Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chicken Noodle Soup, Completely From Scratch

My wife was sick today, so I made her chicken noodle soup. I did the whole bit from scratch, save one little flavor-amplifying corner that I cut. It looked good; here's her picture of her bowl of soup:
chicken noodle soup completely from scratchNotice how it is excitingly not yellow.

Here's a little warning for you: this takes all day, but here's the light at the end of that tunnel: it's completely worth it because it's the best chicken noodle soup ever.

Start by making a real, nice chicken stock. This is where I cut corners and used store-bought (fancy-pants kind) chicken stock in my chicken stock. To make it you're basically going to throw most of the kitchen sink into a pot and boil it for a long time. If you have ready access to some nice herbs in your garden, then that's going to help. If not, you'll be okay using dried ones or paying top-dollar for them at the store. You could also not use them, but there just seems to be something almost morally wrong with chicken soup without parsley in it. Also, my ingredient list carries a lot of weird stuff in it because I was going for "medicinal" soup, not just dinner (although it wasn't medicine, strictly speaking, so we all could enjoy it). Thus, my ingredient list includes a few somewhat strange items. It also includes a few nonstandard things because my garden gave me too many of some things that just had to be used somehow. Here's what I put in mine. I'll put "more standard" stock ingredients in italics for you and try to list them all first.

  • One whole chicken, cut into pieces (I included the giblets too -- ew);
  • Three medium carrots, scrubbed and chopped into large-ish pieces;
  • Two ribs of celery, washed and chopped likewise;
  • One onion (a small, red one for me), peeled and roughly chopped;
  • A few (five for me) cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped (first);
  • A few (five or six for me) bay leaves;
  • Some (maybe 15-20) black peppercorns, whole;
  • About a tablespoon (?) of sea salt;
  • A few sprigs of fresh herbs or their dried equivalent (I used a sprig of rosemary, three of thyme, two of basil, a handful of chives, and two sprigs of oregano);
  • One quart chicken or vegetable stock and one quart water, lightly salted, or two quarts of water, slightly less lightly salted;
  • Two white mushrooms (all I had left), chopped roughly;
  • About an inch of ginger sliced thinly;
  • Approximately one ounce of goji berries;
  • Approximately 30-40 dried schizandra berries;
  • Half a teaspoon each of whole cumin and fennel seeds;
  • Approximately one teaspoon of dried elderberries;
  • About a dozen Nardello peppers and two sweet bell peppers (garden overload!) sliced roughly;
  • One very small acorn squash (from the garden, unlikely to be used otherwise), sliced into large pieces (seeds included in stock);
  • The peels of a potato and a small turnip.
making a proper chicken stockBasically, all I did was cut everything up and put it all into a big pot, poured in the stock first and then water until everything was more-or-less covered, and put it over medium-high heat until it boiled. Then I covered it and let it cook like that over medium heat for about thirty-five or forty minutes, until I was pretty sure the chicken was done. The only special note here is that I planned to use a potato and a turnip in my finished soup, and so I peeled those, included the peels in the stock, and put both in a bowl of cold water to keep them from "rusting." I left the skin on the chicken because it is full of lovely virtuous substances like gelatin and fat, but if you're less into fat, you could have cut it off first and not included it.

Once the chicken was done, meaning cooked through enough to where it was ready to fall off the bone, I fished all of it out, which took a little while. The giblets that I put into the pot stayed there and continued to do what they would to the stock. Once it was all out, I re-covered the pot and let the chicken cool for about ten minutes, and then I proceeded to pick all of that lovely meat off of those bones and set it aside, covered, until the very end of this whole story. I put the bones and skin and chewy bits back into the pot because their virtues hadn't all made it into the soup. I let them cook in there with the veggies for another half an hour or so before finishing the stock.

As this boiling process continued, I cut up the vegetables that I actually wanted in the soup (since the stock veggies were all to be discarded). Those would be
  • Two more carrots cut into small pieces;
  • The turnip and potato cut into matching small pieces;
  • One rib of celery cut into small pieces;
  • One shallot, chopped a bit more finely than I meant to;
  • Three sprigs of flat-leafed parsley, roughly chopped;
  • Three tablespoons of unsalted butter (not a veggie but needed in the next step).
When I finished with that, I had conveniently let the bones and veggies cook for just long enough (for me today... I probably could have obtained even more virtue from the bones over the course of another couple hours over medium-low heat), I started the "straining the stock" process, which consists of "pouring" the stock into another large pot or bowl through a fine-mesh strainer. That would be easy enough if I had a second giant pot and a professional-sized strainer, but I don't. That means there was pouring; then there was spooning things out in "strainer-full-sized" scoops and letting it drain. It took a while to get it all done, but eventually I did.

cooking veggies for homemade chicken noodle soupWhile the last scoop dripped its last bits of stock into the other pot, I started cooking the veggies for the soup in three tablespoons of butter. I wanted to do this for the same amount of time as it takes for onions to go roughly translucent, so I let this happen for about five or six minutes, stirring frequently and salting it lightly while it cooked. You might notice that this is in the same pot. I washed it in between stock-making and veggie cooking.

adding brown chicken stock to homemade chicken noodle soupOnce the veggies had cooked for long enough to have softened a bit, I poured in the stock, through the strainer again just in case I missed anything on the first pass (I hadn't, it turned out). You can see in this picture how the stock is a lovely shade of brown instead of a weak yellow tone. That indicates remarkable goodness in the stock and a delicious flavor to come. You can make a darker brown chicken stock, incidentally, from using the bones of a roasted chicken, which you could even further roast to really get them nice and dark. You can also see that turnips and celery float better than carrots, shallots, and potatoes. The scientist in me is dying to talk about density or specific gravity here....
shaved noodles dough for homemade chicken noodle soupThe next thing I did was start to make the dough for the hand-made shaved noodles (刀削面, dao xiao mian), which I already mentioned how to make (see the recipe on the link). I'm finding that the right proportion for the water and flour is 3 and a quarter flours to one water with a pinch of salt and a lot of kneading, but I never get it quite right on the first try anyway. Here's what it looked like after I let it rest for a little bit (in the shape of a lovely ball).

a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup from scratchI finished the soup by shaving the pasta into the boiling soup just after I confirmed that the potatoes and turnips were done and that the salt was correct, if not just a bit strong, for the stock (strong to compensate for the noodles). After the noodles finished cooking, which took maybe three or four minutes, I put in some frozen peas (because we didn't grow them this year to have fresh ones) and let them thaw through before turning off the heat and double-checking the salt (it needed a little more, actually).

Just looking at the picture again a few minutes ago made my wife let out a growling "Mmmm," so this one really must have been done right!

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Meyer Lemonade

I wish I had taken a picture, but I didn't. In my bottle today, as I went to work, I made up a quart of Meyer lemonade, which is a nice thing. The Meyer lemons are usually only available in the dead of winter, but since it's the dead of winter in New Zealand, I found some at the store the other day that were so lovely that I had to pay the exorbitant price for them. I won in the end, though, because the cashier just rang them up as lemons, which I didn't notice until I got home. Anyway, they make a beautiful, different kind of lemonade that is all together refreshing and delicious. These were so vivid that they were almost orange. In fact, I was initially attracted to them in the store without realizing they were Meyer lemons because I saw, maybe for the first time in my life, "orange lemons." They weren't quite orange, but they were far more orangish in color than any of the other lemons we have around here.

My basic lemonade recipe runs about like this, although it can, of course, be adjusted to your tastes (I prefer mine slightly sour). I usually use a tablespoon of sugar per lemon's worth of juice and about two and a half or three cups of water. That's the whole recipe. If you want to make a pitcher, scale up (so use about three lemons and three tablespoons of sugar to fill a two-quart pitcher or six lemons and six tablespoons of sugar to fill a gallon).

A nice little thing to do is also to slice up (cross-sectionally) another quarter or half a lemon into almost paper-thin slices and let them float in your pitcher. Not only do they look nice, but they slowly impart their oils into the drink.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rosemary-Balsamic Mushroom Smothered Hamburgers with Smoked Paprika Home Fries

No doubt some of you remember (or would like to remember) my recipe from Monday night: smoked paprika home fries, which were spectacular and yet still somewhere in the comfort-food arena. Tonight, I decided to share that recipe with the family, throwing in burgers with a little gourmet touch, though no buns because there was plenty of food without them. Take a look-see:
rosemary-balsamic mushroom smothered hamburgers with smoked paprika home fries and a leafy saladOf course, all I had to do for the home-fries was scale the recipe up to five potatoes instead of two, so since you're definitely link-savvy, there's no need to repeat that recipe and process here. The rosemary-balsamic mushroom smothering "glaze," however, stands to be talked about, as do the burgers (even though I cheated again and bought -- and seasoned! -- preformed ones at the grocery store seeing as I had enough to do what with working, mowing, tending the garden, cleaning up, cooking, and etc. to get along with today). All I did to those patties was put a fair amount of freshly ground black pepper and seasoned salt on them on both sides before I threw them into the hot pan. I'll mention the cooking details below as well.

First: smash and chop up some garlic (for the mushroom stuff and the potatoes combined, I used five cloves, although none of them was breaking any size records). Then cut up everything that needs to be cut up, details on how to do that are below and on the recipe for the potatoes linked to above.

Now, to make the mushroom "stuff," I started off with about half a stick of butter in a small frying pan (half a stick?!? yes!) over medium heat. To that, once it melted nicely, I added a small amount of finely chopped onion and about seven or eight "baby 'bella" mushrooms that I had cleaned (with a towel), halved, and sliced thinly. Of course, I salted that lightly immediately and added just a couple of small turns of black pepper. Once they fried a little bit in all of that lovely butter, I added probably about a third of the finely chopped garlic and all of the leaves of a nice sprig (about 6 inches) of rosemary, also finely chopped. After letting that fry for a couple of more minutes (giving it a good stir, of course), I sprinkled in a dash of red wine vinegar and a fair amount of balsamic vinegar, probably just short of a quarter of a cup. I wanted that to reduce and concentrate, so I didn't turn the heat down, though I did stir it from time to time. For the record, I actually started all of this just after I started the potatoes because... that's right: potatoes take freaking forever to cook, especially when you don't have another frying pan and have to redneck it in a wok like I did.
rosemary balsamic mushrooms in butterObserve the mushrooms in their buttery, rosemary-y, balsamicy happy place, mellowing down over medium heat and letting all of those flavors concentrate and mingle (and letting the mushrooms get fully soft).

Here's all three pans going at once right after I added the burgers, which would probably have been when I guessed the potatoes would need another ten minutes. The pan I put them into was crazy hot, and I put the side I seasoned down and then seasoned the tops directly in the pan. Clever... I know.

This is what the burgers looked like when I flipped them after approximately five or six minutes over the quite-high heat I had them cooking on. Notice that lovely crusty goodness created by putting the burgers directly into a very hot pan. They needed, all told, probably just over ten minutes on both sides combined, although that brought them out medium well. The thing to watch for, particularly if you want "well done," is that the juices run completely clear as they come up and out of the meat. Mine were definitely still a little pink, and it was delicious.

To finish this off, I put the potatoes on a plate, nestled the burger beside, poured the mushrooms and sauce over them, and then put a little leafy salad on the empty spot on the plate. I let everyone dress their own salads (balsamic vinaigrette for the adults that have sense and ranch for the kids who clearly don't), and I put ketchup all over my potatoes, just like last time. One of the kids copied me.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Smoked Paprika Home Fries

Sometimes I come home after training and scavenge whatever I can. Tonight I wanted some comfort food, and because of my mom, that means potatoes. No one else wanted anything, so this was super-quick and super-easy.
smoked paprika home friesI've mentioned before how much I like good-quality paprika, and so here you find me talking about it again. Basically, all I did was wash and cut up two Idaho-style potatoes (the kind we have, though I usually prefer Yukon gold for making home fries) right after I crushed a clove of garlic and chopped it up finely. I also cut up a little bit of onion, maybe a quarter of a small-to-medium one. Saving the garlic for a minute, that all plunged into a hot skillet that contained about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and started to fry, a little salt and freshly ground black pepper landing on top of it immediately. After a couple of minutes, I tossed the potatoes in the pan and then let them fry for another minute or two before adding the garlic, half a tablespoon of unsalted butter, and a bit more seasoned salt. After a few more minutes of frying and a little more stirring/shaking the pan, I added about a half a teaspoon of the bittersweet smoked paprika and just a bit more salt (it's kind of surprising how much salt potatoes can take before they taste like you added any salt -- which makes for an interesting reversal: how much salt is on your potatoes (or French fries) that do taste (extra?) salty?). After a good stir to mix everything through and a couple of more minutes for the potatoes to finish (it's kind of surprising how long it takes to cook some potatoes, particularly when you want them quickly), I tasted them to make sure I didn't miss on the salt, turned off the heat, splashed them with a little red wine vinegar, tossed them, and put them on a plate. That's it.

Of course... I'm lame like this: I smothered them in ketchup right after I took the picture.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cantaloupe Smoothie

I wondered about this idea for a recipe because of our plethora of melons this summer. Many of them had to be given away or thrown away because we just couldn't keep up with how many of them there were (I ate four at one point in a day-and-a-half-long span and did not appreciate the results of that bombardment of my internals). Well, in addition to our Charantais melons, we had a regular-old cantaloupe come up near one of our compost piles, and it made a regular-old cantaloupe of unsurpassed quality. I picked it when it was ready, and like everyone else in the family, I just wasn't ready to eat another melon. That's when I decided to turn it into a smoothie, which was quite good.
cantaloupe melon smoothieIt was, of course, ridiculously easy to make. I cut up the whole cantaloupe into bite-sized pieces (peeling it and seeding it, obviously) and then put almost all of it into the blender (being weak or maybe sane, I cannot skip the opportunity to eat some fresh fruit when it is presented to me). It was very good for cantaloupe... almost as good as the French ones, in fact. Then I added about a tablespoon of evaporated cane juice (hippy sugar) and a cup of whole milk and whole-milk yogurt combined (the ratio of those is up to you: for more of a "drink," use mostly milk; for most of a "smoothie," use mostly yogurt; and "mostly" can mean "all" here if you like, in either direction) and an eyedropper's worth of good-quality vanilla extract. Then... blend. Done. Wow!

The flavor is unsurprisingly melony while being surprisingly less gross than the picture in my head was. It is, in fact, quite nice... retaining all of the lovely cooling notes of melon with all of the creamy goodness notes of smoothie. Everyone seemed to enjoy it greatly.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Beef Steak and Mushroom Stir Fry with Homemade Shaved Noodles (刀削面, dao xiao mian)

I know my posting of late has fallen in frequency... school started back (I'm a teacher), so I've been busier. I've still been cooking, though! In fact, I made a lovely little dish the other night with a nice flat iron steak I got at a great price: Stir-fried beef steak with mushrooms, which I served with homemade shaved pasta, i.e. 刀削面, dao xiao mian (a bit like this, but with mushrooms in place of the leeks). It was, as I expected, great. Here's what the finished dish looked like:
beef steak and mushroom stir fry with homemade shaved pasta noodlesIt was, as usual, pretty easy too... since I took care to remember (as is always important in making Asian food and many other kinds of dishes) to get everything prepared before I started the proper cooking (technically, I started the boiling water before anything else because that takes a long time). Here's how I did it:

dough to make whole wheat 刀削面, dao xiao mian pasta noodlesFirst, I salted some water and started heating it to boil, probably about a gallon. Then I put a bit over two cups of flour into a bowl (sifted, in case of monsters or marbles) and mixed it with just about half a cup of water and a pinch of salt. One quarter of the flour was 100% whole wheat. With some mixing and then mashing and then kneading, I worked it into a ball of rather dry dough and put it back into the bowl to wait for me.

slicing shiitake mushrooms to make beef steak and mushroom stirfryWhile the dough waited for me, I prepared some veggies. I started with garlic (always start with garlic) and crushed and finely chopped two cloves. Then I cut ten paper-thin, cross-sectional slices of ginger (carefully!) and then cut up a carrot into matchsticks about an inch long. After cutting off the stems, I then sliced (as shown) five shiitake mushrooms into thin strips. I finished by halving and thinly slicing a sweet onion and eight white mushrooms.

my cutting board covered in sliced vegetables for making beef steak and mushroom stir fryHere's my veggies all chopped up and ready to go.

sliced beef steak for making beef steak and mushroom stir fry with 刀削面, dao xiao mian pasta noodlesThe next thing to do was move the vegetables from the nice arrangement on the board above so I could cut up the steak: a lovely little 1.25-pound flat-iron steak. As you can see, I cut it into thin strips about an inch and a half long. Once it was cut, I was ready to get down to business, which started by heating a wok over rather high heat with a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil (canola oil would be okay too) in it. I also observed that my water was boiling (finally!). The veggies, not including the garlic and ginger, went into the pan first, and except for a pinch of salt, they were left unseasoned and stir-fried rather vigorously for about a minute. Then I turned the heat way down and let them soften a bit while I shaved the pasta dough into the water, pulling and pinching it at the end to preserve the ends of my fingers.

Once the pasta was in the boiling water, I poured the contents of the wok onto a plate and turned the heat back to quite high (just barely below "high") and added a little more oil. Once the wok was hot, I put in the garlic and ginger for about fifteen seconds before adding the meat. All of that got stir-fried for about a minute and a half and then I drained the finished noodles, which needed, all-in-all, about 3-4 minutes to cook through (and float to tell me they were done). As soon as I finished draining the pasta, I tossed in a pinch of red pepper flakes, about a tablespoon of soy sauce, stirred it around, and then added the veggies back into the pan. Note that the meat was obviously not cooked through yet -- I didn't want to overcook it and make it tough. After about another minute or so of mixing the ingredients in the pan together and making sure the meat was all cooked on the outsides, I added the pasta and mixed things up again. Another minute or so later, I turned off the pan and garnished by sprinkling about a half teaspoon of unhulled sesame seeds over the top. It came out beautifully and to the tremendous enjoyment of the whole family -- even the child that hates mushrooms loved it!

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Super-Fiber Flatbread and Smoked Paprika Hummus

I've been meaning to talk about paprika for a while -- it's one of my favorite ingredients, and it has such a weak reputation because of the oodles of cheap, almost flavorless paprikas available in bulk on the market, crowding out the more pricey stuff that's actually worth buying. I even thought, until I saw Wolfgang Puck make chicken paprikás on tv a few years ago, that paprika's only real culinary role was to add a maroonish color to food or to perhaps garnish dishes like potato or maccaroni salads -- pretty but flavorless. Momentum and thriftiness kept me from buying any real paprika for years to follow, though my interests went up and up every time I'd look at the nice stuff in fancy little metal cans at the upscale grocery stores I was increasingly loving to frequent (Whole Foods Market, you'd be on here in a position of glory if there was one of you within a two-hour drive of where I live... please come to Knoxville or Maryville... you'd make a million dollars (off of me alone!)).

Anyway, I used beautiful bittersweet paprika to make lovely hummus and paired it with some lovely little super-high-fiber flatbreads/pitas:
super-fiber flatbread or pita with smoked paprika hummusYum! The hummus was the easier of the two parts to make, although both were quite simple.

  • One can of garbanzo beans, rinsed well;
  • One small clove of garlic;
  • One teaspoon of unhulled sesame seeds;
  • One pinch of whole cumin seeds;
  • One turn of a black pepper mill;
  • One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil;
  • The juice of half a lemon;
  • About a quarter teaspoon (I think) of sea salt -- be conservative, you can add but cannot remove;
  • About a half teaspoon of bittersweet smoked paprika;
  • A little water to make it go;
  • About a quarter teaspoon of sweet paprika for garnish.
Take all of the completely dry ingredients and add them to a food processor and process until it starts to get smooth. That takes a while and isn't going to satisfy you all the way. Don't fuss. Then add the beans and the liquids, holding back on the water, and run it again. If it's flowing smoothly and mixing well, don't add water. If it's too thick (and therefore not blending well), add some water, maybe a tablespoon -- be conservative, you can always add more. Let it run and run and run until it's smooth (five minutes or so, which seems like a long time to let your food processor run... you might have to do it in stages and let the little electric motor inside cool off depending on the power and quality of your food processor -- if you burn it up, you're doing it all with a mortar and pestle the old-fashioned way... have fun with that). Put it in a bowl and check for seasoning. Add more salt if necessary (be conservative at first with the salt, and your life will be better). Let that stand to let the flavors marry. I made this, by the way, while the flatbread dough was rising.

For the flatbread, I made a proper dough. The main motivation for this dish, actually, is that sourdough starter is a bit of a chore sometimes. I had to make bread or throw some of it away. My starter is still wimpy, so I had to add yeast, which is fine anyway because it speeds the process up. I used almost a cup and a half of starter, about two cups or so of flour, half being unbleached all-purpose and half being 100% whole wheat flour, and then I added the super-fiber ingredients: extra wheat bran (about a tablespoon) and psyllium seed husk powder (about half a cup!!!). To that, I added half a cup of warm water with a teaspoon of proofed yeast, two teaspoons of evaporated cane juice (hippy sugar), and a healthy pinch of salt. Because of my secret bent to add Chinese tonic herbalism when and where I can, I also added a teaspoon of astragalus root powder, though that ingredient is definitely 100% optional.

I mixed the dough until it was smoothish and rolled it out of the bowl and onto the counter. Then I kneaded it for about twenty minutes, turning it a quarter turn and pushing down three or four times, folding it in half, turning it a quarter turn, pushing down three or four times, etc., and then oiled the doughball and put it into an oiled bowl. Once in there, I covered it with a slightly damp towel and let it rise in a nice warm place (all places are warm this time of year -- we're very conservative with our air conditioning) for a bit over an hour, until it doubled. Then I punched it down, rolled it out onto the counter, kneaded it again for about three minutes to redistribute the ingredients, and cut it into sixteen pieces of roughly equal size. Those I formed into little balls and then rolled out into flatbreads using the side of a bottle. I'd roll out as many as I could fit in my quite-hot skillet, and then while those were cooking, I'd roll out the next ones.

rolling out flatbread or pita dough with a bottle as a rolling pinHere's the dough in three stages with the bottle I was using as a rolling pin: little balls (in the back), squashed little balls (further forward), and flatbreads (obvious).

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Golden Garden Goodness: Yellow Watermelons!

golden yellow watermelonYou know I love to talk about things that come out of my garden, and right now we're in the peak of watermelon season, apparently. I counted yesterday. There are still about twelve or fifteen on the vine, and this beauty pictured here is the fifth we've picked. It's also the last of the golden yellow watermelons we're getting this year (I think... our baby watermelon plants got all mixed up, so there might still be some growing somewhere, but the remaining melons all seem to have a different shape. Anyway, these things are awesome and a real gift from the garden, and since I just enjoyed half of one in a single sitting (again), I thought I'd post about them.

To be technical, I don't know what varietal this watermelon is, but I expect it is a "yellow crimson." I know that I found out about yellow watermelons when I was a teenager but never saw one until a few years ago. Last year I decided that I was going to try one, by goodness, and bought one even though it failed two of my normal criteria for watermelon selection: it was already cut in half and it cost something like $8 for half a watermelon (Hhhwhat? Are you serious? I'm serious.). At least I knew it was yellow. I wasn't particularly impressed with the fruit I bought, but I liked the novelty enough to save some of the seeds to try growing them this year. It worked.

The flavor of yellow watermelons, if this varietal is any kind of representative, is similar to watermelon, though it tastes more like nectar, I think. The flavors are softer and distinct, and more honey-ish, than any red watermelon I've had, and it's all together pleasant. It also seems to be less crisp than most of the red watermelons I've had, though it's every bit as messy-juicy and probably slightly or even significantly sweeter. On a health front, I don't know what boons yellow watermelons have other than huge amounts of carotenes and being a spectacularly delicious source of fresh fruit in the diet, but I do know they lack lycopene, the quite-famous antioxidant carotenoid usually associated with tomatoes (also red, like lycopene itself).

If you've never had one of these beauties, do yourself the favor I needed a decade to convince myself of: get one and try it. Yellow watermelon is a very nice treat on a hot summer day like today!

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Burgers with Sourdough Rosemary Flatbread and Mashed Potatoes

I'm sure all twenty of you (my readers) are just dying to know what happened to that loaf of sourdough that didn't rise. I made flatbread out of it, that's what. First, I put it in the fridge overnight. Nothing happened. Then I let it sit out and warm up for a couple of hours. Nothing happened. My starter is apparently not mighty enough to make it rise without some additional yeasties. At least it doesn't smell like white vinegar any more (I started feeding it more flour at each feeding and the odor straightened out in about three days to a pleasant sourdough scent). In fact, I don't think it rose at all. Thus, I "punched it down" and then chopped up all of the rosemary on a long, fresh sprig very, very finely. Then I took some coarse sea salt and kneaded the salt and rosemary into the dough, working it for about five minutes until everything was very evenly distributed. Next, I made it into little flatbreads and put them on the grittle.
sea salt and rosemary sourdough flatbreads on the grittleHow'd they taste? Well... very sour. The sourdough flavor was almost overwhelming, although the salt balanced it and the rosemary kind of reigned things in and made it pleasant enough to where I put down three of them immediately before I remembered that I was only making nine: one to try and eight for "buns" for my burgers later. Crap. I'm glad I added the salt and rosemary because otherwise, these would have been hard to eat on their own (but good for making sandwiches or having with hummus).

Since I decided to have them with burgers (which I cheated and bought pre-formed because they were on sale -- otherwise they would have been better because they would have had chopped garlic, mushrooms, and rosemary in them) and mashed potatoes, I started to work on those. The burgers only needed a little dressing up since they were pre-made. First, I splashed them with some red wine vinegar and let it soak in a little, and then I sprinkled on seasoned salt and dried, ground rosemary leaves. I pressed the seasoning into the meat lightly and set them aside while I cleaned up the potatoes, which I left most of the peels on, and started them in some salted water: cold and turned to boil soon. Here's the trick to making awesome mashed potatoes that essentially no one knows....

If you want mashed potatoes, then you know you're going to be adding some kind of milk/cream and butter to them eventually. Wouldn't it be cool if you could add flavor? My mom boils onions and garlic in with the potatoes and then mashes them in. That's great except a large part of the flavor goes out with the water. The trick is to chop up those ingredients (here it was three cloves of garlic, two long sprigs of fresh rosemary, and about a quarter of an onion) and cook them in the milk and butter.
rosemary leaves and chopped garlic for delicious mashed potatoes I put about three tablespoons of butter into a small saucepan, melted it, and sauteed the onions in it for about five minutes. Then I added the garlic and rosemary and continued cooking it for another minute or two before dropping the heat. Once the pan was sizzling very little, I added about 2/3 of a cup of milk (for my 7 medium-sized Idaho potatoes) and a little salt. I let that warm slowly until scalding and then just let it simmer, like I was making "tea" out of the ingredients in the milk. When the potatoes were fork-tender, I drained them and poured the milk mixture into the potatoes with more salt and a little black pepper. When I mashed them and found them a little dry (which is what I had hoped, going intentionally a little short on the milk), I mixed in two heaping dollops of plain, whole milk yogurt and stirred everything until it was (relatively) smooth and definitely well-mixed. Those were very nice mashed potatoes with just a touch of rosemary and garlic.

While the potatoes were boiling away and the milk mixture was simmering, I put the burgers in a very hot skillet (we don't currently have a grill or I would have grilled them) and seasoned the side I didn't season yet. After long enough (maybe five minutes), I flipped them and let them cook on the other side until the juices were coming out clear, maybe another five minutes. Then I put them on a piece of flatbread (since I couldn't make "buns" out of the breads because I ate too many earlier) with the mashed potatoes. Normally I would have dressed them up with some chopped onion and some nice tomatoes fresh from the garden, but I've had enough of tomatoes for a few days and didn't do it. That's some organic ketchup and super-awesome mustard on there, though. Yum!
bunless burger with flatbread and mashed potatoesTomorrow, I'll tell you what to do with those leftover mashed potatoes (if you have any) -- one of my all-time favorite secret recipes that is glorious beyond glorious. It's good enough, in fact, to make sure that you make extra potatoes just to have extras (it works best if you use leftover mashed potatoes, which usually suck, because they have less water content after they sit in a refrigerator for a day or two).

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Another Tomato-Basil Soup with Homemade Pasta, This Time With Sausage

It's a funny thing, food. Sometimes, it's subtle and wonderful and makes you happy, and you love it but you don't fully know why you love it, like many a nice classical piece. At other times, it's simple, sublime, and stunning and it makes you happy, and you love it and know exactly why you love it, like fewer nicer classical pieces and like this stuff. At still other times, it's lovely because it's familiar, although nothing more than that is particularly special about it, or more accurately that what is so special about it is lost in blinding familiarity, although it still makes you happy. Then there's times, like when you cook sausages, that it's powerful and moving and not in any way subtle. It's like AC/DC... perfect as it is, but splendid because it's so perfectly up in your face... making you very, very happy. And so it was tonight in my kitchen.
tomato-basil soup with italian sausage and homemade shaved pastaLook at that. Seriously. Italian sausage all up in some tomato-basil soup with homemade pasta. Hells bells. The recipe is nearly identical to the previous tomato-basil soup I did, that one with chicken. The only real differences here would be more peppers and three links of fresh Italian sausage, one hot and two sweet (though if I had my way, it would have been three hot ones... family, you know).

The plan was grander than that. It was going to be spectacular, a feast for the mouths and for the senses. I was going to make rosemary sourdough flatbread to go with this dish (and was tossing around the idea of putting garlic and/or parmesian in it too). Due to the fact that my starter, which smells perfectly lovely again, almost like fruit in fact, seems not to want to leaven a loaf in any reasonable amount of time right now, though, the plan was modified to include the bread with the leftovers... which we already ate because this was so incredibly delicious.

Unfortunately, after two hours in our plenty-warm house, this is what the dough looked like:
Hhhwhat, you say? Two hours? Yeah, it didn't rise more than about 10% (volume increase). Crap. Yeah, that's my fingerprint in the middle.. in its incredibly relaxed, too easy-going to do anything for me state. Thus, I covered the bowl and put it in the fridge. Wherever it gets by about lunchtime tomorrow is where it's going, and then I will have flatbread (even if it's as flat as a tortilla).

The only really sad part about this recipe is the state of our garden. I was out in it today picking the tomatoes for the soup, and I'm pretty sure that this is the last such soup that the garden is going to yield this season. The tomatoes are just pretty much done. I lament that mainly because I really wanted to try it with beef, and once you grow your own tomatoes, the ones at the grocery store just won't do. I might try it with the absolutely superior (among canned tomatoes) Muir Glen Fireroasted ones or the San Marzano ones this fall or winter, but I just don't think it will be the same.

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Lemon Cucumbers: A Gardener's Summer Treat

Heirloom vegetables are really cool, in particular these little yellow cucumbers that are called "lemon cucumbers." Their name is a little misleading... it refers only to their appearance and not to their flavor, which is distinctly cucumberish. They're also a gem of the garden, producing massive amounts of delicious fruits for almost no effort in terms of upkeep. I enjoyed one earlier with a little salt and balsamic vinegar, though they're almost equally delicious just with a pinch of salt or all on their own.lemon cucumbers with balsamic vinegarAs you can see by the uncut cucumber in the background, these cucumbers are almost round and quite yellow. The skin isn't quite as thick as with the long green (usual) cucumbers, and they're only rarely bitter anywhere within the flesh. Obviously they also make a nice slicing cucumber, though the slices of lemon cucumbers are a bit larger than what you're used to with the regular green ones.

These plants are magnificent if you're a cucumber-lover. First of all, they're easy to take care of. Second of all, they produce a LOT of cucumbers. Last year, we grew eight plants thinking that would be a nice supply. It was overload! We grew two this year because there were many times last summer that we would have thirty or more cucumbers in our kitchen. That's just too many. The flesh is also tender and juicy, and as I said, it's never been bitter in my experience. Furthermore, the flavor is characteristically cucumber although as if it has just a pinch of natural saltiness, not enough to make them preferable without salt but just enough to make them great without the addition.

These are really a gift of the season! If you garden, then you should definitely consider these in the future.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Food Science: Should Bread Dough Be Kneaded Twice?

Something I've wanted to do on this blog for a while, since I have a scientific background, is "food science." I like to find things out for myself when I can, and I think people find it interesting to read about these kinds of experiments. Since my sourdough starter is rip-roaring these days, I'm making a lot of bread, and so the first installment of what I'm calling "Food Science" is an investigation using bread.

I've been reading a lot about bread making lately, as would make sense, and one thing I've noted in a few cookbooks is that most recommend directly against a second kneading phase (which I still like very much for flatbreads because of the chewy texture it seems to impart). I almost always knead the dough again after I punch it down, but yesterday I decided to do some science. I made the dough as usual, just a normal sourdough recipe, and then after the first rise, I cut the dough into two pieces, as equal in size as I could manage. One of those pieces was kneaded a second time for approximately ten minutes, and the other was carefully and delicately shaped into a baguette without a second knead, trying to preserve much of the volume from the first rise. Here's the two loaves just after shaping, the re-kneaded loaf in front:
two sourdough baguette loaves before the second riseAs you can see (if you look carefully), the dough in the rear is slightly larger than the loaf in the front because of the gas bubbles that have been retained by not kneading it a second time.

There are two competing ideas, both entrenched in the art and science of bread making that lead me to have curiosity about which will be a more effective approach. First of all, more air is more air, and it should lead to more volume in the loaf that wasn't kneaded a second time. Furthermore, there should be less-developed gluten in that loaf, so hopefully it will even be able to rise further on the second rise, getting some of that bubbly texture that is typical of sourdough loaves. On the other hand, re-kneading the dough should redistribute the ingredients, though it pops many of the air bubbles, giving the yeast a better chance at finding the food it needs to grow during the second rise. It should also help stretch the gluten and develop it further, perhaps facilitating the second rise even more (since the dough will be relaxing while it rises that second time). What's going to happen?

An hour later, I took another picture, but it doesn't tell the whole story. For the first half an hour of the second rise, the loaf that was not re-kneaded was clearly larger than the loaf that was. By the time I took the picture, after an hour (when the re-kneaded loaf had approximately doubled in volume), the loaf that I had merely shaped (and didn't re-knead) seemed to be smaller and had a surface appearance not unlike stretch marks, as if it had stretched and then shrunken back. Perhaps its second rise went on too long. Perhaps the redistribution of the ingredients really was important. I'm not sure. Here's the result after the second rise, though, with the re-kneaded loaf in front:
two sourdough baguettes after the second riseObserve that the loaf in front, which was re-kneaded, appears smoother and is legitimately slightly larger than the loaf in back, which was not re-kneaded.

After scoring them as identically as I could using diagonal marks, I baked the loaves. The oven-spring of the re-kneaded loaf was also noticeably larger than that of the shaped loaf. Hmm.... Twenty-five minutes in a 400 F oven gave me this:
two sourdough baguettes freshly out of the ovenThe loaf in front, the re-kneaded loaf, is obviously bigger and better-looking. So much for the idea that more preserved gas means a more voluminous loaf....

The real question lies in what they look like inside, though. See for yourself (nearly identical):
two sourdough baguettes freshly baked and cut although they didn't seem to rise enoughThe loaves are oriented as before, but it doesn't really matter since they're pretty well identical inside: no big bubbles in either, just a pleasant, smooth, bread-like texture.

So... in a side-by-side comparison, the results of this experiment (re-kneading versus not re-kneading) are:
Taste: Identical (sourdough-bread-like).
Texture: Essentially identical (pleasantly springy with a nice mouth feel).
Density: The re-kneaded loaf is slightly lighter than the not-re-kneaded loaf.

The jury is out, then, because the body of literature on "don't re-knead the dough" is pretty extensive and yet this small experiment (that wasn't performed under ideal conditions) seems to suggest otherwise. The main result of this experiment: two yummy loaves of bread that I get to eat simultaneously in alternating fashion! Win-win? I think so.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Blueberry Yogurt Milkshake (Not a Smoothie!), Plus Goji Berries

July and early August are awesome because of blueberries. We have a lovely blueberry farm near our house that we can go to and pick our own organic blueberries for the prices of dirt-cheap and a couple of hours of hot, mosquito-ridden fun (which, unless you're a blueberry farmer, meaning you do this kind of crap every day, is actually fun... for a little while). The prices are unbeatable: something ridiculous like $0.60 a pound or something if you pick your own berries. Usually, we end up picking ten or twelve pounds over the course of the summer. The other day, my mom went and picked a bunch and froze all of the extras that she couldn't wolf down, and then she gave a quart of the frozen goodies to me. I realized the immense potential of this gift the second I remembered that I still have some leftover ice cream from my last milkshake experiment....

There's got to be some kind of subtle distinction that says when a blended drink ceases to be a (creamy) smoothie and when it starts to be a milkshake. For me, that distinction occurs exactly when ice cream comes into the picture. No ice cream: smoothie. Ice cream: milkshake. Unnecessarily complicated definitions need not apply. That's why this is called a yogurt milkshake. That way, I get that yogurt tang in my milkshake decadence. Yes! Basically, I used a "normal" blueberry milkshake kind of recipe and added yogurt to it. Whoa. Complex, I know. The result is delightfully good creamy purple wonderfulness:
It goes down like this (for two or three big glasses like this):

  • Three or four scoops of awesomely good vanilla ice cream;
  • Half a cup of plain (whole milk) yogurt;
  • About a cup of (whole) milk;
  • Half a cup of frozen (not necessary, but it keeps it colder) blueberries;
  • About a tablespoon of hippy sugar (evaporated cane juice or turbinado), or just use your own regular white sugar if you don't care about that kind of thing or use maple syrup (I'm out) if you want it to be really good.
Combine all of these ingredients in a blender and blend it until it's smooth, maybe a minute or two to really get the blueberries and ice cream destroyed and worked in. That's it. If you like it thicker and all of your ingredients are cold, you can add a little ice to it. I don't. I like being able to chug it, not giving myself brain damage and a bizarrely sore hard palate trying to suck it through a straw.

The milkshake pictured above actually has three other ingredients that I didn't mention. Secretly, I frequently work a little tonic herbalism into my cooking, and there are two other ingredients along those lines in this shake. One is powdered astragalus root (which I now put in most of my shakes) and the other is goji berries (wolfberries), both added before the blending. A third secret ingredient lurks inside this shake: whey protein concentrate, a scoop and a half of it, actually (30 g of protein worth). Why? It only barely modifies the flavor and gives 30 g of protein plus a slightly more "milkshaky" texture. I guess we could say that it lowers the guilt that these healthy ingredients are added, but I never feel guilt in drinking a milkshake anyway. I had three yesterday, in fact (two like this and then one classic chocolate malt)! Worried about my health? I train it off. No worries!

A deep question lingers, though... if I used frozen yogurt in place of ice cream in this recipe, is it a smoothie then? I dunno... but if I wanted it to be a smoothie, I'd have just replaced the ice cream with yogurt and maybe added some extra just to be on the safe side.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Super-Fiber Loaf: A Very High Fiber Sourdough Bread with Flax Seed and Psyllium Husk

Psyllium husk? That doesn't sound delicious....

Honestly, I can't say this is the best bread I've ever made. It's rather dense, though it's very soft and has a pleasant flavor. I knew it would be, so I used sourdough starter and yeast to try to leaven it, but even in the kneading stage, I knew it was going to bake into a brick of a loaf. At least it tastes good and has a nice mouth feel, even if every little slice of it weighs as much as three loaves of normal bread (slight exaggeration). You can see the hearty awesomeness of it directly in the only picture I took of it: the prebake loaf picture:
super high fiber sourdough bread loaf with flax seeds and psyllium huskIt looks essentially the same after baking except just a little darker. It's pretty good, though. Here's what all went into it:

  • 1 cup white-wheat flour, sifted;
  • 1/2 cup white unbleached flour, sifted;
  • about a cup of sourdough starter;
  • 1 packet of rapid-rise yeast, bloomed in 1/4 cup water with a teaspoon of evaporated cane juice;
  • 1 tablespoon evaporated cane juice (sugar);
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt;
  • three heaping tablespoons brown flax seeds ground into meal (in my cleaned coffee grinder);
  • three heaping tablespoons psyllium seed husk powder (fiber country);
  • one heaping tablespoon hulled millet ground into meal (in my grinder);
  • 1/4 cup Bob's Red Mill 10 Grain Hot Cereal ground into meal (in my grinder);
  • one heaping tablespoon of unflavored whey protein concentrate powder, sifted;
  • 1 teaspoon raw apple cider vinegar;
  • a bit more water to make it come together.
First, I ground up what had to be ground up very finely. To be sure I did it fully, I would grind it up, run it through my sifter, and then regrind anything that didn't go through. That took three repetitions to get everything to finally fall through the sifter, and then I started to put things together. I knew right away when I started feeling the dough as it came together that it was going to be dense bread when it finished, but hopefully I could knead it into a pleasant texture and provide a wholesome, nourishing flavor that spoke highly to the whole grains and seeds that I used. That part worked. Kneading it took a little longer than usual, probably 20-30 minutes and was a bit more effort than I had expected. The first rise took longer than expected, almost two hours before it doubled in bulk. The second rise was given just over ninety minutes, by which time it had grown considerably but not doubled, and I threw it into a 375 F oven for 30 minutes at that point, tired of waiting on it any longer. It grew essentially none in the oven, but the internal texture isn't at all grainy, which I kind of feared. It's smooth, almost like dry, stretchy, slightly chewy carrot cake, although it tastes very multigrain and wholesome. It's also very filling, and because of my sourdough starter, which is getting stronger, and the vinegar, it's mildly sour, moreso than most sourdough that I've had but not unpleasantly so (one of the children likes it, and the other doesn't so much).

Since it has a fair amount of fiber-donating ingredients in it, I expect that the fiber-per-slice level is probably in the 8-10g range, even though the slices are somewhat small. I also think that if done correctly, because of the sourness, this bread would make one heck of a good meaty sandwich. In fact, I think I might have just figured out what I'm having for dinner....

[Edit, two hours later: That sandwich was a good idea, the bread and meat both sliced thin. What meat? Leftover rotisserie pork loin, of course!]

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Rotisserie Meat and Leftover Rotisserie Meat

A rotisserie is a very good thing. I'm a huge fan of how meat comes out when it's been roasted in one of these clever gadgets, and I take advantage of it as often as I can. My mom has a small counter-top rotisserie in her kitchen that we use a few times a year (she might use it more, I'm not sure), but we're a bit short on space in our kitchen and thus don't have one. I usually buy (gasp!) my rotisserie meat, but I can often do it with little or no guilt since a quick walk around in the store often convinces me that I'm not paying all that much extra for meat that's been cooked in a big, professional rotisserie than I would be for meat that is still raw. Since I don't have a rotisserie and buying it already cooked is a wonderful time-saver (usually I eat it essentially on the spot), I'm happy to belly up.

One of my very favorite things to do with leftover rotisserie meat, usually pork, chicken, or turkey, is put it in scrambled eggs (you'll learn to see this kind of thing coming if you read any number of my posts). Since it's already cooked and I don't want it to dry out, it goes in the pan at the last moment before the eggs do. Usually, I saute some nice fresh veggies, right now out of our garden, and then toss in some chopped up leftover rotisserie meat (a little for egg sandwiches, a lot for scrambles on a plate), and then season it with a little vinegar before adding the eggs. When it's done, it's lovely.

Honestly, I'd say that rotisserie meat, often with little else, is a favorite lunch of mine (insomuch as I have favorites -- there's too many things to like to have favorites), and using the leftovers (if there are any!) in my eggs for the next day or two is a close second. My usual maneuver is to leave work and pick up a rotisserie something (most often pork loin) at The Fresh Market, eat most of it on the way home (washing it down with some of their freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit, or tangerine juice -- I love that tangerine juice), and then save what's left for the next day or two, unless my wife is feeling some rotisserie too, in which case she usually polishes off what's left almost as quickly as it comes through the door. What do I do with the leftover juice? Usually I drink it down to about an inch or inch and a half in the bottom of the container, add some sugar, and fill it back up with water to have instant high-quality citrusade of whichever type I happened to buy. Win, win, win.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

First Blush Wine-Grape Juices

Whoa! I went to Asheville, NC, today with my wife and found out that they have a fancy grocery store there (Greenlife Grocery) that carries many interesting things, including First Blush Juices, which are grape juices (unfortunately from concentrate) pressed from single varietal wine grapes. According to their website's store locator, they don't even sell it in Tennessee (our sometimes-food-backwards state). Then again, according to said locator, they don't sell them in North Carolina either....

My experience with them (I got two despite their relative priciness at about $2.50 for 11.4 fl.oz.) is quite a bit like my first experience with single-origin chocolate, which I should repeat and blog about one of these days. They're good; they do and don't taste like grape juice as we know it; and they don't even taste like each other. I've always kind of wanted to taste these sorts of things, but the opportunity just hasn't ever come up. If I can believe the hype, these juices are even ridiculously antioxidant rich, touting claims even about one of the golden-boys of the antioxidant world: resveratrol. (Secretly, I know there's more resveratrol in peanuts and in the outer layers of onions than in wine grapes, but let's not ruin a good thing with that kind of stuff).

The experience was quite a mind-opener, although it really should have been expected the more I think about it. I tried the Syrah and the Merlot (Cabernet and Chardonay are also offered). Both are exceptionally sweet and distinct, characteristic enough of the wines that they would produce to be able to identify certain flavor notes that are characteristic of the different types of wines and yet grape-juicy enough to hit that sugar-loving spot that tingles deep inside every dessert/beverage lover. I'm honestly almost giddy about trying the other two flavors and kind of wish I would have sucked up the cost and got one of each. Particularly, I want to try the merlot and cabernet side-by-side and see if there's more or less difference in the grape juices that make the wines than there tends to be in the wines (which I've read that even Masters of Wine cannot always distinguish in blind tastings).

I'm tickled also, being this kind of nerd, about how the company chose its name (if the bottles are to be believed): apparently the juice that comes from the first pressing of the grapes in winemaking is called the "first blush." Supposedly pumped full of antioxidants (like resveratrol), these extremely interesting and flavorful juices are probably quite healthy (despite being loaded with natural sugars) as well as an absolute delight to get to try and drink (slowly, sip by sip, of course).

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Pink Grapefruitade

Pink grapefruit-ade is one of my very favorite beverages, and I have it on good authority that it's even more refreshing than lemonade and delightful even for people that don't like grapefruit. That is, of course, because it's thinned down and includes sugar. Think about it: how many people like lemonade (lots)? How many people like lemon juice or lemons (not lots)? It works that way with grapefruit too. The recipe is ridiculously simple... so simple that you don't really need a recipe. It goes like this: juice a grapefruit (or use store-bought grapefruit juice, preferably freshly squeezed and unpasteurized like the Fresh Market sells), add some sugar, add some water. Technically speaking, both the water and the sugar are "to taste," but I try to aim for something comparable to what I would use for lemonade, if a bit heavy on the juice.

What you need to know is that a grapefruit holds about a cup to a cup and a half of juice. A lemon holds about a quarter of a cup, i.e. about five times less. Since I like more grapefruit juice, proportionally, in my grapefruitade, that means I usually use one grapefruit to make a quart to a quart and a half of grapefruitade depending on how much juice comes out of the grapefruit and how thin I want it (when I'm really thirsty, I want more water and less fruit and sugar). You also need to know that a grapefruit contains more sugar than a lemon -- it's more bitterness, not sourness, that make people not particularly like grapefruit so much, particularly with the pink or red ones. Thus, I only use about a tablespoon of sugar per grapefruit. Let's pretend you like it sweeter. I would say: use more sugar. Let's pretend you don't want it so syrupy. I would say: use less sugar. Also, don't use crap sugar. Get some evaporated cane juice (or maple syrup) and do it right. It comes out a lovely orange-pink color that just begs to be enjoyed, with our without a little mint (mint is nice in grapefruitade, but not all the time). See:
a quart of pink grapefruitadeFor added fun and excitement, I sometimes (frequently) add the juice of other citrus, particularly lime when I have it. I find they play well together. Adding lemon juice gives it more tartness (but not bitterness), and adding orange juice gives it more sweetness and a rounder flavor. Don't be limited! You can make orangeade, lemonade, tangerineade, limeade, any combination of those -ade, and even "Five-Alive-ade," using your own recipe instead of store-bought stuff. Using a juicer, you can even make exotic things like kumquatade (which needs a lot of sugar and is best pretty thin unless some other juices come in to soften it up a bit).

If some of these other recipes confer superpowers onto me, this one replenishes them when I've done something like mow the lawn.

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Cappuccino Milkshake Two Step

Guess what I just drank (easy because of the title of the post). Yes it was good. A cappuccino milkshake made in just two easy steps with just two easy ingredients (that I didn't have to do anything but buy)... because what really sweet coffee drinks need is more sugar (in the world's most perfect form of sugar: ice cream)!

The story behind this one starts a few weeks ago when I came home from London. London is probably the world's greatest place for people that like smoothie-like beverages made out of ingredients that people can actually pronounce (like fruit). It was wonderful, and I came home wanting that experience. Thus, when I saw a acai-mangosteen juice drink by Bolthouse Farms on sale (usually prohibitively expensive despite the possible health value of those ingredients), I got it. It was fairly good but more juice and less smoothie than I had hoped (probably because it didn't have bananas in it) and sadly used "from concentrate" ingredients more than "not from concentrate." Still, it was on sale and satisfied my craving. Later, I went back and wanted something similar again (my treat for doing some chores like grocery shopping), and I decided to get one of their high-protein flavors. All of the ones there had soy protein in them (no thanks) except one: Mocha Cappuccino. I got it. It's good. I marveled that it's sweetened with apple juice (from concentrate). I drank the whole quart in about six and a half minutes. Chug-a-lug, buddy. Zzzzooooom!

Then I got an idea... put that stuff into a blender with vanilla ice cream. That seems like a complicated recipe, I know, so I held off until today to make it (real reason: the store I shop at was out of it temporarily due to its apparently much greater popularity as compared with the "fruit" flavors). Guess what. It worked.. because what a really sweet coffee drink needs is more sugar!

If it wasn't so expensive and obviously bad for me, I would put this beverage on the short list of things that I drink that are clearly sources of my superpowers.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sourdough Flatbread (and Accidental Pita) with Almond Hummus

I used my sourdough starter to make flatbread today. It came out really well except the dough didn't do much rising despite the heat and humidity. Also, my starter smells very strongly of white vinegar and is less bubbly than it has been, though I read about that and found out that it's nothing to be to scared about. Another site (lost the link, sorry) indicated to me that it's relatively normal in our weather conditions and just means the acetic acid bacteria are kind of running the show in the starter. I'm not sure how to fix that or if it needs fixing... more flour, I think. If it goes South, then I'll compost it and start another one... nothing really lost. Anyway, I whipped up a nice loaf with it the day before yesterday (including nutritional yeast and yogurt!) and some splendid flatbreads today, about three quarters of which probably qualify as pita bread or some other kind of pocket bread since that's what they did. It was fun watching them puff up in the skillet like little balloons, but I have no clear idea of how I achieved it. Kitchen science, a likely up-and-coming feature on this blog, might help me figure it out. The process for making this flatbread was essentially the same as for the last flatbread except the only liquid I added was water, I did it with sourdough starter instead of packaged yeast (roughly 2 flours, 1 starter, and 1 water, by weight, does it apparently, or just fiddle with it until it feels right and then knead the heck out of it like I do).
sourdough flatbread pitaOther than the fact that my flatbreads turned mostly into pocket breads, the most exciting part of our little dinner today was the hummus. I really like adding things to hummus, and mentioned before, in fact, that hummus is a "platform" dish for me. What I mean by a platform dish is that the basic recipe serves as a platform for many delicious experiments to be showcased. Today was nothing too inspired but came out quite nice: I added almonds and just a few drops of sweet almond oil. Essentially, I added about two dozen raw, unsalted almonds in the very initial stage of making the hummus, following the same recipe and protocol as in the previous post on the topic. Specifically, I put the almonds into the food processor with the sesame seeds and ground them up until they were a very fine dusty, almost pasty stuff. Then I started building the hummus on top of that, adding a little oil when it was time to add oil. It came out very nice because of the pleasantly subtle, vaguely sweet flavor of the almonds and the smooth texture that they imparted. My wife stated that she could tell it was somehow different and that she liked it, but that she wouldn't have ever guessed that I put almonds in there. For what it's worth, I suppose I could have used almond butter if I had any, but that stuff's expensive, so I never have any.

I wish I could say that I stuffed my little breads with all kinds of interesting things, but they didn't have that kind of a chance. In fact, almost half of them were gone before the hummus was even made... several having gone pretty much straight to being eaten as quickly as the cooled enough to be handled.

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Juicing for Health

We love our juicer, and we make a lot of interesting juice recipes that, like most things I make, aren't recipes at all. We just grab some stuff, think about it a little, and put it through the machine. Sometimes the stuff we make is awful, but almost always, it's quite good. I'm not entirely positive, but I'm pretty sure that juicing your own fruits and vegetables has got to be hands-down one of the best ways to get a massive amount of nutrition into your body right now. In fact, my brother and I used to talk about the feeling that we'd get from drinking juice as "juice weird," which isn't a far cry from the feeling you get from a couple of cups of coffee on an empty stomach (meaning really alert) only without the caffeine jitters. Subsequent research on my part has revealed that a huge part of the reason for that is the high fructose content, particularly in apples, that the fruits and veggies running through our machine happen to have. The rest of the reason, I think, is the unbridled nutrition coursing through our veins like a raging tide of goodness.

There are lots and lots of things that can be juiced and only a few that cannot (e.g. bananas, which blend into the juice in a blender perfectly well if you really, really feel bummed out about the lack of ability to juice a banana that most juicers will present to you). Many things, when juiced, taste almost exactly like the way they taste when they're not juiced except somewhat more concentrated. For instance, it's a tremendous surprise to people that juice apples or grapes for the first time that the liquid that comes out tastes like apples or grapes, not like the crap juice they're used to buying at the store. The same goes for veggies, so you kind of have to be careful with those (read: spinach is spicier than it looks, and mustard greens are surprisingly very hot). In particular, herbs put way more flavor into your juice than you may be ready for (read: don't juice a bunch of mint unless you really want to struggle to get it down).

Here's kind of our staple recipe that we build off of:

  • Two or three decent-sized carrots per person, or the equivalent (children need less);
  • About one small to medium apple per person, sometimes with an extra one tossed in, seeded.
Carrot juice is crazy good for you. I've read and heard a growing body of evidence that people are even using it to try to help cure cancer. It really makes you feel better and rounds out your daily nutrition if you have a couple or three juiced carrots (which are actually pretty sweet on their own). Apple juice is not particularly crazy good for you except that it has a fair amount of natural fructose in it for energy. They're mostly included because they are sweet. Veggies tend not to be sweet, and apples counterbalance that and make the juice more palatable. If you're not into sugar or need to watch your intake of it, leave out the apples. More apples, by the way, make for more sweet.

Usually, we add some or all of the following as well:
  • About a quarter of a medium-sized beet (with greens when possible) per person;
  • About a quarter of an inch of fresh ginger per person;
  • About a quarter or half of a lemon per person, peel on;
  • About half an orange per person, peel on;
  • Maybe a stalk of celery per person;
  • About half a cucumber per person.
  • A small bunch of parsley, spinach, or kale.
This list isn't exhaustive, and it's rare that all of that goes into any particular juice. Today, for instance, for two people I juiced three small apples, five meaty carrots, one small beet, one stalk of celery, about a half an inch of ginger, half a lemon, a cucumber, and a little watermelon rind. It was quite good (a bit sweet) and chocked full of awesome nutrition. It also (because of the beet) happened to be quite beautiful in the glass, see:
carrot apple beet fresh juice from a juicerUsually we try to juice daily, but more realistically, it goes in spells where we juice a lot (once or twice a day) and then where we don't juice any for a month. I think it's the prep time and cleanup efforts that are the main reasons for the periods when we stop juicing... that and the enormous amount of produce that has to be purchased to keep it up unless it's something very straightforward like just carrot juice or carrot with apple. I know we feel better when we juice a lot, and juicing regularly definitely makes our hair and nails grow quite a bit faster (so it must be very good for us!). It's an added bonus to be able to juice things that come freshly out of our garden.

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cooking with Mushrooms: What to Know

I think I'm going to try to start incorporating another new feature into this blog, although I've done a rather crappy job of dealing with the other features so far. I even went out to eat last night and intended to write a review of the restaurant, but then family time on the last weekend before school starts back for the kids kind of took over. Maybe I'll write it later. Anyway, the new feature will hopefully be helpful for aspiring cooks... it's stuff you should probably know about ingredients before you start cooking with them. Ideally, I'll talk about science and whatnot in these kinds of posts, but mostly I'll probably end up talking about my experience. I would love to have and take the time to look up all kinds of awesome science (or do it myself!) on my ingredients, but honestly, I just don't have it right now. Maybe once my dissertation is published or this blog becomes popular enough to justify putting that much more time into it. Anyway, today's commentary is about mushrooms, which I thought would be worth mentioning after making a lovely egg sandwich with them for lunch.

First and foremost about mushrooms, they're very wet vegetables that you cannot juice. Squeeze though you may, you will not get juice out of a mushroom, but the thing is over 90% water by weight. In general, adding salt to something will draw out its moisture, and so you can expect that when you're cooking mushrooms and you put salt on what you're cooking that you're going to end up with a considerable amount of liquid in the pan that you didn't expect (see, with tomatoes, e.g., you'd end up with a considerable amount of liquid that you did expect, making this an important note). You need to account for this in dishes by either adding less fluid (if fluid is to be added) or by cooking that fluid off by sauteing the mushrooms longer initially, usually after adding some salt to draw out their liquids. The cooking-them-down method is usually the one I choose.

Secondly about mushrooms, they behave strangely in the presence of fluids. On the one hand, as we noted above, they give them off readily in the presence of salt and/or heat. They also absorb fluids rapidly (usually they "fill" in about ten to twenty seconds), but they'll only absorb so much and will only do it once. That means if you wash your mushrooms, then they're going to absorb water. That usually means that you're going to have a less successful result than otherwise. It also means that your mushrooms will absorb a little bit of whatever liquid they first come in contact with, most notably vinegars and oils so far as flavoring is concerned. Thus, I never wash my mushrooms (I wipe them with a slightly damp towel or clean them a brush), and I usually try to put them into something that tastes good like butter, olive oil, or bacon oil right off the bat. If vinegar is more my thing, I might dip them quickly in vinegar or wine right before throwing them in the pan or add vinegar to them soon after adding them. I'll almost always deglaze a pan with mushrooms in it with vinegar or wine also. A special note here: if you go to saute mushrooms in some oil, they will absorb a fair amount of it (and not give it back). That means you might have to add more oil to prevent other ingredients from sticking! They also are moist enough to really moisten dishes like meatloaf or burgers, but they don't hold together well at all, so they shouldn't be overused for that purpose.

Third, mushrooms are dirty, but you can't wash them. You need to brush them off, cut off particularly dirty ends of the stems, and perhaps get rather aggressive on some spots with a slightly damp towel. You don't want to eat that dirt, but you don't want to run them under the faucet either.

Fourth, mushrooms have a texture all their own... one that most kids seem to hate. Mushrooms are chewy. They tend to stay that way even when stewed (science I'd like to do is boil mushrooms until they become mushy... I bet it takes a long time), so you need to anticipate that. Big chunks of mushrooms, therefore, do poorly in stews because they become big chewy things that usually have a fairly poor mouth-feel (though slices are great stewed). For some things, like sauces, I either slice them very, very thin or cut them into itty-bitty chunks so that the texture plays far less of a role where texture shouldn't be playing a huge role.

Fifth, mushrooms all have distinct flavors that play more prominently than you might suspect. It's a really good idea to experience the flavors of different mushrooms at some point in some rather straightforward way... a really simple dish featuring them, sauteing them and using them as a garnish to burgers or other meat, making a main course out of them, etc. That way you know how their flavors work and can therefore make good decisions on how to use them. You can always just taste them fresh as well. Exotic mushrooms sometimes sound fun and exotic, but they might not taste the way you think they're going to and could wreck what you're trying to make. On the other hand, some mushrooms have a very, very delicate flavor, and you could ruin that by putting them in the presence of too many other strong flavors. You have to get to know your ingredients to cook well.

Sixth, mushrooms are almost universally delicious fried with bacon. Oh goodness.

Seventh, mushrooms are usually very good for you in very interesting and subtle ways. The white mushroom (which is very closely related to the portabello mushroom... they're actually essentially the same thing in two colors!) recently has been shown to reduce cancer risk, for instance. In fact, regular consumption of that mushroom along with daily consumption of green tea appears to cut breast cancer risk by 90%. Guess what my wife and I have a lot of now (mostly for her!). The shiitake and maitake mushrooms grow on wood (which according to traditional medicines is one sign of superior healthiness) and confer significant enough health benefits to be dried and sold as supplements in health food and vitamin stores. Surprisingly (or not), they taste great also (the Lingzhi or Reishi mushroom does not taste great and cannot really be eaten because it's as hard as a stick, however, but it makes an interesting addition to broth).

I'll probably think of a few more exciting things to say about mushrooms in the future. Just keep in mind the main things, though, when using them: they're good, they shouldn't be washed but should be cleaned, and they contain a lot of fluid and yet absorb fluids readily. As a bonus, here's how to make them into egg sandwiches (see the link for instructions) with bacon (my favorite flavor).

  • Follow the instructions for making egg sandwiches here, changing out the part before the addition of the eggs;
  • Use two or three white or baby portabello mushrooms, halved and then sliced thin;
  • Two strips of (streaky) bacon, fried by starting in a cold pan, cooked until crisp;
  • A clove of garlic;
  • Optionally a small amount of finely chopped onion;
  • Optionally a small amoutn of finely chopped Cayenne pepper.
Basically, start the bacon in the pan and cook it until it's getting crispy. Take it out of the pan, set it aside, and add the mushrooms (and onions). Salt those immediately. While that cooks, let the bacon cool a little and then chop it up into small pieces. Add it with the garlic and let it all cook for a couple of minutes... don't burn the garlic. Deglaze with a little (a tablespoon or so will definitely do it) vinegar of choice or white wine and let the liquid reduce. Once the liquid has reduced, lower the temperature, add the eggs, and follow the instructions on the other egg sandwich post. This one is probably the best of them!

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