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.