Monday, November 29, 2010

Quick and easy spice cake

Here's the scenario: the holidays are approaching and you're given the task of bringing baked goods for your office meeting/bridge club/lemur appreciation society/whatever, and you want to bring something homemade and seasonally appropriate. But of course you've waited until the last moment. As you open your fridge to start getting your ingredients together you realize – horror! – that you are all out of milk and eggs. What to do?

Here is the recipe for your situation: an absolutely delightful spice cake (really just a sweet quick bread) that requires no milk and no eggs. It is also great fun to play around with in various ways. You can vary the level of sugar depending on whether you want it to be more of a dessert or more of a breakfast item. For spices, you can use whatever sounds good (or whatever you have). Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, etc. – those nice holiday flavors – are all welcome in any combination you fancy. I particularly like to add grated fresh ginger to give it a good bite. But most fun of all for me has been playing around with the liquid: while water works just fine, I have so far used coffee, porter, and hard cider instead, all to great effect.

The recipe is adapted from the Tassajara Recipe Book.

Quick Spice Cake

Preheat oven to 350.

Butter and flour an 8 inch cake pan

Mix together in a big bowl 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup white flour, 1/4 to 3/4 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you want it to be), 1 tsp. baking soda, and spices (any of the following: 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. cloves, 1 tsp. allspice, 1 tbsp. ginger, or whatever else looks good).

In a small saucepan, melt 1/3 cup butter. Add to this 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, then 1 cup cold water or other liquid, such as coffee, dark beer, cider, etc.

[Quick note: if your butter is still hot, and your water quite cold, this will produce a very odd reaction, creating a kind of crystallized-looking mixture. Don't worry, this is fine, and it's also kind of cool looking...]

[Quick note #2: you could just use oil instead of butter and make it completely vegan]

Now mix your butter mixture in with your dry ingredients. Do not over-mix! This is a quick bread, so do just enough to moisten all the dry ingredients. It's ok if the batter is still a little lumpy and uneven.

Pour the dough into the cake pan, and bake for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For an extra nice touch, sprinkle powdered sugar on top before serving.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cooking oils

Just a quick note today to point you towards this article by Harold McGee in the New York Times. McGee is without a doubt one of the most interesting food writers in operation. His book On Food and Cooking is absolutely essential reading.

His column in the Times this week is about cooking oil. The basic point is that most oils (good olive oil, bad olive oil, refined seed oil, etc.) are pretty much indistinguishable once heated:

We were surprised at how thoroughly heat obliterated the flavors in cooking oil until they all tasted more or less the same. Even prize-winning, and costly, extra-virgin olive oils lost much of what makes them special, though they retain their apparently healthful pungency. To get food with the green and fruity flavor of good olive oil, it seems more economical and effective to fry with an inexpensive refined oil and drizzle on a little fresh olive oil after cooking.

I've always used a slightly fruity but fairly neutral olive oil as my everyday basic cooking oil, but I might consider using more seed oil now.

Readers, do you have any thoughts on this?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lindsey's beautiful stuffed pumpkin

Lindsey, as you may recall, loves a stuffed pumpkin. And this time she really outdid herself...

These little pie pumpkins were full of rice, caramelized onions, chunks of apple, Italian sausage (from Giacamo's in Greensboro, NC), and shiitakes from our logs (yes, we grow shiitakes in our backyard).

In keeping with the autumnal feel of the dish, basque-style cider was used as a liquid (this style of cider is not at all sweet, and pretty acidic). The whole thing was then topped with cheese and baked. The cheese melted and browned, the pumpkin flesh was softened and infused with cider, and the whole thing came out beautifully... A triumph!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

You do not need to soak your beans

I was really glad to see this article in the New York Times yesterday.

It is a common (and, to me, galling) assumption that beans need to be soaked before cooking. I have seen this myth repeated many, many places, including cookbooks where the authors should have known better (Mark Bittman is a notable exception). As beans make up a very large portion of my diet, and I am always proselytizing on their behalf, I'm glad to see the truth spoken in a major media outlet.

Yes, it is true: beans do not need to be soaked before cooking. As in the recipe provided in the NYT article, dried beans can used directly in a long simmered stew, with no ill effect. Quite the contrary, in fact: this technique does a great job at melding flavors together.

But also, it is possible to cook dry beans on their own without soaking. The difference? It will take a little longer, though not nearly as much most cookbooks say.

So why soak at all? Well it will cut down on cutting time somewhat. The other potential reason is texture. This is somewhat anecdotal, but it does seem that sometimes, when using dry beans directly, the beans don't cook quite as evenly. This only seems to happen with older beans, though, which you should try to avoid anyways. And it can also be remedied by cooking the beans slowly and gently. My opinion is that, for texture, the best thing you can do is cook your dry beans in a crockpot for a few hours. It won't save you any time, but it requires practically no labor, and it really produces great results.

But the important thing to remember here: beans do not need to be pre-soaked, so don't let a lack of soaking stop you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

As it get colder... beer bread!

This quick beer bread might be the bread I bake most often. It is extremely satisfying and easy to make – I don't know if I've ever screwed it up. It has a warm, malty, yeasty flavor that I find very comforting, especially as the weather turns cold. And the best: it can be made in under an hour, start to finish. This means I can wake up in the morning, make the bread, eat some for breakfast, and still make it to the office on time.

If it has a drawback, it is that it's not terribly versatile. This is not a bread for mopping up sauces at dinner, and it's nearly useless for making a sandwich. But for some things it's really good: as toast with butter (obviously), and it is great with certain sharp cheeses, like cheddar or aged gouda. Also, it makes good friends with many kinds of hearty cold weather stews.

Oh and of course it's great with a beer! The best autumn lunch ever might be this beer bread with cheddar, mustard, apple, maybe a little salami, and a nice malty British style ale....

Though I just stick with the basic recipe most of the time, there are a number of possible felicitous variations here:

-Try different types of beers. This is the most obvious variable. Try lighter and darker beers for different results (but avoid heavily hopped beers, unless you want bitter bread). If you want to get a little crazy, try a pumpkin ale or other seasonal spiced beers. (As a side note, the Joy of Cooking says to use any beer except stout, but I have used porter before, and the line between porters and stouts is thin to non-existent. Does anybody know why the Joy would say that? Hit up the comments if you have thoughts)

-Add in a quarter cup of nutritional yeast for additional savoriness.

-Add in grated cheddar (or other cheese) for increased cheesiness.

-Play around with the ratio of whole wheat to all purpose flour. Or substitute some fine corn meal for some of the wheat flour for a different texture.

-A favorite at our house: bake in muffin tins instead of a loaf pan (reduce cooking time to about 20 mins.)

This recipe is straight out of the Joy of Cooking. As with all quick breads, the key is to not over-mix when you add the beer to your dry ingredients.

Quick Beer Bread

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
12 oz. beer (not flat)

Mix together all the dry ingredients.

Fold in the beer, but don't over-mix. It's fine if the dough is a little lumpy.

Pour into a lightly greased loaf pan, and bake at 400 for 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Doing crab cakes a little differently

Pretty much all recipes for crab cakes require mayonnaise.

That's what I learned yesterday evening as I tried to make dinner. We had about a half-pound of crab meat left from our most recent CSF delivery, and Lindsey had requested crab cakes (a CSF is a Community Supported Fishery, like a CSA but for fish. Ours is called Core Sound Seafood – check them out they do excellent work).

Now I had made crab cakes numerous times before (pretty successfully, I believe, as the repeated request demonstrated). As per my usual cooking style, in making them previously I had based my approach on an existing recipe to get the basic idea, then taken it and done my own thing, adjusting and seasoning as I saw fit. The recipes always include some mayonnaise.

The problem was that last night I didn't have any mayonnaise. We usually make our own (much better tasting than the store-bought stuff), and I just didn't feel like taking the extra step. So I decided to wing it, without mayonnaise.

The result? Excellent! More straight crab flavor, and a little lighter. I would in fact probably do it this way again (though I have to say, a little dollop aïoli on top would be quite nice...).

Here's what I did (all measurements are very, very approximate):

I mixed the 1/2 pound of crab meat with a 1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs. For flavoring, I used a generous dash of pimentón (smoked paprika – it belongs in pretty much everything), a pinch of cayenne for heat, a couple tablespoons of mustard, a few splashes of cider vinegar, and some salt. To bind it, I added tablespoon of olive oil and a small egg. I combined it all thoroughly, shaped it into 4 cakes, and dredged the cakes in a little flour. These were fried on medium-high heat in a mixture of butter and olive oil until nicely browned. Add a squeeze of lemon on top and it's ready.

And to drink with this? Txakoli of course!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cutting potatoes, Spanish-style

The last time I was in Spain, we were served patatas a la riojana at a winery in - where else? - La Rioja. This dish is typical of much Spanish cooking in that it relies not on complexity, but on specific techniques and high quality ingredients. In this case, it's just onions, a little garlic, chorizo, potatoes, and broth.

The idea is always simple - like with padrón peppers. These peppers are served all over the place in tapas bars when they're in season. They are fried in olive oil until slightly charred, then sprinkled in salt. That's it. Sounds incredibly simple; and it is. But, crucially, what makes them so delicious in the tapas bars is that they are just the right peppers grown in just the right soils in Galicia. They are fried in high quality olive oil and sprinkled with high quality coarse salt. You have to put all these elements together to make padrón peppers just right.

The patatas a la riojana we had that day were incredible. What, we asked, is the key to making something seemingly so simple so good? The matriarch of the place gladly explained how to make dish to us. According to her, there are two key things. One is in the ingredients: to make it just right, you need to use chorizo that hasn't completely finished curing. This way, the chorizo releases more of its flavor into the dish (this, clearly, cannot be reproduced at home, unless you're curing your own chorizo) The second crucial thing is in the cutting of the potatoes: they need to be cut into little irregular pieces in a technique called cascar. This verb translates roughly to "crack" or "chip." The idea is that instead of cutting through the potato, you stick a pairing knife into it, then pull back so the potato breaks naturally where it wants and creates irregularly shaped pieces.

This affects the starch structure of the potatoes and has two effects. The first is that the starch from the potatoes thickens the sauce properly, and the second is that the potatoes more readily absorb the flavors of the sauce. If anyone knows a more detailed scientific explanation for this, please hit up the comments, I'd love to hear it... Looking around, I can hardly find any information on this cutting technique. The best I could find was this.

I find it fascinating, and I wonder why it's not better known.
And beyond stews and saucy dishes, I've found that cutting potatoes this way is great for frying too. In fact, a few Spanish sources insist that this is the proper way to cut potatoes for a tortilla de patatas, a statement with which I will not disagree. The potatoes seem to develop a beautiful golden color and that comforting creamy texture inside far more readily. Again, any information on why this is would be appreciated.

So try cutting your potatoes like this next time, whether it's for a stew, a tortilla, a breakfast hash, or any number of other dishes. Take a starchy potato and peel it. Using a pairing knife, hold the potato in one hand, insert the knife, then pull it back and upwards towards you. You will feel the potato break and crack. With a little practice, it goes very fast, and I find it much more fun than regular potato cutting.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Aaand we're back.

Getting married!

Cooking live lobsters from the Vieques fishmarket on our honeymoon!

Our Lobster feast!

Tropical rice and beans with coconut, mango chile salsa and avocado lime salad. We make it good wherever we are.

Sorry for the long interruption folks. We had a busy spring and early summer. Highlights: Getting hitched on May 15th at the Celebrity Dairy and traveling to Puerto Rico for a 2 week honeymoon. After all the excitement (and with the arrival of full summer excellence) we're ready to get back to posting about cooking and food! We've got a lot of new stuff to tell you about, including adventures in backyard chicken raising and cooking with our own fresh eggs so look out for updates over the next few weeks. For now I'll leave you with some shots from the spring.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ravioli lessons with Chris and Meg: a photo essay

The finished product.
waiting to be cut...
The key is no more than a teaspoon of filling

The pasta machine... fold and then roll... repeat...

Slow carmelizing onions...


Butternut Squash...

The raw ingrediants: Our beginning dough...

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Fifth Taste

What's up world? Well it's obviously been a little while since anything has happened with this blog... I could try to give excuses - holidays, travels, change of routine, etc. - but in the end there's not much point. The only point is that, well, we're back, and hopefully on a regular basis.

Now just because I haven't been updating the blog does not mean that I have not been thinking about food. I have been. Pretty much all the time.

And one of the topics that's been on my mind lately is umami. Umami is the least well known and least well understood of all the tastes, by a long shot. In fact, my spell check doesn't even recognize the word...

But its importance should not be underestimated. Umami is a crucial element of all cooking, but it's especially important to think about in vegetarian and vegan cooking, because most umami-ness comes from animal products.

But first, what is umami? Well umami is the fifth taste. We all know about sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, but then there's this other one. The word is Japanese, and it doesn't really have an appropriate translation. The best is probably "savory," or even "deep savory". It's that meaty, hearty, rich mouth filling taste. It's difficult to convey verbally what umami is, since it's not something we really have the vocabulary for. If this helps, the purest form of umami taste is found in MSG.

Umami is what makes a meaty stew so satisfying, especially in comparison to, say, a vegetarian bean stew. And that brings me to the heart of the topic.

I believe that when vegetarian cooking seems flat and unsatisfying, it is often due to a lack of attention to umami (and I hope it's clear at this point that I am no foe of vegetarian cooking). Everybody knows about salty and sweet, most know to think at least a little about sour and bitter too, but do many home cooks think about umami? Probably not...

So where do you find umami? Well the most obvious is meat, but that's not much help for vegetarian cooking. Seafood is also a particularly fertile source, with fish sauce and anchovies being prime examples. There's also marmite, if you're into that kind of thing (ok I'll admit it I kind of like marmite). But the most versatile is surely soy sauce.

I've said this before, but I add a dash of soy sauce to pretty much everything I cook. I don't do this to make my food taste like soy sauce - you certainly wouldn't want all your food to take on the distinctive taste of soy sauce - I do it to bring a little umami to the dish. Soy sauce does wonders in small quantities. Seriously, try adding a dash to your sauces, stews, whatever. It makes a huge difference.

Other really great (vegetarian) ways to get your umami include mushrooms, parmesan, and seaweed.

Mushrooms, especially intensely flavored wild mushrooms, can also do wonders. We keep dried wild mushrooms in the pantry all the time to use in cooking. Again, it's not necessarily about making your dish take like mushrooms (though of course it can be), it's about using the mushrooms for their umami giving properties.

Parmesan really doesn't need much said about it. It's great for finishing many types of dishes, especially Mediterranean style ones. One trick that not enough people know about is to save the rinds form your parmesan, then stick them in your soups or stews while they're cooking. They'll give the dish a wonderful richness and lushness (not to mention umaminess!). Pull the rind out right before your dish is done, and spread the gooey deliciousness on a piece of bread for an incredible treat.

Seaweed might need a little explanation. One of the important topics in umami, for me, is beans. I cook - and eat - a fair amount of beans. They are a fantastic and wonderfully useful ingredient, but they are also singularly lacking in umami. Seriously, try just making, say, a simple black bean stew with tomatoes and cilantro, and it will fall flat, unless you have incredibly ripe fresh tomatoes or you're topping it with a bunch of cheese, or you make it with chicken stock. The problem, as I see it, is that while beans are "meaty" in some sense, they're distinctly not meaty in the sense that, by themselves, they lack the power to bring that delicious savory satisfaction. In short, they lack umami.

But try cooking your beans with a piece of kombu first, and it's a whole different story. Kombu is a type of Japanese seaweed that packs a serious umami punch, and putting a little strip in the water when you're cooking your beans is a brilliant way to bring some glutamic acid to the party.
I'm not saying you wouldn't want to finish your stew with little cheese in the end, but it's a lot less necessary when you're cooking your beans with kombu.

So in short, don't underestimate the importance of umami! If you're cooking with lots of bacon or chicken stock or cheese, you probably don't have to think about it too much, but otherwise it is totally essential. It's one of just five tastes, for Christ's sake - you can't afford to ignore it.

If you've got other ideas about bringing the umami, hit up the comments. I'd love to hear them.