January 31, 2011 § 3 Comments
Beatrice doesn’t ask much from me. So, when she asks a favor or makes a request, I’m on it.
“Can you make some rye bread?” she texted to me last Wednesday. I was at the airport, headed out of town until Saturday night. I didn’t have my cookbooks nearby to reference. Rye bread? There’s nothing like a good Jewish rye from New York. Thin toasted slices with butter – nothing beats it. You want rye bread, Beatrice? Rye bread is what you’ll get.
First thing Sunday morning I turn to my go-to bread-baking book, Amy’s Bread (2nd edition) and look up rye. Now, keep in mind that in this cookbook, all but, I don’t know, maybe four or five recipes DO NOT call for some sort of starter. And bread starters take at least 24 hours to develop. At least. So, I’m not surprised when I see this Amy’s Rye with Caraway and Mustard Seeds recipe call for a “firm levain.”
I’m new at this starter thing. I’ve made one once before – the one Joanne Chang has in her cookbook – and kept it going for a couple of months. It was super easy. And reading through Amy’s Bread several months earlier, I knew there were several different types of starters. This levain thing was one of them.
Okay, I’m on my way.
Amy’s Bread – that’s a real bread-baker’s cookbook. I should have known there’d be something more to making this “levain” than … than whatever I had imagined.
So, I turn to the recipe for firm levain. And the recipe for firm levain itself calls for Active White or Rye Sourdough Starter. Hmm…. okay.
So, again, I turn the pages and find Active White Sourdough Starter. I read over the recipe: organic grapes, cool water, organic unbleached all-purpose flour. At least four 24-hour interval steps. And I say to Jennifer, “Text Bea – tell her the bread’ll be done on Saturday. Maybe.”
A levain is a sourdough starter made without yeast. That’s why the recipe calls for grapes. I’m assuming, correct me if I’m wrong, the grapes’ naturally musty-ness – the yeasty beasts that hang out on fruit – will provide the umpf needed to begin the fermentation process. If you add a pinch of yeast to a starter, that will kick your starter off right. And get it going quickly. With grapes, apparently you need to give it more time. Like, three days more.
So, yesterday at 4pm I mixed the grapes, the water and the unbleached flour. “Let it sit at room temperature (75F to 78F) until it starts to bubble. This will take 12 to 24 hours, longer is your room is cool.”
Okaaay … raise your hand if your room temperature in January is 75-78F?? Anyone? No, didn’t think so. 68F, yes. Not 78F. So, right there I know this levain will take some steady watching; I can’t rely on just watching the clock. This photo shows the levain at 8pm – four hours into the process. The mark on the blue tape records the levain’s original level. You’ll see it’s risen maybe one or two microns …
Oh, you’ll also see that it’s in my microwave. It’s a bit warmer in there. And, as soon as I’m done posting this, I’m going to heat a cup of water to boiling and keep that in there with the levain. The dissipating heat will warm the microwave hopefully 1o degrees or so and keep the levain warmer for a few hours.
If all goes as planned, we’ll have rye bread just in time for the Super Bowl. And a levain to nurture for years to come.
January 31, 2011 § 2 Comments
“Where’s my Dainty Dot?”
I heard that a few times from Jennifer last week. Not only was I absent in the house, Dainty Dot was absent in her inbox (she’s my most loyal subscriber). “I want my Dainty,” she lamented.
Dainty was off on a business trip. I travel an average of about once a month. This last trip is an annual pilgrimage to Louisville for an INTENSIVE 3+ days of management programming. Sessions begin early and run late, with must-attend “hospitality suites” (i.e. crappy hotel food and lots of alcohol) running late into the night. I didn’t breathe non-hotel air for nearly 72 hours at one point.
Now, Jennifer and I eat and live pretty cleanly. We have very few heavily processed foods in our cabinets. We limit most everything in the “white food group” – potatoes, bread, pasta, mayo, you get the idea. Our plates are typically quite colorful with greens and fruit and lots of veggies. And when we dine out, we go places that have the same food philosophy we have—i.e., definitely not fast food.
So, when I head out on a business trip my body is a bit shocked by what I put in it. It’s not completely the fault of the host hotel or the meeting organizers. They aren’t force-feeding me. Ultimately, my health and my well-being during a business trip is up to me. I mean, come on – there’s no reason I had to eat 3/4 of a horrible room-service pizza at 10pm – except for the fact I hadn’t taken time to eat much of a lunch or dinner.
Considering how horribly disgusting I felt during this last trip, I’m making this new Business Travel Pledge:
- I will walk outside for at least 15 minutes
- I will exercise first thing each morning
- I will limit coffee to just two cups w/no dairy
- I will drink at least three glasses of water
- I will pack protein bars and fruit for snacks
- I will limit alcohol consumption to two beers or two glasses of wine
- I will NOT chose the unhealthy alternative to save time
- I will eat three meals a day
- I will NOT eat sugar-filled gooey desserts (ice cream is ok)
- I will sleep at least six hours each night
It all seems pretty basic, uh? But so often it’s not. Eating three meals a day – I failed at that TWICE last week! Not sleeping six hours—again I failed! Exercise? Are you kidding?
My next business activity isn’t a trip out of town – it takes place right here in Boston. I have three business dinners scheduled this week. Will I be able to stick to my pledge? The reward system works for me, so if I stick to this plan this week, I’ll buy myself … I’ll buy a ScotteVest that I’ve had my eye on.
Wish me luck.
January 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
I work from home. Alone. All day. My interactions with in-the-flesh people are minimal. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter – those are the check-ins I have during my daylight hours. Needless to say, it’s good to get out.
And I do make it a point to get out during the day. I signed up for a 1/2 marathon in March, which is compelling me to get to the gym on a regular basis. But the confines of home were a bit much last week—think it was the weather?—and by 8 a.m. on Friday I was already planning ahead to post-5 o’clock. I tweeted something like “I know it’s early, but already thinking of grabbing a drink @UnionBoston.”
Now, I follow a few restaurants on Twitter. Neighborhood joints are the ones I pay particular attention to, definitely if they are within walking distance. If I can find a local place that tweets, I’m definitely following for menu updates, specials, news, etc.
So, last Friday—remember last Friday with that 7 in. of snow?—so last Friday, post 3.5-mile run, I call Jennifer to make sure she can meet me at Union, then tweet to the world that I’m on my way over to grab a drink.
“Hi! Welcome!,” the host says.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m just gonna grab a drink at the bar.” I make to walk in that direction.
“Be sure you tweet about it!” the host says.
I stopped in my snow-boot tracks. “That’s funny, because I just …”
“I know,” the smiling host says. “I’m in charge of Union’s tweets. I recognized your photo.”
Because I follow @UnionBoston, I learned they are big into craft beers, so I chatted with Justin about that while I settled in. He recommended a few he seemed very excited about, and I ordered up a Bear Republic Racer IPA. Excellent recommendation. And yes, I did tweet about it.
By the way, do try Union’s bluefish pate. Bluefish too fishy, you say? Don’t even say that until you try this. Seriously good stuff. And it goes great with IPA.
Union’s Craft Beer Event
Now, I do enjoy craft beer, although I typically order a Heineken or Amstel Light – what can I say? I love the Dutch. I’m hoping to gain an even finer appreciation for craft beer during Union’s Craft Beer Meetup on February 1st from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Is there a better way to spend a Tuesday?
Who’s going? What are you guys looking forward to? Justin, what craft beers can we expect to see in frosty mugs lined up along Union’s famous bar?
Hope to see you there, folks. And do please leave a comment!
January 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
I grew up on a farm. A real, working farm—one where my parents and us kids poured everything we had into coaxing things to grow from the soil, and cared for our 4-legged and feathered creatures until they were fat enough to fill our chest freezers. On a farm like this, you were clucking back at a chicken one day, and basting it the next.
The big guys—the beef and pork animals—we kept penned up, either in the barn or in the field next to it. Chickens, too, were kept in the barn lest some malevolent creature pay them a visit. The ducks, however, were allowed to roam outside the barn and through our yard. Why? Not sure, really. They weren’t a flight risk—quite literally. They could fly up to the lower branches of a tree if their lives were in peril. But, as for wanting to leave the farm, that was just plain silly—they were quite happy where they were.
Also, the ducks were really more of an accident than a part of our farm’s business model. We happened to find them—a half-dozen little ducklings—trapped in some viney, brambly undergrowth one day near our grandmother’s bungalow. It was a bit of a mystery how they ended up there, especially so when they matured and it turned out they were Muscovy ducks and not some random water fowl. That’s right, we were eating Muscovy duck in the 1970s, long before it became the culinary king.
As will happen when genders mix, we found viable duck eggs, incubated them, and had a nice little gangs of Muscovys wandering our yard for many years.
Now, one summer my mother wished to add a goose to the duck gang. We had never had a goose before, not in the barn nor on our plates. Goose for Christmas, Mom said. A little gosling was added to the bunch.
My mother named her Willeeta. As in, “We’ll eat her.”
Despite the moniker, we never had a chance to eat Willeeta. The curious goose, who was full of personality and quite a delight to have roaming the yard, met her end not by means of an axe. One day we were repaving our driveway with asphalt, and little Willeeta decided to have herself a taste of the hot and gooey black stuff. Within minutes she was foaming at the bill and not long after she was gone.
We never did eat Willeeta. The irony. And, we never did raise another goose and never had goose on our table.
Fast forward 30-some years to last Friday night. Jennifer and I stop in at The Gallows, the fairly new restaurant in the South End. The menu is meat-heavy, and not eating red meat, we’ve not made it a priority to dine there. There’s a bit of a Middle Ages feel to the menu, with mead and boar and such on listings. Drinks with dark-sounding names. Apps called “boards” and served up on small cutting boards. Wenches behind the bar. Men in furs bringing out the meals. Okay, I jest, but you get the idea.
So, considering the story of Willeeta, you’ll understand that when the boards of the day were detailed to us, the goose board did have an appeal to me. Goose prepared three ways: pate, sliced cured breast, and something I didn’t quite catch the name of but it was a type of confit (but drier). Jennifer didn’t feel the same draw as I did to this goose board—having had a horrible experience with duck once, she stays away from fowl other than chicken. But, after relating the Willeeta story to our server, she gladly served up a small serving of the goose three ways. Pate: not for me. Sliced cured breast: very good. the confit-like dish: delicious. Would I have good again? Yes, but hold the pate.
Jennifer and I did share the Ploughman’s Board, which was fish three ways. Smoked salmon – awesome. Cured trout – awesome. And some sort of lobster and red pepper pate was the best of the bunch. Was it lobster or tuna? I don’t recall, but whatever it was, I’ll gladly order it again. The board was accompanied with (not enough) hearty sourdough, a nice robust mustard and something that tasted like the beginnings of tartar sauce but was way more mayo-ey than I think they intended. Stick with the mustard.
As I said, we only really stopped in to check out the atmosphere, grab a drink and quickly peruse the bar menu. We were pleasantly surprised at the non-red meat opportunities, both on the apps and the main entrees. Next time, we’ll do a bit more dining and let you know how it goes.
January 22, 2011 § Leave a comment
18F in Boston this morning? Think of it as 265 Kelvin. Ahhhhh … balmy.
A lot of folks stock up on cheesy snacks, big bowls of chili and DVDs when the weather report points to a frigid weekend. Or they take advantage of a JetBlue special and find relief in warmer climes. Not Jennifer and I. We dress in triple layers of silk undies, wrap the scarves ’round our heads like little Randy, and head out into the snow.
Last weekend, for instance, while at the Vermont ski house, we strapped on some snowshoes and went for a little adventure in the Jamaica State Park. A camping destination with hiking trails by summer, this spot is just as entertaining covered with 2 ft. of snow. The main trail – a former railroad bed – is wide enough for two unofficial “lanes” – one for cross-country skiers and one for walkers/snowshoers. This trail hugs the West River, and it’s really amazing what a flowing body of water can turn into when winter sets in. It really is gorgeous. Plus, with many springs darting out from the hilly sidelines to find their way to the river, the trail is lined with some spectacular icy graffitti.
If you’ve never snowshoed – it’s not hard. It’s WALKING with these lightweight things on your feet. Their design makes you a bit more buoyant on snow – you don’t sink in as much. The forefoot is firmly attached to the forward part of the snowshoe, and heel is not. Like a cross-country ski. So when you are walking and push off with the ball of the foot, your heel is free to rise without bringing the snowshoe with it. Much easier than when Trapper Francois was chasing lynx in the Canadian wilderness.
The one difference between snowshoeing and actual walking is this: Because the snowshoes extend the width of your foot but maybe two inches on each side, when you are standing still, your legs are just a big further apart than normal. When you walk, your legs remain just a tad further apart to prevent the shoes from clanking against each other. It’s a bit of a Frankensteinish gait. Snowshoes can clank together, it’s not going to hurt anything, except it’s just annoying.
Snowshoes are equipped with crampons on the undersides. It’s like having a metal bear claw attached to your foot. Is there ice under that snow? Afraid it’ll make you slip? Two words: metal claw. No worries, you’ll remain safely upright. The bear claws also make it possible to walk UP a snowy include that is sure to have icy stuff just under the surface. A set of walking poles is a big help when snowshoeing up a slope by providing leverage and balance.
A couple weeks ago, Channel 5’s news magazine Chronicle had a segment about a guy from New Hampshire (I think) who is big into snowshoe running. What? Running? Apparently snowshoes are available that are specially designed for running in the snow. They are narrower than regular snowshoes, so that when you bring you leg/foot alongside the other, it’s at a more natural position. This guy was bookin’ it, too.
Considering I needed to get a weekend workout in, I decided to step up my snowshoeing pace on the 1.5 mile return to the car. Actually, I ran back all the way. It was more of a quick shuffling back and forth, but my heart was pumping and my blood and lungs were getting a good workout. And when you work out like that in the cold, you might as well be on a Miami beach.
Strap on some snowshoes and go see something other than a movie this weekend.
January 20, 2011 § 5 Comments
… and other reasons why you must have them in your kitchen.
It’s a bold statement, but a true one. Cast iron pans can save your life.
My 10-in. cast iron skillet sits on my stove top nearly at all times. Contractor turned into creep? Burglar breaking in? I know where to reach and how to swing that 5.25-pound flat-sided piece of smackdown. Advantage: Dainty Dot.
Self-defense is, of course, not their only use. Properly seasoned (I’ll get to that later), they are “the original non-stick pans” that don’t make you wonder about your health if you take a gouge out of the bottom. And, cleaning is a breeze. Really. Their heft, non-stick surface and easy cleaning make them must-have tools in the kitchen. Here’s a sampling of how we use them in our kitchen:
- pan-sear fish without it sticking to the pan
- sauteeing, gentle steaming, frying etc on the stove top
- roasting veggies in the oven
- baking cornbread and croutons in the oven
- toasting nuts
- weighing down things, e.g. putting one or two cast irons on top of a pile of salted eggplant to coax out water
- turn it upside down over a flame to create a griddle surface! (admittedly, I’ve never done that – yet)
One friend used her cast iron skillet to create a rodent crime scene, but let’s not go there …
Maintaining Cast Iron: Get Over It, It’s Not That Difficult Dude
So, we know cast iron pans are the Clydesdales of the kitchen. What, you don’t want to “go to all that work” of maintaining them? Let’s say for a minute that you have taken the wuss’s way out and have purchased a “pre-seasoned” cast iron pan. You’ve cooked with it for the first time. Now it’s time for clean-up. Here’s what you do:
- With a bit of water, use a detergent-free scrubby or brush to clean off any debris in the pan. NO DETERGENT. The cast iron’s essentially non-stick surface allows all the excess oils and bits to dislodge easily.
- Put the cast iron pan on a burner. Turn it to high. And watch the pan. The water left in the pan will evaporate. When all the water is gone – every last drop – turn the burner off.
- Now, add a couple of drops of vegetable oil to the pan. Using a paper towel, spread that oil over the inner surface of the pan nice and good.
- You’re done.
A couple of things. No detergent: That’s because the detergent will begin to break down the oils that are used to season the pan. You’ll wreck your non-stick surface that you (or the factory) have worked so hard to create. Let all water in the pan evaporate: Otherwise, your cast iron pan will rust. Bleck. Use vegetable oil, as opposed to olive oil, which might be tempting if you keep a bottle of it ready by your stove. I believe veg oil has a higher smoke point. Whatever it is, the olive oil will smoke way more easily on this VERY HOT pan. And it’ll smell god-awful.
Think of the pan as your pet. You’re not going to NOT feed Fluffy because you didn’t feel like it, right? Because Fluffy is NOT going to let you get away with that. Neither is your pan. If you don’t care for it properly, it’s not going to work for you properly. It won’t poop on your pillow like Fluffy would, but your cast iron will revolt and leave rust spots either in itself or on the bottom of your sink. So, take the two minutes it asks for to make the pan clean and happy.
Starting With a Virgin Pan
If you buy a regular-old non-seasoned cast iron pan, you’ll need to give it a seasoning treatment before you start cooking with it. But it’s simple, and usually the instructions come with the cast iron. Rub a thin coat of vegetable oil over the pan’s entire surface – inside and out. Put it on a rack in a 325F-350F oven. Put a baking sheet on a rack under it to catch any drips. Leave it in there an hour or so. Take it out. Let it cool. Bingo.
IF an intruder has come into your home and used your handy cast iron skillet to cook a meal and then washed it out with detergent or left it to rust in the sink (because I know you would never do that), the pan’s life isn’t over. You can rescue it with some steel wool, some elbow grease, and a few cuss words. If the pan is in HORRIBLE shape, you may want to rub it down with oil and pop it in the oven to bake on its own for an hour. Otherwise, a good rust-scrubbing and routine seasoning should do the trick.
Our Own Cast Iron
What I love about cast iron is that brand doesn’t really matter. Lodge is the It brand for cast iron. And I’m sure it’s awesome. But my set of three cast iron pans (10-in, 8-in, 6-in) were purchased as a gift for me by my mother back in 1991 from Caldor for $17. Not $170. Just $17. And I’ve used them pretty much every day since. Caldor doesn’t even exist today, dude! But the pans live on.
We also “found” a set of cast iron in an old rented apartment a few years back—those were OLD and very well-seasoned. And an old girlfriend bought me an 8-in. Lodge. I never use it. The handle – at just 4.5 inches long – is too short to get good leverage on holding the pan easily. My Caldor 8-incher has a 5.5-in. handle. Much better.
All told, we have two 10-inchers that are in constant use, four 8-inchers (anyone want that Lodge pan?) and one 6-incher that is ideal for toasting nuts on the stove top. And a 5-quart cast iron Dutch oven.
What NOT to Cook In Cast Iron
Eggs. Definitely. Your pan will smell like eggs for days. Not sure why the smell – and taste, even – lingers. It just oozes into the pan’s pours. Plus, scrambled eggs are the only things I’ve seen stick to cast iron. Stay. Away.
Tomato sauces or soups. The acids in the sauce will begin to eat away at the pan’s seasoned surface. It’s not horrible, it can be fixed. But save yourself the trouble and use another implement.
That’s why you keep those way-more-expensive All-Clads around, after all.
January 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
“One of the best meals you’ve ever made.”
Who doesn’t like to hear that from their partner? It was a seriously delicious meal, I agree. Did I have my doubts while I was cooking? There have been times when I’ve deviated from a recipe—as I did in this case—and it turned out terribly wrong. Terribly. Wrong. I dunno, maybe I have a new confidence in the kitchen. And, I gave myself plenty of time to cook. Rushing never ends with good results for me.
This meal was based on a recipe we saw once on a Food Network program hosted my Michael Chiarello, Lunchbag Swordfishwith Mediterranean Tomato Sauce and Linguini. Except sans swordfish and linguine. Morse Fish Market didn’t have swordfish, but they did have these cute lil’ whole filleted trout. Foodie’s had rainbow Swiss chard on special, especially ideal since eating your greens is a very healthy thing. And, last deviation, no one needs linguine when whole wheat Israeli cous cous makes such a nice side dish.Oh, wait – the last deviation: There was absolutely no lunchbags used in preparing this meal.
I did stick pretty close to the “tomato sauce” recipe, but prefer to call it a roasted salsa.
Recipe for Trout & Tomato-Caper Salsa
(the salsa roasts along with the trout!)
- 3 cups plum tomatoes, cored and thinly wedged
- 1 tbs chopped fresh oregano
- 1 tbs chopped parsley
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup or less of minced red onion (my red onion was a bit strong, so I used less)
- 2 tbs drained capers
- 1/2 of a large red pepper, chopped (original recipe calls for 1/2 cup roasted red pepper – didn’t have time to roast!)
- Juice of whole lemon (original calls for 2 tbs – oh well)
- 4 tbs EVOO
- 2 8+ oz. whole trout fillets
- 1 lemon sliced thinly
- 2 tbs parsley, finely chopped
- kosher salt & pepper
-Set oven to 450-ish.
-Prepare and combine tomatoes, herbs, garlic, red onion, capers, red pepper, lemon juice and EVOO in a medium bowl. Add a couple turns of a pepper mill. Set aside for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
-Remove fish heads and tail (and reserve for stock). Rinse fish and pat dry. Working with one fish at a time, season the inside of whole fish with salt and pepper (the two fillets just kinda flap open – easy to do!). While fish is still open, layer lemon slices (remove any seeds you see) and sprinkle with about 1 tbs of chopped parsley. Close up fish. Set aside. Prepare next fishy.
-After tomato-caper mixture has married for about a half hour, place it in the bottom of a rectangular glass baking dish. Salt and pepper fish where they are, then flip them upside down onto the salsa. Salt and pepper them again.
-Place in the oven for about 16 minutes, checking occasionally after about 12 minutes.
While the salsa is sitting, you can get your ingredients ready for the chard and cous cous so everything is ready to go. Timing is always one of my biggest hurdles!
Recipe for Rainbow Chard and Israeli Cous Cous
For best timing, set liquid for cous cous to boil a couple minutes before putting fish in the oven. And start cooking chard while the fish cooks.
- 1 1/4 cup (or less by just a tad) boiling water or chicken stock
- 1 cup Israeli cous cous (it’s the larger-sized cous cous – more substantive, that’s why we like it)
- 1 small swig EVOO
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 bunch of rainbow Swiss chard, washed and patted dry, roughly chopped
- a touch of chicken stock
- salt and pepper
-Add cous cous to boiling water in a small pot. Cover. Let sit until the rest of the meal is complete.
-Add EVOO to a medium sauce pan and turn on heat to medium. Let that heat up a bit. Add garlic – it should sizzle a tad – and give it a good shake or two. Let that saute until fragrant – less than a minute.
-Add chard. Sprinkle in a dash of salt and pepper. Toss it around in the garlic and oil with tongs. It will wilt a bit right then. Add a glug of chicken stock so the chard has something to steam in. Cover. Let cook 5 minutes or until leaves are tender and stalks still have a tiny bit of crunch. If leaves are black-black, you’ve gone too far!
The whole meal came together pretty much at the same time. Yay!
This is where I learned two lessons. The chard was divided between the two plates, and the fish was placed on top. Next, each plate received a big scoop of cous cous, and that was topped with some of the roasted salsa from the baking dish.
Here’s where that might have been improved.
1) I couldn’t access my chard easily. Remember, the fish still had its skin and was filled with lemon. There was a lot of manual labor to be done on that fish, and placing the fish to the side of the chard would have been better. Had that fish been a skinless single fillet of something else, I think it would have been okay.
2) The roasted salsa was juicy – flavorful, but juicy. I’m not a big fan of juice running all over my plate. Use a slotted spoon!
Overall, a delicious meal. And today I have fish heads and tails in the freezer for a future batch of fish stock – even better.