Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Citrus Pies

We are in a deep freeze up here in Connecticut. The temperature has barely peaked above freezing since New Year's, and we've been inundated with snow. More than a foot fell about two weeks ago, and it's still here, plus another three or four inches. They're predicting six to 10 more today.

For all you global warming deniers, sadly no (FYI, this newspaper is the most conservative in Britain). In fact, colder, snowier winters in places like New England and the UK are in line with global warming scenarios.

So how to liven the spirits in the midst of whiteout? How about a blast of citrus! Lemons and key limes evoke swaying palm trees, balmy temperatures, sunglasses and bikinis on the beach.

With this in mind, I made a key lime and a lemon meringue pie in the last week. A bag of key limes was just $1.99 in the supermarket. It took the entire bag to get the required 1/3rd of a cup of juice. I had to resqueeze the entire lot coaxing out every last drop.

The result was excellent, although I over-whipped the meringue. Unfortunately, I didn't take a picture.

Pictured above is my attempt at lemon meringue pie, the first I've ever made. Not as good. I used a regular pie crust and in spite of weighing it down with beans, it lifted off the pie plate during the pre-bake. The crust was okay, but turned stale quickly. I'd do a graham cracker next time.

Both recipes were from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything," but formulas for both pies are pretty standard and any good food website will have them.

For both pies, I was confounded as to what qualifies as "stiff" or "nearly stiff" egg whites. Both times I went too far.

This video answered my questions. Should have watched before I whipped. Duh!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Rise, Rise, Rise, Let it Rise

This is what I should have titled this post.

For all you other children of the 1970s, here is the inspiration. Bachman-Turner Overdrive throwing it into fifth.

A Grain of Salt

Wal-Mart is announcing today that over the next five years it will reduce sodium and transfat in foods it sells as well as lower prices for healthier foods and open more stores in low income areas.

I take it all with a grain of salt. These are at best baby steps, and five years is a long time.

The New York Times article correctly points out that reducing sodium is the biggest challenge because it alters taste. I can personally attest to that. Over the last year, we have significantly reduced our salt intake. For example, I now buy low salt crackers and unsalted peanuts. At first, they seemed tasteless. But over time, I found that one's taste buds adjust and you start to actually taste what you are eating. The wheat flavor of the crackers and the natural taste of peanuts were a revelation. If I eat a regular cracker now, all I taste is salt.

Which is why Big Food uses mountains of the stuff. Dump in enough sodium and asphalt will taste good.

I'm glad Wal-Mart has agreed to make its food healthier, but we are still just eating at the corners of the problem. The best way to reduce sodium and transfat is to cook at home so you control what goes into what you eat. It's also cheaper. I'm skeptical whether Con-Agra or Wal-Mart's business models, which depend on selling value-added, highly processed food, can be part of that solution.

But Rome wasn't built in a day. As incremental as this is, it's still a step forward. Let's hope this is only the start.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Let it Rise

I've been tinkering with my bagel recipe. My basic formula works, but I've grown increasingly dissatisfied with the flavor and texture.

So I decided to let my dough rise before forming into bagels. I figured two hours, but after about 90 minutes the mass had doubled in size and threatened to rip the plastic wrap from the bowl. I punched it down, cut it into pieces and formed bagels. I was going to make them then and there except that a TV show I wanted to watch was about to start. So I spritzed the tops with spray oil, covered with plastic wrap and stuck the rounds into the fridge.

As I've written before, I'm not crazy about the overnight retard (or should I say, developmental disable) in many bagel recipes. It makes the bagels too airy for my taste. But an hour or two? I figured that might produce a less dense but still chewy interior and more taste.

After about two hours, I took the bagels out of the fridge, did a boil and shoved them in the oven. I also put a pan of water on a rack at the top of the oven to encourage a crispier crust.

Oddly, the bagels took longer to bake, perhaps because they were cold when they went into the boil, about 25 to 30 minutes instead of the usual 20.

The result was superior. The bagels had a hard crust as opposed to relatively soft outside from my earlier recipe. They had better flavor and a lighter, but still chewy inside.

In sum: Let the dough rise until it doubles and then retard in the fridge for about two hours. I suspect a slightly longer retard -- say three hours -- might produce and an even better bagel. The key, at least to my taste, is producing more flavor while not allowing the insides to get too fluffy.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sandwich Innovation

My daughter, confronting a somewhat empty fridge, decided last week to make herself a sandwich. Sounds like no big deal, except that she doesn't eat sandwiches. With a few exceptions -- garlic bread, very good French bread, crispy pizza crust -- she's not a bread eater.

Rummaging around the kitchen, she found Italian bread and buttered and toasted it. She then mixed leftover roast chicken with scallions, salt and pepper and spread it on the bread. Finally, she shaved Peccorino Romano cheese and layered the windowpane slices onto the chicken mixture.

She gave me a bite. It was excellent.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Julie and Julia Revisited

I loved this movie. All three of us did. So of course we watched when it was on last night. It was like ordering delicious dish you've had before. Just as tasty, although missing the delight of discovery.

On second viewing, I was struck by the stark contrasts between Julie and Julia, contrasts that illustrate how society has changed in the last 60 years. Julia's ambition is to cook and write. Her goal is to excel, to impart the knowledge she has acquired and to please those who eat her food. A $250 advance excites her. Simply holding the finished book in her hands is a moment of profound happiness and satisfaction. She laughs at the idea of being on TV.

Julie clearly has a passion for food, but her goal from the start is "success," which in today's America means fame and money. Julia Child's cookbook is a vessel into which she pours all her dreams, ambitions and anxieties. Her project is less an end in and of itself than a means for self-expression, self-fulfillment and -- I don't want to be too harsh, but let's be honest -- self-aggrandizement. In spite of her insecurities and meltdowns, she believes she's special. If her husband told her she should be on TV, she would dismiss it, but more in the manner of "Deep down, I agree, so please telling me over and over."

Her husband observes that blogging is all about her, her, her and laments how the project has come to consume and define their lives. Paul, by contrast, takes pleasure and pride in her wife's commitment to excellence -- an excellence that is a form of love he partakes of every day.

The movie glosses over these differences, wanting to portray both women on parallel journeys of self discovery. But Julia and Julie are actually on different paths. Julia's goal is to master an art. Julie's is to be famous.

I'm being a little unfair. Both women are products of their times. I still think this is a great movie, and I admire Julie for cooking all the recipes in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." But the film also unwittingly highlights how our society has gone from extolling mastery of a subject, skill or craft to extolling the use of such things to acquire fame and money.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lentils and Rice

Yesterday, I made the lentils and rice recipe accompanying Mark Bittman's recent New York Times op-ed. It was, at best, a modest success.

The recipe has shortcomings, beginning with the instruction to use "a large saucepan." Scratch that. You need a big pot. I started with a medium-to-large saucepan, and soon realized it was too small. The vegies and pancetta didn't brown enough because there wasn't enough cooking surface.

I thought I'd get away with the smaller saucepan until I added the lentils. They with the other contents filled the vessel more than halfway. I knew the lentils would double in size, exploding the lid off the saucepan. I had no choice but to transfer to a large pot, costing me significant flavor.

Another problem was Bittman's vague instructions on heat levels. I guessed a low boil and covered. I figured 30 minutes, adding a cup of white rice (I'm not a brown rice fan. Tastes like straw to me) after 10 minutes. A half hour passed and I tasted: a little crunchy, although most of the liquid had been absorbed. In short, the heat was too high.

I lowered the temperature, added a cup of water and cooked another 10 minutes. Still a touch hard, so I repeated. Another 10 minutes and it was done.

The result was not bad, if a little bland. I went too easy on the salt on the assumption the pancetta would provide seasoning. It didn't, although that may be because I had to transfer to another cooking vessel. I would add salt and try bacon next time.

On the upside, the yield was huge, easily seven to eight servings, it reheats well and it's filling. If you are looking for a cheap, nutritious lunch, this is your ticket.

In sum: use a larger pot, add a generous amount of salt and simmer instead of boil.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Stirring the Pot

How many times has this happened to you? You have a pot. You need to stir. But you also need to chop, peel or bash. Or the cat wants in. Or the kids are fighting in the family room. What's a cook to do?

Here's your solution: the Autonomous Stirrer. Check out this video. I love the stirring music (sorry, couldn't resist the pun) more appropriate for a moon landing or a Lombardi-era Packers tribute film.

I saw this advertised on TV the other night and was a agog. Could they really be serious? Does anyone really this? Plus, the thing looks like the lunar lander, only creepier. Its rhythmic, automatic oscillation was Hal9000ish (I'm sorry Chris, but I can't let you stop stirring now. This sauce is too important for me to let you intervene).

That said, I don't make a lot of sauces, except tomato ones that require little stirring. And the reviews are actually pretty positive.

So who knows, if you make a lot of sauces, this gadget may be for you.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Devilishly Delicious

Breakfast has always been a struggle for my daughter. She has to have it. We insist. But she just doesn't like traditional breakfast foods.

Over the years, I have fed her everything from baked potatoes (nuked in the microwave) to rice with soy sauce to spaghetti (one of her favorites any time of day). None of them have been a big hit.

Which brings me to Eggs in Purgatory. Sounds ominous. Are they eggs that have sinned too much to go to heaven, but not enough not to go to hell? How could an egg sin? Shattering on impact? Having a too runny or too hard a yoke?

None of the above. Eggs in Purgatory is an Italian-American dish consisting of hand-crushed canned tomatoes, onions, salt, red pepper flakes, eggs and Peccorino Romano or Parmesan cheese. This is classic Italian-American cooking: simple, cheap and delicious.

I'd never made it until Thanksgiving eve when we needed a snack. I pulled out a recipe, threw it together and gave it to my daughter. She loved it. Couldn't get enough of it. Demanded more.

I agree. It's a great dish, eggs poached in a tangy tomato sauce with a little cheese on top. If St. Peter tasted this, he'd go right to heaven.

Since then, it has become her preferred breakfast. She eats it most mornings before school, scarfing down every bite.

Here's the recipe:

A tablespoon or two of olive oil
A quarter of a medium onion chopped into small to medium pieces
About 3/4rds of a cup of hand-crushed canned tomatoes (I recommend imported Italian)
A pinch of salt and red pepper flakes
Two eggs
Peccorino Romano or Parmesan cheese

Heat the oil in a small pan on medium low to medium, depending on your stove. When hot, saute onions until soft, but not brown -- about four minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes. Crack eggs into the tomatoes, turn down heat slightly and cover for three and a half to four minutes depending on how soft you like your yokes. Remove from the heat, grate on cheese and serve.

200 Posts

Yesterday was my 200th post since starting this blog two years ago. Thank you to my loyal readers, few though you may be.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Yes You Can

If the average Americans spends 35 hours a week watching TV, he or she has time to cook.

That's the message of Mark Bittman's Sunday New York Times op-ed in which he dismantles the standard excuses for not cooking (no time, too expensive, too much bother). To illustrate his point, he provides three simple recipes (see links in a box on the left side of the article) that can serve as the basis for an endless variety of quickly prepared dishes.

Who tells Americans they have no time to cook? Big Food. It's a common theme in their advertising. We'll do for you! In doing so, they addict consumers to overpriced, over-salted, fatty food containing a lab's worth of unpronounceable chemicals.

Yes you can cook at home. It's cheaper, healthier and tastes better.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Blackout Cardamon Bread

I read somewhere that culinary innovations often result from accidents or mistakes. I had just such an experience last week.

At about 9:30 last Sunday night, in the midst of the worst blizzard in recent memory, our power went out. With the wind gusting up to 50 miles an hour, it was clear that the electricity wasn't coming back on any time soon.

What to do with the cardamon bread that I'd lovingly mixed, kneaded, braided, allowed to rise and was about to put into the preheated oven? Lost cause, I figured, casualty of the storm.

Then it hit me. It was all of 25 degrees outside, well below freezing. Put the dough outside and see what happens. So I packaged the loaf in plastic wrap and tin foil, opened the back door and tossed the bread into the snow.

There it sat for the next 18 hours. Yes, that's how long it took to get power back. With our furnce disabled, the temperature inside the house plunged to 47 degrees. We wrapped ourselves in triple layers of clothing and fled under the blankets in a losing battle to stay warm. After multiple calls to the utility and a plea to the First Selectman's office, power was finally restored around 3 p.m.

With the house slowly reheating, I retrieved the cardamon bread, now buried in snow. Amazingly, it was not entirely frozen. I heated the oven and put in the half-thawed bread.

The result: the best loaf I've ever made. The bread was fluffier, but still pleasantly dense with a richer, deeper flavor. My guess is retarding the rise made all the difference.

Clearly, freezing or putting the dough in the fridge overnight develops greater flavor and texture. I will have to try both methods. At least the blackout was good for something.