Friday, February 26, 2010

How To Clean a Syrup Spill

In case you didn't know, I am a massive clutz.

Last night while making Indian lentil stew, I was rumaging around in the cupboard and knocked something off the shelf. I heard it crash and shatter behind me before I turned around to see that the contents of an entire bottle of syrup had splattered all over the kitchen floor. It was everywhere: dripping down the fridge, on the counter, all over the floor, on the door, a small amount on the wall and this morning I noticed a couple drops of solidified sugar on my shoes. I just looked at it, cursing the makers of a breakable bottle of syrup. Aunt Jemima has it right with those plastic ones.

Clean-up was (obviously) a tad ridiculous. eHow said that pouring salt on the wound would absorb the stuff, which actually did help. I went through two containers of table salt to get this bad boy off the floor, if you can picture me just pouring and scraping with a metal spatula in my underwear (so as not to get my clothing sticky). And then mopping the floor, also in my underwear. At one point I had syrup all over the bottom of my feet but needed something from the closet, so I crawled on my (already bruised) hands and knees to the closet and back again. In all, it took three goes at washing the floor, plus Megan came home and wiped it clean with a wash cloth. Sheesh, what a night.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Here's To Somethine New

I love trying new things. Discovery can be a spiritual experience at times, at least I think it can be. There's a revelatory moment that comes, "Oh, so this is a parsnip. It's not as bad as its name would suggest." I've explained, probably more than once on this blog, that trying something new is my absolute favorite part of cooking--well, aside from the obvious eat-delicious-food motivation. I can come home from work and spend anywhere from five minutes to an hour or so doing something I may have never done before. It's completely practical, yet endlessly creative.

Not every new thing I try is brilliant and leads to a "spiritual awakening." For example, adding these carrots to the roasted parsnips was not my best idea. Good in theory, but I am not a fan of cook carrots--they're too sweet and can end up rather mushy. These were just too sweet. But the parsnips, dunked in egg white and dragged through parmesan cheese and sprinkled with salt, pepper, oregano and roesmary were pretty good. I dipped them in this marinara sauce, as recommended by this blog. So now, I like parsnips, although I wouldn't put them up there with my recent affinity for blanched broccolini, wilted kale or fennel salads.

So another new thing I've been trying lately is rock climbing. I joined this outdoor group and started going to the rock wall at UNO. It's a good thing failures don't stop me from trying something because I have no skill whatsoever in scaling walls. The first time I went to the wall I could not do anything. Nothing. There are only a few parts of this wall the don't require climbing upside down or nearly so. Now I can do something--barely. Ascending the wall usually involves quite a bit of air- and leg-flailing, an exorbitant amount of muffled (and not-so-muffled) cursing and giving up at least once. But once I do actually (occasionally) top out, it feels pretty awesome to sit back in my harness and take in the view before being lowered down. No matter how painful these ascents are (to watch and participate in), I leave wanting to try again. Last night was my last time climbing before the UNO wall closes for construction (disappointing), but I'm looking forward to some camping trips this summer.

Roasted Parsnips: from Sprouted Kitchen
4 parsnips
1 egg white
dried oregano
dried rosemary
parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425. Julienne the parsnips so that they're all about the same size. In a bowl, whisk together the egg white, oregano and rosemary. Place the parmesan cheese on a plate. Coat each slice of parsnip with egg white, rolling it in the mixture, then drag it through the parmesan cheese, rolling it to cover. Place it on an aluminum foil-covered baking sheet (*important* it won't be easy to clean). Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Dip in marinara sauce.

While the carrots were a disappointment, I do think sweet potatoes and/or regular potatoes would be great according to this recipe.

Monday, February 22, 2010


I need desperately for a sunny, warm weekend. Or day. I would take day. One day without sludge-snow covering everything in this city made by machine. And a day with temps in the 50s.

This weekend I mostly stayed at home. I slept in and read for a large part of Saturday. Sunday, I went to church, read, went to church, watched A Serious Man (the Coen Bros are so weird) with Megan and slept. I didn't cook. I didn't even feel like eating anything. I like the thought of not doing anything, but it's beginning to get old at this point. Plus it feels like I should relax because I want to relax not because stepping one foot outside or opening the window to see that the snow is still there once more is enough to make me retreat under the covers of my bed with a book in hand. This seems about the right time of year for forty days of mourning and solemnity. I made this gumbo for a Mardi Gras party at work, and I may have to make it again once a week until asparagus is in season. It's hearty, making it the perfect meal for winter, yet spicy, which gives a nice wake-up call. Plus, nothing makes me happy like using my Dutch oven.

2 tablespoons flour
1 chicken breast
1 medium onion
1 green pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 stalk celery
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon thyme
dash cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
2 ounces sausage
2 ounces shrimp
1/4 cup rice
Louisiana hot sauce to season

On medium heat, toast the flour, dry, until it is lightly browned. Remove and set aside. Chop chicken into 1-inch cubes. Cook through with a bit of oil. Remove and set aside. Chop the onion, pepper, garlic and celery. Warm some oil on medium heat, add the vegetables and saute for a few minutes, until the onion is lightly browned. Season with chili, thyme, salt and pepper. Add the chicken stock, bay leaf, shrimp and sausage and already-cooked chicken. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer. Add the flour back in along with the rice. Stir to incorporate. Simmer until rice is cooked through and the vegetables are softened (about 20 to 30 minutes). Serve and season with Louisiana hot sauce.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Covert Operation

I've used some semi-covert tactics to learn a few tricks to make some superior home-fried potatoes--I say semi-covert because prying the trick from my friend Dan was too easy to be considered a true mission. I've now been teasing Dan for probably weeks that I'm going to share his trick and say its my own, thus bringing my worldwide fame or at least fame among the 50 or so people who actually read my blog posts in their entirety. Yes, these potatoes are good enough to make me a few friends I think.

I've made olive-oil fried potatoes many times, so I was a little surprised the tuber could achieve the sort of greatness that involves not being able to stop eating them no matter how full you are--and I've had training in resisting food. But one night a few weeks ago, Dan, Megan and I were sitting around the dining room table chatting whilst Meg and I stabbed slice after slice of the home fries, swearing each would be our last.

My mistake in crafting a superior potato, or a superior anything really, is my impatience. I turn up the heat and pan-fry the daylights out of my vegetables because I'm hungry and I want them now. But Dan takes his time, turning down the heat and letting the heat permeate the potatoes before browning the exterior. Then he seasons the fries (with Landry's seasoned salt and pepper) when they're about halfway done. He theorizes that if you season at the beginning you end up salting the oil along with the potatoes. Halfway through, the oil has already seeped into the potatoes, soaking them through and really making that salt stick.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brussels Sprouts

Just when winter becomes completely unbearable, the Olympic Games come along and totally redeems it. In my book, the Summer Games don't hold a candle to the Winter. I like gymnastics and swimming pretty well, but speed skating, skiing, snowboarding ... all these events and someone is going to fall. Nothing dramatic ever happens in the 100-meter dash. Everyone knew that Jamaican guy was going to take it, and it was awesome when he did. But it was a sure thing. At any moment, the Anton Apolo Ono could wipe out on the ice, two snowboard cross racers could bump boards and be out of the competition, and Shaun White or Lindsey Vaughn could, oh wait, those were both a sure thing.

Men's figure skating has me riveted. I stayed home, curled up under a fleece blanket (not a snuggie) to watch Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir. My sister and I were incredibly obsessed with figure skating, starting when Tanya Harding's husband planned the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. We would practice our triple axels and salchows in the living room. I got excited about Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski, who were all around my age. This year the men's competition is pulling me in. It's the age-old Russian versus USA, we'll see who the champ is tonight.

Before the Olympics, all I had to look forward to each night was some hearty food (yes my life is that focused on food). These Brussels sprouts turned out pretty OK. I should have broiled them with gobs of butter, but they weren't as bad as my mom swears.

Last weekend, I heard the sounds of spring: water melting and running into the gutters and birds chirping--all before it snowed the next day. But I was driving home on the Interstate and saw (gasp) a bird of prey. I wasn't sure which one--I like to focus on driving you know--but I was screaming in my car. I haven't seen any birds since November. Good day, sunshine.

Brussels Sprouts:
To blanch the sprouts, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cut a small "x" in the side of the sprouts to help them cook through before plopping them in the bath. Boil for 6 minutes if you're going to braise them later and for12 minutes if you're hungry and want to eat, like, now. When finished, drain and run cold water over them to halt the cooking. I cut mine in half, melted a nob of butter over them, and seasoned them with salt, pepper and parmesan cheese.

To broil, place sprouts in a casserole or fire-proof dish with loads of butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes on 350. Serve sprinkled with parmesan cheese.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mac and Cheese

Here's the post where I throw everything my mom ever taught me out the window and start whining like the baby I am.

I loathe winter. I'm sick of looking at the bright side of all the snow and cold--reminds us how great summer is, makes for a good growing year--bull. I am nursing a serious case of cabin fever. Every morning, I roll up the blinds to gaze out into my backyard and the snow is still there. I haven't seen the ground, nay half of my driveway, since early December. I get through long days at the office by eating my lunch outside and by taking a mid-afternoon stroll. I haven't done this since November or maybe even October. I raise my angry fist to Mother Nature, I beg for mercy and it has yet to come. I am full-on lusting after spring. I need it. I need green, water running into storm drains, chirping birds, the sun outside my window in the morning, tulips, thunderstorms, asparagus. I would gladly trade 10 tornados for a snowy day.

To compensate for my misery (yes, I use food as a coping mechanism), I've been enjoying quite a bit of comfort food lately. And this here is the creamiest, cheesiest macaroni in existence. The only thing that would make it more comforting is if I ate it while snuggling under a fleece blanket in front of a fireplace. I heard a lot about this mac and cheese from friends before receiving the recipe as a Christmas present. My first instinct is to be a little turned off by the presence of Velvetta--that yellow processed cheese able to be stored at room temperature for eternity without going bad--but man it's so good.

Hansen Family Macaroni and Cheese: from Sarah Baker Hansen
1 1/2 cup large macaroni pasta
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup onion, diced
4 ounces Velvetta cheese

Preheat the oven to 350. Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to directions (probably about 10 minutes). Drain.

In a separate skillet on medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour. Stir continuously, the mixture will thicken, bubble and then turn a nutty brown color. Be careful not to burn the flour. Add the milk and onion, continue stirring for a couple minutes until onion has been softened slightly. Add the Velvetta to the skillet, stir until melted. Blend in the pasta, stirring to coat with the cheese. Transfer macaroni and cheese to a casserole and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Baking it gives the macaroni a nice creamy crust.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Long Winter

My mom used to read me and my sisters the Little House on the Prairie books before we went to bed. The sixth book in the series is called The Long Winter; I think you can guess the premise. Laura Ingalls-Wilder recounts the winter of 1880 and 1881 during which time the small South Dakota settlement her family lived on was inundated with blizzard after blizzard from October until May. At one point the railroad stopped delivering shipments to the homesteaders (check out this photo taken in March 1881), putting them in real danger of starvation. Children stopped attending school because no one could get there. In the end, two men walked, probably in homemade snowshoes, 12 miles to find a cache of wheat to feed the village. I find it interesting to note that Laura's father knew a long winter was on its way because the muskrats were building nests with thick walls.

I'm reading a book right now called Out of This World by Mary Swander for a class. It's about a woman who lives near a large Amish community in Kalona, Iowa. The book follows a year in seasons, centered on planting, growing, harvesting and storing. I am more than a little inspired to be closer to the ground, like Swander and her Amish neighbors are. They have an intuition about the weather and the earth that does not exist in my life. I wake up to an alarm from my phone, not a rooster's call or the sun's movement (not that I'm complaining about that), I whine about shoveling my puny little driveway, and I carefully drive to work everyday. I'm barely outside at all--though I suppose Laura Ingalls didn't spend much time outdoors during the long winter. I'm just missing it right about now and longing to dig up some ground in a few months. My new career goal is to be an urban farmer.

All this is wholly unrelated to the egg casserole I made for the office "breakfast club" last Friday. I tweaked a recipe from Smitten Kitchen by adding pancetta and broccolini to her already fine egg strata. I wasn't sure how it would go at work with flavorings like nutmeg and Dijon mustard, but it was a winner--I didn't take any of it home with me. In fact, the crunchy broccolini and the smoky/salty pancetta were my favorite parts of this dish--one I had three helpings of. It was nice, too, to roll half-asleep out of bed, fire up the oven and bake something in the blue hours of morning. If I was Amish, these eggs would be from my henhouse, the bread would be home-baked and the vegetables straight from the garden ... maybe someday.
Egg strata, pre-cooked
My coffee resting on the roof of my car; it really was that blue that day.
Egg Casserole: from Smitten Kitchen
6 or 7 slices of bread
1 bunch broccolini
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup onion
3 ounces pancetta
1 cup spinach
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3 ounces parmesan cheese
9 large eggs
2 3/4 cups milk
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Grease a 9x13 pan or gratin dish really really well (really, it took a lot of muscle to clean that pan afterward). Pull apart the the bread into 1-inch cubes and arrange enough to just about cover the bottom of the pan. Set aside temporarily.

Coarsely chop the broccolini, pancetta and spinach. Finely chop the onion. Blanch the broccolini by placing it in boiling salted water for 4 minutes, drain and then run cold water over it to stop the cooking. Sprinkle the broccolini over the first layer of bread cubes.

In a skillet, melt the butter. Saute the pancetta for a few minutes before adding the onions. Saute for about 5 minutes, then add salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir. Add the spinach, allowing it to wilt and then removing the pan from the heat. Pour the butter mixture over the first layer of bread. Grate your parmesan cheese over the pan. Smitten Kitchen also recommends using Gruyere cheese, but I didn't have any and it was more than fine. Pull apart the rest of the bread and arrange on the toppings.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and Dijon. Once blended, pour over the of bread and toppings. Store in the fridge overnight (or bake right away). Preheat oven to 350 and bake for 45 to 55 minutes.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Grapefruit and Fennel

This salad was OK, but I liked the pictures. In retrospect, grapefruit was too dominant a fruit to pair with fennel. But I did embrace raw fennel for the first time. Talking with Lindsey about its attributes, we decided it was the best combination of mild onion and celery. I'm eating the leftovers in a regular salad with parmesan cheese.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Indian Lentil Stew to Please

My blog posts often revolve around what's good and what's bad, expounding on the interplay of flavor and texture present in a certain dish, nearly always raving about how great something I made is and thus how great I am by association. It's all very boring. And pretty untruthful. When I started this blog, kitchen disasters occurred every other day, but now that I've got the hang of things, dinner preparation is less eventful. So all I've really got to say is that this dish was incredible, this dish was unpopular among my friends, this surprised me by its greatness and this surprised me by dreadfulness. I've lost touch of the stories.

And I love the stories. But there's a lot of unknown that goes into my food. I buy it at Wohlner's or HyVee, and even if I buy my produce at a farmer's market, I rarely drill the growers with questions. I'm a little shy. No, it's not shyness. I am a people pleaser, and I fear the growers will be too busy to answer my questions to fill me in on what they love about their stuff. And then there's the process of cooking. I almost always cook just for myself. While this has abolutely magnificent perks (I always get what I want and if I screw things up then I'm the only one disappointed), it makes cooking and tasting my new creation the whole of the story.

That's not to say I'm bored. After I saw this recipe for palak daal (lentil stew) on 101 Cookbooks, I was immediately hungry and couldn't wait to get home to start cooking. Last night, I made three brand new things. And had a great time chopping, stirring, tasting, seasoning to perfection. What I'm saying is reading this here blog is probably not that exciting because last night I didn't break anything or start a fire or burn the stew but instead made my dinner and breakfast for the following day, did laundry and watched The Office. I loved it. I've been running around like crazy for the past month--I even opted out of two fantastic things with friends just to sit at home and be--last night was exactly what I needed. But that still leaves me with the problem of a boring blog post, boring because I only cook for myself. And the solution to that problem, I think, is to cook more with and for others. But, and here's the but, I'm afraid to.

Like I said, I am a people pleaser. So if I'm cooking for someone, I want be damn certain that they're going to like it because I want them to be happy and I want them to like me. Megan I can count on to like everything, but Megan (along with half my friends) is a vegetarian or rather a pescatarian. The other half of my friends love meat and would be disappointed and probably still hungry if some sort of meat, poultry or fish were not included in a meal. But I hate to be limited by these restrictions. I don't really plan ahead and send out an invite for a dinner I would like to share, and Megan and I have never gotten into a rhythm of cooking with and for each other. When I cook I do sort of throw things together. Maybe there will be beans (which my mom loathes), maybe there won't be meat (which my dad would scoff at), maybe I'll have a craving for wilted kale with a poached egg (who likes that?). My dilemma is that I don't know how to cook to please myself and others, so I just please myself.

That said, I appreciate my friend Elijah's request for more potlucks. And I think this Indian lentil stew shall be the next featured item.
The snow last night was beautiful--huge fluffy flakes.
Oh my gosh I love my Dutch oven.
I got these lentils at an international market in Atlanta when visiting Craig.
This is the best I could do trying to capture the delicate flakes on the railing to my apartment with the softly falling snow.
Indian Lentil Stew: from 101 Cookbooks from Kasa Indian
1 cup lentils
6 cups water
1/2 pound spinach, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
dash cayenne pepper (optional)
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes (or acutal tomatoes)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder

Rinse and drain the lentils. In a pot on medium-high heat, bring the lentils and water to a boil. I added a couple chicken boillion cubes to the water to give it some more flavor. Once water is boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and add the ginger, turmeric, cayenne, spinach and tomatoes. Simmer for 60 to 90 minutes. Season with salt and pepper after 30 minutes of simmering.

When lentils are nearly cooked through and the water has been reduced in volume, melt the butter in a skillet on medium heat. Add the cumin and chili and a bit of salt and pepper. Once incorporated, pour butter mixture into the stew, stir to combine and continue to let simmer another five minutes until you serve. Can be garnished with cilantro and lemon juice, but mine was fine without.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth

I know complaining about the weather is the cliche thing to do, but who's not getting their ass kicked by winter right about now? It snowed another inch yesterday, and at this point (after I got in a weather-related car accident and have shoveled probably half a ton of snow from my driveway), an inch is just a blip in this never-ending winter. My friend Lindsey and I were going over albums that belong to winter. There's the obvious Bon Iver (which means "good winter") For Emma Forever Ago. Then we both agreed Radiohead In Rainbows was a nice winter album. Stars Up in Your Bedroom After the War, holy crap the title song is leaf-less trees, brown grass and slushy dirt roads somehow made lovely. St. Vincent's self-titled I would put in winter. I think White Stripes Icky Thump, MGMT Oracular Spectacular and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs It's Blitz would make a good soundtrack to long and dark winter nights.

The only thing I can to fight off the winter blues is to make pasta (I'm only kidding myself with the green broccolini in this dish), drink red wine and wear my house slippers outside the house. I cooked the broccolini according to Julia Child's blanching instructions--she was right, they turned out crunchy and extra green. And woah this pasta is garlicky--no complaints here.

This morning, all this thought of snow and car accidents and earthquakes reminded me of Neko Case's version of Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.

Do you have any winter songs?
Pasta with broccoli rabe and goat cheese: from Saveur
1 bunch broccoli rabe aka rapini (or regular broccoli or broccolini)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
12 ounces orchiette or whatever medium-size pasta shape you can find
salt and pepper
goat cheese

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Coarsely chop the broccolini and then toss it in the boiling water for four minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, saving the water. Immediately, run cold water over the broccolini to stop it from cooking.

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the garlic and saute for a few minutes until golden brown, toss in the chili flakes and saute for another minute. Toss in the broccolini, stirring to coat and then immediately remove the skillet from the heat.

Meanwhile, bring your pot of water back to a boil and cook your pasta until it's al dente. Drain the water and toss the pasta in with the broccolini and garlic, stirring to combine. Serve topped with a dollop of mild and creamy goat cheese and seasoned with salt and pepper.