  Every 5 or 10 minutes I scraped the sides of the maker with the spatula. Otherwise, it seems to freeze to the sides. This isn't necessary. I just do it.  I feel like it makes the consistency smoother, scraping the super frozen bits off the edge. So I do it.

Next, put the freshly-churned sorbet into a freezer- safe container, and put that container in the freezer for at least an hour. This is going to be the most difficult part, much like waiting for bread to cool.    I promise, it'll be entirely worth it.  This is the most incredible, plummy sorbet in the world, like biting into a fresh picked plum. Only ay more refreshing.

 Next, scoop yourself a nice, big bowl of this fresh, plum sorbet. Given my dietary restrictions, I had a small bowl.  This is maybe a 3 oz ramekin, if that.  Still, what it lacked in size, it totally made up for in flavor. 

It really was good to the last drop. And believe me, I got each and every drop out of the bowl.