Saturday, December 31, 2011

Like Tortilla Soup, only Chinese


Here's something I can't explain: why do I like this so much, when it was so repulsive to me when I was a kid? I used to be very particular about some things. Crunchy things should remain that way, and squishy things should not gain texture at a later point in their existence. A soft food that was made hard was only marginally more palatable than a crispy thing that was made soggy. There were a few narrow exceptions to the soft-to-hard rule, (crunchy bits in fried rice were desirable, but not crust on melted cheese) but none, ever, to the hard-to-soft rule.

This is made with the leftover home made noodles from this year's christmas chow mein. When Dad used to dump the leftovers from chow mein into broth, I could barely make myself eat it, I thought it was so horrid. Now it's comfort food. Go figure. If you like tortilla soup you'll like this, it's just got chinese flavorings in it instead of mexican. You could use any kind of soup if you'd rather, but if you don't have home made noodles, you should slice up and deep fry some flour tortillas. It'll taste the same. Don't start thinking you can use store bought chow mein noodles, those things are irredeemably bogus.

2 cups broth, I use concentrate in water
1/2 lb firm tofu, cubed
1 cup greens, this has frozen spinach, but baby arugula is excellent
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon fish sauce (recommended) or soy sauce

sesame oil & green onions to taste

Bring the first 5 things to a boil in a saucepan, then simmer until the greens are done. That'll only take about 5 minutes. Pour the soup over a heap of noodles in a bowl, sprinkle on some sesame oil and a few bits of green onion, if you want them.

Noodles are auspicious, of course. So happy new year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ma Po in the Microwave

I admit, I even like the americanized versions of this dish that you get at chinese restaurants. You usually see it as bigish cubes of tofu in an orange colored, garlicky sauce with red pepper flecks in it. There's no secret ingredients here, but I did manage to make it in the microwave. Less cleanup, and slightly less garlic fumes in my house.

You will need a microwavable casserole dish with a good lid.

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 an onion, sliced thin
between 1/2 and 1 teaspoon of hot chili sauce
a generous tablespoon fermented black bean sauce
about a tablespoon of light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lb firm tofu
1 teaspoon cornstarch

Cube the tofu and put the chili sauce, bean sauce, soy and sugar on it. Stir it well and set it aside.

Put the onion, garlic, ginger & oil in the casserole and microwave, covered, on high for about 5 or 6 minutes. Periodically stir the onions to keep them from burning. When the onions are translucent and are developing little brown places, add the tofu and stir it up. Microwave until it starts bubbling. Stir from time to time so it heats evenly. When it's bubbly, mix the cornstarch in half a cup of water and add to the tofu. Stir, and continue to cook for a minute or so until the starch thickens and goes transparent.

There is very little that could go wrong with this recipe, but here are a couple things anyway-

1. As with all microwave cooking, times here are highly approximate. A lot depends on the wattage of your appliance, the temperature of your ingredients, dishes, and house, etc etc. Don't worry about time.
2. Really the only thing that you need to be sure of is that the cornstarch is cooked. It has to be brought to a boil or it won't thicken. Don't worry, it happens quite effortlessly.
3. Feel free to improvise. Lots of recipes for this have a green thing in it, usually peppers. Some of them call for ground beef. (Why?) I bet it would be great with broccoli and water chestnuts, or baby bok choi. I usually just cook some greens to go as a side dish, so I don't bother putting them actually in the tofu.
4. If for some reason you do want to make this on the stove you can, of course. Use a heavy pan, brown the onions garlic & ginger in oil first, then add the tofu & seasonings, then the starch & water. Pretty simple.

Dad told me something about this dish. I don't remember if he claimed to have met and dined at the house of the original Ma Po, but he did say that "real, authentic" ma po tofu is a very different thing than this. For one thing, it should be volcanically hot. Pepper hot, that is. For another, tofu in cubes is not the correct format.

Tofu is made a lot like cheese, initially. You soak dried soybeans for a day or two, you grind them into a slurry with water, drain out and discard the solids, then curdle the proteins in the liquid. The curds are pressed together to make the bricks of tofu you get at the store. To make authentic ma po tofu, you should take the loose curds and use those in the dish rather than the pressed blocks. I imagine that it would have a very delicate texture.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cheesey Rolls


Here's another thing to do with the pizza dough/baguette recipe. I had to come up with a thing that I could take to a potluck that didn't involve a trip to the store. I'd already decided that I was going to be in the house all day, so I might as well make rolls, right?

Start with the same recipe for pizza dough, with the following changes: use half whole wheat flour, add 1 tablespoon of butter, and use half as much salt.

Knead the dough until it's smooth- I run it in the bread machine for 20 minutes. Then let it rest for an hour or until it doubles in size. Grate a half pound of cheddar. Roll the dough out until it's half an inch thick. Shoot for a rectangle about 2 feet long by 1 foot wide. Sprinkle on the cheese, and really smush it in. Roll the dough up tightly so you have a rope of dough about 2 feet long and about 2-3 inches thick. Cut off slices of the rope about 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick. Set them on an oiled baking pan about 2 inches apart, and let them rise for about an hour. Bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes, or until there are delicious brown bits of cheese oozing out.

If you want to get fancy, you can add chopped herbs, either in the cheese itself, or sprinkled on the outside, which is what I did.

A couple things that might help:

1. If you let the rolls rise in the oven next to a pan of hot water, the outside layers will stay moist, and hopefully, continue to expand at the same rate as the insides. I already had something else in the oven, so I couldn't do that. I think they'd look prettier if I had. One of my rolls exploded out of its layers.

2. It's important to roll the dough tightly. As it rises, any air pockets you leave in it will expand, and tend to make the rolls loose their shape. Pressing the cheese firmly onto the dough helps with this.

3. Flour the surface you roll the dough on. The dough is rather soft and sticky.

These are best hot out of the oven, like all rolls, but they didn't last more than a couple hours so I can't say after that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

more ballyhoo

Here's another recipe that got a lot of squawk in the food blogs a while ago. Everybody was all ooooh, you gotta make this fried rice, this is the best fried rice. It is good fried rice, but it didn't blow me away or anything. I'll probably make it again even, but not for breakfast. I'm just too damn hungry to fiddle around with it first thing in the morning.


The original recipe is here. It says to fry the ginger & garlic in the oil first, then fry the rice with the same oil. That probably makes a difference. There's onions in it too, but I didn't have onions. Oops, oh well. So I put in edamame for color which is actually pretty good. And soy sauce doesn't really amaze me or anything, so I used a dab of black bean sauce, which really helps.

1 cup cold rice
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 small slice ginger, minced
edamame - I used pre-cooked frozen, thawed out first.
1 egg
sesame oil and other oil for frying
black bean sauce

Put about a tablespoon of cooking oil in a pan on medium high heat. When the oil is hot, dump in the rice and a pinch of salt and stir it around to break up the clumps and coat the rice with a little oil. Cover the pan and wait for there to be some brown bits on the rice. Stir it up, push it to the side of the skillet and add about another teaspoon of cooking oil plus a dash of sesame for flavor. Add the ginger & garlic bits and another pinch of salt, then fry until they're crispy.  Throw in the edamame and a little black bean sauce, stir everything up, and dump it onto a plate so you can fry an egg to go on top. Don't over fry the egg or you won't be able to stir the yolk into the rice.

What do I think? It's fried rice for chrissakes! Of course it tastes good, it's po' folks food! I guess I just feel like it was another case of the fancy chef guy who has the tv spot or whatever being able to say 'Hey look! I can make normal food too!' and everybody else going 'No way man! That's amazing! You did that on tv!'

Like I said, I'll probably make this the next time the fridge is empty, but I feel rather impatient with the fuss about it. I kinda thought well duh, you put fried garlic and eggs on anything mostly, and it'll taste pretty darn good.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I am Distraught

I think I wrecked my tea kettle. I went away and left it on the stove for a couple hours the other night, and when I came back, it was blazing hot and the bottom was all poofed out. I let it cool down, and it looked all right, but now I realize that the aluminum core of the bottom has come unstuck from the stainless outsides.

Yesterday morning I put it on the stove, and it groaned, and the bottom bulged out in a very ominous way when I turned the stove on. I was afraid there was air trapped in the delaminated base of the kettle, and thought I'd better not use it like that in case it explodes. This morning, I got out my drill and bored a tiny hole in the bottom of the kettle, thinking that would at least keep it from blowing up, right? Well that may be so, but I'm too scared to find out. If all it does it go POW and BLOING! that's ok, but it's really loud, and how do I know what it's going to do? I'll have to keep an eye out for another at goodwill.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Smelly and Non-Photogenic

Brussels sprouts are a thing I have only enjoyed for the past few years. They are undeniably stinky. They are also bitter, and taste a bit like dirt, and have a strangely squishy yet fibrous texture when they're cooked. They are not something you should ever try to feed to children, because they will resent you for decades. Trust me, there is no amount of nutritional advantage which is conferred by brussels sprouts alone that will justify trying to make kids eat them. Just feed them something less yucky.

Brussels sprouts are way beyond Food for Newbies, and this recipe is not for the faint of heart. It's quite pungent. Bonus round: I ate it with beets. Back in September, I ate some beets at a fancy restaurant. I would never have thought of putting sesame oil on beets, but it was pretty darn special. They made it look really cool by using 2 colors of beets, and putting a chimichurri-type condiment on the plate, and some other stuff, but the really important things were the sesame oil and the ginger  vinaigrette. There might have been jicama matchsticks in there too, I can't remember.

I think this really is gratin, because it has a cream sauce, and cheese, and garlic, and a crumb top.


Brussels Sprouts Gratin

1 lb steamed brussels sprouts, sliced thin
1 onion
1clove garlic
a little butter for frying
a pinch of salt

leftover cheese, several kinds- I used about 2 ounces of a very smelly blue, about an ounce of medium cheddar, and one lonely slice of smoked gouda
1 T butter
1 cup milk
1T flour
a shake of black pepper

1 slice of rather stale bread
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon butter
a little grated parmesan (I used the kind in a can)

Pre- heat the oven to 375.

Use an oven proof skillet. Slice the onions thinly, mince up the garlic, and saute them in butter and a pinch of salt until they are quite tender and transparent. Add the sprouts and continue to cook until heated through. Set them aside.
To make the sauce, grate or finely slice the cheese. In a small sauce pan on medium-low heat, mix the butter & flour. Fry the flour for about 2 or 3 minutes, then remove from the heat. When it has stopped sizzling, add the milk and stir thoroughly before putting it back on the burner. Keep stirring. When the milk is starting to steam, and is just beginning to thicken up, add the cheese. Stir until the cheese is all melted, and the sauce is thick. Pour over the sprouts.
Smash or grind up the stale bread and fry the crumbs briefly with the butter & rosemary. Top the sprouts with the crumbs and parmesan, and bake uncovered for 40 minutes.

Brussels Sprouts tips:

1. You could use raw sprouts in this recipe. Clean and slice them, and add them to the onions. It will take a little longer to saute them, but it will be fine. I started with steamed ones because I bought a whole giant spear at TJ's and cooked them all at once so that I could eat them for the rest of the week without too much fuss.
2. The kind of cheese in the mix is not too important, I was just using up leftovers. I will say that the stinky blue cheese is pretty excellent in this. It was too strong to eat by itself, but it was good for cooking.
3. It is probably important to take the roux off the heat before adding milk. I think it prevents you from overheating the sauce too fast and causing it to break.
4. Roux!?!? Er, I mean, the flour fried in butter.
5. I don't usually have fresh milk in the house, because I don't drink it. I used powdered milk reconstituted according to the package instructions. Nobody will ever know.
6. This recipe would be good for company, at least, a company of adventurous eating adults. It is very rich, and is nice in cold crappy weather when you just want to hang out, watch movies, and have a drink and a nosh. 

Sesame Beets

4 or 5 medium size beets
2 or 3, 1/8"-thick slices of fresh ginger, cut into little matchsticks
about 4 T rice vinegar
about 1 T palm sugar, or brown sugar. I'm still trying to use up my palm sugar.
1/4 teaspoon salt
sesame oil to taste

Peel the beets, and cook as you ordinarily would.* I tend to slice them up first and then microwave them. When the beets are tender, put the ginger bits in a sauce pan with 2 tablespoons of vinegar, the sugar, and the salt. Simmer them until the vinegar has reduced by about half, and has formed a syrup. Add the remaining vinegar and pour over the beets. Toss with sesame oil.

You could get a little fancy by saving the ginger slivers to sprinkle on top of the beets after you toss them in the vinaigrette, and maybe adding a bit of chopped cilantro. Obviously, I just wanted to eat my lunch already.

* General digression on beets: Beets are another thing you should only feed to children under select circumstances. Use caution, and accept rejection easily. However, if you're going to cook them anyway, there are lots of ways to do it. You can boil them, but I prefer not to, because then you just dump out the boiling water along with half the beet flavor. You can steam them, with very similar results, and more equipment. You can roast them with their peels on in a 350 degree oven, which really makes them taste the best but takes forever, and then you have to put them in tupperware, let them steam loose from their skins for about 10 minutes, then peel them. It's easiest, in my opinion, to skin them with a yankee peeler, slice them thinly, and microwave them for 3-5 minutes at a time until they're tender. Add a couple tablespoons of water to create steam, and stir them frequently. You need a container that has a good lid, and be aware that it may spit beet juice all over your microwave if you let it get too much water in it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tea Party Cookies!


In the dim and murky past, I used to go to church. I can only say that without doubt, the coffee hour in the basement fellowship hall was the best part. Around the holidays, there was a charity bazaar, where I acquired a sterling silver necklace, ( it looked fabulous with my oversized turquoise sweater ), a wooden rhinocerous, and probably other things I've forgotten. There was always punch for kids, and sometimes there were cookies. I think the presence of cookies may have been related to events in the ecumenical calendar, but I wasn't paying attention. Cookies! That was the important part.

There were 2 kinds of cookies that I liked best. One was lemon bars, naturally, and the other was any type of thumbprint cookie. Some were fancier than others. They looked like they had been extruded from a pastry bag, with little ridges in the swirls, or they were like layer cookies with a hole cut in them so you could see the jam. (I now know that cookies like that are linzer cookies, but they looked similar to me.) I think most of those thumbprint cookies had to have been store bought, because they usually had that wonderfully tropical tasting palm oil flavor.

Part of my enjoyment of this type of cookie is aesthetics. They look delicious. And they're cute. They're dainty looking. And of course, I could eat about, oh, a zillion of them. I have always loved the combination of shortbready cookie base with a chewy fruit blob in the middle. Raspberry is probably my favorite, if I must choose, because I really like pink flavors of food, but then again, the yellow flavor is good too.

Thumbprint Cookies

1 cup butter
1cup powdered sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt

Cut the butter, sugar, salt & vanilla together until they are pretty well mixed, then cut in the flour until the dough is evenly smooth and holds together easily. It will be very stiff and pasty. Pull or scoop off 1" balls of dough, flatten them slightly, and poke a dimple into the top of each one. Start pre-heating the oven to 350. Freeze the cookies for at least 20 minutes, then arrange them on a baking sheet sheet about 2" apart. Drop about 1/4 teaspoon of jam into each dimple, and bake the cookies for about 15 minutes. They should be just barely turning brown at the edges.

Useful points:

1. Use a pastry cutter. If you use a mixer, you may fluff too much air into your dough. That would be ok, but be aware that the cookies will first poof up, then collapse in the oven, making them rather flat.
2. That's 130 grams of powdered sugar, to be exact.
3. It's important to freeze the cookies before baking them. They will hold their shape much better.
4. I used a melon baller to scoop evenly sized bits of dough, because an ice cream scoop is way too big.
5. You can use your finger to put the dimples in the cookies (duh...) but I found that the back of my 1/4 teaspoon measure creates a nice, symmetrical dent, which I already know will hold exactly 1/4 teaspoon of jam.
6. Don't forget to eat one or two the minute they come out of the oven, because they will be quite crunchy when they cool down. It would be a pity not to know what they are like while they are warm and squishy.

Obviously, these cookies are related to hamantaschen, but they are a lot less fiddly. I do like the cream cheese dough for hamantaschen, but overall, the simplicity of this recipe wins out for me. On the other hand, at the risk of sounding very unlike myself, I think this recipe may have too much butter. More precisely, I think there is proportionately too much butter for the rest of the ingredients. A lot of the fat in these just oozes right out during cooking, which annoys me. It may need just a smidge more flour, which I should have weighed before mixing these up, but oh well. Next time. There will be several next times too, because that peculiar jam I got is just perfect for making these, which makes me feel much better about having bought it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I just remembered something


I bought this jam because I thought that I was stuck in a rut with the jam I always buy. Experiment, you know. I thought it was a good idea to try something new. I'm not tired of the old jam, but the world is full of jam to try and if I keep getting the same kind, I'll never know what the other ones are like. So I bought this, because it's not like the usual berry-what-what I already know I like. Plus, the color is attractive.

And then it made me feel very...uncomfortable. There was something odd about the jam. It tastes alright, I suppose, for sure it isn't yucky. Third party confirmation says it's actually pretty good. There was just something about it that made me feel uneasy. Not texture either, if you're wondering, that part's fine. The jam was reminding me of something I couldn't put my finger on.

This morning I remembered. Dad used to make jam from the leftovers of his fruit cordial experiments. He would take vast quantities of fruit and boil them down into syrup, ferment it slightly, then punch it up with vodka. There was always a pile of amorphous brownish fruit precipitate left over, and being a crazy chinaman, Dad could never bring himself to simply throw it away. He would add a bunch of sugar, cook it down into a paste, and put it in cans. There were a number of these still in the basement until the late 90's, I think. Because of the treatment it had received, the fruit lost any individuating characteristic it may once have had. No matter what it started out as, it all ended up as a sepia colored paste, with a flavor profile consisting largely of table sugar and a whiff of inadvertent caramelization. Only once to my memory did he make something that retained a unique quality, and that was when he used pineapple. My Freddies jam experiment tastes like what Dad might have come up with if he knew, or cared, what he was doing.

Dad was a tremendous cook, but only when he stuck to what he grew up with, so to speak. He had neither the palate to comprehend western cooking, nor the ability to admit it. Preserves of any kind as Americans understand them were totally beyond his scope, along with any type of pastry that was not deep-fried, European style bread, cheeses of all kinds, and any number of vegetables native to the western hemisphere. Squash? Hah. Corn? Forget it. Chick peas? That's "food for pigs". One time he tried to make a lemon cake. It tasted like burnt rubber and had a textural resemblance to a spare truck tire. The only cake he ever managed to learn how to make was a kirsch torte, and that was because he learned the recipe by rote from a neighbor lady, and never deviated from it. Which is remarkable in itself, now that I think about it. I have to admit that my tendency to improvise recipes is undoubtedly derived from his.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

More things to do with dough


A very long time ago, I posted a recipe for spinach lentil curry. It's one of my staples in cooler weather, but I wanted something a little different to go with it. I also love naan, but buying anything made out of bread these days seems like an extraordinary expense. These aren't authentic naan, but they're pretty good.

Naan procedure:

Use the pizza dough recipe from the last post, but swap in about 25% whole wheat flour.

Knead and rest the dough the same way, and when you're ready to use it, pull it out of the fridge and deflate it. Put a little oil on your hands to keep the dough from sticking to you, and tear off pieces of dough about twice the size of a ping pong ball. Stretch them out until they are about the size of your palm, then set them aside to rest for bit.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy skillet to medium low. I use a cast iron pan. You don't need to oil the pan, but you do need a lid for it.

Once the pan is hot, put a bit more oil on the dough bits and pat them out until they are about 1/4" thick, then lay them in the pan. My skillet is just about big enough to cook 2 at a time. Cover the pan and let the naan cook for 3 minutes, turn them over, and cook them another 3 minutes. That's it!

As usual, there are some things I think are important to pay attention to.

1. The pizza /baguette dough formula calls for bread flour. This makes it chewy. Adding whole wheat makes it slightly less so, but traditionally naan is made with a lower protein flour. All purpose flour would probably be closer.
2. Also traditional is the use of copious amounts of butter, mostly for frying, but also I think there is some butter or oil in the dough itself. Again, this would tenderize the dough, if you wanted a more traditional end product.
3. Additional ingredients commonly used are nigella or cumin seeds, anise seed, or caraway seed, also fried onions and or potatoes are often mixed in. I didn't have any of those things on hand when I took a notion to make these.
4. The toasty bits are vitally important! If you don't have any little chewy crusty dark bits, it won't taste like naan.

So why did I decide to use this somewhat deviant recipe to make naan? Because of my desire to have a range of versatile, cheap, generic, ingredients that I can dress up a variety of ways. A wad of flour, water & yeast doesn't get much more basic, but already I've used it for French, Italian, and Indian cooking styles. I haven't made any steamed buns with it yet, but that's next on the list.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

mmmm...Melty cheese.


Pizza is a nearly perfect food, in my opinion. It has melted cheese, and it has bread. And tomato sauce. If it hasn't got tomato sauce and cheese, it really isn't pizza. It might be tasty, but pizza needs red sauce and cheese. Mozzarella, not some other kind.

I used to be a fan of TJ's pizza dough. It ain't bad, but making your own is a no-brainer when you think about the fact that buying dough costs $2 and making it costs about...50 cents? Pocket change. That's a buck-fifty to use for cheese, damnit!

Remember the baguettes? The procedure was kinda fiddly. I said the hell with it, threw all the ingredients in the bread machine at once, kneaded, proofed it, then stuck it in the fridge. Half the dough made one 12" pie. I even used a bottle of marinara from the store for sauce, and it was great. I do like traditional pizza sauce, but I need my ingredients to multitask. You can put marinara on pizza no problem, but pizza sauce on spaghetti is a little weird- it's too sweet.


425g bread flour
255g water
11g salt
3g instant yeast

Knead everything together for 10 minutes. If you don't have a bread machine, don't worry. Just work everything into a pretty smooth ball for a few minutes. Let the dough rise for 45 minutes in a warm place (I leave it in the machine), then put it in a tupperware thing big enough to let it double in size overnight. If your lid hasn't got a vent built into it, don't seal it tight, or the expanding gas pressure in the dough will pop it off eventually.

When you're ready to make pizza, pre-heat the oven to 550, or as hot as it will go before it's on broil. Tear off half the dough and lightly poke the air out of it, but don't knead it, or it won't stretch out when you want it to. Cover it and set it aside while you assemble your ingredients and wait for the oven to heat up.

Once the oven is hot, stretch the dough into a circle and top it with your choice of decorations. Sauce, cheese, other stuff, then another light layer of cheese to anchor things down. It only takes about 10 minutes to brown a pizza at that temperature.


1. Do use bread flour. All purpose flour won't give you the chewy texture a good pizza has.
2. Also, letting it sit over night is important. This recipe skips the dinking around with pre-fermentation and stuff, so the sitting in the fridge is essential to develop flavor.
3. Why in the fridge? Wouldn't it be better to let it sit on the counter where it's warmer? Well, no, because at room temperature for that long, the yeasts would start turning the starches into alcohol, and the dough would be over-fermented. The low temperature in the fridge keeps things under control.
4. Too much sauce will make the cheese slide off in a painful lava flow onto your lip and chin.
5. Remember, if you use any fresh greens, they will shrink into almost nothing as they cook.
6. If you use any hard vegetables or any meats, be sure to grill them or something before topping the pizza with them. At the speed at which the pizza cooks, raw squash, for instance, will not be done by the time the dough is crispy and the cheese is a little brown.
7. I don't have a pizza stone, but I do have one of those perforated metal pans. If you have neither, just don't use one of those insulated double-walled cookie sheets. The idea is to have the bottom of the pie get as crispy as the edges, or it won't have enough oomph to pick up a slice when it's done. Use a thin metal pan, or even just a sheet of tinfoil. Whatever you use, oil the dough slightly to prevent sticking.

This is actually the 2nd pizza I made with this batch of dough, and if anything, the dough is better after sitting in the fridge for 4 days. The first one, on Wednesday night, was a pretty standard mushroom & cheese version, which was good, but this one has roasted squash and italian sausage with arugula. Very nice for fall. I was reading the food section of the paper, and they had a special on squash or pumpkin, and there was a suggestion for pumpkin with pesto on pizza which I thought sounded nice. I was also thinking of the sausage & cornbread stuffing Pete makes and serves with squash. No cornbread here, but you get the idea.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What Nerds Worry About

My brother's daughter wanted to be Ahsoka Tano for Halloween. She asked for help, of course I said yes, I had no idea what I was getting into. A week later I ask her about it again, and she shows me this lego mini figure. I think, oh, shit. It has a blue and white head and 3 tentacles, and horn-things to boot.

So I decide that I need some pictures to work from. The search results are pretty predictable. Lotsa pictures from the Clone Wars animated series, lots of fan art. LOTS of internet rule #34 fan art. It isn't that naked lady pictures bother me, I enjoy them, as a matter of fact. I had a discussion with somebody about naked lady pictures a while ago, and the fact that even straight girls like to look at naked lady pictures. Why wouldn't we? Women are inherently better looking than men. Face it guys, the truth is that in the birthday suits department, most of you are just kinda meh. We, on the other hand, are usually worth at least a second look. Plus, dudes without their clothes on are just silly. Women are beautiful. Anecdotal proof? Number of pages before you find a rule 34 pic of Ahsoka: one. Number of pages you have to scroll through before you find a picture of Obi-Wan with his pootiepows flapping in the interstellar breeze? Well, I didn't find any. Not sure I want to. Even if it is Ewan MacGregor.

However, there is something going on here that troubles me. Partly it is the fact that, as I understand it, the character as written is an adolescent. There's something creepy about having a teen (pre-teen?) character depicted in / fan art with Obi-Wan, who has gotta be at least in his late thirties in this cartoon series. And partly because it was so dang hard to find this one image:

Art by This guy
I do realize that the internet is the home of the lowest common denominator, but is it really that hard to imagine a character that is written as a badass growing up to be still a badass? Without having to show ginormous gazongas? Whatinhell do gazongas have to do with badassery anyway? I do love me some gazongas, but the equation of Badass + Female = Gazongas doesn't add up to me. These things are not related.

Now, there are plenty of pictures of Ahsoka kicking ass, and plenty of her depicted as an adult, but they've all got her wearing this silly bandeau top and a mini skirt. Some of them have her wearing rather less. Which admittedly would be more practical for waving a lightsaber around in than a monk suit, but hell, Obi-Wan doesn't wear a speedo and a wife beater does he? Nooooo, he's a jedi, and jedi knights wear a monk suit. This is the only picture I could find where Ahsoka is depicted as an adult, as a jedi knight, wearing jedi robes. And that's not all, because to my eyes, this is clearly a picture of a beautiful woman who is totally ready to kick your ass if you're one of the bad guys.

By this point, I've managed to get a bit heated under the collar of my monk suit over my niece's Halloween costume. And, because Sophia has still got a few years to go before she's 10 years old yet, I'm telling you all about it, because my niece deserves to have a whale of a time being her own badass kid jedi self as long as the world lets her. When Sophia (Or Tesla, or Daille, Dorothy, Agatha, Hyacinth, or tiny little Beatrice) grows up, and asks me for a ridiculous tube top or a metal bikini for Halloween, I will probably make her one. But I swear I will weep with pride if any one of them comes to me and says 'Aunt Buzz, I need a real, badass jedi robe. And maybe some body armor. Can you help me out with that?'

Friday, October 28, 2011

Better than it sounds


I can't even remember why I tried this in the first place. Was I thinking of nicoise salad? Craving protein? Down to the last things in the fridge? Beats the hell outta me. Usually I'm not too excited about sandwiches in cold weather, at least, not ones that do not feature melted cheese, but this is an exception.

1 can of tuna in olive oil
1 smallish carrot
6 or 7 olives
1 teaspoon fermented black bean sauce

Drain most of the oil out of the tuna, chop the olives, shred the carrot, and mix everything together. You know, just make tuna salad with it. It's not fancy or anything.

 On the other hand, I do think it's special. The oil-packed fish is the big thing, of course. I've made this with TJ's brand fish, which is pretty darned good, and I've done it with this fancy(ish) brand I got at Fred Meyer that has a gold label and some Italian stuff written on it which costs a dollar more per can and is good enough to eat plain with a fork. TJ's is plenty good enough for this, but I sure did enjoy the 'italian tonno'. In either case, tuna in oil has got more tuna flavor without being offensively fishy. The texture is better too. Tuna in water can have a slightly fiberous mouthfeel, which needs to be amelioreated by heavy doses of mayonaise. Mayo also helps with the typical blah-ness of ordinary canned tuna.  But if you're going to do that, why not just have fish that tastes like fish? It'll have the same fat content, or less, than all that mayo, and less cholesterol, if you're worried about things like that. I loves me some mayonaise, but it is a condiment, not a primary food item.

Olives and black bean sauce is not an intuitive combination, but it should be. They are both fermented and brined. You would think that one or the other would be good enough, but no, both is actually better. I'm afraid I have no geeky theories about what is in each ingredient that makes the two together better than either alone; you'll have to take my word for it. Use good olives. I start with rather boring kalamatas and punch up the brine with a little more salt, vinegar and some herbs, usually rosemary and a bay leaf.

The carrot is not insignificant either. There is a lot of salt in the rest of the ingredients, the sweetness from the carrot really balances things out. It also adds crunch, which is very important. No matter how good your tuna is, it's still canned tuna and needs a veggie to go with, even beyond lettuce. I think that must be the main purpose of celery in traditional tuna salad recipes.

No cheap bread! Disappointing bread will be the downfall of any sandwich, be the innards never no good!

Sunday, October 23, 2011



I missed the Polish festival, didn't I? Dang. Those ladies know how to make some serious grub. Plus, there are people running around in costumes at events like that, and I'm always in favor of playing dress-up.

But I missed the cabbage rolls! Drat and drat. Cabbage rolls are a thing I have loved for many years. Dad used to make them filled with beef and rice. I think he topped them with a lot of ketchup, which may have influenced my liking for them; be that as it may, I start hankering for them in the fall. There is no way I'm going to fiddle around with scalded cabbage leaves and so on for hours on end, so I came up with this stew instead. It has the earthy/savory/sweet/sour flavor combination of a really good cabbage roll, without all the fussing. Plus, it isn't as greasy as the traditional ground beef or pork things.

2 chicken thighs
a small can of tomato sauce
about 4 cups water
1 teaspoon chicken broth concentrate
1 tablespoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon dry marjoram
a shake of onion powder
2 or 3 allspice berries
3/4 lb cabbage

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Take the first 5 ingredients and put them in a large, heavy, pot, one that has a good lid. Bring them to a slight boil, and then keep it that way, covered, until the chicken shreds easily.This could take a while. Assume at least half an hour, maybe longer, if you use frozen chicken like I do. Stir it from time to time until you can smash the meat with the back of a spoon. About half the water should have cooked out by this time.

Coarsely chop the cabbage and add it along with the allspice, marjoram and onion powder. Simmer until the cabbage is very tender, which could take another half hour. You can turn the heat up a bit, but make sure the pot doesn't go dry.  Add the lemon juice, simmer for a few more minutes, taste for salt, and serve with some fresh thyme leaves on top. I'm going to eat it with potatoes, but you could serve it over rice, which would approximate the ingredients of a cabbage roll.


1. You could use any can of plain tomato something. Sauce is what I had, but crushed, diced, pureed, any old tomatoes would work. You just have to taste the stew to see if it has the right amount of salt.
2. You can use oregano if you don't have marjoram, but use a little less of it. Marjoram is sweeter, and oregano is more peppery.
3. Don't rush it. The most important ingredient in stew is time. Enough time to break the collagen in the meat down into gelatin, for the texture. Enough time for the cabbage starches to begin to convert to sugars, and for the acids in the tomatoes to mellow out a bit.
4. The reason you want to use whole allspice berries is so that you can fish them back out when you have flavored the stew as much as you like it.
5. Do use thighs. You need a little fat in it to help carry the oil-soluble flavor molecules, as well as to make you feel full after a reasonable portion.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I am 37


I celebrated by doing nerdly innocuous things all day. Like go to the Portland Nursery to buy apples, and ride my dreadful bike. I went over to my brother's house, which had no electricity, and had family dinner, and we were all glad that a) the self-destruction of his electric meter did not result in anything worse, that b) my brother in law had cooked the turkey at his house, c) that a gas grill makes really good roasted cauliflower and d) cake.

The cake is an improved version of the banana cake I made before.

Banana cake 2

1 package TJ's freeze-dried bananas
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs
2 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk

Pre-heat the oven to 350.
Butter & flour a 9 x 12" pan

Pulverize the bananas in a food processor until they are a very fine powder. Cream the butter, sugar, and banana powder together until the mixture is very smooth and light. Add the eggs and vanilla, and continue to beat until the batter has an even fluffy texture. Sift in the dry ingredients alternating with the milk, mixing gently but thoroughly between each addition. Spread the batter in the pan and tap it gently on the counter so that any big air bubbles pop out. Bake for about 25 min, then allow it to cool before removing from the pan.

The previous post on this subject covered most of the important points, but there are a few things I should point out:

I used the same cream cheese frosting as I did the last time I made cake, although I forgot to mention at the time that the strawberry portion needs an additional 2 or 3 tablespoons of water. The strawberries reconstitute very rapidly, and will make the frosting too thick and sticky to spread without a little more liquid.

This cake did not rise as much as the other one. I think my oven is getting worse. I made this, and the top of the batter did not cook at all well. It still tastes good, but the upper stratum of each cake layer is a smidge under-done. Regardless, I think that the formula I used this time is an improvement over the last one.

I have slightly mixed feelings about this cake. On the plus side, the insides of this version are much more visually appealing, I think. The freeze-dried bananas don't brown the batter the way fresh ones do, and the contrast with the pink icing is better. On the minus side, this still needs either an electric mixer to get more air in the batter, or more leavening. The cake is quite dense, rather than fluffy, but I'm not going to be too picky.  More importantly, it has a subtle but rich banana flavor which is enhanced by the frosting.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Migas is to the latin world what fried rice is to asians: a method of using up leftovers. I read that migas is just the word for crumbs, and while the dish is usually made with tortilla chips or fried stale tortillas, I had a cornbread muffin. I took the word crumbs literally, and rooted around in the fridge for whatever else I could find, and here is lunch.

Fried squash & cornbread migas

some roasted summer squash pieces
a stale cornbread muffin
some chives or scallions, minced
a bit of bell pepper, diced
an egg

Chop the muffin into 1" chunks, and fry them in a little oil or butter along with the squash and pepper bits until they're brown and the muffin is a bit crispy. Sprinkle in the onions or chives and a dash of salt & pepper, then crack an egg over the lot. Poke the egg around a bit so you have a nice mix of egg, bread and veggie bits. Salsa, yogurt & avocado are optional, but the avocado is especially nice.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Eggplant Sandwiches

You know, I had a perfectly clean kitchen this morning, so of course nothing would do but that I must make something not only deepfried, but breaded as well. I won't include pictures of the before & after of my kitchen, but I think I ought to sometime. If nothing else it would serve me as a cautionary device against my own ambition. Do I really want to cook the whatsit? Do I remember the eggplant tempura? Yes? Ok, I've been fairly warned.

Dad used to make these as one of his catering dishes. I think he used bigger eggplants, but I was also very small, so I could be wrong. I do know that he cut them in semi-circles, and that he filled them with pork, rather than chicken. But in any case, here is my version.

3 small eggplants- by small, I mean each of the ones I used were about 8" long and no more than about 3 1/2" wide.

1 chicken thigh
1teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
1 minced green onion or several chives ( I had chives)
half a slice of good white bread
ground pepper
about a tablespoon of water

1 egg
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons AP flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
flour for dredging

oil for frying

Slice the eggplant about 1/3" thick. Salt generously, and set aside to sweat while you make the filling.

Chop the chicken coarsely, then put it in a food processor with all the other filling ingredients. Process until well combined. It can have a little texture left in it if you want.

Start heating the oil. You want it between 350 and 375 degrees to cook in. Also, preheat the oven to 400.

Combine the batter ingredients and mix thoroughly. This time you want no lumps. Set the batter aside, it will thicken slightly before you use it, but it will remain quite thin.

Dry the eggplant slices on paper towel, then make sandwiches with about a tablespoon of chicken mix in each one. The amount of filling will depend on the size of the slices. You'll end up with some extra slices, but that's ok.

Once the oil is hot, blot any sweat off the outside of the sandwiches, then lightly roll them in flour. Tap off the excess, dunk them in batter, and slip them into the oil. Fry them just until they start to brown a bit on both sides, take them out and drain them a bit, then finish them on a cookie sheet in the oven for about 15-20 minutes to get them good and crispy. Serve them sprinkled with szechuan pepper and salt. Ponzu sauce would be pretty good too, of you have it.


1. Theoretically, you should be able to cook them entirely in the hot oil. I'm not very good at deepfrying, so I cheated. I put them in the oven to finish so that they wouldn't end up being sodden oil pucks.
2. The salting of the eggplant it important, for anybody that is unfamiliar with eggplant. They're kinda bitter, and salting them before cooking will make the bitter juices sweat out by osmosis. It also affects the texture, making the eggplant cook up more tender and custardy.
3. Make sure the sandwiches are dry before flouring them, or the batter will just fall off.
4. Choose male eggplant fruits rather than female ones. They have fewer seeds, and so they hold their shape better. How do you know the difference? Male fruits tend to be slightly smaller. They are also quite convex at the blossom end, and are more ovoid in shape. Female fruits tend to be a little larger, have a more pear-like shape, and the blossom end tends to be slightly pushed in, like a bellybutton.

What the heck is tempura, anyway? It's Japanese, right? Well, supposedly, it's a version of the battered, fried, fish that Portuguese sailors, being Catholic, ate during lent and other times (latin, tempora) when meat eating was discouraged. What's that got to do with Japan? Well, the Portuguese made it to Japan sometime in the 15th century, I think...

I think the batter is pretty neat, actually. If you have any extra at the end of the sandwiches, you can drizzle the batter into the hot oil and make some nice little crunchy bits. These are nice, because the sandwiches are quite soft, and the teensy cracker things add contrast.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I fell in love with this stupid little dog. I don't guess he's any more stupid than any other dog, but you tend to assume that a dog that small has got to be sort of impaired. Just look at the little guy. Weighs a whole 3 pounds. My co-worker Heather brought him over one time this summer when I did some sewing for her, and I thought, well, jeez, he's awfully... adorable. He was perfectly quiet, he just sat around acting like a dog, which is another thing you don't expect from something that tiny. Everything on him wiggles when he moves. Wiggly feet, wiggly ears, wiggly tail. It's awful. Heather tells me he does have some social problems though. Sigh.

You know, people always think there's something inherently screwed up about tiny dogs, and in the sense that their brains are about as big as peas, they're right. There's only so much smarts you can put in a brain that size, but seriously? The truth is that it doesn't take a lot of intelligence to be a dog. Some people tend to deny this, but I suspect that's because they secretly want their dogs to be humans, only less troublesome. Those are the folks who like big oafish things like golden retrievers, or chocolate labs. On the other end of the spectrum are a bunch of people who buy teeny tiny dogs, and then treat them like stuffed animals. Unfortunately, a tiny dog is just as doggy as an enormous one. The difference is that if you bought an energetic large dog, you would think twice about doing any of the incomprehensible and startling (to a dog) things people regularly do to say, chihuahuas. Because if you randomly terrify even a golden retriever, that thing is big enough to bite a piece of you off. Can you imagine swooping in on a sleeping bull terrier, grabbing it, turning it upside down, and making noises like "AAARGGGHHGLGLSNRGLSNRGL!!!!" Of course not. That thing would fuck you up, and you would deserve it. But because a tiny dogs are, well, tiny, their fear and outrage look hilarious to humans, and we do stuff like that to them all the time.

Imagine this: for your whole life, you have been dependent on people for everything it takes to stay alive, from food and water, to a clean place to take a dump, to a safe place to sleep. You can't talk to anybody, because you can't learn the language, and you can't participate in any of the group activities the people you depend on engage in. You are the only person around who is like you. Sometimes you see another similar person at a distance when you are allowed to go outside about once a day, but most of the time you aren't allowed to talk to them.

Maybe you're Pedro. People do weird things to you. You can't figure out why. Every time somebody gets bored of you, you get passed off to some other set of people. Some of them are mean, some of them are nice, and the worst part is that some of them are alternatingly mean and nice for no apparent reason! Every other live thing you've ever met could kick your ass, and sometimes they do. You're not a bad dog, you're just really nervous, who wouldn't be? So all your conversations start out with you saying something like "Hey, uh, hey, we're cool, right? We're cool? Yeah, I'm cool. Yeah. Yeah. HEY!  Like, Respect My Words, right? Or I might bite you! Uhm, but, we're cool, right?"

Or maybe you luck out, you're one of the retrievers the Petit family kept when I was a kid. The people who take care of you are always kind, they take you on regular interesting field trips, they are consistent in maintaining household discipline, and one of your siblings or children is with you for your whole life. You sorta figure these people out, and even though you can't have a conversation, you really get to like them. You feel like these folks belong to you. Yeah, you spend a lot of time being bored, but on the other hand, you've never once spent a day seriously worried about anything. You tend to meet other people like you pretty regularly on the field trips, and most of the time your conversations start kinda like the one Harriet imagined years and years ago:

Them: Hey! Are you from Dog?
You: No, I was raised in Human, but, like, my parents were Dogs, you know?
Them: Oh wow, I'm totally the same way! I'm a Dog raised in Human too!
You: No way man! That's amazing, who'd'a thought? Well it's nice to meet you!

Poor Pedro was a third-hand dog by the time Heather got him, and she's doing the best she can for the little bugger. I don't want anybody to think I'm against having pets, but I do think that if you get a dog, you ought to think about what it might be like if you were that dog. Would you want to be owned by you? Be honest.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


You can always tell when I'm extra pleased about something, because there are exclamation points. So, Yes! Falafel! I'm from Ann Arbor. This is not mere non sequitur, Ann Arbor is where Jerusalem Garden* is, and thus, all other falafel is to be compared to theirs, in my mind. When I was a small child, my parents wouldn't get us food from there. This was not, I maintain, due to pecuniary embarrassment, but rather due to dad's prejudice against the very idea of middle eastern food. It was certainly cheap- cheaper than Portland food cart cheap- although prices rose latterly.

Erica Knopper gave me my first falafel. I think she asked me if I liked falafel, and I said I didn't know what that was, and was it spicy? She said it wasn't 'really' spicy, which to a kid is just like saying Warning: grownup trying to get you to do something dreadfully uncomfortable. She must have realized this (I'm sure my skepticism was obvious), and offered to let me try some of hers.

It was delicious. It was rolled in pita, with lettuce and tomato, and it was crunchy, and warm, and savory, and sour (that was the tahini sauce), and just a bit spicy- I think I ate most of one of their falafel with hummus sandwiches. I used to hang out with lots of earnest hippies back then, and they cooked a lot of earnest food that usually tasted a bit odd to me. It didn't cross my mind until years later that what they were trying to do with all that earnest cooking was produce the experience of eating that falafel. It was vegetarian, it was comfort food, but more than that, it was just really good food.

 I moved here a little over 3 years ago, which was a little over 20 years after I ate that sandwich. In New York, I worked with a rapidly changing stream of several hundred energetic and quirky people in their 20's, and so when I ended up at a bar here in southeast a couple years ago, it didn't surprise me that I recognized one of the bartenders. Lots of people I'd worked with had moved to Portland, I got on the bandwagon pretty late. But I couldn't remember this dude's name. So finally I did the "hey, not to be creepy or anything, but haven't we met" and he said well, you look pretty familiar. New York? I say. No, not there, Michigan, he says. And it turns out that he was the guy who made my falafel patties at Jerusalem Garden before I left town. I sorta wish now that I'd got his number, or given him mine, just to hang out maybe, but I was feeling bashful, and he was at work, and well, you know. It was a little weird.

Sometimes I really miss that falafel. I'm not going to say that my falafel is at all the same as the falafel at J Garden- I used black eyed peas- but it's got the right something-something to it.

This is a single-girl sized recipe,which makes about 8-10 2-inch balls. About enough for dinner one day, and lunch the next.

3/4 cup dry black eyed peas

half bunch green onions, chopped-this is around 1/2 cup
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced very fine
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon paprika
a smidge of black pepper
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Cover the beans with at least 3 cups of water, and leave them to soak for about 24 hours. If you can stir them up and change the water somewhere in the middle, even better.

Rinse the beans and drain them thoroughly. Put them in a food processor with the onion and process until the mix looks like wet, green cornmeal. You'll have to keep scraping down the bowl. Add all the seasonings and process to combine.

Put about 3 inches of oil in a deep pot. Heat it to about 350 degrees, then drop spoonfuls of falafel into the oil. They take about 10 minutes to cook. Drain on paper towel for about 5 minutes, and eat with tahini dressing. And pickles, if you have 'em.

Oh yeah, tahini dressing.

1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon tahini paste
salt, and a pinch of cayenne

There's no reason you can't use all lemon juice, but I prefer it slightly less tart than that.


1. I have a candy thermometer. I thought I'd never use it, but it's great for this. If you don't have one, test the pot by dropping a bit of dough in. Remember the noodle video? Falafel should only sizzle up about half that hard.
2. The temperature and thus, cooking time, is important. 10 minutes seems to be enough time to develop a dark, crusty outside, and a fully cooked interior. If the oil is hot enough to brown much faster than that, the insides might not be cooked, and if it isn't hot enough, the falafel will just be sodden and greasy. They will be quite dark when they're done.
3. Balls rather than patties are best for deep frying. Keeps the proportion of crust to middle balanced.
4. It is also important to let the balls stand for several minutes, because they will keep cooking for a while, which helps with the texture.
5. Most importantly, this recipe used raw dried beans, unlike many which call for a can of cooked. Here is my pseudo-scientific hypothesis: in canned beans, the starches are already cooked. When you mash them, the starches get gummy, and no matter how carefully you cook them, your falafel will be dense and puck-like. With raw beans, running them through the food processor before they are cooked breaks open all the plant cells and dumps the raw starches out into a slushy suspension of fiber and water, pretty much like, say, cake batter. Thus, when the falafel is cooked, the starches expand and remain subsequently unmolested, resulting in a substantial, but bread-like texture. Baking powder undoubtedly helps.

Other thoughts-

As I said, these are not quite like J Garden falafel. The only real reason I used black eyed peas instead of garbanzos is that those are what I had. But I think it's a pretty good knock-off. Of course, I asked the Falafel Guy (who did tell me his name, but I don't know that he'd want to be identified) about the secret formula for Jerusalem Garden falafel. He couldn't tell me, not having been granted the knowledge, but I'm pretty sure he said that there was thyme in it, and powdered garlic, and that they used a lot of green onions. Thyme was not a feature of any of the recipes I read before making mine, nor were garlic powder or scallions. I suspect the first two are the key flavor ingredients that make the recipe unique- thyme is not mentioned at all in any of the formulae I referred to, and garlic is always fresh. It's the scallions which make the dough bright green, and if you wanted to enhance the green effect, you could use just the tops of them. I'm going to have to try this with actual chick peas some time. The eyes of black eyed peas leave little dark flecks in the dough, which doesn't affect the flavor or texture, but sort of annoys me aesthetically.

*I could wish that their website was as awesome as their food, but I suppose I'm glad they concentrate on the essentials.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

More Goodwill


Hey lookit what I found! I thought this was a brandy pipe when I first saw it, but it turns out that it's for drinking port. At least, that's what the pictures said when I looked it up online. Who cares? I'll never use it- it's just adorable. It looks like a cross between an elephant and a jellyfish. It's got feet, and a tentacle! Feet + tentacle = totally worth 99 cents.

The other thing I found is this roll of material. It's about a foot wide, and there seems to be quite a lot of it. I'm hoping someone out there can tell me if the cryptic inscriptions say what the fiber content is, or if it's just some crap like a brand name, or 'inspected by inspector blah'. Anybody?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Breakfast Sammie


Rosemary might be the most overused herb in Portland, but that might be because it's real tasty. And grows weedlike in these parts, except on my porch. I'm sure that's my fault- I repotted my rosemary kinda late in the spring and it never did snap back. Over the summer I realized how many things I usually put rosemary in because my poor little plant just sat there cowering in its pot and never gave me enough branches to cook with. Eventually I snuck down the block one evening and pulled a couple twigs off the behemoth rosemary growing in my neighbor's yard. They really add zazz to my eggs.


I mince up the rosemary and sprinkle it over a fried egg with a pinch of salt. It's important to break the yolk just before you turn it over, or you'll have an explodingly messy sandwich. Cheese goes on the flipped egg. If you cut it evenly thin, it will have just slumped into melty ooze by the time the egg is done. You can toast the bread if you want to, for me it depends on how long ago I made it: more than a day or so and untoasted bread is less appealing. Mayo goes with tomato. That's one of those because-it-just-does things, in my book.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lemon Dilemma


Because I am a single gal, I usually don't use a whole lemon before it gets all wizened into a rock. I solved that problem by keeping lemon wedges in the freezer, but one consequence of freezing lemons is that when you thaw them out, the lemon oil in the rind tends to make your food bitter.

The lemon zest is where most of the oil in the rind is- which is a good thing if you want a pinch of it minced up to flavor something with. Not so good when you microwave a frozen lemon and you can't control how much peel flavor goes into your lemon juice. I decided that was something I could live with if it meant that I could have fresh tasting lemon juice without wasting most of a lemon, until I read somewhere that you can preserve lemon zest in salt or sugar. Hmmmm. If I zipped all the outsides of my lemons off before freezing them, I would have solved the bitter-lemon problem, as well as saved the good parts of the rind for something else, right? So the last time I bought half a dozen lemons, I saved the zest in a pint jar of sugar.

Well, now I have 2 cups of lemon sugar to use up. No big deal, but who on earth actually uses as much lemon zest as that? Next time, I think I'll just freeze some of it separately and make myself throw the rest away, like a sensible person. Meanwhile, here are some lemon bars.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup butter -I use salted. If you don't, then add 1/4 tsp salt to the crust.

5 eggs
3/4 cup lemon juice
1 1/2 cups sugar- I used 1 cup plain, 1/2 cup lemon sugar.
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt

Pre-heat the oven to 350. Line the bottom of a 9x13 pan with waxed or parchment paper.

Cut the first 3 ingredients together with a pastry tool. Unlike normal pastry, you don't want to leave butter lumps in the dough. It's done when it looks almost moist, but still crumbles easily. Dump the crumbs into the pan, distribute them evenly over the bottom, and then press them down firmly into a nice solid crust. Prick the crust all over with a fork to prevent it from bubbling up in the oven, and bake it for about 13 minutes. It should be barely browned around the edges by that time. Remove the crust from the oven, and turn the heat up to 375.

Beat all the rest of the ingredients together until completely combined. Pour over the crust, and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the filling has set. When they are cool, sprinkle the tops with powdered sugar and cut them up. 


1. While the bars are still hot, take a very sharp, thin, knife and run it around the edge of the pan to separate the bars from the baking dish. On a related note,

2. Don't be tempted to use a non-stick pan. Even if the bars don't stick to the sides of the pan, you still have to cut them up, which will just gouge holes in your teflon. I am against teflon anyway.

3. You really do have to wait until they are cool to put the powdered sugar on top. If they are still warm, the steam coming off the bars will just make the sugar dissolve. I think Harriet did that once. They still tasted fine, but they didn't look the same and the tops were pretty sticky.

4. The amount of time the filling will take to set up depends on how cold your ingredients are. I use eggs right out of the fridge, so they take on the long side to cook.

5. Oil the knife you use to cut them with. This part isn't mandatory, but it makes them come out prettier, because they stick to the blade less.

This is a pretty good formula. It makes a good sized batch, with a nice proportion of lemon stuff to crust. I looked up a bunch of recipes before I made these, and I think I incorporated the main features that attracted me to each. I used less total sugar than most recipes called for, and more lemon juice. I added an egg to compensate for the extra juice, which had the added benefit of increasing the total volume of lemon goop to slightly greater than 50% of the finished confection. There is just enough flour in the filling to give it some stability, and the baking powder adds a bit of fluff.

The powdered sugar in the crust is indispensable for creating the texture which is such a key part of the lemon bar mystique. Granulated sugar tends to make a tougher pastry, both because the larger particle size makes the sugar distribute differently in the dough, and because powdered sugar has quite a bit of cornstarch in it as an anti-caking agent. I'm pretty sure that it's mostly the cornstarch which makes the crust both tender and dense, as a lot of shortbread recipes call for it. Incidentally, if you measure ingredients by weight, this takes about 65 grams of powdered sugar in the crust.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bobbin Lace


I got a new obsessive hobby. I can never have too many of those, because knitting and sewing weren't enough, apparently. This does make some very pretty stuff, although I doubt I will ever become an expert lacemaker, any more than I am an expert knitter.

Bobbin lace has always fascinated me, initially because it is so pretty. Then when I read a few things about how lace is made, I was amazed by how simple the basic mechanics of lacemaking are. No matter how fancy a piece of lace looks, it is always made by doing one of the following things:

Take 2 strings. Either cross the left one over the top of the right one, or

Cross the right one over top of the left one.

If you line up a whole lot of strings and cross them left over right or right over left repeatedly, you will have lace. It's just like making a rather wide braid with tiny threads instead of large cords.

So, how do you know what order to do it in? Well, you draw a little map on a strip of paper, which shows you where your strings go, and pin your lace to it as you go along. How do you know where to put in a pin? You draw a little dot on the map, of course.

The cool thing is that, to an extent, you don't need to do the parts in any particular order. As long as you cross to the left or the right in the correct sequence, it will turn out fine. Sure, you can get pretty obsessive, and it's true that the more methodical you are, the fancier a thing you can make, but the pictures are of a super easy beginner's pattern I found online, and I think it's awfully nice.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Blueberries, Cashews, Vinaigrette

At some point, it finally got warm enough for me to be interested in eating greens. I've never met a store-bought salad dressing which I liked enough that I thought I would consume a whole container of it before it went bad. They're usually gooey, or slimy, or intensely sweet, or all of the above. Even the better kinds are just sort of Ok. No big surprise there- by definition they are designed for the mass market, and for a degree of shelf-stability undesirable in a home made food.  Most of the time I just dash some balsamic vinegar and olive oil on my salad and call it good. Unfortunately, this can get a bit monotonous. Here's something zippier:

Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated very fine
1 small clove garlic, also grated very fine
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons olive oil

I find that keeping my ginger root frozen makes it grate better, but that's the closest this recipe gets to food-ninja technique. I keep the dressing in the fridge and slop it on greens, or chunks of tofu. It's pretty good on rice too. You have to be a bit careful though because it'll give you garlic mouth somthin' powerful.

My salad hasn't got anything particularly Asian about it, but the dressing reminds me of the stuff that comes on salads in Japanese restaurants. I tried this with raisins and pine nuts, but I think I like the blueberries better. They almost have a citrusy thing which does well with the garlic and sesame. I could go either way on cashews vs. pine nuts, but visually, the cashews are more interesting.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The possibilities of peas


I first made this with chick peas. I still like it with chick peas, but I recently started using blackeyed peas for a bunch of different things. They taste more interesting than most other types of beans, also, a) I don't use up a whole can of refried beans before they go bad and b) a can of most any type of beans costs about a buck, while a pound of dried peas costs about 75 cents. I can make as many or as few as I need, and I find they don't seem to need as long a cooking time as other dried beans- probably because they're very small, but probably also because I do pre-soak them. This used to bother me- it seemed like fiddly sort of thing to do. But then I realized that leaving them in a tupperware of water in the fridge over night, or the next night, and frequently the night after that until I decide that yes, today is the day I want them actually realizes a net reduction of fiddle. There are a couple things I've found that are good to do before you put them on the stove:

1. Shake them up and then rinse them well. Gets rid of more indigestible carbohydrates. Makes you more polite to your companions later.
2. Season them! Duh right? Not really. Cooking the seasonings in rather than cooking then seasoning makes a huge difference.

If I know I want to make refried beans with them, I put in salt, a bay leaf, pepper, cumin and a good shake each of onion and garlic powder. Yes, fresh is good, but this is refritos, people. You're just going to cook the bajeebus out of 'em, so it don't make a difference. Less fiddle! If I don't know what I'm going to do with them, I just add salt and a bay leaf. That's what I have in the picture here.

Along with the blackeyed peas, I have a tomato, some lentils (I like the kind called 'green french lentils' because they seem to hold their shape well), some kalamata olives, a few fresh mint leaves and some cumin, ground coriander seed, and a dash each of olive oil and the olive brine. I usually like to put in a yellow bell pepper for color, and if you want more green stuff, the recipe originally called for flat leaf parsley rather than mint, but I didn't have those things today. As I said, the first version of this had chickpeas in it, which make the salad taste nuttier. Blackeyed peas have a grassier taste which is rather nice with the coriander and mint.

But what else do I do with them? In the winter of course, I cook them with bacon. They are pretty tasty as an ingredient in other salads, and sometimes I get lazy and rather than bother to smash them into refried beans, I just sprinkle them on my nachos before they go under the broiler. I have a recipe for black bean and sweet corn fritters, which I want to use with blackeyed peas. They're good with migas, too.

Incidentally, does anybody know where I can get some pigeon peas?

Friday, July 29, 2011


I sat down on the couch with my breakfast and saw this beastie hovering in the air between the screen door and my cutting table. There are lots of them on the porch messing around in my flower pots; this one must have gotten blown into the living room yesterday some time. What baffles me is how it got its web strung up to begin with. That would  be like me hanging a clothes line between the sides of Columbia Gorge. The sneaky little critters do it at night, so I never see how they start.

I had to put it outside. I felt a little bad about tearing down its web. I wasn't sorry for the spider, I mean, they build at least one every day, but I was a bit enchanted by the oddity of having such an ethereally perfect thing decorating my house.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Yay Baguette Pan!

I found a baguette pan at goodwill! I saw one about 2 years ago, and had been kicking myself ever since for not buying it. But now I have one, and in my excitement, I had to go look up some recipes for baguette making. I used the smaller formula found here, but I didn't really follow the procedure exactly. Here's what I did:

 for the pre-ferment

100g bread flour
100g water
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

Mix these things together until they are pretty smooth. Cover loosely, and allow to sit at room temperature for 2 to 4 hours. Then either stick it in the fridge until you want to use it, (for me, that was from Friday night until Sunday morning) or start making the bread with it right away.

In either case, add

325g bread flour
155g water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast

Knead until it's pretty smooth, around 10 minutes, then cover and allow it to rest for 40 min. Fold the dough over on itself 3-4 times, let rest another 40. Do the folds again, and another half hour rest.

After the final rest, gently shape the dough out into a log about 14" long. Cut it in half along the long axis (I used a chef's knife). This will give you 2 long skinny ropes of dough. Pinch the cut edges closed on each one.

Lightly oil the pan, and place each rope of dough in one of the depressions, with the pinched parts facing down.. Cover with a towel and let it rest 10 or 15 minutes.

Brush each baguette with a little water, then slash the tops with a knife.

Bake at 450 for 15 min, then turn the pan and reduce the heat to 375. Bake another 15 minutes.


1. Measuring ingredients by weight helps a lot. Water is the same size all the time, so you can measure it by volume if you like, but because flour is a compressible powder, a cup of it can contain vastly different actual amounts of stuff. Measuring with a scale eliminates the problem, because a pound of flour is always a pound of flour, no matter how much room it takes up.
2. I used a bread machine. I just set it on the knead cycle for 10 minutes, then took the dough out and put it in a bowl for the resting & folding parts.
3. Today it's pretty cool in my house. I did the rising in the oven, with a kettle of boiled water next to the dough to keep it warm.
4. You shouldn't need to add any more flour for the folding part, and only the lightest dusting on the board for the shaping. Adding a bunch more flour will make the bread heavy and dry.
5. The amount of time it takes to pre-heat my oven is about the right amount of time for the final resting of the dough in the pans. I have an electric oven, so it takes a while.
6. Don't be afraid to really slash the loaves! I did not do mine quite deeply enough, and as a consequence, the loaves split longitudinally, rather than having those picturesque eyes open in the tops.

Man these are great. They also are a giant leap forward in my bread making skills. The pan helps, but I think mostly the procedure is what matters.

There are a couple things about this recipe that seem to be important. One is probably salt. This calls for almost twice what I usually put in my bread. Salt does something to the way yeast metabolizes the flour, but I'm afraid I don't know exactly what. Obviously it also affects taste: this is a very savory loaf, deliciously so.

The other thing is the pre-fermentation of a portion of the dough. Longer rising will times let the yeasts develop more 'bready' rather than 'doughy' flavors in the finished loaf, but letting it go too long will make the dough have a strong alcoholic whiff. That fades quickly, but it still isn't what I want. Rising time also affects texture- long rising gives the best breads a chewy texture, but has a tendency to make them dense and rubbery also. Short rising gives bread a lighter, more delicate texture, but will impart less flavor. The compromise is to pre-ferment only part of the dough. Outcome? Crusty, yet tender,chewy but light, complex taste and freshness together.

Now, how could I have gone and failed to provide myself with some nice runny cheese to go with this? Foolishness! On the other hand, if I had, I would never have realized that a slice of cheddar with a couple nasturtium leaves is a lot like cream cheese and watercress, but with more oomph.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Banana Cake


I had a jones, of no origin, for banana cake. I googled 'banana cake recipe', and chose the one that said "best ever banana cake recipe", of course. I wasn't going by the title alone, the recipe had 900 reviews and counting, which were overwhelmingly positive. Either it's a foolproof cake, or somebody has waaaaay too much time on their hands to write nearly a thousand spurious recipe reviews. I'm betting on largely foolproof. After my misadventures in baking recently, I did a little technical research on the behavior of cake, which I put in the notes at the bottom.

Of course, I couldn't possibly make myself follow the recipe. The original calls for buttermilk and lemon juice. The buttermilk I didn't have, so I swapped in an equal amount of greek yogurt, and the lemon juice is presumably just to keep the bananas from going brown. It was already too late on the browning prevention, so I left it out.

3 medium-large, very ripe bananas
3 cups AP flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup greek yogurt

Preheat oven to 300.

Butter and flour an 11x15 cake pan.

Cream the butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla together. I used my food processor. Mix in the yogurt.

Sift in half the dry ingredients and mix into the batter.

Puree the bananas and pour half into the batter. Mix in the bananas, then do the rest of the flour, then the bananas.

When everything is thoroughly mixed and there are no streaks or bumps, pour the batter into the pan and spread it out evenly.

The side bar on the recipe said that the cooking temps might be anywhere between 275 and 325, and the time somewhere between an hour and 1 1/2 hours. The lack of specificity made me a little anxious, especially since I have had poor luck with my baking lately. I ended up with 1 hr 15 min at 300.

Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting  

1 packet cream cheese
1 stick butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 or 3 tablespoons water
3 cups powdered sugar
1 packet trader joe's freeze-dried strawberries

Mix all the frosting ingredients except strawberries until you have achieved a smooth consistency, somewhere around that of very soft peanut butter. Put the strawberries in a food processor and process until they have turned into a fine powder. Make sure the bowl of the machine is perfectly dry, or the berries will turn into glue. Reserve half the frosting, and mix the berry powder into the other half to make a pink and white cake.

Some notes:

-I lined the bottom of my cake pan with waxed paper. It really helps get the cake out. Butter the pan, cut a piece of paper to fit, press it into the bottom, butter the paper, then sprinkle everything with flour. Tap the excess flour out before putting in the batter.

-I had my heart set on a cake with layers, and was a little worried that the cake would come out with a large bump in the middle of the pan, making it unsuitable for cutting and stacking. I needn't have worried, as it turns out. The low cooking temperature seems to result in a very even rise in the cake.

-Make sure the cake is completely cool before trying to frost it. I made the cake one day, covered it and put it in the fridge, then frosted it the next day. I obviously don't have a very skilled frosting technique, but here is what the experts say- 1) Stack your layers, then trim the edges to make a perfectly geometric cake. 2) Spread a thin layer of frosting over the raw edges, then wait for about 5 minutes for it to set up. This will glue down the crumbs, then you can put a thicker, nicer-looking layer on top.

-What's it mean when they say "cream the butter and sugar", anyway? Well, what they mean, apparently, is that the butter & sugar should be beaten together until the sugar dissolves, and there are enough microscopic air bubbles thrashed into it, that the mixture appears to have gotten paler than it was before. I think I got that part right, thanks to modern technology. Recipes usually don't say to add the eggs at this point, but I did it anyway, because as I understand it, the important points are 1) dissolve the sugar and, probably more importantly, 2) create those tiny bubbles in the batter. Yes there is a leavening agent (baking soda), but the tiny air pockets are a key factor in creating a light, fluffy, cake. In the oven, the heat causes the tiny bubbles to expand, and then the batter sets up around the air pockets. Unlike cookies or brownies, which are dense, crunchy or gooey as the recipe calls for, in cake the trapped air bubbles result in a food item composed largely of air.

Setting aside the fact that my decorating job looks like it was applied by a 3rd-grader, I'm fairly pleased with the result. It's really a cake. It has layers, with frosting, and it's pink, my favorite flavor. And boy is it banana-ey! I had a hard time convincing myself not to eat it for breakfast today.