Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bums No Longer

As my lovely coauthor has mentioned, our culinary experimentation has been aided by a surplus of free time. Lately, however, our free time has reduced dramatically. What happens now? Do we surrender to bad takeout and Pop Tarts? Never!

To begin with, breakfast is still steal cut oats every day. We didn't have much choice: that stuff is addictive. It's also easy to prepare, even if you've just stumbled out of bed. The key, my friends, is a double boiler. Behold.

Our double boiler is nothing more than a fairly wide saucepan with a stainless steel bowl ($1.50 at a restaurant supply store) topped with the saucepan lid. This nifty little setup heats the oatmeal--or any other grain you'd like to cook-- with steam, which means that the heat stays constant and the oatmeal never boils over. A very occasional stir is all the tending it requires. The trick is to bring a good amount of water up to a boil in the saucepan first, then pour as much as you need into the bowl with the oats, and set the whole thing over the remaining hot water (now reduced to a simmer). For two servings you'll need 3 ounces of oatmeal and 12 ounces of water, along with a healthy pinch of salt. The exact degree of doneness you prefer in oatmeal is a deeply personal manner, but in general the kernels should have opened up and the surrounding liquid should be viscous, which takes around 45 minutes. In the meantime you can hop in the shower, have a cup of coffee, whatever.

That's breakfast. For lunches and dinners, my new favorite strategy is preparing elements which can be used in a number of ways. Last weekend, for example, we made a mixture of ricotta, goat cheese, parmesan, and raw garlic to fill cheese ravioli. The extra cheese mixture topped a pizza bianca one night and became a sauce for some white bean ravioli another night. Now, we also make double batches of pizza dough and store them in the freezer. This dough, in addition to making amazing pizzas, is a fantastic flatbread for lunch and can even be made into a small bread loaf for sandwiches. Those flatbreads are perfect with some homemade hummus or white bean spread. The white bean spread can also be a filling in ravioli. And so on. . . As you can see, a little forethought can turn seemingly complex meals into a simple matter of assembling a few things you already have on hand.

Even if you're only cooking for one or two people, don't be afraid of big batches. Fresh pasta can be frozen. Extra rice can be turned into the best fried rice you've ever had. When you break into a new package of tofu, slice and bake all of it. A glaze can be added later if you want, and baked tofu is great in soups, on sandwiches, or tossed with fried rice. Leftovers need not be sad and unwanted. They can be repurposed and transformed; they can also save you a whole lot of time.

One final note: lentils. In addition to being outrageously healthy, they can be prepared very quickly and flavored in a number of ways. If you are a lentil beginner and they freak you out, try the lentil pancake recipe below. I'm pretty sure no one can dislike them, and they take about 10 minutes of effort.

Of course, we're still learning how to merge a busy schedule and good cooking. There as many discoveries yet to be made. Stay tuned.

Rustic Flatbreads

So I've been going through a bit of a bread crisis of late. I have long maintained that there is but one true bread, and it is a French concoction of water, flour, salt, and yeast, and nothing else. You could add milk for waffle batter, or oil for pizza dough, but actual bread was something whose purity was unchallenged. Well, after some experimentation this past week, I've altered my priorities enough that I'm skeptical about the French. Their bread is fantastic, it's true, but it's immensely finicky, and the end result, well, has to be baked and eaten almost immediately, which is not always entirely practical. A good olive oil pizza dough tastes wonderful, freezes perfectly for later use, and can be used for a huge variety of breads, in addition to delicious pizza. And I've discovered an awesome new sweet dough recipe which is pretty flexible, and may or may not freeze equally well (results pending this week).

This article isn't about any of those doughs, though, I just wanted to share a little. This article is about rustic flatbreads (or "crackers," if you aren't trying to overcharge posh people for them, but I make that my psychological goal whenever I cook). The dough is unrisen, which means it's easy and quick to make, and it's very, very easy to flavor, and the texture beats anything you could dream of affording in the store. Plus, the total cost of ingredients is something like 30 cents, so you can experiment without feeling guilty.

Take a cup of flour (or 4.5 ounces on the scale), and add a healthy pinch or two of salt. Add 1.5 ounces (fluid or dry weight) of water, and couple of tablespoons (around 2/3 an ounce by weight) of olive oil. Now combine them. This is the nastiest, messiest part of bringing any dough together. I find it's best to take a spatula head (no handle), and scoop along the bottom of the bowl, lifting the whole mess gently so the liquid and flour remaining redistribute. It's the same motion you use for folding things in. Lift out the center and plop it down on one of the sides, spin the bowl to make sure you're doing it evenly, and soon enough, the flour will stop puffing all over the place and you hands will have all kinds of gross sticky bits on them. Oh, and your dough will have sort of come together.

This dough's pretty dry, but you still want it to get pliable, so keep a little dish of water out while you knead in case you want to add a bit. Knead it in standard fashion, smushing it along the table with the heel of your hand, then folding it back and smushing the other direction (90° turn). If you feel the dough splitting instead of stretching, wet your fingertips and brush them onto your dough, then continue kneading. It takes very little water to alter the texture of so little dough, so be very slow and patient with it. Keep kneading until you have a smooth and slightly elastic ball, about two minutes of good kneading.

Now let the dough rest. When you work with any dough, you're stretching gluten, or protein strands, and they don't much like stretching. Sometimes, you have to let them sit so they relax, and then you can work with the dough some more. You're going to roll these pretty flat, so you'll have to let them relax once or twice. Anyways, start your oven heating to 400 (°F) and go do something else for a bit.

Okay, so you're back. Flour your work surface and both sides of your dough, as evenly as you can, but don't worry too much about it. Flour a baking sheet too. Now stretch your dough with your hands into a roughly rectangular shape. Swear, but accept it, when it comes out a triangle every damn time. Lay it flat on the table, and apply a rolling pin smoothly, but with some force so it stretches. If the dough starts to stick to the pin, flip the dough over and attack the other side. If the dough ever sticks to the table, peel it up with a scraper of some kind and add more flour. Keep rolling until it's about the shape you want, and small enough to fit in your baking sheet. If it won't stretch out any more, let it rest for a few minutes and keep going.

Okay, now take any flavorings you want, and scatter them over the top of the dough. If it's something bulky like minced garlic or cracked pepper, run the rolling pin gently over it once so they get embedded in your flatbreads. If it's something finer, like grated parmesan, just press it gently in with your hands. Now, lift the dough onto the baking sheet; don't worry about manhandling, it's plenty sturdy. Take a sharp paring knife and gently cut the dough into your eventual cracker shapes. Don't go all the way through the dough; you just need to add a crease or perforation so you have some lines to crack them along later. Thin strips are good for fetching dips from the bottoms of bowls, and rhomboids have a certain nerdy appeal, but squares work just fine too. Once that's done, and your oven's at temp, sprinkle a couple good pinches of salt over the top of the whole thing, and slide them into the oven.

Check after about 5 minutes to see if they're browning evenly. If not, pull them out and turn the pan around. They take 10-15 minutes to cook completely. If you pull them out before they're well-browned, you'll have soft, pillowy flatbreads with a pleasant floury taste, but you'll have to eat them immediately (they won't keep safely). If you wait until they're well-browned, you can just toss the extras into a tupperware or something and keep them around for later. Plus, you'll get a better texture with lots of crackle, and it'll support more hummus, salsa, or whatever it is you kids do these days.

For anyone wondering, I will eventually post about classic French bread, but it's several bread posts away; first, we have pizza, foccacia, pita, and sandwich loaves to get through.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Something We Made A While Ago

So I haven't told you how to make pizza dough yet, but this picture was on the camera, and I couldn't resist posting about it.

So take an onion and roughly julienne it. The goal is a bunch of longish, wide-ish strips, if you don't know how to julienne an onion. Now to caramelize: heat up a pan over low heat on the stove. When the pan is warm (hold it near your face and gently blow to check), add the onions dry. You want to extract the water from the onions now, so that the sugars can reach caramelizing temperatures later. Add a decent pinch of salt to speed this portion up, and cover the pan. Stir fairly frequently, but not constantly; the onions will release enough moisture that they won't really stick.

Once you start to see some browning on the onions, it's time to uncover them and add some fat, so they cook more evenly. A little bit of olive oil works just fine, though you can use other oils or clarified butter. Solid butter won't quite do the trick; the milk solids will burn before the onion sugars caramelize, so use a liquid fat for this recipe at least. Continue to stir until they are an appropriate shade of brown; I like them to be quite soft, but retaining their individual shape. Remove the onions to some kind of container and let them cool.

Now, roll out your pizza dough (which you've acquired through means other than this blog, since I haven't told you how to make any yet) and set your oven to 550, or as high as it will go if it can't reach that. When the onions are cool enough to handle with your bare hands, add a few solid dashes of balsamic vinegar. You don't want the onions dripping in it, you just want enough to coat. Now, when the oven is hot enough, rub some olive oil over your pizza dough, add a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper, and set it in the oven for five minutes, preferably on a tray to make it a bit easier to handle.

After five minutes, you should see just a touch of brown around the edges. Pull the pizza out, and working quickly, spread the caramelized onions over the pizza, leaving just a tiny crust. Remove the pizza from the pan and toss it back into the oven, directly on the rack (it should be firmed up by now.) Let it go for another five minutes, or until it's golden brown all around. Remove it from the oven and immediately grate some nice Parmesan over the whole thing.

Now let the pizza cool, slice it into wedges (don't use a pizza slicer, it will butcher your crust and your onions,) and enjoy.

Your New Convenience Food

One of the big adjustments you have to make when you start spending less on groceries is the lack of prepared foods. However, there is an inexpensive staple that's even easier to make than frozen pizza: couscous. It can be flavored in almost any way you can think of, and it takes slightly more time than boiling water. Here's the basic procedure:

Put the dry couscous in a lidded container (a single serving is around 1/4 of a cup) with a dash of butter or oil. Pour in an equal amount of boiling water, cover, and let sit for 5 minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork, and it's ready to eat.

Sounds easy, right? It also sounds unbelievably boring. That's why you throw whatever seasonings strike your fancy over the dry couscous. Garlic-- either raw or sauteed in a bit of olive oil-- is a classic. For breakfast, try a little cinnamon and sugar. If you're feeling energetic, you can even replace some of the water with hot milk. Saffron and pea couscous is a great when you're having dal (Indian lentils) but don't want to deal with rice; add a pinch of saffron threads and a handful of frozen peas before pouring on the hot water. The possibilities are endless. Once, I flavored couscous with a spicy Asian glaze left over from cooking tofu, and it was amazingly delicious. Feel free to experiment with spices, nuts, cheeses, fruits, vegetables. . . anything. It's a fast, simple way to play around with different flavor combinations. If you, like me, are usually afraid of improvising in the kitchen, couscous is the perfect place to start.

I hope this has inspired you to go down to your friendly neighborhood bulk section and pick up some couscous today. It's easy, cheap, and anything but boring.

Crazy Good Onion Chutney

So, this chutney is meant to go with the lentil pancakes listed below, but I've found myself munching it all by itself sometimes, it's so tasty.

Roughly dice half a yellow onion. Toss it into a tupperware, or anything with a lid so you can shake the liquid contents you're about to add. Add a good bit of red wine vinegar, not quite to cover, but not much less. Toss in a couple big pinches of paprika, a couple big pinches of salt, and a big pinch of black pepper. Shake this mix up thoroughly and let it sit out for an hour.

Good. Now add about 3 generous pinches of garam masala, and a pinch or two of minced chile or red pepper flakes. Shake thoroughly again.

And hey, that was the whole recipe. It has a slightly warm flavor from the cardamom, and plenty of sting from the raw onion, and it will really help brighten up vegetarian dishes, which especially in wintertime can fall a little flat. It holds in the fridge for at least a week, if not forever (it's really acidic, after all,) and if it gets too thin after you scoop some out, you can steal a little onion from another recipe to soak up the rest of the vinegar. This stuff isn't too spicy, but it has plenty of sharpness, so it makes a nice middle ground if you have to serve people who don't "do" spicy food.

Lentil Pancakes

For those keeping score, these are not, in fact, crackers.

Lentils are part of the legume family, along with beans and peanuts. The whole family has a large amount of both dietary fiber and vegetarian protein, so they're kind of essential to a healthy diet. The problem is, lentils are also really weird the first time you eat them. They're just a little too small to have the right mouthfeel, the texture is strange, and they also demand some very close attention when cooking, or they convert immediately into mush.

These pancakes, though, make a nice, easy introduction for the reluctant vegetarians in your life. The texture is a little firmer than a normal pancake, but the flavor is spicy and almost slightly meaty, like a super-high-quality breakfast sausage if you serve it with the chutney in the next recipe. They're also really easy to prep and cook, and require very little skill in the kitchen, in case you are your own reluctant vegetarian and have no cook to hold your hand in this brave new world.

To begin, find your way to the local health food store (or Whole Foods) and look for dried red lentils. They're actually a pinkish-orange color, and they're the best place to start, because they're the most delicately-flavored lentils and they intentionally fall apart while cooking, so they're more forgiving to work with. Get yourself a nice big bag of them, since they're dirt cheap, and ignore the weirdo stares of the people around you in the store (who the hell actually buys lentils, anyway?)

Now, take about a half-cup (or 3.5 dry ounces by weight, if you really like using your new baking scale) of the lentils and put them in a bowl, then cover with cold water by about a half-inch and let them soak for at least an hour. You can also leave them all day in the fridge, if you won't have time for prep that night and have to rush off to work. Whatever, just get them soaking.

Good, they're soaked. Now, using whatever means you like, (your hand is fine) drain most of the water off the lentils. Toss them into the blender, (or a tall container, if you use an immersion blender) and give them a bit of a whirl until you have a thin batter consistency. Add water to thin it as necessary; you do want it to be fairly smooth, but it's not essential that it be perfect. Decant this into a mixing bowl. Grate about 2/3 of a large carrot into the batter, and consume the rest while saying "What's up, Doc?" and ignoring your girlfriend's glares. Add about 2 cloves of minced garlic, a good sprinkle of ginger powder, some garam masala...

What's that? What's garam masala, you say? It's just about the most fundamental spice blend in the world. Take about equal parts black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cumin, and about 2 parts cardamom. Shake them together, and bam, garam masala. It roughly means "warm spice," because that's the sensation it delivers. It makes anything you cook feel much more filling, and helps a lot with cold days. Plus, it's the only way you will ever really get that Indian flavor in your cooking; cardamom in particular is just that essential to the cuisine.

Anyways... some ginger powder, about a tablespoon of garam masala, a couple big pinches of salt, a few red chile flakes (or minced chiles, if you have a good supplier,) and an egg. Mix it all together, and it will look exactly like pancake batter, but orange, and with grated carrot in it. I'm pretty sure it can hold in the fridge for a day or two at this point, but these are delicious, and so I've never had any left over.

Heat your pan over high-medium heat. A nonstick pan works just fine, but aluminum or steel will also work; make sure that if your pan isn't nonstick, you get the pan hot before you add fat, or these will stick like mad. Add clarified butter to coat the bottom of the pan, or just a good slice of regular butter if you haven't thought that far ahead. After coating the bottom of the pan, add some batter to the pan; you can move it around a little with a spatula to help it spread, but you can really do whatever diameter of pancake you like here. After around four minutes, check to see if the bottom is lightly browned; it should release freely from the pan. Flip when ready, and lower the heat ever-so-slightly for the second side. Once it also is lightly browned, slide it out of the pan and serve.

These are best with a little yogurt or chutney over the top; the cold contrasts nicely with the hot pancake, and the liquid adds an extra dimension to the mouthfeel that makes these a uniquely satisfying dinner option, especially for an ex-carnivore.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Miscellaneous Delay

For anyone saying "But Tore, you said you'd post about bread! Where are the posts about bread?", two things:

1) You can't start a sentence with "but."

2) My partner in crime and co-author has been out of town for a couple of days, and there's no way I'm going to touch her camera while trying to work with dough. I value my life too highly. She's back now, though, so we should have a couple more posts up soon.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Flour: The Ultimate Staple

So I was typing up a post about bread, but it ended up being like four pages and I wasn't done yet, so I'm addressing it in parts instead.

Flour is the most useful and versatile pantry staple there is. It's cheap, it stores forever, and it is a crucial player in bit parts and starring roles across a wide range of recipes. While a number of ills (social, environmental, and otherwise) have been laid at flour's feet in recent years, and its price is rapidly adjusting upwards, there is nothing that can replace it, especially in its highest calling: bread.

While there are a wide range of things that fall under the name "bread," the two most versatile and cheap are rustic flatbreads (or "crackers") and the classic pain ordinaire that makes everyone who isn't French wish they were. The two chief components of either one are flour and water, which aren't interesting simply mixed together and eaten (feel free to trust me on that one.) Obviously, then, it must be pure technique that gives bread its magnificence.

The first part of technique is ingredient selection. To make bread, it seems obvious that you want bread flour. It is an important distinction to make, though. High-protein wheat is essential to the taste, texture, and nutrition of the final product. I use King Arthur bread flour, which is slightly more expensive than the alternative supermarket generic, but more than makes up for it in versatility. Plus, the company has strong ethical and environmental credentials, so hippies can't yell at you (as much.) Also, since it's high-gluten, it absorbs much more water, so the bread can be far lighter and crustier, while the carbohydrates also fully dissolve, so your bread won't taste like flour pudding.

Salt is the second essential component of all breads. Flour itself, no matter how you treat it, won't have strong flavor, so a good salt will help accent it appropriately. Whenever I say salt on this blog, I mean sea salt. It doesn't have to be fancy flaky sea salt, or Hawaiian red, or French grey, just some kind of sea salt. Iodized and kosher salts are too purified; they fit the chemical requirement for salt, but they have a sterile flavor, and they lack trace minerals that are important for health. So do yourself a favor and grab a big box that says "sea salt" next time you're stocking up.

Yeast is only essential for risen breads, but it is absolutely essential for them. There are many kinds, with many different attributes, but I use active dry, because it's cheap and easy to work with, and can be just as flavorful as fresh (which is expensive, finicky, and difficult to find.) Modern yeast is a tricky thing; it has been engineered to produce carbon dioxide as quickly as possible. While it needs no patience, it also doesn't give the yeastie beasties a chance to develop the interesting byproducts that give real flavor (to bread, beer, or any other fermented product.) So controlling (fancy word for "slowing") the rise is the important part; as long as the brand provides reliably live yeast, the flavor difference will be negligible.

Lastly, a quick word on water. It's best to work with purified water for bread, for flavor and biology reasons. For one, you don't want weird chlorine or metallic smells messing up your beautiful loaves; but bad water can also prevent yeast from rising, or flour from absorbing enough. Something run through a tap filter is plenty clean; just make sure to purify it.

So, we've got flour, salt, and yeast in the pantry over there. Tomorrow, we'll address rustic flatbreads, which are incredibly easy, quick, and very versatile as dietary staples or party food. Then we move to pizza dough, where my New York blood will trump my Chicago locale in a thin-crust blowout. Real, risen bread, like this:

will follow shortly thereafter; it's tricky to master, but well worth the effort.

Friday, March 7, 2008

No money? No problem!

Like many people, I didn't have to think about preparing my own food until I moved away from home. Unsurprisingly, when I had to start cooking for myself every day, I was lost. I was trying my hardest, but my meals were repetitive and occasionally pathetic. Something had to change. I read some cookbooks, did some research, and things improved. I know that buying groceries and cooking in a way that makes the most of a little money can seem difficult. Eating on a budget is simple only if you're willing to subsist on ramen and saltines. If you want your meals to be fairly healthy and delicious, the challenges are compounded. However, I've learned a few basic guidelines:

(1) Buy ingredients, not meals.
Any student of Adam Smith will tell you that as the amount of work going into a product increases, so does its price. Buying less-processed foods also gives you more flexibility. If you buy chickpeas instead of hummus, you'll save money and have an ingredient with almost limitless possibilities.

(2) Your pantry is your friend.
When food goes bad, money is wasted. That's why pantry goods are so helpful. Dried lentils are incredibly cheap and last almost forever. Vinegar can add tons of flavor for very little money. Most of the year, canned tomatoes are better than fresh ones. I'd also argue that the freezer can be an extension of the pantry; especially during winter, good frozen vegetables are invaluable. Building up a pantry can be a little expensive, but once you have it you can throw together a meal even if you haven't been to the grocery store in awhile.

(3) Eat less meat.
Meat is expensive, and it tends to complicate cooking. In many places rarely using meat is the norm. The United States may not be one of those places, but if you're willing to explore other cuisines you'll find a wealth of satisfying vegetarian dishes. I promise.

(4) Buy foods that make sense together.
Here in the Nubbin, we rarely plan specific meals. However, as we're shopping we do try to have a sense of how we can use each ingredient. Do we have rice to eat with those black beans? Do we have garlic for pasta dishes? It's not difficult to think this way, and it becomes easier with every shopping trip.

(5) Some things are worth the expense.
Nothing can replace a block of good parmesan or a well-stocked spice rack. Sometimes you have to buy an expensive ingredient. The good news is that these items tend to last for awhile. Of course, the previous guideline still applies; it's best to buy cumin once you have some idea of how you'll use it.

I'm hardly an expert; I'm just someone with very little money who likes good food. But I see far too many people who are resigned to eating meals they barely taste. It doesn't take much money or effort to make food an enjoyable and, dare I say, fun part of every day.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Nubbin

I've always been a pretty good cook. My parents, although ex-hippies, were fairly cosmopolitan when it came to food. My suburban Front Range childhood convinced me that grilling meat was the essence of cuisine. Antisocial tendencies meant that summer restaurant jobs were in kitchens, which helped broaden my understanding a bit; it also gave me knife skills and an appropriate awe of the subtleties of the kitchen. Finally, a need to impress women in college (and an off-campus kitchen) led to some personal development, though my cooking was only really good in comparison to the cafeteria.

Six months ago, though, I moved to a small Lakeview apartment with my vegetarian girlfriend, a small savings account, and plans to apply to law school. Underemployment gave me a surplus of free time, and a fixed budget gave me a keen sense of cost. This narrowed my food options pretty significantly; healthy vegetarian diets seem hard enough to maintain, even without the tight budget and compulsive desire to exercise my cooking skills.

Most of the world's regional cuisine developed under similar conditions, it turns out. Really good artisanal food almost always occurs because the people making it didn't have anything else to distract them. Even French cuisine, which I'd always thought of as a bit over-wrought and decadent, focuses on simple ingredients; it's the technique that really elevates it.

So I decided to take a page from their book: limit myself to staples and focus on breadth of technique to get the best food I could from them. I try to study cuisines from a historical and agricultural perspective, since I figure that people who've worked with something for centuries probably know how to use it best. I glean generalities when I can, in a sort of "best practices" way, to expand my options even further. Mostly, though, I just dig through huge old books of recipes and cooking lore, try the things that sound interesting, and try to figure out what's actually going on that makes food taste really good. Then, presumably, I cook them, eat them, and pass them on to you.

P.S. The post is named after our sort-of neighborhood; no one really claims our little bit of it, so we named it ourselves after its undistinguished shape.