Friday, July 6, 2012

Changes, and Pizza

Yes, I've been away. Slowly but surely, I've abandoned you, dear old blog.

Things have changed. About a month and a half ago, I said goodbye to Toronto. I quit my hipster barista job, left a city that was just starting to stretch out into its summer throbbing of way too many good looking people hanging out in parks... and moved back in with my parents... in Cleveland, Ohio.

Frankly, I needed a bit of a break. I decided to move back home as a pre-grad school period of rest and saving money. And to my surprise, it's actually been great. I'm busier than I thought I'd be, juggling my time between working for my dad's coffee roasting company (I can never stay away from the coffee biz for too long), taking an online biology course, planning a vacation to the northwest, and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find an apartment in Boston. Plus, Cleveland is actually a lot cooler than when I lived here last: already I've been to three neighborhood festivals with free music from local bands that were actually good, and I've rode with over 400 cyclists in my first critical mass ride in Cleveland. It says something that I've spent more time downtown in the last month than I think I did throughout all of high school. Lastly, (and this is key), living with one's parents isn't so bad when there's the knowledge that one is moving out again in only a few months.

As it pertains to this blog, I'm no longer cooking and eating like a single gal. Growing up, my family was one of the fortunate few who always ate dinner together (even if this meant that dinner wouldn't be ready until 8:30, because mom didn't get home from work until 7:30, etc.). Fortunately, this pattern has continued to this day. I end up sharing a lot of the cooking duties with my mom now, and it's been quite a pleasure cooking in a kitchen that's actually well-stocked. And I've found it to be no trouble at all to channel my love for cooking for myself into a love for cooking for others.

And so now, I present to you a very non-cooking-for-one type recipe: PIZZA PARTY PIZZA PARTY PIZZA PARTAAAAAAY!*

I spearheaded the pizza party project for a small family gathering we hosted on the 4th of July. Oftentimes when cooking for large groups, I like to make it interactive by letting my guests personalize their meals. So I found a recipe for pizza dough in one of the cookbooks laying around the house, and prepared 4 batches of it. For toppings, I laid out a spread of: tomato sauce, shredded provolone and fontina cheese, roasted eggplant, mushrooms sauteed with garlic, chopped artichoke hearts, olives, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and a puree of chickpeas and lemon juice (as a non-cheese pizza alternative). See - I told you it was nice cooking in a well-stocked kitchen.

My unapologetic iphone photo of the pizza leftovers


(Makes one 12-inch pizza)
1 1/2 tsp. dry active yeast
1/2 tsp. sugar
2/3 cup warm water
1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil, plus a little extra
1 1/2 tbsp fine cornmeal
1 1/2 cups bread flour, plus extra for dusting (all purpose flour is okay, but I like the chew that bread flour gives)
1/2 tsp salt

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast with the sugar in the warm water. Let this sit somewhere warm for about 5 minutes until it looks a little foamy - this means the yeast has woken up and is starting to release its little gasses that make dough rise. Stir in the rest of the ingredients until combined in a loose dough, then turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes. Put the dough in an oiled bowl, cover it with a kitchen towel, and let it sit in a warm spot for about 45 minutes. Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down with your fingers, and let it rise again for another 30 minutes or so. Stretch it out into what resembles a pizza crust, and add toppings with wild abandon or thoughtful restraint, whichever your favored approach. As long as the toppings don't need extra cooking (this is why I pre-cooked the eggplant and mushroons), your pizza will cook up nicely within 12-15 minutes in a 475 degree oven.

Full disclosure: I tried using pizza stones for the first time, and it was quite a disaster. Namely, getting the lovingly topped uncooked pies onto the stone itself, when all they wanted to do was stick to the wax paper I had laid them on. So next time, just form the dough right on a baking pan, or follow the pizza stone advice of anyone but me.

*Watch that video, then watch this one too: I don't know why I have such a knowledge of silly/actually-not-silly rap videos about food.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

All dressed up with nowhere to go (...but your belly)

Salads, as I've already elaborated on, can be awesome. However, the direction that my last salad post took me was a pulling-out-all-the-stops recipe for kale salad that included ingredients and preparations darling to the foodie world: beets! kale! things that are pickled! With such a recipe involved, it's hard to go wrong. What, then, do you do when it's Salad Time! and you find your produce drawers significantly unprepared for such an operation? Perhaps you've dug out some lettuce, defrosted some edamame, and toasted some walnuts (my current favorite salad iteration). Now what do you top it all off with?

You may be tempted to run to the store to pick up some bottled dressing. For the love of all that is tasty, resist this impulse. With a few exceptions, bottled dressings are unnecessarily sweet and creamy (hello ingredient lists with sugar and chemical stabilizers!). Then you realize - hey! I'm a well prepared and far-from-inept home cook; I've got some olive oil and vinegar laying around - I'll just pour a few quick glugs of each onto my salad bowl. I myself have taken this road many times before, and while I can assure you that it's still a significant improvement from the bottled stuff, straight-poured oil and vinegar is always just shy of satisfying. The oil to vinegar ratio inevitably gets skewed, and the lack of emulsification means that all the liquids sink to the bottom of your bowl, missing almost entirely their targeted audience.

Of course, it is still very easy to make your own salad dressing on the side, one which will even last for a few salads worth. All you need is to mix a teaspoon of dijon with a tablespoon of your vinegar of choice, then slowly whisk in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until it is fully emulsified. If you want to get fancy, add some chopped fresh herbs, minced garlic or shallots, or something sweet like honey or maple syrup. Or forgo the whisk and shake it all up vigorously in a mason jar. All you really need is the essential trinity of salad dressings: mustard, acid, oil. Making salad dressing on a whim has become so second-nature to me that at any dinner-cooking gathering with friends, I am inevitably the one called on to make the salad dressing. Isn't it funny the things that your friends will know you for?

But let's get back to this current bowl of greens sitting in front of you. For whatever reason, an entire batch of dressing won't do: maybe you don't want to dirty another dish, or you won't go through that much dressing before it goes bad, or you're just feeling exceptionally in-the-moment. I have a stupidly simple salad secret for you then: make the dressing right in the bowl. The addition of mustard and the hand-tossing of everything together really elevates this beyond the simple oil and vinegar dressing. Something about the mustard and tossing it vigorously with everything else ensures that you get a perfectly balanced and loosely emulsified salad dressing... but you know, the lazy way.

MADE-IN-THE-BOWL SALAD DRESSING (Or, The Laziest "Recipe" I Routinely Use)
Compile your salad ingredients in a fairly large bowl. Throw on top a half teaspoon of dijon mustard, and a scant soup-spoon's worth each of olive oil and your vinegar of choice. Wash your hands, then get in there and give everything a good thorough toss until the mustard coats everything as evenly as possible. A pinch of salt and a few cracks of black pepper over everything make this complete.

Make a good dressing, and you too can be a woman laughing alone with salad. Ohdeargod.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Egg Will Always Come First

There are too many mediocre breakfast spots in North America that capitalize on a certain little food with great pun potential. Eggspectations. Break an Egg. Et cetera, et cetera. (Eggs cetera?? Oh dear. This is catching on too quickly.)

Such wordplay is a distraction from what might very well be the perfect food: the humble simplicity of the mighty egg. Especially when cooking for one!

In fact, if I have any piece of advice for someone who wants to cook for themselves elegantly, healthfully, and economically, it generally goes like this: put an egg on it.

Eggs are the perfect food for the singleton living and cooking alone. They are easy to portion out (two to star, one to play a supporting role). They are healthy (protein! and don't you know the whole eggs/cholesterol thing is a bit overblown?). They keep well (indeed fresh eggs are always the tastiest, but since I don't have backyard chickens (yet?), I find that eggs last well beyond their carton's expiration date). They are economical (even $5-$6 for a dozen organic cage-free eggs yields a minimum of 6 meals). They are versatile (poached, fried, scrambled, soft boiled, hard boiled, baked, quiches, fritatas, omelets, whisked into brothy soups).

I recently read Simone "Simca" Beck's (co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Julia Child) autobiography-cum-cookbook, Food and Friends: Recipes and Memories from Simca's Cuisine. Most of the recipes in the book were a little too butter and heavy cream laden for my tastes (oh France), but I was struck and inspired by the elegant place reserved for omelets in her menus.

So I got to thinking of omelets. And of all the things I like to put in them. I often go for the more rustic approach to omelet making, in which I cook, say, some shredded zucchini in a pan first, and then pour my two beaten eggs right on top and then continue to poke the edges and slide the raw egg around the pan until an omelet is formed. Before I flip it, I may grate in some parmesan cheese. Possibly some chopped fresh herbs I have laying around too.

My favorite way to eat scrambled eggs is to pile them on top of a piece of hearty whole grain toast that has been given a good swipe of dijon mustard and a topping of caramelized onions.

I also really like scrambled eggs that have been swirled with a bit of green salsa just before setting. Sprinkle these with some crumbly cheese, top with scallions if you have them, and then load it all on a corn tortilla.

Successfully poaching eggs has been one of my greatest (and simplest) kitchen accomplishments. My method of choice involves cracking the eggs into a small bowl and then lowering said bowl slowly into simmering water that has been fortified with a bit of vinegar.

Poached eggs are awesome over roasted veggies, this braised cabbage, or buttery polenta with caramelized onions and a few toasted walnuts or pecans.

For cheater's pasta carbonara, toss hot pasta with a poached or fried egg whose yolk is still quite runny (or, if you dare, a raw egg!), a pinch of smoked paprika, and plenty of parmesan cheese and fresh cracked black pepper.

Ditto the carbonara method, except instead of pasta et. al., take rice tossed with a bit of soy sauce and any other Asian-type condiment you have in your fridge (chili-garlic sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, etc.). Throw in lots of veggies for good measure.

For a big hippie grain bowl, take a bowl of quinoa (or bulghur, or farro, or wheat berries, etc.), throw in lots of veggies (roasted would be nice), mix with equal parts soy sauce and balsamic vinegar (sounds weird, but trust me on this one), and guess what... top with a poached egg. Garnish with fresh herbs, slices of garlic (roasted if you have it), and some seeds.

Quiches are great make-ahead and packable lunches. Mine tend to be on the less rich and custardy side, with a scant cup of milk (not cream) mixed with 3 beaten eggs and a tablespoon of flour. I throw in whatever vegetables and cheese I have laying around: leafy greens, zucchini, broccoli, bell peppers, and mushrooms are my favorites. Dried herbs like oregano and basil are also perfectly respectable in a quiche.

Lastly, if you are serving eggs to company, try this elegant approach: take a large pan with a lid, fill it with either green peas (if frozen, avoid the cheap kind), chopped spinach or kale, or shredded zucchini. A few cloves of minced garlic too. Get enough veg in there so that it fills the pan about halfway up (really, don't skimp here). Cook until everything's slightly greener/more wilted/etc., then mix in a pat of butter and a pinch of smoked paprika. Make a few wells/indentations in the greenery, and then crack an egg directly into each of these wells. Cover the pan and let the eggs steam from the moisture of the vegetables until the whites are set, about 3-5 minutes. Carefully scoop each egg with its surrounding veg onto a plate, season with salt and pepper, and serve to your highly impressed dinner guests.

... Well. That was fairly comprehensive. I could, actually, go on. But I won't; instead, I'll save you the joy of figuring out your own your favorite new way to eat an egg. There will probably be many.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bon Apetite and Bon Voyage

A precursory moral: When life moves forward, it's important that your appetite keep up.

Last week I found myself traipsing about in Boston and Philadelphia with my dear friend L and my dad. The purpose of the trip centered on visiting open houses, sitting in on classes, and meeting with program chairs for a few graduate schools that had the good sense to accept me. That's right, this gal is getting her masters on.*
*This September, I will be starting a 3-year dual degree program at Tufts University: an MA in Urban and Environmental Policy/Planning and an MS in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition!

I had been to Boston and Philly before in the capacity of tourist, but this visit had a bit more gravitas to it considering that I was evaluating these cities as potential places to live. Some Very Serious Decisions were in order, but so also was a heck of a lot of good eating.

I'll get excited about a new place if I can get excited about its food. A few years ago, for example, when I was living in Amsterdam, I felt rather ambivalent about visiting Paris (an overly obvious place to be a tourist, I had thought). That is, until I had my first taste of a perfect Parisian bistro omelet and a sampling of those dainty coins of French macarons. I was then sold. Gay Paree, mais oui sil vous plait!

And so, the official Things-We-Ate list!

In Boston (and surrounding areas)...
  • Chaufa (aka Peruvian fried rice) from Alpamayo, an inviting little place in Lee
  • Huge cornbread pancakes at Soundbites, a popular Somerville brunch spot
  • Corn pudding (plus amazing BBQ and beer selection) at Redbones in Somerville
  • Lobster roll and a Sam Adams (yeah New England!) from tourist trap in Gloucester
  • Toscanini's ice cream, brown butter brownie and kulfi flavors
  • Sfogliatelle, a clam shaped Italian pasty filled with ricotta and semolina, from Maria's Bakery in the North End
  • Venezuelan empanadas from Orinoco in Brookline
  • Cocktails, lamb belly, lemon-shrimp dumplings, brussel sprouts, charred udon noodles from Myers + Chang
  • Deeply roasted cauliflower with cojita and smoky sauce, grilled romaine with oxtail ragout and a poached egg, salty mushrooms, butternut squash-based fish stew from Strip T's in Watertown (this was by far the best meal we had)
  • A surprisingly good Indian lunch buffet (dry-fried okra, anyone?) in Wellesley
  • Coffees from George Howell, Diesel Cafe

Somewhere along the road from Boston to Philly... (decidedly not a highlight)
  • Sodium o'clock! Baked beans and a soft pretzel from a rest stop, with wan slices of iceberg lettuce and tomato surreptitiously stuffed into napkins from the Roy Rogers hamburger fixins' bar. This was very unfortunately my best dinner option.

In Philadelphia... (there wasn't less good food in Philadelphia, we were just there for less time)
  • A wonderfully caramelized and custardy canelle from Metropolitan Bakery in Reading Market
  • Gigante beans with greens, zucchini, and a poached egg; Greek wine; mussels in saffron broth from Opa
  • Gelato from Capogiro: chai and unbelievably dark and rich chocolate
Yours truly with sfogliatelle, my expression less about the amazingness of this pastry and more about the sun being in my eyes

After too many years wistfully and woefully thinking about where my life is headed (as my twenty-something peers are wont to do), I'm obviously very excited to be starting on this new chapter. Leaving the city I've called home for the past six years will be difficult, certainly, but such a move affords me the invaluable feelings of promise and new beginnings. In the very least, in moments of upheaval, I have the joy of cooking and feeding myself to ground me. I'm ready, eager, and probably just a little bit hungry.

Friday, March 23, 2012

On The Dire Implications of Mismatched Dishware

Open the kitchen cupboards of a young singleton and you will most likely find jumbled stacks of mismatched plates, bowls, and mugs. These are individual pieces inherited from friends who have moved away, garage sales, previous roommates, forgetful party guests, and thrift stores with great kitsch selections.

When I open own my own cupboards and see an array that looks mostly like this, I wonder where and when people do get matching dishware. My sister, recently engaged, informs me that wedding registries are commonly used to collect an entire set of bone-white china. Well great, I think to myself. Weddings! My single self throws her arms up in defeat.

I do, though, love the histories behind my uncoordinated collection. The mugs that I know transform into the best vessels for drinking wine after all the wine glasses have inevitably broken; the serving platters originally from Egypt, gifted to me one morning at work by the elderly regular customer whose wife was making him clean house; the gnome mug found in a box left on the curb. Each unique piece has a meaning to it, so then why do I also get so much satisfaction out of a consistent, matching set?

The only matching dishware I own is a small stack of dinner plates and bowls, gleaned from dusty  boxes found in my parents' basement. They are beautiful in a rustic sort of way: speckled off-white surrounded by a light brown non-glazed brim, many of which are quite chipped. When I have a meal with these matching bowls and plates, I feel like my life is just a bit more put together. Dishes that actually come from the same place and have managed to stick together make me forget that I've lived in eight different apartments in three different countries in the last six years. A meal with matching dishware implies the fact of being settled, a status that I treasure admittedly because it is a grass that is always greener.

Aside from their implications of adulthood, matching dishes are important to the hungry singleton's joy of living because they are the bones to a purposefully composed meal. Purposeful plates, as I've stated before with my ode to garnishes and presentation, are key to bringing joy and intention to the act of eating. When we eat alone, it's all too easy to merely shove away some newspapers to make a clearing on the table just big enough to fit a bowl and a beverage. But if we feed ourselves as if we were feeding company, the whole table gets cleared, maybe even lovingly adorned with a place mat or tablecloth, and we create a place setting for one. To elaborate on the terminology: a setting tells us where and when. A thoughtfully selected group of dinnerware really announces that the here and now is mealtime, all our other worries and to-do lists be damned. Welcome, such a table says, it's dinner time.

Of course, I'm not one to be didactic about your dishes actually matching. If you really love the way that your tin camping plate looks next to the modern uniformity of a bowl from Ikea, then by all means. And if you do opt for matching, then as a single person you have it quite easy: you really only need one matching set!

Let's not forsake table setting, even if it is just set for one. Start with a plate you love, top it with food you love, then fill your belly with love.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Okra, The Sequel

My last post crescendo-ed with a bit of a disappointment. "Yee-haw kitchen experimentation!" I proclaimed, only to chicken out at the last minute when it came to actually attempting both of two new preparations for one new ingredient.

Now, however, I am back with a kitchen smelling of vinegar and spices. Yes, pickled okra finally had its due. Fried and crispy bites of that strange looking pod would not be the last my kitchen saw of okra.

But again, baby steps. Today's was just a refrigerator pickle, one that does not entail boiling canning tongs and listening for the "pop" of a sealed lid. This jar of pickled okra won't have a prolonged shelf life, but that's fine by me because these pickles won't be lasting very long anyway.

Boil a large jar to sanitize, and keep the jar warm until you're ready to fill it. (Even though these are refrigerator pickles, a little extra sanitation doesn't hurt). In a small pot, combine 2 cups vinegar (I used mostly cider vinegar with a touch of red wine vinegar), one cup water, 2 tablespoons salt, and whatever pickling spices you choose. I threw in a few big pinches of red pepper flakes, a generous palm-full of coriander seeds, a few allspice berries, some black peppercorns, and a tablespoon or so of black mustard seeds. Bring this brine up to a boil. Fill the sanitized jar with 1 pound (that's a little over 2 cups worth) of whole okra pods, throw in 4 peeled cloves of garlic, then slowly pour in the brine. Let the jar sit uncovered until it's cooled, then cover and throw it in the fridge.

In the most sunshine-y weather you can summon, bring these to a picnic and impress your friends. Or lounge on a park bench with your two new best friends: a good book and a jar of pickles.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Okrah WinFry

Today I entered unchartered kitchen territory. For an afternoon snack, I made (and gobbled up immediately) a small batch of fried okra.* I donned my apron and oven mitts like I was Ripley, and deep frying and okra were some nasty aliens that I just had to destroy. Though the supporting characters were humbly positioned as a cast iron pan and a vegetable, this was going to be an adventure, I decided. One of the best parts of cooking for one is that you have free reign for experimentation. If what you've dreamt up is lacking in execution, at least you're the only one having to eat your mistakes. No one will ever know that at one point you thought it was a good idea to combine buckwheat groats with worchestershire sauce and chickpeas.
*Now you can reread this post's title and groan to yourself that I've just made the worst food pun ever.
Voluptuous lady okras

Back to okra: Such a cooking and eating experiment originated a week prior, when on an impulse, I picked up a bag of fresh okra pods I saw at the market. Getting home with my green and finger-shaped loot, I quickly searched the internet for okra recipes. Two distinct possibilities caught my eye: pickling and frying. Both of which elicit just the tiniest bit of fear to even my love-of-cooking self. Frying, well, just involves so much OIL, and so much potential for said oil to splash and sputter and burn skin that's simply had the bad fortune to be exposed. And with pickling, an equally high potential for splashing hot liquids. Oh, and botulism. All this danger for a vegetable that itself is notorious for producing an unappetizing stringy slime. But I was on a mission to have an adventure, so I figured, why not tackle all these unknowns and fears in one fell swoop?

Fast forward to one week later. A bag of okra sits in the back of my fridge, forgotten and shoved behind a week's ration of prepared steel cut oats. There are far fewer okra pods in the bag than I had remembered picking out with such glee in the market, and many of them have started to turn brown. My kitchen bravado slightly humbled, I opted to cut my losses and forgo the pickling for when I had a fresher quality and larger quantity of okra. So frying it is. That plus okra itself made for a fairly ambitious afternoon snack as it was anyway.

Out came the eggs and flour for dredging and battering. Into the former I threw in a small puddle of milk and a few dashes of hot sauce, and into the latter, some salt and baking powder. Sliced the okra into half inch pieces (amazing how they look like little stars!), tossed these in the egg mixture and then the flour. And next, my greatest fear of all, the oil. Turning on the stove to medium high, I poured about an inch deep of canola oil into my cast iron skillet and then... waited. How would I know when it was hot enough? Apparently really hot oil is the key to non-greasy fried foods, but without a thermometer, how would I know? I ended up sacrificing a small droplet of batter into the oil; when it started to bubble and turn brown, I knew the oil would be hot enough for my little battered okra stars. These I threw in over the course of a few batches, being wary of not crowding the fry pan lest they cool down the oil too much, clump together, or create a massive grease fire. I don't actually know how grease fires start, but I imagined that it could be something as benign as afternoon snack fried vegetable matter. The okra browned so nicely in the oil, and I let them cool over a paper towel to soak up excess oil. Sprinkled with a little more salt, these were absolutely delicious.

NB: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunger... now with illustrations! My dear friend Suzanna Wright, a talented artist, educator, and fellow food lover, has offered up her illustration talents for this blog. After you've delighted in her delightful drawing of sassy okra, check out her art blog here.