Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Food of Love

It's Valentine's Day!

I know there are probably a lot of you out there who, regardless of whether you're in love or not, scoff at the whole idea that one a particular day our love for each other must be expressed in a particular way. I get you. And I agree that we should express our love every day, and that the whole holiday is horrifically materialistic. Which doesn't mean that I didn't buy my husband heart-shaped candies or a card from the store. He bought me candy as well (and apparently has some second part of his gift for me when he gets home) but he bought it from our favorite local chocolate shop, Cowgirl Chocolates, and put it in a heart-shaped box I'd saved from a Valentine past (he thought I was crazy for saving it, and look how it turned out).

And, of course, I'm making dinner.

I had thousands of recipes to choose from when formulating this meal, to be sure. Books and books, plus the entire internet. I had to consider the hubby's favorite things, of course. Dessert came down to red velvet sandwich cookies or homemade chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches; the ice cream won the day. There will be wild rice with mushrooms and onions. I've opened a particularly nice bottle of wine we bought in Walla Walla, to let it breathe. Salad, so we'll feel at least a little healthy.

But what about the main course? So many dishes I've made in the past have wowed my husband. He's been longing for salmon lately. He loves chicken. Indian food. Lamb. But I didn't want to make anything that felt at all mundane; I wanted a particularly special dish. To me, this would mean something highly complex and difficult. It might have meant duck en croute a la Julia Child. But for my husband, I knew there was one dish that would be a most delightful treat.

I'm making Aussie Chicken.

What is Aussie Chicken, you might ask? It's chicken breasts, slathered in honey mustard, bacon, mushrooms, and cheese. It's a riff on something from Outback Steakhouse, I believe, and we haven't had it in years. Not since before I really learned to cook. It's delightfully simple and exploding with flavor (code: salt, sugar, and fat).

This is going to be a happy Valentine's Day.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Veggies in Disguise

Since I've begun to think about reproducing, I've had kid-friendly food on the brain. Yes, I realize that any child I might bear won't be eating anything more complicated than breast milk or strained peas for at least a year after he or she comes into the world, a date which is yet to be determined. I've also read that I can train my child's palate, to a certain degree, through my choices of food while pregnant and breast-feeding. Theoretically, if I eat a lot of veggies while the kid is developing, he or she will develop a taste for them. But even if my kids come out loving broccoli and curry and liver (though that would be an anomaly, since I still can't stand the stuff, but who knows what one will crave while gestating) there's still something fun about sneaking vegetables into dishes that are otherwise nutritionally lacking. If nothing else, it's a good way to get the hubby and myself to eat more veggies, and to save on calories in the process.

Last night, for example, I made macaroni (and cauliflower) and cheese. I would give you the recipe, but when I make a cheese sauce, I sort of eyeball it, and this would work with any mac and cheese recipe, though I believe I've seen a lot of these recipes around the web lately. I replaced about half of the pasta with cauliflower, which I dumped into the pasta water three minutes before the pasta was done, tossed it all in the sauce, and voila: a much healthier dinner. Because the hubby and I are adults and know we should eat our veggies, we ate it happily, but I did wonder if a child would be fooled. Everything in the dish was white (I used Swiss and Parmesan for the cheese sauce) but still, I could have picked out every single piece of cauliflower were I eight years old and picky.

When I was little, my brother and I had an aversion to chunks of vegetables. It was the texture more than the taste that repelled us, so my mother put the vegetables in the blender before mixing them into her meatloaf or what-have-you. I've probably mentioned this before because I think it's genius. It's also a technique that would work beautifully with mac and cheese. Steam the cauliflower, make the cheese sauce, and then puree it together. Instead of supplementing the pasta, the cauliflower would supplement the cheese. Calories cut, either way. I will be trying this next time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Siren Call: $2 Only

Over the years, I've developed a list of foods I really can't have in the house if I want to be at all healthy/avoid looking like a manatee. Of course, they're all cheap and easily accessible. Velveeta, for example, was banished many years ago--I could devour a whole brick in less than a week. Doritos, which at one point my iron stomach could take by the family-sized bagful. Sugar soda (I should probably bag diet, too, but I'm an addict). Donuts or packaged pastry of any kind. The cheaper and more mass-produced it is, the more it calls to my fat cells, begging me to buy it, rush home, eat it, hide the evidence, and ultimately confess to my husband what a pig I am. I do not do this with anything expensive because it would feel like a waste of money.

Which is where these tortilla chips come in.

There was a time when plain tortilla chips were safe, especially if we ran out of salsa. We don't usually keep nacho-friendly cheese in the house; our standards are usually Swiss for sandwiches, Mozzarella for flatbread pizza, and Parmesan for pretty much everything else. None of these are very good on a tortilla chip. Believe me. I've tried. But on top of plain chips requiring something extra to make them appeal, the good ones were mostly over three dollars a bag and the cheap ones tasted like cardboard. Maybe these taste like cardboard, too, to some people. But to me, they are much tastier than the other discount brands I've tried, and suddenly, they seem to be everywhere. Many places that pride themselves on low prices even trump the "$2 only" guarantee and sell them for a buck fifty. This makes them hard to resist.

Because they're cheap, I'm more willing to spring for cheese to go with them. And I've become much more resourceful in the kitchen in the past few years, and thus able to turn pantry-and-fridge items into suitable sauces. Not gourmet by any means: This is bona fide junk food. The kind foodies are generally loathe to admit they enjoy, or that they really lose a taste for in their frenzy for fish eggs and raw cheeses. It appeals to a desire for salt and fat and leaves you feeling happily bloated.

Sadly, I think these cheap chips have to make the no-fly list. Even if I buy them for a specific purpose, I can't resist the leftovers between meals. They call to me from the cupboard, beg me to dunk them in chili and sour cream, and won't quit until I've devoured them all. Maybe one day I'll be strong enough to resist their wiles, but for now, I must banish them. They'll go nicely with the banished Velveeta.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Classic Indian Cooking

Last night, the hubby and I had a bit of an Indian cook-off. I made Chicken in Onion Tomato Gravy (Murgh Masala) from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking, a book we've owned for over a year and yet hadn't cooked from until last night. Ian made Saag Paneer using a recipe from FoodNetwork.com, courtesy of Aarti Sequeira.

It was a learning experience. I learned a technique called brown frying, which is a lot like caramelizing but in a lot more oil. Ian learned that he is fully capable of following a recipe, and he produced a better Saag Paneer than any I've ever had in a restaurant (it's not my favorite dish, so I'm not the best judge, but his--Aarti's--was pretty good) with no help at all. We learned that turmeric leaves yellow stains everywhere, especially when distributed through the spattering of oil.

It turns out, it's pretty easy to make Indian food at home. With Ms. Sahni's (and Ms. Sequeira's) guidance, it all turned out wonderfully, and since we love Indian food but have no Indian restaurant in town (until we move across the state in May... counting the days) we have a wonderful alternative. I have prepared a lightened version of Rogan Josh a few times from a light cookbook we picked up at Costco, most of whose recipes are woefully lacking in seasoning (thankfully an easy fix) and I've bought pre-packaged sauces that always disappoint, but now I don't have to worry about any of that. I might have to worry about some oil spattering, since it seems the heat levels are higher in some of these cooking methods than I'm used to (I cook with electricity... another thing I'm hoping to remedy soon), but since I've had turmeric, cardamom, and coriander in my pantry for a while now, I'm sure we'll soon be having Indian once a week.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Leftover Pie Crust

As long as I can remember, when making a pie, my mother would take the leftover scraps of dough, re-roll them into a flat amoeba (don't worry about the old adage not to roll a pie crust more than once--if it's a good dough and you're gentle with it, one more rolling won't hurt it), sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar, and throw it in the oven. This crispy bit of sweet and fat was often more popular than the pie, and my dad, brother, and I would descend upon it (I had to tear this bit from my husband's clutches to get a photo before it was all gone). Happy family, and no waste.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


It's only just beginning to feel (to me) like the new year has started. Those first couple vacation days, with my husband home and free license to loaf, don't feel like real time, but vacation time, and the new year is about making changes, right? Bettering oneself. At least for the first month or so. Which is partially why I just signed up for spinning and yoga classes through parks and rec. But like I said, the first couple days of the year don't count, calorie-wise especially. This has not been my stance in past years but I've spent the first couple (okay, three--but at least today I'm counting my calories to avoid overindulging) days eating French food and leftover Christmas fudge. So my view of the new year has become less puritanical and more relaxed. I don't want to spend 2012 chastising myself every time I slip up nutritionally or sleep in late or forget to work out.

Instead of dieting on January 1st, I made quiche.

I realized, as I was making this quiche, that I have been grossly misinformed about quiches. Mainly because, in my six-to-eight-serving recipe, there were only two eggs. The rest was blue cheese, cottage cheese (I used 2% though it was a Julia Child recipe), half-and-half (the recipe called for cream, but the half-and-half, 2% cottage cheese result was still wonderfully creamy),butter, salt, white pepper, and a little green onion. Of course. Quiches are custardy. They're not omelettes in crusts.

They are also delicious. This part I knew, but I chose the blue cheese quiche recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking because I had blue cheese in the fridge, and I never could have guessed how wonderful it could be. And it was so simple. I did vary the recipe a tiny bit (see my lighter substitutions, previous paragraphs), but mostly in technique. I used a tart pan instead of a flan ring. I did not press my filling through a sieve to remove chunks; instead, I whipped it all up in the blender, which proved a smooth and frothy filling. Julia's pastry crust--mostly butter with a dash of shortening to keep it from crumbling--was fantastic. It was possibly the best brunch I've ever had, and most certainly the first brunch I've ever made. I had bought kiwi the day before for a special New Year's fruit, and cut up an apple, and served it with bubbly cran-apple juice (no mimosas for us--the hubby and I are not morning drinkers).

But, though the quiche was delicious, it's gone now. The real new year is starting to gear up, with real obligations and deadlines and such. We won't be indulging in custard or pastry or custard in pastry until possibly Valentine's Day. But we'll be waiting patiently for our next chance.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

On the Rise

I've heard it said that whatever you're doing on New Year's Day, you'll be doing all year long. Which means that in 2012, I'll be quite productive (fingers crossed). Even after sleeping in and staying in my pajamas until almost noon, I've also deconstructed and packed away Christmas, made a lovely brunch (I'll tell you about the quiche a little later), and baked an absolutely incredible batch of French bread.

To be fair, I started the bread the day before yesterday. It's Julia Child's recipe, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 2, and it requires a lot of rising. Because I didn't plan perfectly, my dough spent a lot of time in the fridge, rising as slowly as yeast bread can rise, and, maybe not rising enough. At least, the second two rises didn't seem as dramatic as Julia said it would be. But I pressed on, knowing that this was my first batch of French bread ever and as such unlikely to be perfect, and used the first method of steam infusion suggested in the book: a spray bottle (there is also a wet-brick method, but I was unsuccessful in finding a store that sold mason bricks until yesterday, and yesterday, they were closed). And then, after so much recipe reading, care and attention, I burned my loaves.

Not to worry. They may have been dark on the outside, but the crust was thick and crackling, and the bread inside so tasty (and webbed with the characteristic air bubbles French bread is famous for) that it was difficult to believe it was made of only flour, water, yeast and salt. But that's what French bread is. There's actually a law in France forbidding any bread with other ingredients to be called "French." And yet it had more flavor than the "sourdough" I'd been making from my Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook. It wasn't kneaded long at all, but it seemed more glutenous than any of the long-kneaded breads I've produced.

It seems the secret ingredient in French bread (not to discount the many various techniques used in producing it) is time. It needs to sit and rise, not just double, but triple, and not just twice, but thrice. It needs to be left alone. It needs to rest. This seems appropriate, considering it's New Year's Day, a day when many of us lounge after a night's festivities. You see, I used to think that I never wanted to be lazy on New Year's Day, because it would set a lazy tone for the rest of the year. I thought if I slept in and watched cooking shows, if I didn't count my calories or jump immediately into work, there would be some sort of pattern set, as if January 1st might be the most important day of the year. But this year, I let myself rest. I lazed much of the morning away, drinking coffee and watching TV shows. And my rest did its job. It replenished me. And then I wanted to clean up the apartment, cooked and baked and took down Christmas lights. I was better for it. Just like my bread.