Friday, December 19, 2008

GIFTS! (Easy, last minute food gifts for everybody on your list!) BONUS: A Craft

Greetings! I've been busy busy busy in the kitchen and want to share these simple ideas for last minute edible giftables. These recipes are easy and quick, so don't fear if your list isn't quite checked off yet.

I know I promised you goat cheese, and it really will be coming, but this post is long enough just covering the tasty giftables I want to share, so it will have to wait until next time. Ok, here's one little picture to stimulate your taste buds for cheese-

That said, SPOILER ALERT. IF you are in my close family, read NO FURTHER if you are interested in your gifts being SECRET, at least in part.(VANESSA, THIS MEANS YOU.)

Ok, so here goes.

I have spent way too much time these last weeks in the kitchen PRESERVING. In all forms. Canning, pickling, and others. What I've discovered is that preservation is a cheap and easy way to create homemade, delicious, healthy gifts for your family and friends. These also make great hostess gifts, or small gifts to have on hand when an unexpected visitor arrives.

Each of these recipes requires you to can the products if you want them to be shelf-stable. If you don't want them to be shelf-stable, you can skip the canning steps, store the product in the fridge, and use within a month or so. Properly canned, both of these recipes should last at least a year on the shelf out of the way of light and heat.

(REMEMBER, ALWAYS store home-canned goods with the rings OFF. If the lid pops up it is a sign that air has entered the container and that food is probably not safe to eat. If you store jars with the rings on, you won't know if the lid pops up. You don't want botulism, do you?)

Should you choose to preserve your foods, Ball has a great guide to pressure canning and using a water bath. I personally prefer to use the water bath, but that's only because I don't have a pressure cooker. Yet. (Christmas is yet to come...)

So, onto the recipes.

Crock Pot Apple Butter

When I want to make something for the first time that doesn't require exact measurements like baking, I tend to look at a bunch of different recipes online to see how different people approach a dish before deciding on some final version by me. That was the case with this apple butter. It's actually an easy flexible recipe that is pretty fool-proof. And waking up to the smell of apples and cinnamon filling your house is pretty darn nice on a cold winter morning. (It's like a gift for YOU!)

Into your slow cooker, throw

approximately 4 lbs. apples of varying types

Often those big totes have around 4 lbs. Here I've doubled the recipe and used Granny Smith and Braeburn varieties.

peeled (if you're a good food blogger you should cover these in lemon juice so they don't brown, but I'm not.)

cored (THIS is what melon ballers are REALLY for)


then add
3-4 tbsp. cinnamon (eyeball it, and use GOOD cinnamon. it's worth it.)

1 tbsp. freshly ground nutmeg (really)
1 tbsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. allspice
1 tbsp. vanilla

2/3 c. sugar
1 c. apple cider

Cook overnight (about 8 hours. 10 for me :)) on high after stirring. When it's done, it will look like this and your home will smell absolutely AMAZING.

If you are a stickler for perfectly smooth apple butter, run this through the blender or food processor. If you're like me and you like it a little chunky, just use your potato masher to get the texture you want. If your final product seems to have too much liquid, you can run the slow cooker on high with the lid off for about an hour.

Then, can away. Here's a quick run-through of my method...
These jars and lids have been sanitized in the boiling water for a few minutes and are now drying.

Fill the jars just below the lid (NOT touching) being sure to wipe off the mouth of the jar before putting on the lid and putting on the ring till just snug, not too tight.

Then I process them in boiling water for 10 minutes.

After the 10 minutes is up, put the jars out on the counter to cool. As they cool, you should hear them go "plink". This is the lid snapping down and tells you that they have been successfully preserved. After the jars have cooled for a few hours, be sure that each lid has popped down by pressing on the top. If it snaps down when you push, that means the canning didn't work. Do not despair! These jars just need to be kept in the fridge and eaten within a few weeks. Remove the rings from all the jars that canned properly and put them into storage.

YUM. This stuff is so amazingly good. It is fruity without being too sweet. I cannot describe how fantastic this is with bacon. ::drool::
(FYI, you might think you could do other fruit butters just as easily, but be cautious and do your research. For some reason you can't do pumpkin butter at home, which I never would have guessed. Preservation is great so long as you're not making somebody sick.)

Pickled Green Beans

This recipe would work easily with asparagus, but green beans are cheaper.

I made a variation of this ratio from a valuable resource, (It takes a lot more wading than some other websites, but there are lots of good recipes to be found there.)

Shove into a jar-

2 lbs. green beans, each end snapped off
1-2 cloves cracked garlic
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper (if you like it hot)
1 tsp. dill
1 tbsp. pickling spice

In the mean time, bring to a boil

2 1/2 c. water
2 1/2 c. vinegar
1/4 c. salt

Pour the vinegar mixture into each jar. Lid the jars and process like the apple butter. Easy.

Next, a quick talk about preserved lemons.

Preserved Lemons

These are popular in middle eastern cuisine, though they're hard to find on the shelves in the U.S.. I heard of them on The Splendid Table (who could resist salty lemons?!) and thought a couple members of my family (and I) would like to give them a try. (This site was a guiding resource.)

Start by quartering the lemons, but not entirely. Leave them intact at the bottom 1/4 inch or so. Remove any remaining stem and the top 1/4 inch of the lemon peel.

Pour some kosher salt into the bottom of a jar. Salt the lemons all over, inside and outside the slices you've made. Shove them into the jar, putting a layer of salt between each lemon. I threw some whole all-spice berries to one jar, because I had them around. Any whole spice would be interesting.

Leave these at room temperature (out of light and heat) for at least three weeks. Most people don't like to use the flesh and only use the rind, but no matter what you use for recipes, be sure to rinse the lemons before preparing them. These do not need to be boiled like the other canned products. The preservation only comes from the salt. (Here is one delicious looking recipe if you want a reason to try these lemons.)

Finally, the promised non-edible craft. These are easy, inexpensive gifts that I love to have made up any time, but especially Christmas time.

Run to your local Goodwill. I guarantee there are a few sets of teacups and saucers just sitting there, matching and adorable, that are just begging to be used. (I found these super-cute party trays with cups. They are so detailed and delicate. I think they are milk glass, and every tray is different.)

Look around your house. You've got half burned candles whose wicks are too short to burn, right? Me too.

Well, buy those teacups and saucers.

Pour those old candles into a big bowl and melt them in a double boiler. Remove the wicks. Put a new wick into the bottom of each teacup and fill with your old wax. Give as a pretty gift.

Green and adorable.

Ok kids, have a fantastic holiday and stay safe!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

V Day Bolognese

Hola! We've gotten a few days of warmish weather around here, which is enough to remind us that spring is really coming!

The seed-starting setup is almost finished, and we will get the first ones into the soil germinating within the next week. Can't wait!

Until then, I thought I'd share the recipe that the hubs and I had for Valentine's Day, and have had many times since then. We thought about going out since we eat out so rarely, but it was clear that we'd rather spend that money on quality ingredients and that time in the kitchen together. We wanted something indulgent and special, but nothing so tedious as to force us into too much prep. We settled on a dish with simple ingredients and simple cooking methods, but ultimately complex and satisfying flavors.

This dish wouldn't have been possible without the generosity of a friend. My friends are spread all over the country, and the world, and somehow I manage to keep in touch with most of them. A dear friend of mine was in Rome recently and I insisted that he buy me some of the good stuff while in the old country. (Yes, my family is Italian so I can say that.)How could I pass by an opportunity for door-to-door grocery shopping from Rome? What he brought back exceeded my expectations. His thoughtfulness was revealing both of our friendship as well as his knowledge of things culinary. Fittingly, he, the husband and I tasted most ingredients together, about five minutes after he arrived. They were universally delicious.

I wanted to do something quintessentially Italian with these fantastic ingredients. Something simple, but not plain. I wanted to highlight the quality of the ingredients by using them in the most straight-forward way possible. There was no question. It had to be bolognese.

You might have heard of a ragoût (Italian:ragu), (not to be confused with Ragú) the simple tomato sauce. Bolognese is simply a ragu from Bologna.

Sometimes I riff off familiar dishes by browsing recipes and deciding on my own take. Since this dish was uncharted territory for me, I reached out to the blogosphere for some help.

Do you ever have that experience of coming upon someone's work that is better than anything you will probably ever do? That's what this guy's blog is like for me.

FXcuisine is a FANTASTIC food blog, and you should visit it more than you visit mine. (That's right, he updates TWICE weekly!) In addition to his committment and fabulous camera setup, François-Xavier is deeply interested in slow food, and documenting the work of those precious few who still make things the way their ancestors did. I have deep respect for him as a journalist, and as a cook. His blog was the perfect place to find the true recipe, which he faithfully reproduces, without any personal touches.

I, on the other hand, did make some changes. The title of this recipe links to his, but the measurements and method are slightly modified, and mine.

Ragù Bolognese

In a large dutch oven, or any large oven-safe pot with a lid, add

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp oil

toss in

1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stick, diced

Once these are starting to turn soft, move them to the other side of the pan. In the empty side, cook

3-5 strips of bacon, cubed. (pancetta is traditional, but expensive)

Once cooked through, move over the bacon and brown in small batches

1 lb. ground beef

Once all your beef is brown, add

1/4 c. dry white wine

scraping all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Then, add

2 large cans of tomatoes (if you have fancy friends, use San Marzano. If you're slightly less fancy, use the ones you canned form the garden. If you're desperate, use the ones from the grocery store, but it just won't be the same.)

While you're doing this, keep warm on another burner

1 cup full fat milk
1 cup chicken stock

Add the milk and stock to the beef mixture.

Add salt, pepper, and a grating of fresh nutmeg.

Cover this and put it into a 250 oven for 3-4 hours. Seriously, it's worth it. You could probably do this in a slow cooker, but I've never tried.

It'll look like this.

Your house will smell divine.

This is best served with polenta (me) or pasta (him).

Two of our favorite ways to have it-

With red wine (Beaujolais!) and kale.

For Vday, with champagne and raspberries and canned green beans.

Either way, it MUST be dusted with Parmesan.

and drizzled with balsamic. If you're lucky, you'll have balsamic glaze. :)

YUM! Try it. It's really easy and the results really show just how much taking the time makes a difference.

Look, I got a copper strainer!

That's all for now. I'll update once the seeds are started!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Simple Squash Soup

Greetings, dear readers!
I know we're all coming down from the overindulgence of last week and craving simple, lean foods. For my family's big celebration, I made this soup by Michael Chiarello of the Food Network. It is an intricate, full flavored soup which requires many complex steps. It was good. It had lots of interesting flavors; sour, sweet, salty, savory, all of the above. It had fennel, balsamic vinegar, and molasses. It took me a long time and it was worth the work since the family ate the entire batch.

But you know what? A week earlier I'd thrown together a simple squash soup with stuff I had on hand in about 20 minutes and I have to say, I liked my version better. (Sorry Chiarello)

I thought I was crazy when I took the first bite of the fancy schmancy soup and thought, "I wish I were eating THAT soup again". That is, until my darling father echoed the desire for simpler flavors. His support combined with the amazing workload the fancy one requires has sealed the deal. This is MY butternut squash soup, and it's awesome.

Simple Squash Soup

Cook 1 medium butternut squash (approximately three pounds, but this is soup. It doesn't really matter.)

Any squash with a smooth texture will do.

I like to steam my squash, so I halve it (a bread knife is surprisingly helpful for this), scoop out the seeds, pierce the skin with a fork, and cook it for about an hour in the oven on a sheet pan with about an inch of water. When in doubt, roast at 350.

(If you aren't interested in wrestling a huge squash, precooked frozen squash is a perfectly fine substitute.)

Once a knife slides in easily, let the squash cool and then scrape up with flesh with a fork. I find it much easier to remove the flesh from each half then to peel and chop the squash. They are slippery, and heavy, which is annoying at best, and dangerous at worst.

Your lovely squash should look like this.

I have yet to fully understand the connection between color and nutrition, but it's clear that certain shades just beg to be eaten. This orange is one for me.

Next, throw the soup basics into a pot.

1 yellow onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced

In these shots I am using green onion. Because that's what I had. Remember how I just threw this together? It worked fine.

Sweat (not sautee. We're not looking for browing here, just softening. Sweating is more like steaming or boiling than it is like sauteeing.) the holy trinity
until it's very soft, but doesn't have any color.

Next, add two cups of chicken stock. (I'm lazy and don't like dealing with whole animals much, so I use Better Than Bouillon)

Then, toss in the squash, and a little cream. (Ok, I used about 1/2 a cup, but you can use less/more as you like. Milk would be fine, too, for you fat-phobes out there)

Salt and pepper and sage to taste.

If you like a lot of texture in your soup, go for it as is.

After this photo, I put the soup in a blender in small batches. This extra step will give you a luxurious, uniform smoothness that I really love.

It's great with something crunchy and salty. Crackers are perfecto

That's all for now.

Next time, GOAT CHEESE!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Stir Fry and my Mourning Meal

I began this entry while it was really still fall. The nights and mornings were cold, but the afternoons still got very warm. Fall is a transition season, and my life is certainly reflecting the rhythm of the universe these days. It has officially become winter, and I recently lost someone very important to me. (Hence, the lack of blogging.) It has made clear for me how much I love my family and how lucky I am to have so many people in my life who care about me. It has also indirectly made clear to me how much comfort cooking gives me and how important food is in my life. I had been contemplating how food could become a part of my professional life recently. This time has shown me how the act of cooking, while physically demanding, is emotionally soothing to me. (Consequentially, I've discovered how much more I enjoy cooking than writing about cooking.) I'm sorry I've been gone so long, but I'm glad to be back and resolve to post more often in the future. (Winter break is coming after all, the season of time-off from school and cooking.) First, I'd like to share a dish with you, and then I'll briefly describe the meal I made to comfort myself and my husband.

Speaking of, my husband loves Asian food.

I love healthy food.

Stir fries are Asian, and healthy. So, I should be really good at them, right?

Not so much. In fact, creating a good stir fry has eluded me for some time. I always ended up with a bland steamed mess. That is, until now. I've discovered my main missteps and now feel confident that I can pull out a decent stir fry.

The main issues? Heat and oil. (Of COURSE. I always thought it would be something little like seasoning, or flavors. I make too many assumptions.)

1) Heat. The best vessel for a stir fry is apparently a wok. I had one once. It was cheap, so it overheated easily. Since then, I have used cast iron with great success. Someday I will buy a serious wok, I guess.

2) Oil. I had always chosen canola oil to stir-fry because of its high smoke point and neutral flavor. Turns out peanut oil has the perfect flavor to complement the ingredients in the stir fry without overpowering them. I used it both in frying and in creating the sauce. I also found a chili oil that I put in at the last minute for flavoring. You can see some of the last of the farmer's market garlic in this photo, too.

The veggies of choice on this night were Napa Cabbage (otherwise known as Chinese cabbage) , onions, green beans, and red and green bell peppers. I'm lucky enough to get some fantastic peppers from the Vedics. (You know about them, right?)

I like to cut my peppers into strips for this dish. I cut the sides off the center of the peppers. I think this is the easiest way to do it. Be sure to remove the spongy parts on the ribs of the pepper.

I have to give a shout out for two awesome pieces of equipment that I have in my kitchen. The first is this batter bowl by Anchor Hocking.

The more I learn about plastic the less I want it in my life, especially for storage and reheating leftovers. I'm slowly replacing all of our plastic containers with glass ones. Not only is this container glass, the lid is BPA free. (The bowl I marinated the tofu in for the stir-fry is also by Anchor Hocking and is part of the Martha Stewart Everyday line at Kmart) This is a 2 qt. batter bowl.

The other super-awesome piece of equipment I have to share is my Oxo salad spinner. I registered for this for the wedding, and it's one of the gifts we use the most. As recommended by Cook's Illustrated, it has all the features I look for in a salad spinner. It's very large (though I still have to do the cabbage in two batches), and is has a non-skid ring on the bottom. It has a brake to stop the spinner, which is really helpful. It's also easy to clean because the top piece separates, and it's easy to store because the handle can lock into the lid so it's flat. I highly recommend it. It's amazing to see just how much water you get out of greens.

Long story short, fry this all up in a really REALLY hot cast iron pan in peanut oil, and serve with al dente soba (buckwheat) noodles. In this photo, we used chicken.

For the sauce, mix a cup of chicken stock, chili paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, green onions, garlic, peanut oil, and fire oil. I think I also threw in some cumin, because I like it. To thicken this up, mix up a little stock and cornstarch.

The chicken is really good, especially if you slice it very thin, but I was looking for something a little different. I wanted a protein whose texture was a contrast to the veggies. I decided on fried tofu, and boy was it good.

I found lots of different approaches to frying tofu, and I think I've settled on the best one. After pressing the firm tofu between cloths for around 30 minutes, I marinated the it in the same mixture as the sauce above. (check out the Anchor Hocking bowl. It holds liquid UPSIDE DOWN!)

Then I put the tofu cubes onto a paper towel to drain a little. (Frying+water=pain)

A simple coating of wheat flour with salt and pepper, then into the frying pan. I thought of fried chicken, so I only used enough oil to come halfway up the cubes.

(sorry, blurry)

Here are the cubes with a little of the reduced sauce. Sorry, the first pic is blurry.

But you better click this one.

Finally, the meal that distracted me for a few good hours. We had spent a few days out of town with family, so when I returned home all I wanted to do was be in the kitchen. Here's the meal. No recipes, just images.

Chicken Pot Pie with a homemade pie crust. (A little different than my usual pot pie)

Tyler Florence's Ultimate Scalloped Potato Gratin (which was only meh)

And for dessert, roasted pears. I found some of these super cute seckel pears. They are super sweet and juicy, and just adorable.

Butter + sugar= comfort.

I can't resist buying pomegranates when I see them, and they were a great complement to the pears. (I've since learned how to peel them)

You know what always makes me feel better? No matter how terrible things are?


And flowers. (I love you Carrie)

And dogs. (meet Razi, our new doggie! He is perfect. His favorite place to be is right next to me. :))

Apologies for the absence and resulting super-long post. I will be blogging more soon, I promise.
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