Monday, December 10, 2012

Yes, It's Still Apple Cider Season

Finally, an update with pictures! I'm pretty darn proud of myself for this one: Apple Cider Sea Salt Caramels!

I've never made candy of any kind before, but in the spirit of the season and making wishes come true I decided to try my hand at caramels and hope for the best. As it turns out, candymaking isn't nearly as difficult or stressful as I imagined it would be (I actually had to take a few deep, calming breaths before I started). Besides, what else was I going to make with leftover cider?

Patience was the biggest test for me here -- all cooks know that you can't rush the good stuff. My stovetop isn't the best for evenly or quickly heating, but I did my best to follow some tips about boiling the cider and reducing it.

Stir! Stir!

My mother gave me a great pep talk before I started, reminding me to watch the pot carefully and assuring me that I wouldn't burn my finger** this time. She also advised on the type of salt I should use to give the caramels that signature sweet-tart balance -- we agreed that fleur de sel would suffice this time, but I might try flake salt for the next go-around.

With the smell of sugar and cinnamon hanging in the air (is there anything better?) I crossed my fingers and popped this in the fridge.

Ready, set... solid!

A few hours later, I uncrossed my fingers and began the sticky process of slicing and wrapping each delectable, sugary piece of caramel. I can't get over the flavor in these little guys! I'm not usually one for finger-licking, but the sweet remains that remain on the fingertips after pulling the wrapper away are too good to waste.

I said it before, but I have to say it again: I made candy!! And I'll make it again, too. Something tells me I've found a new niche obsession in the world of dessert. Now I just need a new candy thermometer and a whole lot of sugar.

** The caramel drizzle I made a few months ago left me with a lasting impression and an extremely painful blister from an accidental brush with the stuff. I felt a little candy-phobic because of it, but I'm so glad I overcame it. No burns this time!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Being Co-Chef

This post should have contained at least a dozen beautifully composed, good-enough-to-eat-off-the-page photos of this year's Thanksgiving feast. It should have featured a dry-brined turkey breast cut into juicy slices (before) and stripped to the bone (after), a heaping bowlful of the best mashed potatoes ever made, and a cheery spoonful of cranberry sauce. There really should be a montage of sweet maple-glazed carrots alongside a savory succotash, sandwiched between our famous rolls and my aunt's sweet potato casserole.

And you should certainly be wiping drool from your chin as you scroll through shots of the cranberry-apple crisp (demolished) and pumpkin cookies with browned-butter frosting. And the nouveau Beaujolais. And coffee and tea. And smiles, laughter, and bellies so stuffed we all practically rolled ourselves home.

I didn't bring my camera this year, and despite my usual blogger's desire to catalogue all the best food in my life I'm really glad I didn't. Because this year... I was co-chef.

Allow me to explain: I've been mommy's little kitchen helper for most of my life, spending time learning at her elbow and mostly getting in the way. I have always tried to help during the holidays and attempt to keep the general level of frazzlement as low as possible. But this year, with some independent cooking skills under my belt (and a new-found relationship with cookbooks), my mother asked me not to "help," not to be a mere assistant, but to actually share Thanksgiving duties with her.

I think I've never been so proud in my life.

And so, alongside this promotion, I decided to leave the camera at home and truly focus on the experience. J was there to crush crackers and provide comic relief, Perkins' nose twitched every time we pulled the turkey from the oven to baste, and we were joined by precious family members: a well-traveled aunt and uncle, a far-flung cousin, and Nana, the last remaining grandparent in our lives. It wasn't the time for intrusive snapshots and cheesy smiles. It was the perfect time for a small family celebration of all that is good in our world.

I guess you'll just have to take my word for the absolutely wonderful meal we shared, and perhaps forgive my vanity when I emphasize just how delicious it all was. There will be other meals to make and document, but this one will survive in my mind without the aid of photographic evidence. Something tells me I'll have no trouble remembering it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sweet & Sour

I love cranberries. Both seasonal and local (for me, anyway), they're the perfect combination of sweet flavor and lingering tartness. They're great for both cooking and baking, add a jolt of flavor to almost any beverage, and even turn everything they touch a vibrant red. Really, what's not to love?

Cranberries also make a lovely metaphor-for-life ingredient, and I'd be a pretty poor food blogger if I didn't point that out. We eventually learn to balance the sour with the sweet, gaining wisdom as we realize that daily life's flavor is enhanced by contrast and growth only comes as the palate expands. In adding a dash of color to brighten our own day, perhaps we improve someone else's.

I would love to share my cranberry-apple crumble bars with you --the inspiration for this post -- but I discovered my camera had zero battery power too late. I whipped up this tangy dessert in a hurry, combining a bunch of recipes and crossed fingers. I needed the outlet, needed to know that I could just hop into the kitchen and come out with something fabulous in a snap. And I did. But the only proof I have is a yummy-scented home and tomorrow's coworkers thanks to a set of batteries that lost their juice. The sweet with the sour indeed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tastes of Fall: This Way and That

I have a theory I'd like to share with you. It's about the seemingly-universal obsession with all things autumnal , and the popularity of fall-flavored foods. I've always wondered why we all get swept up in the season, and how it is that no other time of year can illicit the same kind of exhilaration as can the change from summer to fall. My theory is this: blame the thermometer. To my mind, no season change is felt so drastically, so immediately, as that of balmy summer to chill autumn; it's that very first moment which steals away your breath when you walk outside and realize... holy moley, it's COLD out here!, sending a signal directly to the brain and triggering all five senses.

Well, here are three more entries in the annals of sensory yumminess: pumpkin spice cookies with browned-butter frosting, apple cranberry crisp, and apple cinnamon pork chops.

The first is a new recipe for me, though not a new concept. These cookies were easy to make, and produced a soft and cakey cookie that is extremely satisfying. They're tasty enough sans sugar, but the sweet frosting is really what makes this dessert shine. I baked a batch for my work friends -- gone! And another batch for J and my in-laws -- gone again! Something tells me that won't be the last batch I ever make.

J calls them the best cookies... ever. I'll take it!

Next up is a seasonal favorite in the family. Again, it's a relatively simple dessert to make, and with fresh apples and local cranberries, it probably qualifies as J's most-requested treat. I received the gorgeous pie plate last year, and was so happy to dust it off and fill it with all the tangy-sweet flavors that make this crisp so rich.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Autumn Baking (or Mmm that Smells Good!)

I rarely mention my personal life while blogging -- the focus here is in the kitchen, after all -- but I owe my readers an apology for the steep drop-off in posting regularity. The beautiful fall season has brought with it the usual round of apple picking, candle-purchasing, and early leaf-peeping, but also an uptick on the Busy Scale. I've been working to open a brand new outlet store of a well-known outdoor retailer in a very short amount of time, and now that we've survived a successful Grand Opening, I hope to be back at the stove a bit more. The cooler weather heralds my personal favorite time of year for food: all things rich, comforting, good-smelling, and stick-to-your-ribs filling (not to mention delicious).

With a whole new batch of lovely co-workers, I've gained a range of guinea pigs to try out some recipes I've been meaning to make. I managed to find the time to bake up a German Apple Cake with caramel glaze last week, and brought it to my taste testers.

Dice up those fresh-picked Cortlands...

... mix up a bit of batter...

... and hey presto, a cake is born!

I didn't take my usual range of start-to-finish photos, mainly because I was too busy nursing a very burned finger I received from an accidental brush with the hot caramel. Happily there will be no long-term issues, and the glaze turned out pretty heavenly. 

Here's a look at the finished product, waiting patiently for the forks of my tasters. They deemed it a solidly tasty cake, very rich and sweet, but not overly so. A fellow baker claimed that the caramel topping was the "best part," so I guess that minor injury was worth it!

In the coming weeks, I intend to expand both my autumnal baking and cooking posts to include some old standby favorites and more new dishes I've been waiting to make. As much as I only want to curl up on the couch with a soft blanket, good book, and mug of hot cider, the work must go on. In between the madness I'll take refuge in my favorite room of the house, and fill the air with the wonderful smells of cool-weather cooking. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Kitchen "Busy"ness

Remember when I said I was back in action? Well, I've been trying to make up for lost time in the kitchen, and last week served to help me along. J and I finally got some time for just us, and it gave me the motivation to cook and bake some treats for us to enjoy as the summer winds its way down.

First task: a trip to the farmer's market.

It's tough to walk through such abundance and not pick up one of everything, but we limited ourselves to some sweet corn, fingerling potatoes, and garden carrots -- the basics, I suppose.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Taking the time to eat a meal is something we have to do every few hours. It may not always be a good meal, but it has to happen. But what about the time it takes to make a meal? And if you're inclined to put in the time and effort in the first place, shouldn't it be a good meal?

Lately I've struggled with both taking and making time and meals. I don't know if it's just been the usual reasons -- stress, busy lives, tight budget -- or a more undefined, general lack of interest in standing in the kitchen for hours at a time. Whatever the reason, I avoided the stove rather a lot lately... and I'm not proud. A coffee cake here, and put of rice there, and I felt I'd somehow done enough. So last night, I put a little more effort into dinner, and I'm glad I did. It was good to be home again.

The dinner wasn't anything new, groundbreaking, or fancy, but it was exactly what I needed to remind myself that I enjoy cooking (most of the time) and that my skills aren't really all that bad. I learned to be a drill sergeant about timing from my mother, and that ability has been vital to the success of my meals. I made a basic onion-roasted potato dish, simple chicken breast, and indulged in a rare baking of my mother's special secret Thanksgiving Rolls. But aside from the taste of good home cookin', the real success was that I did it.

Before I began, I ran through all the recipes in my head. I did a quick calculation for the timing and when we wanted to eat, tied on my apron, and had my mise en place in perfect order.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Camp Cookin'

I have always been a lover of the outdoors, thanks to enthusiastic parents who filled much of my childhood with active, nature-oriented pursuits. Among the best memories of my time spent in the elements are the frequent camping trips, including a particularly lengthy trip from home to Nashville, TN and back -- camping all the way. My mother and I became expert camp surveyors, excavators, and of course, chefs (nothing gets you more hungry than setting up a tent, canopy, and other camping accoutrements in less than ten minutes flat). So I watched and learned as she deftly manipulated a much-abused Coleman stove, tiny pots, plastic implements, and a dash of salt into edible and unbelievably delicious meals. It was magical then, and now that I've taken on the same role for trips with J, I understand the mutterings and occasional curses she uttered in order to get those meals on our table.

My own attempts at such meals aren't always a success, but lately I haven't had many failures  -- I must be getting better. In between the easy stuff (read: boiling water for coffee and sizzling butter for shake-and-pour pancakes) I've somehow managed to nearly perfect the art of stovetop juicy chicken and decent rice pilaf. Nothing fancy, but satisfying nonetheless. As proof, I offer this:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Birds Gotta Fly (and eat)!

I need to take just a moment to acknowledge an important fact: where you work is often as important as what you do for work. I'm sure many of us know that an environment that welcomes and encourages is one where productivity are at a maximum, which is why people strive to create work (and living) spaces that make us happy.

Meet J's work space:

Up, up... oh, you know the rest.

I'll spare you the trite "better view than a corner office" comparisons, but suffice it to say he enjoys his daily toil more than most. And now, he enjoys it from the Captain's chair! 

We're all very proud of his accomplishment, as it's the culmination of a lot of hard work and effort on his part (I'm hoping some of this excellent career karma will rub off on me). Clearly a celebration is in order!

As for my work space (the part that's relevant to this blog, anyway), well... I don't have any cozy kitchen adventures to share, mainly because I just haven't cooked up anything notable of late: pastas and frozen chicken don't exactly qualify as new and interesting. But we have finally returned to our farmer's market these past few weeks, picking up some lovely fruits, veggies, and even some fresh bread to round out the boring-old-standby meals. There's also some camp-stove cooking coming up in our future, as well as some kind of fantastic dessert, TBD, as a special treat. A hard-working Captain (and his co-pilot wife) must eat, after all!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Quick & Tasty: An Oxymoron?

Fast food: two little words that make chefs, dieticians, and doctors cringe, and pressed-for-time home cooks glance away in shame. But what about the "other" fast food -- the meals we can whip up at home, with little or no thought and not much in the way of preparation, yet are still delicious and filling? I call these meals "quick and tasty" in an effort to avoid the FF stigma.

Last night, J and I returned home from an enjoyable family party a little tired and not much inclined to do more than relax on the sofa. I knew I'd be averse to putting much effort into dinner, so I planned in advance a purchase of steak tips and sweet corn. In order to change things up even the tiniest bit, I brought out a kitchen tool I'd yet to fully utilize: the reversible grill/griddle.

Grill today... griddle tomorrow!

I'm pleased to say that the grill side has lived up to its hype. A light coating of canola oil was all it took to keep my meat from sticking, and overall I think the surface heated fairly evenly. The meat certainly came out juicy and perfectly cooked (which I also partially attribute both to good meat and my trusty thermometer), with just a little teriyaki glaze for flavor. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer Sips & Bites Part II

Now that I've teased your palate with the edible from last weekend, I think it's time to show off the drinkable. My mother certainly has provided me with invaluable recipes and kitchen tips over the years, but it's time to honor my father with a post dedicated to his own version of sangria.

As a general rule, sangrias should be sweet (but not overly so), fruity (but not overpowering), and entirely refreshing. They should also be relatively simple to make, contain as few ingredients as possible, and not cost a fortune. To me, this drink represents summer in a glass. I can't tell you what kind of wine we use -- part of the secret -- or the quantities of the other "special" ingredients, but I can tell you this: made in advance, with enough time for the wine base to acquire as much citrus juice as possible, sangria can taste so smooth that you'll hardly remember you're drinking anything alcoholic.

Allow me a moment to introduce my newest (and current favorite) kitchen toy: the mandoline. Purchased with the remnants of a wedding giftcard that I'd saved for delayed gratification, this little gem made the sangria-making experience a whole new kind of pleasure. Normally, slicing citrus fruit is everyone's least favorite chore: slippery and tough, the oranges, lemons, and limes have caused me some rather painful moments in the past.

But no longer! After cutting each fruit in half, I simply set the height of the slicer, wet the slide, and got to cutting perfect little slices.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Summer Sips & Bites Part I

I'm back, and with some great seasonal edibles as promised!

A relaxing vacation with family is never complete without homemade goodies, and I very much enjoyed sharing the duties with my mother this year. It should come as no surprise that blueberries were the ingredient of choice this time, and we book-ended our daily meals with blueberry muffins at breakfast (hers) and blueberry bars for dessert (mine).

Mom used a tried-and-true muffin recipe from a book we both love, The Art and Soul of Baking. I think her special touch in the kitchen makes them come out just perfectly, and the very, very few left over certainly prove it.

Mmmm muffins!

Next time I just might put her to work and ask her to document her kitchen experiences for me to share!

As for me, I spent a few days before the trip packing, cleaning, and whipping up my own contributions. I put together a green salad -- sorry, no pictures of that one -- and two featured treats: Dad's Famous Sangria and a new recipe for blueberry bars. In order to pay due attention to each, I'm splitting up my food recaps so you'll have to wait for the next post to salivate over the sangria. 

The bars were relatively simple to make, using only the food processor to create the crumble mixture for the top and bottom. I intend to substitute other seasonal fruit for the blueberries in the future, as I think this recipe is versatile enough for just about anything.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The "Summer Lazies"

In spite of the incredible bounty of fresh, delicious food available in the summer months, I'm a self-professed cold weather woman. I don't adapt to high temps and sticky humidity very well, and much prefer getting cozy with a roaring fire than sweating it out on the beach with the roar of the ocean (at the very least, I'd rather be sailing on that ocean). Right now, the very last place I want to be is my kitchen with the oven on.

One of the ways I'm most affected by the weather is my energy level -- it absolutely plummets in the summer, and it feels like it takes double the usual amount of effort to get anything done. So perhaps you'll forgive me for my dearth of kitchen work lately, as I just haven't been able to muster the motivation to make anything new and interesting. Of course, we've also been away from home a lot these past few weeks making the rounds to our families, kitten in tow, and I haven't even been inside my own kitchen enough to cook.

I can promise to make it up to you this week, however, as I'll be busy preparing all kinds of yummy things for a nearing family mini-vacation. My mother and I have decided to split the burden, so to speak, and prepare or bring enough food for everyone between us. I volunteered immediately to make my father's sangria, a green salad of some kind (she gets the fruit one this time), and some other goodies that I'll be working on as the week progresses.

So, keep an eye out for more posts this week that focus on summer-perfect dishes, including some old favorites and perhaps a new surprise or two. I also plan to document the meals of that trip, assuming I can get a few shots before all that delicious food is devoured!

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Treat for Dad

It's a pretty well-known fact that I inherited my insatiable sweet tooth (and snacking tenancies) from my father. When I discovered that I would be treated with a Father's Day visit from my parents, I immediately got to work, swapping my cook's hat for that of a baker -- admittedly, a more familiar character for me to play. In keeping with the season, I first decided to whip up some fresh strawberry ice cream. Perhaps that would have been enough, but my inner baker had been pushed to the back burner for too long of late, and she stubbornly insisted I do more. What would satisfy my poor, neglected oven? And what could go with a sweet, creamy ice cream? If you're thinking profiteroles, you're absolutely right. Time to face down the puff pastry challenge.

The ice cream was easy enough to pull together, as the recipe I used did not include egg yolks. Sugar, dairy, and a bit of food-processing later, I had a milky mixture sitting in the refrigerator awaiting its time in the ice cream machine.

Go, chopper, go!

With the main event chilling away, I began my prep for the puffs. The recipe I used suggested using a hand mixer as an alternative to transferring from stove to mixer bowl, so I seized the opportunity to use mine -- or rather, the one I "borrowed permanently" from my mother. It's used so rarely these days, I had almost forgotten why.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Seafood (and Eat It)

Confession: I dislike fish. I can nibble a bit of salmon if it's cooked just right, but put anything else that swims with fins in front of me and I'll politely take a pass. But my aversion to fish is amply compensated for by my love of shellfish and other seafood, namely clams, scallops, mussels, and lately lobster & shrimp. J shares my love of seafood, but is also a fish lover and will happily order mahi-mahi and cod, or will munch away at a tuna sandwich (as far from me as possible).

Needless to say, J has been hounding me to make something of the seafood variety for quite a while. I'm not entirely sure why I've been avoiding it, but late last week I resolved to break my habit of ocean-creature-cooking avoidance. After considering -- and dismissing -- the various possibilities, I decided to go easy on myself and settled on shrimp.

Once I chose the little pink crustacean, I knew what I wanted to make: angel hair pasta with shrimp & veggies in béchamel sauce. I still had some of the peas & carrots from the pot pie, so I figured I could splurge a little bit on the shrimp. And besides, a pasta dish is always a good weapon in an exhausted cook's arsenal, and it was high time I added one to mine.

The speed and timing are what make this dish so pleasant to make, so J quickly set the table while I prepped.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Balancing Act

I wish I could say that this post included a fabulous towering cake, a perfectly puffed pastry, or at least a stack of gooey cookies. I suspect that at least one of those treats will make an appearance in the future, but right now the balancing act I'm working on isn't nearly as tasty -- or as simple.

I'm talking about balancing time and money. As a relative newcomer to the home cuisine domain, I'm understandably enthusiastic about my hobby and newfound love of all things kitchen. But with that enthusiasm comes a sudden need (read: desire) for new cookbooks, new gadgets, and of course new ingredients. I frequently salivate over exotic dishes and novel techniques, but more often than not these involve food & gear I simply don't have... and certainly can't afford to buy.

This leaves me a little sad, on occasion, as I feel that certain dishes are off-limits to home cooks on a budget just because they include one or two "special" ingredients or ultra-specific gadgets. I'm sure that, with careful management, I'll be able to buy a treat or two. I certainly don't skimp on quality when it really counts (chocolate, anyone?). But someday it would be nice to try the grass-fed fillet, the truffle oil, or the $38-dollar-an-ounce cheese... even if only for one special meal.

As far as budgeting my time goes, lately I've had enough spare moments to make some of the more time-consuming dishes (I'm looking at you, pot pie). But in the very near future that time will be drastically reduced, and I predict that my energy levels won't be far behind. I hope to push through it, get myself motivated, and set some time aside just for me and my kitchen. But if I don't, and I find myself serving salads with a side of mac n' cheese, well... try not to be too hard on me. I will continue to look for new things to make, even if they don't get made right away. And hey, you never know -- maybe I'll end up cooking long into the night, bringing the fruits of my labor to work in the morning! Hollandaise, anyone?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Peasant Food"

J and I have lately had the pleasure of sharing a delicious meal with some friends while also partaking in some good dinner conversation. It will come as no surprise that the subject of food was a frequent topic, and in the midst of nattering on about copper pots and gas vs. electric, someone dropped in the phrase "peasant food." Fear not, foodie friends, I'm not talking about pseudo-country-style, over-seasoned, baby-portioned, restaurant interpretations of medieval fare. I'm talking about simple ingredients combined in a single dish, the likes of which have been enjoyed by the international middle and lower classes for centuries. Yep, real household versions of much older dishes.

Coincidentally enough, I'd been planning to attempt chicken pot pie as this week's challenge -- a true bit of peasant cooking indeed. So with mild trepidation, I began:

Empty dish awaiting its cargo

Is that pastry dough? From scratch?!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Sweet Taste of Success

I know plenty of people who will confess to having envy. House, car, career -- any of these can inspire the little green-eyed monster in the best of us. But what about... kitchen envy? Or I guess in this case, gadget envy, which I experience nearly every time I pass by a glittering Fancy la Pants or Chef-Wannabe storefront display filled with every gotta-have-it thingy and whatchamacallit. You know what I'm talking about... toys.

Normally I can resist the siren song of the Kitchen Stuff because I have neither the money to buy them or the space to put them in. But just this once, I answered the call -- with J's full support and approval! It won't take much to understand why when you see...

THIS! Cuisinart 1 1/2 quarts

Monday, May 21, 2012

Home Grown

The kitchen has had a rather slow week, thanks to busy lives and full schedules. When you're cooking and baking for only two, it's easy to make an abundance of goodies that end up partially uneaten -- and this chef really doesn't like wasting good food. So I'm pacing myself, researching new recipes and ideas, and hoping that the summer months bring some friend or family get-togethers and the opportunity to whip up something fun and delicious (hint, hint).

Now, the kitchen may have stood empty more often than not, but that doesn't mean it's been off my mind.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Eating Like a Locavore (Part II)

I'm back on the blog with the conclusion of this week's new meal challenge, and unfortunately, the results are decidedly mixed. I ask J to rate every aspect of each dish individually, and usually only post the overall average score. This week, however, J suggested I give the full breakdown, considering the fairly wide grading margin he gave.

First up was the dish I intended to make: potatoes (remember  Part I?) and baby carrots tossed in a mustard and rosemary sauce. I altered a recipe from a certain domestic queen's magazine, and the actual sauce came out light and flavorful. It pairs well with small golden potatoes, and is absolutely perfection on the carrots.

Whipping up the sauce...

... while simmering the taters and carrots.

Unfortunately, that lovely strong flavor is probably best for someone who loves mustard, lemon juice, and a bit of "bite," and that someone is not J. He initially gave the entire thing a "generous C" but later revised it to a C+ for the sauce and an A- for the perfectly-cooked veggies themselves. Myself, I thought the intense flavor wasn't too overwhelming, but would've tasted better if left to rest and served not-piping-hot. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Eating Like a Locavore (Part I)

J and I are fortunate to live in an area with one of the best "locavore" communities -- for the uninitiated, the term refers to a person who prefers to eat foods grown or raised locally, as opposed to sourced from long distances. In fact, our weekly Farmer's Market opened for the season last weekend, and we finally had the chance to check it out today. Why eat local? Well, aside from the obvious lower-carbon-footprint advantage, the food is super fresh, typically hormone-free, often from family farms, and offers a better value than supermarket stuff. While we don't choose to eat exclusively local, we both prefer the combined benefits of helping the community and eating better.

So today, we set out to explore the market with an eye for a new recipe for the week, and to start pricing some things we haven't tried yet. Last year we stuck to mainly fruits and veggies (with some wine and maple syrup thrown in for good measure), but I'd like to try out the grass-fed meats and free-range eggs soon. We happen to have a very good butcher shop/market in our area that we've relied on for meat products for a while, but it would be nice to make a truly local-sourced meal this summer.

After making the circuit once to get a feel for what the sellers had to offer, I honed in immediately on this display of potatoes:

Look at 'em all! 
From the folks at Heron Pond Farm

I had a recipe in mind already for this week, and seeing these gorgeous golden taters just sealed the deal. In the bag they went.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

(Secret) Family Recipes

One of the greatest obstacles I face in taking on this challenge is our wacky, ever-changing schedule and the havoc it wreaks on our meals. With a pilot for a husband, there are some days I'm sure about, some days I'm not, and a whole lot of "maybe" in between. J's schedule takes him away more often than not, so the time we do have together is precious -- but that doesn't stop life from happening. All efforts to the contrary, we can't always eat dinner at home (or together, for that matter) and we have learned to celebrate holidays and life events when it's convenient, not when they're supposed to happen.

This is the second year in a row that J has been away for both of our birthdays. Happily, I was lucky enough to spend mine with both of my parents this year, a rare treat indeed. They certainly know how to brighten my day (food and shopping are pretty safe bets).

A lovely birthday bouquet. Thanks, guys!

I thought I'd take advantage of my cooking lull to mention the influence my parents have had on my relationship with food and cooking. I know I already discussed  my mother (and her apron) here, but I neglected to show off my little treasure chest of the classic family recipes I learned while growing up.

There's something special about the notion of a family recipe -- or better yet, the secret family recipe. It sounds so mysterious, lending an otherwise simple dish a status it wouldn't normally enjoy. I'm fortunate to have a number of these little gems in my make-it-in-my-sleep arsenal, and have made many of them with great success. I do play favorites, however, and I have one from each parent that I make with pride to share -- but never share the recipe.

The treasure chest

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sunday is Baking Day

In between cleaning the bedroom and working on a curriculum proposal, I managed to squeeze in a little bit of baking. I chose something easy and fast: spritz cookies. Actually, I'd only heard they were easy and fast, since I've never made them before. Happily, these little cookies lived up to their reputation.

The main reason I had yet to attempt this recipe was a lack of tools. One must use a cookie press to spritz the dough through a disc, thereby making a pretty and consistent shape... and I didn't have one. But through the wonders of wedding gifts and pair of psychic **friends , I received this. I've been meaning to put it to good use, and finally seized the opportunity.

A match made in kitchen heaven

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Little (Heavy) Reading

Or, Why Cookbooks are So Damn Heavy

I love to read. Maybe it comes from being an only child left to my own devices for quiet self-entertainment, or perhaps from my mother's habit of reading to me a lot as a kid. Either way, put me in a bookstore and I'm in a kind of tortuous heaven: so many things to read, so little time and money. I've always been a fiction lover, attracted to the sheer creativity and detail that goes in to producing a first-rate novel. I also read non-fiction of the narrative variety, thanks in large part to the trend of cool people writing about doing cool things.

But lately I've been getting into a whole new genre: cookbooks. Well, cookbooks, baking books, magazines with recipes in them, blogs about food, and pretty much any piece of literature devoted to the goings-on in the best room of the house. Not everything is good; in fact, the majority of cooking-related material is notably sub-par because it focuses solely on the "how" of it all, rather than the "why." 

Now don't get me wrong, I need quite a lot of the how-to-do-this kind of instruction. I read those parts as I would if I were preparing for a test in school: read, memorize, add context, remove fluff, repeat. But in order to get the real (sorry) flavor of something, I need more -- in fact, continuing the bad food pun, I crave more. I need to know why I should pre-bake my pie crust, why I should dry the scallops before pan-searing, and why, WHY some recipes call for shortening when others ask for butter.

Happily, there are a few people out there who must feel the way I do about the hows and the whys, because they've created cookbooks around the concept. I'll never forget the first time I timidly cracked open The Art and Soul of Baking, terrified to be confronted with hundreds of tiny-print recipes of unfathomable difficulty. But lo and behold, instead I found chapter after chapter of helpful and straightforward information, filling in the gaps of my working knowledge. Want to know if your dough is ready? Stretch a piece between your hands, hold the "pane" to the light, and check out the gluten strands. See them? See how they congealed and darkened, making the dough pliable but not tough? It's ready. I got it. Magic.

At the moment, I'm working my way through a new acquisition, courtesy of my mother (and my birthday): the newest Betty Crocker Cookbook. It's in ring-bound binder form for easy tabbed organization and page-holding, boasts some lovely pictures for the did-I-do-this-right visual learner, and goes a long way toward building me a better foundation in my everyday cooking. I intend to try some new versions of old recipes in the very near future.

The best part about these books (and others) is that I can pour a glass of wine, sit back, and read through a chapter or two as though reading one of my beloved fantasy novels. It may the how-to parts that I need, but it's the whyfores that keep me reading -- and cooking.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Week One: Success, I think

Well, I think I can call my first attempt at this challenge a success. After much deliberation, I decided to start off with a simple addition: concentrated (store-bought) chicken stock. After talking with my mother, I also added broccoli to the New Stuff list, mostly to see if we'd like it.

This was an easy dinner to make. Carrots, celery, broccoli, chicken, stock, and a dash of white wine aren't exactly exotic, and stove-top nonstick frying pans definitely don't qualify as uncommon. But still, I did what I set out to do and added some new ingredients, used a not-totally-new technique, put it all on a plate with white rice, and ended up with a pretty darn tasty dinner (that did NOT take a zillion hours or cost a zillion dollars).

I asked John to rate the meal, and he gave it a solid B . He said he'd be happy to have it again, and I think we probably will -- it has all the makings of a good mid-week dinner. I might even play with the concept in the future, turning it into a stir-fry with beef or something. We'll see.

So, I'm pretty satisfied with the results of the first week. Did I learn anything fancy or make a ground-breaking culinary discovery? Nope. No big epiphany, but I did confirm that a simple meal with new tastes can be a nice experience for both of us. I have a fabulous new cookbook in front of me courtesy of my wonderful, ever-supportive mother (thanks, mom!) and a few good ideas for next week. Feel free to leave suggestions for ingredients, recipes, techniques, etc. for me, I never turn down a great idea!

A New Challenge (I Accept!)

There comes a time when every newlywed (or any-wed) must face difficult questions. Usually a pair will face them together, leaning on each other for support and helping to solve the problem at hand.

But not this time. 

This question I face alone, one woman in the face of tight budgets, sharp knives, and possible starvation. That's right, the question every self-designated cook must answer no later than 6pm on a weekday and 7 on a weekend...

"So honey, what's for dinner?"


I like to cook -- really, I do. I grew up as "mommy's helper" in the kitchen, watching her dance around the small space with seeming ease as she created tasty family meals. Whether she fed 3 or 13 (or 30), my mother wore her blue-and-white apron like a proud symbol of her hard work, a sign that the careful planning and endless drudgery would combine at the perfect moment to present a memorable meal for her guests. Even now that her household has diminished to two (and the cat), she still concocts meals for herself and my father that rival many in the most popular cookbooks. Her food isn't always fancy, but it never fails to please and satisfy -- a goal worthy of emulation if ever I found one.

Where does all this fit in with The Question? Simple: with the exceptions of pasta, mac & cheese, and some frozen chicken and rice, my otherwise wonderful husband can not cook. Therefore it falls to me to become the meal planner, provisioner, and provider of edibles, a task I initially accepted with great gusto. I thought -- as all new cooks must -- it would be as easy as my mother always made it seem. Yes, laugh all you want at my naivete, but I've since learned my lesson: cooking can be fun, but it can also be hard. 

My husband would say that I cook well, but I don't cook a lot. What he means is that I don't cook many different things; I found a handful of recipes that I figured out how to make, and for fear of screwing up and killing us both, I stuck with those. Talk about a limited palate (yawn).

So he issued a challenge: make just one new thing -- ingredient, dish, style, method -- every week. It doesn't have to be crazy, and it certainly can't be expensive, but perhaps it will help to expand our food repertoire (preferably without expanding out waists!) a little more.

Well dear, challenge accepted. Here begins a new era of foodie fun and kitchen experimentation, complete with my very own blue-and-white apron.

Here's to good eats... and hoping we both make it out alive.