zoethe: (Peppahs)
It was inevitable, but today was the day: I realized that I need two cast iron dutch ovens. I have a pot roast simmering in my dutch oven, and I also want to bake a loaf of bread.

The thing is, I have large, heavy, stainless steel stock pots, but they simply don't serve the same function as the cast iron. The heaviness of the stainless steel doesn't come close to the slow, even heat that cast iron provides.

I grew up cooking in cast iron, until Mom got some no-stick pans. We used them for a little while, but quickly found ourselves back to using the good old cast iron pans. Food cooked more evenly, and just tasted better. When I got married, one of the first things I bought was a cast iron pan. I cooked in that pan, and the others I bought to go with it, for most of my first marriage.

When we left Alaska, I made a bad mistake. I traded the weight of my cast iron for the relatively light stainless. And for a long time I lived without cast iron. But I missed my cast iron. Then I read about the high quality bread that a dutch oven produces.

I'd say it was the thin edge of the wedge, but there's nothing thin about that dutch oven. It weights 17 pounds. Still, I have added a 15" skillet (a MONSTER - it's fabulous!), a deep 10" skillet (a lovely gift from dear friends) and a little 8-incher. I still want a 12" skillet, and of course a second dutch oven.

At this point, my regular stainless steel sees very little use, except for my really nice All-Clad 12" skillet, which I use when I'm cooking eggs. My storage for my cast iron is inconveniently placed and I have to heft it about quite a bit. For me, it's worth it.

As for today, I switched bread plans to a flatter, ciabatta-style bread. And started daydreaming about more cast iron.
zoethe: (Default)
The 5-year-old who lives in my head: WAAAAH! You didn't feed me ALL DAY!!! I'm starving!!

Me: I'm sorry. This day didn't go anything like it was supposed to. Let's make dinner now.

5yo: WAAAAH!!!! I'm too hungry for cooking!! Let's eat the leftover Girl Scout cookies!

Me: You know that isn't going to happen. Let's see what we have in the fridge.

5yo:There's heavy cream, and butter, and a great Amish raw milk cheese. Let's make cheese sauce!

Me: And put it over...what?

5yo: What do you mean?

Me: It's sauce. It has to go over something.

5yo: I'm not getting you.

Me: Are you suggesting that we just eat cheese sauce all by itself out of the pot?!

5yo:Oh my god, if you're gonna be that way about it, just make it thinner and call it soup!

Me: ...

5yo: Oh, fine! What's your idea?

Me: We have all these wonderful greens that we got at the market the other day....

5yo: Salad?! You can't be serious! I'm hungry!!!

Me: Well, I can saute up some onions and red bell peppers and mushrooms.

5yo: MEAT!!!

Me: Okay, and some grilled steak sliced thin. Oh, and I have some avocado.

5yo: A WHOLE red pepper! A WHOLE avocado!!

Me: That's a lot of--

5yo: Whole! Whole whole WHOLE!!!!

And that is why I am currently eating a salad the size of my head. It's actually very tasty, and the 5-year-old is quieting down.

And it's certainly healthier than a pot of cheese sauce.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
We had a lovely party for New Year's Eve. I made absolutely nothing for the party, save for veggie and cheese trays, because I was stricken with a beastly headache during the day. All the cooking and baking plans got cast aside, and instead I got to be grateful simply that it let up so that I could be at my own party.

At the end of the party, there were lots of left over veggies from the two veggie trays. Now, there's a limited shelf life on a bunch of mixed veggies, and unless you're going to just keep eating veggies and dip, you've got to do something with them. We haven't managed to do any grocery shopping, meaning that it was "what's in the cupboard?" time. The answer was that there were some chicken breasts in the freezer. After digging through the cabinets to see what I could devise, I asked Ferrett what sounded better to him: a chicken dish with coconut rice or one featuring polenta. He thought that broccoli would go better with polenta.

I decided to experiment a little, and cooked the polenta in the rice cooker. It worked remarkably well, and made polenta cooking completely simple. Highly recommended.

The chicken breasts were bone-in breasts, so I seasoned them with salt, pepper, and some garlic powder, and sauteed them skin-side down in olive oil until the skins were nicely browned. While they were cooking, I julienned an onion and sorted out the vegetables from the veggie tray, separating out the carrots and bell peppers from the broccoli and cauliflower. (The bell peppers were completely separated to cook completely separately because Ferrett can't stand the taste of them at all and I love them.) Once the breasts were browned, I put them in a baking pan and into the over and 375. I then sauteed the onions and carrots until the onions were browned, then removed them from the pan and added the broccoli and cauliflower for a very brief sauteing. (If I was doing it again, I would add the cauliflower at the same time as the onions and carrots, as they could have used a little more cooking time.) Once those were done, I removed them and cooked four strips of bacon - which I would have done very first for the bacon fat instead of using olive oil, but I was making this up as I went along.

I stirred about half a cup of fresh grated Parmesan into the polenta, then stirred in the bacon, chopped. I took the baking pan out of the oven, removed the chicken breasts and spooned the polenta into the dish, then nestled the chicken breasts back onto of the polenta and dished the onions and carrots over the chicken breasts - and put the peppers on one end of the dish, so that Ferrett wouldn't have to eat them - and put the pan back in the oven. I cooked it for 15 more minutes, then added the broccoli and cooked it about 10 more minutes:

The results were delicious!

In addition, I tossed some fresh pineapple chunks with vanilla infused balsamic vinegar, which was a delicious little inspiration.

I'm trying to get more fresh fruits and veggies into our daily menu, so it was great to have just a good start in the leftover veggie tray. And there is definitely enough left over for dinner tomorrow.
zoethe: (Peppahs)
We are spending the holidays with my mother-in-law, who is probably the most awesome mother-in-law anyone ever had. We got here on Wednesday evening, and yesterday went shopping for the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feasts that we will be cooking here.

I've offered to bake bread and rolls, and to help with the cooking, so I brought recipes with me, and between her grocery list and my additions, our list was three pages long. And of course as you walk through the store you find all those things you forgot to include on the list. By the time we made the final turn toward the checkout stands, our cart looked like the Grinch's sleigh just before he took it up Mt. Crumpet to dump it.

And we still had to go out to dinner last night.

Cooking in someone else's kitchen is always a bit of a challenge. It helps that my mother-in-law has a wonderful kitchen, and that she is very flexible and laid back about others taking it over. I don't know that I could manage to be that casual about sharing my kitchen.

But there are definitely those moments when getting ready to cook in someone else's kitchen makes one feel like a bit of a douche. Including making the grocery list and determining if there are compatible items in the kitchen. Like flour. She has flour. It's not the right flour. She doesn't really need more flour, but we are buying flour anyway because I will insist on using King Arthur Flour.

Or the sugar cookies. She wanted to buy premade dough. Premade dough is nasty. I don't want to make sugar cookies with premade dough.

Hey, there's going to be lots of extra flour. I can volunteer to make the sugar cookie dough!

Triumphant in that, I let the purchase of premade frosting, and Ferrett's glee over some terrifying-looking decorating gel, go. And the purchase of some Uncle Ben's microwaveable rice mix as a side for Christmas Eve dinner as well.

Roasted fresh brussel sprouts and carrots will be side-buy-side with canned sweet corn. I won the "no frozen broccoli" battle, so letting the corn go seemed the right thing to do.

Gracious living isn't impossible when visiting others, but it does require flexibility and a sense of humor. I will keep my wincing at the jello creation to a minimum, and focus on the sharing of love of family and friends.
zoethe: (Cheers)
I just read a blog entry discussing the author's plan for Christmas dinner. Her family traditionally makes prime rib and rich side dishes for that special meal, but because she has lost weight and doesn't want to regain, she is bringing her own food instead of partaking in the family meal. She expects resistance, and is dreading the ordeal.

She then goes on to describe a meal that would be considered deprivation by any standards: steamed turkey breast (!) steamed vegetables, and half an apple with cinnamon and 6 raisins for dessert. Her planned Christmas dinner has fewer than 400 calories.

And sounds like bad hospital food.

Now, I have more than a few pounds of extra padding. I have struggled with weight my entire life, and weight has pretty much won the battle. But I really wanted to respond that I'd rather be fat than to have to eat like that.

Food is more than just fuel for our bodies. It's an integral part of our social structure, and sharing meals is a bonding experience that carries tradition into our times together and memories out of those times. A good meal, particularly a festive meal shared with family or friends (or both), feeds more than just our stomachs: it is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the sense of smell, tactile, and even pleasing to the sense of hearing as conversation and laughter fill the room. A shared meal should fulfill all five senses.

We have gotten out of the habit of lingering at table, and food tends to be bolted down in front of the TV or the computer--I'm just as guilty as anyone else about this most of the time. It's partially because of this that the disconnect between fueling our systems and the true nourishment of dining has occurred. Even though dining out used to be considered a lingering experience, some fine restaurants are now making reservations for three separate seatings per table per evening, because they know that they can hustle diners in and out without the customers feeling rushed; they are so used to eating on a fast food schedule now that they don't even notice. Much of the time, they barely notice what they are eating.

There is some pushback going on in response to this speed-eating insanity. Restaurants like San Francisco's Saison are decreasing the number of tables and taking reservations for only one seating in an evening, with the expectation that diners will linger, talking and eating small portions of numerous courses over several hours. It's the kind of dining experience that was once common, and now is a sort of novelty.

How sad for us all. Where we used to spend time with family and friends, we now rush off to watch TV or play on the internet. Where we used to make memories of shared times - some good, some bad, some funny, some tragic - we zap something in the microwave and stuff forgettable food into our mouths. And wonder why we feel unfulfilled.

The holidays are often all we have left of those shared traditions. A group of people coming together to prepare and share a meal has a certain sacred, ritual nature to it. That nature doesn't belong to any one faith or creed; it doesn't depend on believing in anything - except the value of each other as human beings.

Yeah, lots of us suffer from difficult relationships with our families. Yeah, there can be division of labor issues with who does the cooking and cleaning up. But these issues don't detract from the bedrock nature of sharing both food and ourselves. Nurture is not just about providing the proper number of kcals and nutrients to ensure our internal combustion engines run at optimal efficiency. It's about feeding our minds and our souls as well, if not with the family of your birth, then with the family of your choosing: friends and loved ones.

And I come back to the idea of that blogger surrounded by lovingly-made food, eating her plain, white dinner while regarding the dishes around her as a sort of enemy, rejecting the love and caring that went into them in favor of food she's prepared only for herself, and brought only for her own benefit. Will she feel smug and superior as she eats her spartan meal? Will she feel resentment? Will her family look at her plate with ridicule, guilt, hurt feelings that she has rejected their traditions in favor of something so meager? What will or won't be said because of her choices? What opportunities will be lost?

I'm not saying that the notions of healthy eating should be tossed to the winds and people should stuff themselves sick just because it's Christmas. But imagine that instead of setting herself apart from family ritual, she'd brought a big green salad and some roasted brussel sprouts to share? That instead of turning her nose up at the prime rib, she'd asked to a sliver of a slice? That instead of closing herself inward to the food-is-fuel mentality, she'd embraced the idea of dining-is-sharing? For her, Christmas dinner is an ordeal to be overcome, instead of a communion of family. And it doesn't have to be.
zoethe: (Default)
This has not been the best of days. It's two days before Thanksgiving, and I took the car in this morning for what was supposed to be a simple alignment. Turns out that instead we have a litany of repairs that add up to...well, our Christmas present will be a working car! We can put a bow on it and everything!

Additionally, we aren't going to get it back until tomorrow afternoon. They hope. This is really bad, because not only haven't we done our Thanksgiving dinner grocery shopping, we have guests for dinner tonight and tomorrow night, meals for which I was going to go shopping this afternoon.

This is even more bad because we're a little on the "Old Mother Hubbard" side in the kitchen this week. Ferrett was out of town with the car over the weekend, and no shopping got done before he left because I was immersed in work stuff. What we had left for protein was three chicken breasts and some frozen ground turkey.

If things go drastically wrong, tomorrow night's guests will get meatloaf, but looking through the cupboard I decided I could make Thai curry for tonight's.

Now, this is a known favorite of mine, but has to be adapted when Ferrett is around since he doesn't eat peppers. He doesn't really care for water chestnuts, either, but I decided that he would just have to live with those. I had some sweet potatoes, which I julienned, and onions, and some fresh basil. Once I stirred it all together with the curry paste, the coconut milk, and the fish sauce, it was...okay. The sweet potato made it sweeter than usual, so it had to be adjusted for a little more heat, but everything else was individually all right. But I wasn't happy. My tongue was not excited.

The flavor wasn't bad, it was just kind of...flat. I stood over the pot, stirring and frowning. It didn't need more salt, and black pepper is not the right flavor profile for this dish. What was it missing?

Well, it was missing the bell peppers, but that taste was out of the question. I thought to myself, besides their our flavor, though, what do bell peppers bring to this dish?

Then I realized: acidity! I reached in the fridge for lime, and squeezed a couple teaspoons of juice into the pot. (None of this "try in a spoon and see if it works" business; I commit!) Sure enough, that brightened the flavor right up and made the whole dish "pop."

It's a lesson I need to remember: sometimes what's needed is to increase the umami profile of a dish, not just to pursue more of what's already there. The proper balance of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty really does make a difference, and it's too easy to fall back on just salting something more instead of actually paying attention to what's happening on my tongue. I need to keep working on that.

But hopefully not by making meatloaf tomorrow.


Mar. 6th, 2010 11:55 am
zoethe: (AGA)
Ferrett and I, having both read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, agree that there are some healthy, positive changes that we can make to our eating habits. So you are likely to be reading more about food in this journal that usual.

One of the things that I have to remind myself continually is that good food does not necessarily have to be time-consuming. Last night was a case-in-point. I came through the door at about 6, absolutely famished. Ferrett was just then starting potatoes boiling. I pulled out the two tuna steaks that I had put out to thaw earlier and made a quick marinade of soy sauce, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a but of red wine vinegar, and a little bit of olive oil. I literally just poured these ingredients over the tuna, then turned the tuna steaks a few times in the half-cup or less of marinade that it made. I started the broiler heating, and when it was nice and hot I took a bunch of asparagus, cut off the stem ends, spread the spears on a cookie sheet, drizzled a bit of olive oil over then, and put them under the broiler for five minutes. After five minutes, I pulled the boiler pan out, pushed the asparagus to both ends of the pan, and slide the tuna steaks onto the same cookie sheet. Back under the broiler for 4 minutes, and the tuna was done - no need to turn because there was enough heat in the cookie sheet to cook both sides. In the meantime, Ferrett mashed the potatoes with a little butter, sour cream, and prepared horseradish - highly yummy. A healthy dinner was ready in just over half an hour, and kitchen cleanup consisted of a bowl, a cookie sheet, one pot, and the spatula and mixer beaters.

Pollan's philosophy is simple: "Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not too Much."
zoethe: (Fantastic)
My former mother-in-law was (and remains) a lovely woman, but she was incapable of making a meal without destroying the kitchen. Even heating up leftovers meant that pretty much every pot and pan in the cupboards ended up on the counters, soiled. Gripped by a false sense of economy, she would continually start with too small a pot and have to size up, sometimes twice. She had no skill for cleaning up as she went, and no patience for anyone else trying to do so around her. When we were visiting there, meals were always for a minimum of 6 and frequently for 12 or more, so if you were assigned chopping or stirring or some other chore, you were expected to stay with it until assigned something else. The way she cooked left no room for being at the sink washing up. And then it was time to sit down and eat. At the end of the meal, there were not only a dishwasher-full of plates, glasses, and flatware, there were piles of mixing bowls, cooking utensils, and cookware with dried-on (and sometimes burned-on) food. It was reminiscent of comic depictions of soldiers on KP duty. Quite disheartening and far more time-consuming than was necessary.

When I cook, I am a firm believer in cleaning up after myself. At the end of the meal, there should only be the dishes, serving dishes and the last cooking vessels (preferably already soaking in the sink, but hot fresh food is a higher priority).

Last night I think I rather outdid myself.

I'd picked up a lovely Alaskan salmon fillet (coho) for myself and my dinner guest, [livejournal.com profile] transfiguration. It was a thin fillet, so I knew its cooking time would be minimal. I laid it skin-side down on the broiling pan and brushed it lightly with olive oil and soy sauce, then let it rest. In the meantime, I peeled and sliced an onion into thin slices, and placed them, with a little butter, into my one cast iron pan and let them slowly saute until nicely soft and carmelized. I arranged these down each side of the fillet, deglazed the pan with some port wine, and tossed in about 2 cups of mushrooms, halved. After then had absorbed the port, they got another half tablespoon of butter and were cooked until just soft. These I also arranged down either side of the fillet. Then into the pan went some butter and garlic, which I brushed onto several pieces of bread. I placed them on the outer edge of the tray and everything went under the preheated broiler for 7 minutes. The bread came out a little too dark, but still very tasty, and everything else was perfect.

I served it all with a salad made from mixed baby greens, blueberries, sliced fresh peaches, and candied ginger, all with a mild vinaigrette. Which was also a delicious mixture of flavors. M brought a perfect bottle of white wine, and dinner was complete.

In the end, I had the broiling pan, the salad bowl, and the dishes to clean up. The cutting board and knives had of course already been washed and put away, the cast iron pan only required wiping out with a paper towel,and the counters were wiped down. Doing the dishes after dinner was a job of five minutes, since even the broiler could go in the dishwasher.

No, it wasn't dinner for 12, but the principle is the same. I've done dinner for 12, and the biggest trick is running a load of pots and pans in the dishwasher while eating, so that unloading it then loading the dinner dishes is all that's really required.

It would be easier with house elves, but only a little.


zoethe: (Default)

September 2012

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