Something Actually Simple – Vinaigrette

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my family eats a lot of the following salad: arugula, apple, toasted almonds, sherry vin. If we happen to be missing one of the essential ingredients, the basic formula still usually works: leaves, fruit, nuts, vin. If it weren’t for this trick, we’d have a much harder time filling in the “vegetable” part of dinner.

Historically, I’m an incredibly lazy vinaigrette maker. Pour some vinegar in an empty spice jar, add some oil (about 3x the vinegar, but I never measure), add some salt and pepper, maaaaybe add something else to complement the flavors. Shake. Pour on salad and toss. I read recently, in The Food Lab, that emulsified dressing just works better. (The leaves get more evenly coated and wilt less.) I was still too lazy to try it, however, until something else I read, in my kids’ Raddish subscription, pointed out that there exist good dressing emulsifiers other than mustard. Now, I’ve leveled up my dressing game.

Basic Vinaigrette Ratio

  • 1 part something acidic: Vinegar, Lemon juice, Wine, etc.
  • 3 parts oil
  • 1/2 part (or a bit more or a bit less, to taste) something binding or emulsifying: Mustard, Honey, Yogurt, Mayonnaise, Egg Yolk (if you’re using the dressing immediately)
  • Seasonings

Add all ingredients to a jar. Shake until well-blended. Pour on salad. Toss.

Some more specific examples:

Honey Mustard: 1 T apple cider vinegar, 3 T sunflower or other neutral oil, 1 tsp dijon mustard, 1 tsp honey, salt, black pepper – good on spinach based salads

Basic Balsamic: 1 T balsamic vinegar, 3 T olive oil, 1 slightly smushed garlic clove, 1 tsp honey, salt, black pepper, maybe some thyme. Add the garlic clove to the vinegar before everything else. If storing before use, remove the garlic after about fifteen minutes.

Sherry Vin: 1 T sherry vinegar, 3 T olive oil, 1 tsp honey, salt, black pepper, the tiniest bit of vanilla paste or extract – really good on salads with apples.

I plan to start experimenting more with yogurt or mayo as the binder. I suspect this will be great with more herb focused dressings (which are great with iceberg, bib lettuce, etc.).

Thanks, Food Lab and Raddish!

Simplicity is Relative, Sourdough Crackers

February’s cookbook club book was Plenty*. I have several friends who adore this book and I looked forward to exploring it and perhaps expanding my kitchen toolkit to include more Middle Eastern flavors and techniques. As it turned out, however, this was not the right book for me. Plenty is chock full of delicious recipes, and those recipes are chock full of somewhat precise and complicated techniques along with not-so familiar (to me) ingredients. What it is not chock full of, however, is unifying theory or process explanations which would lead me into the recipes themselves. For something I’m not already familiar with, I definitely prefer more prose about why and how to do things, what’s integral and what can be simplified, etc. To expand my Middle Eastern influenced toolkit, I’m going to need a different book.**

The recipe I choose to make, Saffron Tagliatelle with Spiced Butter, was beautiful and delicious, but also gave me hours of grief when my dough was too wet and my pasta roller clearly did not have the same capacity for which the recipe was written. I’m glad I tried it. When I make pasta again, however, I’ll follow some combination of Alice Water’s advice, my brilliant spouse’s advice, and this article on Serious Eats (which seems to agree, on the whole, with my spouse and Alice Waters) and I’ll leave Plenty on the shelf.

Then, after spending way too much time muttering under my breath about complicated recipes being barriers to home cooks, I decided to make something simple. And I did! And it was delicious! And I realized that while it was simple to me, recipes that start with a cup of sourdough starter and involve rolling dough thin enough for crackers, aren’t necessarily simple to others. I may have some work to do on walking my talk. Nevertheless, if you happen to have some sourdough starter and a silicon baking mat or two, these are great!***

Simple Sourdough Crackers

  • 1 cup sourdough starter
  • 1/4 cup olive oil (or ghee or lard or coconut oil or …), plus more for brushing
  • 1 cup (or more) whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • coarse salt for sprinkling

Mix starter, oil, flour, and salt together, adding more flour until a relatively stuff dough forms. Knead lightly (for a minute or two) in the bowl, then cover with plastic wrap and let rest for ~8 hours (up to 24 is probably fine).

Preheat oven to 350º.

Divide dough into two halves*** and shape each roughly into a rectangle. Place the rectangle on asilicon baking mat or sheet of parchment and roll thin, covering as much of the mat or parchment as possible while remaining within the confines of what will fit on your baking sheet. (I kept the plastic wrap on top of the dough to keep my rolling pin from sticking without adding more flour.) Repeat with the other half.

Brush the dough with a bit more olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Using a bench scraper or spatula****, cut the dough into cracker-sized***** rectangles. You don’t need to separate the pieces. The dough will put apart slightly while baking so you have separate crackers in the end.

Bake at 350º, for 15 to 20 minutes, just until golden brown. Open the oven door a crack, but leave the baking sheets in for another 15 or more minutes while the crackers crisp up. 


*yes, I am just finishing a write-up of something that happened in February. Sorry.

**maybe it’s Zahav? I haven’t given up.

***I’ll post something more actually simple soon. I promise.

****if you’re using a standard half-sheet pan, aka a regular sized cookie sheet. if your pans are smaller, divide more!

*****don’t use an actual knife or a pastry cutter! It will cut your baking mat and that is sad.

******whatever size cracker you like.

 

Public School Potlucks, Coffeecake

a recipe card showing a hand-written recipe for quick jam coffee cake

Ah, family breakfasts at elementary school. Parents are invited to come see their kids latest project work,* siblings are invited to join in from their classrooms, and each family brings something for a breakfast potluck. In kindergarten, there was clearly a lot of effort by some parents for the potluck contribution to be “healthy,” although there were also quite reliably a few boxes of donut holes. More recently, in a 3rd grade classroom, only two families brought something homemade – a local chef** and me – everything else was Entenmann’s, Dunkin Donuts, or drinks. Unsurprisingly, not many of the kids went for the whole-grain, banana mini-muffins.***

This led to an interesting side conversation with my eldest about why no one seems to cook. I tried to explain about time constraints, and needed energy, and needed know-how. He expounded a bit about how very bad it is for you to just eat Dunkin Donuts, which, is very true, and yet is a bit awkward to exclaim in a room full of folks who just brought donuts to a potluck.**** Mostly, I think he was sad that not many folks wanted the muffins. I was sad too, but I understood.

Still, I not-so-secretly do wish people cooked more. There are myriad arguments for doing it, most of which I’ll resist going into. For me, cooking is an important point of connection, to the world, to our needs and imperfections, to our history, to each other. I can’t do much about other families’ time and energy constraints, but I can chip away, a tiny bit, at the need for know-how and related reticence. Most cooking is actually pretty easy and forgiving! It doesn’t have to be a gorgeous, three layer, apricot jam sponge cake to be delicious and worth making! You can just try things! Really!

Next third grade breakfast, I think I’ll bring coffee cake, my mom’s coffee cake, a bit altered. It’s not Entenmann’s, but it is pretty darn easy (and delicious and flexible). This  way, I’ll bring something homemade, and the kids still might eat it. Compromise.

More or Less My Mom’s Quick Jam Coffeecake*****

  • 6 T butter, softened, plus a little for the pan
  • 1/4 sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose or whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/2 cup other whole grain flour or cornmeal******
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (or 1/8 tsp almond extract or 1 tsp citrus zest or …) – optional
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 chopped nuts
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon (or other complementary spice) – optional
  • 2/3 cup jam

Preheat over to 375ºF. Butter an 8×8 inch pan.

Cream 6 tablespoons of the butter with the 1/4 cup sugar. Add the egg and optional extract, then beat until well incorporated. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder and salt. Add the flour mixture alternating with the milk (in two or three rounds) and continue to mix just until you have a (mostly) smooth batter. Spread batter in prepared pan. Mix together the brown sugar, chopped nuts, and optional spice and sprinkle on top. Dot with ~9 dollops of jam. Bake ~25-30 minutes, until golden brown and a tester comes out clean.

Serves ~9. Double the recipe and use a 13×9 inch pan if feeding a large number of third graders.


*model Mayflowers! the Solar System rap! reports on the habitat of your chosen animal and how to protect it! research into one of your family’s countries of origin! The school projects are actually pretty cool.

**OK, technically I think the chef made his triple-layer, apricot jam sponge cake at work, so it wasn’t quite homemade either, but it was absolutely delicious.

***admittedly, these were not my best ever banana muffins. I cooked them a minute or 2 too long, so they were dry. Ah, well.

****also, I kinda like donuts, just not as part of a regular breakfast.

*****I may have added butter. Sorry, Mom! (Also, I have no idea how this would work if actually simply beaten with a fork and am too lazy to find out. I use a mixer.)

******I like to match this to the jam type – rye for stone fruits, cornmeal for berries, etc.

 

 

My New/Old Go-To Brownie Recipe

AKA Yet Another Thing I Put Flaked Salt On

AKA What I Did with the Urfa Pepper*

AKA An Homage to Alice Medrich**

A couples weeks ago, I was going to post my go-to brownie recipe and mention that it’s what I’ve been adding Urfa pepper to, but then I didn’t have a photo handy, so I needed to make it again, and then while I was making it again, I started thinking about small changes I could make to make it better, and then after I made those, I started reading more and thinking about a few more changes, and then I had suddenly made a whole lot of brownies and still didn’t have it quite right.***

But now? I think I’ve got it, although I also just read that resting the brownie batter in the refrigerator for awhile makes the texture and crackly crust better, so there’s one more thing I’m likely to try.

Brown Butter Cocoa Brownies 

    • 10 Tbsp (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
    • 1 1/4 cup sugar
    • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder 
    • 1/2 tsp salt
    • 1/2 tsp Urfa pepper (opt.) or 1 tsp espresso powder (also opt.)
    • tsp vanilla extract
    • 2 Tbsp bourbon, other liquor, coffee, or water****
    • large eggs, cold 
    • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 
    • flaked sea salt (such as Maldon, technically opt.)

Butter an 8inch square pan and dust it with cocoa (or line it with parchment if you need them all to come out cleanly). Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven. Preheat oven to 325ºF.

Using a saucepan big enough to eventually hold all the ingredients, brown the butter.***** Off heat, but while the butter is still quite hot, add the sugar, cocoa, salt and optional Urfa pepper (or espresso powder), then stir until well blended using a stiff spatula. Next, stir in the vanilla and bourbon (or other liquid), then the cold eggs, one at a time, stirring until fully incorporated with each addition. Next, stir in the flour until no streaks remain. Finally, stir the whole thing vigorously for 50 strokes.

Spread batter in prepared pan. (If you have time, let it chill in the fridge for a few minutes up to overnight.) Sprinkle with flaked sea salt, if using. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until only a bit of batter adheres to a toothpick inserted off-center. Cool before cutting. Share.


*The Urfa pepper from our trip to Zingerman’s, which I promised I’d tell you about.

**Limited research shows that basically every great brownie recipe on the internet, including this one, was inspired or informed by Alice Medrich. Respect.

***My goal was to strike the right balance of simple (not too many dishes, ingredients I tend to have on hand, no swearing at parchment paper, etc.) and delicious (browning the butter, deep chocolate taste, etc.). This turned out to be trickier than I thought.

****This adds back in the liquid lost when you brown the butter. Any liquid should work. Bourbon, of course, means you can call them “Brown Butter Bourbon Brownies” or “b4” for short.

*****To brown butter, cook it over low heat until it starts to brown and smell nutty, scraping the bottom of the pan (use the same stuff spatula!) occasionally to keep the milk solids from sticking too much. This generally takes about five minutes, but will depend on your stove and your pan.

Home Alone*, Apple Almond Pancakes

three browned pancakes on a plate with fingers taking the one top left

Generally, if anyone makes breakfast for the family, it’s my awesome spouse. I’m, well…  I’m not exactly a morning person and am much better left sipping my coffee alone in a corner when it’s breakfast-making time. This means, among other things, I am not the one who officially knows how to make pancakes. This weekend, however, said awesome spouse is out of town, and I wanted to make something while the kids obsessively used up all their allotted screen time** before breakfast. So I made pancakes, but weird enough pancakes that they didn’t need to compete directly with “real” pancakes.***

Inspired, as so often happens, by Smitten Kitchen, I made apple almond pancakes instead. My kids even ate them!

  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or sprouted spelt flour)
  • 1/2 cup almonds or ground almonds or almond flour (or hazelnut flour!)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp apple pie spice**** (or cinnamon)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk (or 1 cup yogurt mixed with 1/2 cup milk)
  • 2 – 3 apples, coarsely grated
  • butter, for frying

If you’re starting with whole, raw almonds, roast them in a 300ºF oven for about 10 minutes, take them out when they begin to smell delicious. Grind the almonds with 1/2 cup of the flour in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse flour.

Whisk together the flour, almonds, and remaining dry ingredients in a medium bowl. In a separate container, whisk together the buttermilk and eggs, then fold them into the dry ingredients, then fold in the grated apple. You should have a thick batter that seems like it’s about half apple.

Heat a cast iron skillet, or griddle, to medium hot, add a pat of butter, and fry the pancakes in batches. They’ll be thick! Spread them out a bit with the ladle so they’re not too thick. Mine ended up ~1/2 inch and took 3-5 minutes per side to cook through.

Serve with cider syrup, or whatever other deliciousness you have on hand.


* OK, not really “alone” as “temporarily home without my spouse and co-parent, but with two kids and a housemate”

**Which is an hour each on weekend days, which they almost never in parallel

***”Real” pancakes at my house are, for the record, super delicious multi-grain pancakes with hot berries on top. Super delicious.

****Yes, I actually use apple pie spice blend. Penzey’s has a really nice one that tastes great with most things apple and is easier and faster than adding the separate components. I find myself reaching for it fairly often.

 

Cookbook Club!

I feel I should be upfront here, and admit that I know I’m a few weeks behind in posting (according to my goal of posting once a week). You see I was gonna post about a dinner party, but then that didn’t happen*, and then I was gonna post a brownie recipe, but I’m still refining it,* and I was gonna post about the kitchen cure in January project, but I haven’t finished that either. Oh and I also still need to post the third scones recipe (and scones rambling) and that cool cheddar corn coins thing. Bother. So here I am, vowing to break the inertia and get back to posting. This will probably happen again.

That’s not what I was going to tell you about this week, however. This week I want to tell you about Cookbook Club! Late last year, I read this article on Serious Eats about cookbook clubs and started thinking. I got a handful of virtual raised hands from other local folks who would also be interested in such a thing and lo and behold, we actually started one.

(People cooked! It was great!)

Here’s the basic premise:

  • Select a cookbook (which we did via nominating and voting on Google Sheets)
  • Select a date and time
  • Everyone gets or borrows a copy of the cookbook and makes one dish from it
  • There’s a casual potluck at which everyone can try dishes, talk about the book, and generally have a good time
  • Do it again the next month

Here are some things that made it work well:

  • Everyone could decide their own comfort spot of what to cook. More experienced cooks choose something that would push their edges a little, or vowed to actually follow a recipe where we would generally riff on the idea but disregard the instructions. Less experienced cooks choose something more approachable and pushed the edge of “making things for a crowd of cook-type-people”. Those with more time used it; those with less time choose according to that limit.
  • It was a social gathering with a pre-built conversation starter. This, for the introverted and/or socially anxious among us, was awesome.
  • We kept it casual***. There was no pressure to have a dish perfectly plated or piping hot which greatly simplified logistics.
  • Rotating hosts. Next month is at someone else’s house. This takes the pressure off starting the whole thing in motion.

January’s book was Heartlandia, and I made fried chicken for the first time ever****. I probably won’t follow that exact recipe again; nevertheless, here’s what I learned:

  • Boneless chicken makes for a much easier eating experience and is totally worth it
  • Brining (2 days in advance) and buttermilk soaking (1 day in advance) the chicken yielded super moist and delicious chicken even for the pieces I overcooked
  • Shaking chicken in a paper bag to coat with seasoned flour will cause clouds of seasoned flour to drift down over a very large radius (and I probably won’t do that again)
  • Frying in a skillet works
  • Beef tallow makes for yummy fried things
  • I can fry chicken!*****

Next month, I’m making fresh pasta from Plenty, even though I habitually leave the pasta making to my spouse, and I can’t wait to taste what everyone else makes!


 

*The party did happen. It’s just the post that got lost in the sands of time. You all should definitely make Romesco though. It was so so good.

**Perils of food blogging! So many brownies! You have no idea!

***We kinda had to. We didn’t have enough chairs.

****Having grown up on Shake and Bake

*****Win!

Soup Season

The other day, I walked home from one of the local butcher shops with about 10 lbs of chicken feet, like ya do. It’s soup swap time.

Do you know about soup swaps? The basic premise is:

  1. Make and freeze 6 qts of soup.
  2. gather with at least 6 other people who have done the same
  3. exchange soups
  4. have a variety of great soup to get you through the winter

The Kitchn offers a write-up of how to host a swap with a bit more detail. In the next week, I’m going to two different swaps, with three different soups. Thus, chicken feet*, because they make really good stock.

Soup the first: Tomato w/ Parmesan stock

This one is kinda cheating. The truth is, tomato soup is super easy to make if you have stock on hand. It goes like something this:

Sauté an onion in olive oil or butter. Maybe add some thyme or oregano. Add a large can of crushed tomatoes. Add about half a can of veggie, parm, or chicken stock (by pouring it in the tomato can so you can also get more bits of tomato out). Blend. Bring to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Maybe add a dash of sherry. Serve with a dollop of cream or good olive oil and crunchy croutons if you’re feeling fancy.

So why bring tomato soup to a swap? Because parmesan stock** is really, really good and because tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich on the side is one of the ultimate winter comfort meals. If you already have the soup in the freezer, it’s even easier. Yum.

Second Soup: Anna Thomas’ Green Soup w/ chicken stock

This one? This one is winter’s answer to summer’s green smoothie. It’s 5 gallons of greens & 10 lbs of chicken feet*** made into 7 qts (plus some extra stock) of superfood. It’s chicken soup to heal what ails you with all the green veggies you know you should be eating, but you probably aren’t because it’s winter and who wants salad, blended in. Plus! it actually tastes good. I used Anna Thomas’ recipe with chives instead of green onions and parsley instead of cilantro and chicken stock instead of the water and veggie stock. So far everyone likes it except my youngest, and, well, my youngest doesn’t like much.

Last Soup: Classic French Onion

You know what takes a very, very long time and might just drive your children away from the first floor of the house***? Caramelizing 10 lbs of onions does. I’ve never made French Onion soup at home because it’s always seemed like so much hassle for something most of my family won’t eat, but now that there is the promise of a comforting, easy, slightly fancy winter meal just waiting in the freezer, I’m happy I did it. I’m envisioning the folks who select this at the swap settling in one winter evening with French Onion Soup Gratinée and a good white wine, maybe with a simple baby spinach salad on the side.****

Bonus, I actually broke out my copy of Julia Child’s The Way to Cook for this recipe, and I love consulting Julia.


*and beef shanks and parmesan rinds and …

**a variation on this recipe from epicurious, though I use more water and don’t reduce it as much. (Note: Many stores which sell in-house grated parmesan will also sell parmesan rinds, for much less than than the cheese. It’s worth asking!)

***Don’t worry, I didn’t leave the chicken feet in. I used them to make the stock and strained them out.

***”Mom!! Stop cooking onions!!!”

****With this one, I managed to make 8 quarts, so I’m also envisioning myself doing this, some evening. Hooray!