On eating well.

Sometimes I go through fits of intense fascination with food.  It’s grounding and uplifting at the same time; fun to make and fun to eat; beautiful to be both a producer and a consumer of so much goodness.  Since I was boasting on Facebook about yesterday’s food-frenzy, I was asked for recipes; they are below.  More to follow, eventually.  Oh, we also made applesauce: core and chop Macintosh or Cortland apples; heap into slow cooker.  Add one or more chopped pears for fab flavor; 1/2 cup water for texture; 1 tsp cinnamon for attitude.  Cook on high for an hour or so; stir periodically until it reaches the texture you want.  Puree if you feel like it.  Freezes well!

Leek and Pumpkin Soup:

Roast one smallish pumpkin or other winter squash  (I cut mine in half, scoop out pulp, and roast them face-down in a pan with an inch of water until the outside is brownish and it smushes under pressure — maybe 40 minutes at 400F).  Chop and wash three medium leeks (yes, I do it in that order, so I can really get all the grit out from between the layers).  Sautee them in a Tbsp or so of butter until they are soft, adding a half-tsp of thyme and another of salt somewhere along the way.  Deglaze the pan with about a half-cup of dry white wine, keeping the leeks in there for the process.  Inhale deeply over the pot.  Add homemade chicken stock (maybe 6-8 cups?).  Add mashed insides of squash.  Simmer together for ten minutes or so, then puree if you so choose or keep it chunky.  Your call.  Enjoy.

Ricotta Cornbread:

This is an eggless variation of my old standby cornbread recipe.  It’s the sweet, moist kind.

Butter an 8×8 pan; preheat oven to 400.  Mix dries and wets separately and then combine.  Pour into pan; bake for 20-25 minutes until done.

3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup white whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup sugar

2.5 tsp baking powder (more doesn’t hurt)

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup ricotta cheese

1 tsp vanilla

 

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On wading in: Day 9. Seeing clearly.

There are a number of things that my husband and I are not good at, and one of them is regular household maintenance.  He is genuinely relaxed about it, whereas I suffer a low-grade chronic anxiety over all the neglect.  Doesn’t matter: we don’t do a thing.

But sometimes I get to realizing that my life would be happier without the chronic anxiety.  And that maybe some of the things I’m anxious about are, in fact, fixable.  So every once in a while, we get all over it (see Day 7: Gettin’ it done).

What I don’t usually anticipate are the lovely results.  For the past two days, for example, I’ve been opening all the blinds on all the windows and gazing out the windows admiringly.  When teased about this behavior, I responded truthfully: “But I’m loving looking OUT the window instead of AT the window.”  Because that was what I had done for the last, oh, five years.  I’d look at the clouded, spotted, smudged surface that was supposed to be glossy clean, and I’d feel like a failure.  It was a very quiet voice and a very quick sort of seeing, but it was there.  Today, I just see the emeralds and golds and blues of this early fall day.

As ever, there’s a lesson here for me.  Letting go of, or doing away with, the obstacles to joy is a whole lot easier than I think.  It may take time, organization, and elbow grease, but it’s something, often, that I can plan for, engage others in, and DO.  What it takes most of all, though, is a willingness to see clearly what the obstacle is — and how to fix it — and, most importantly, how to honor its removal and revel in the joy of a new openness in my life.

Today was an “Ezra-Mama-Chi day,” as Ezra has coined them (in case you couldn’t tell from the order of names), from Len’s departure at 7:45 until his return at 6:45.  And it was the best such day we’ve ever had.  Why?  I think it had to do with all that clear sunlight streaming into the house and all the crystalline simplicity it brought with it.  Playground?  Why sure.  Duck pond?  Absolutely.  Hungry for muffins?  Let’s make some.  We’ve got this here zucchini and our favorite new recipe (Martha Stewart’s recipes really are, often, impeccable).  Naptime was later than usual because of all the story requests, but hey — there are worse things than extra reading.  There was one small meltdown, which I met with love (“I KNOW how hard it is to listen sometimes, but I REALLY want to read you stories before bed, and Mama can’t read to a boy who doesn’t listen…so what do you think?  Can you work harder on listening?  Let’s practice!”).   I did, of course, flash forward a few times to all the Things I Have To Do Tomorrow, but for once I could see clearly: tomorrow is tomorrow.  Let’s write those puppies down and look at the list…tomorrow.

In short, I felt powerful, loving, loved, contained, expansive, generous, whole.  My work felt new, my life fulfilling, my family part of my art.  This, I imagine, is perhaps the whole point.

Our home bread revolution

IMG_1245I am someone who lives in the perpetual struggle between wanting to live frugally and wanting to eat well.  There are certain non-negotiables: organic dairy products; decent wine/beer; and until recently, good bread.  There are two fabulous local bakeries that we like to support (don’t you love it when a good cause is also the best food around?), but we are also bread-hogs, and our little habit was costing us maybe $50 a month.  I’d tried baking bread off and on for the last few decades, but the best I could do was a very good (but highly specific) polenta bread and a decent sandwich loaf.  All other attempts were met with varying degrees of disappointment and rage.  By me, I hasten to add.  Len loves whatever I cook and is uniformly supportive (which I don’t understand but revel in).

So imagine my skepticism when I read about these “no-knead” bread strategies that cost less than a buck a loaf.  But imagine my experimental enthusiasm as well!  A few weeks ago, I tried it.  This is the recipe that, I believe, started with Mark Bittman’s thing on no-knead bread, but I found it here at the Italian Dish Blog.  It seems like an awful lot of flour (and I changed it some, as detailed below), but then, it makes three loaves of bread!  And the most incredible thing is that it is really really easy AND really really delicious.  Raise your skeptical eyebrows all you want, people.  Try it and see.

So several times a week, now, our house is filled with the glorious aroma of baking bread; our lives are enriched by those first warm slices slathered in melting butter; our ordinary toast — with jam, with melted cheddar, with slices of creamy avocado — is now a thing of transcendent beauty.  Once a week I mix a new batch and let it sit.  Honestly, the worst thing about this whole undertaking is that the bowl I use takes up too much room in the fridge.  Poor poor me.

So here’s the recipe:

  • 3 cups warm water
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons (or 4 1/2 teaspoons or 2 packets) granulated fast-acting yeast
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons (ditto) coarse salt
  • 3 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour

You mix the yeast and salt into the warm water — I use a fork to make sure it’s all dissolved.

Mix the flours together and then add them to the yeasty water all at once.  Mix until moist.

Cover and allow to rise (not airtight) for about two hours — longer is fine.  We understand the vagaries of life, and so does this dough.  (And in case you feel like there’s some professional fancy dough-covering device needed — nah.  I use a recycled plastic grocery bag with the handles tied in front.  Sue me.)

Refrigerate at least 3 hours (this dough is really sticky and wet, and refrigeration makes it easier to handle).  I leave the bowl in the fridge for up to a week, taking off what I need as I go.  Though you will be tempted to rest other foodstuffs on TOP of the dough bowl, it’s probably not a great idea.

To bake: put a sheet of parchment paper on a lipless cookie sheet or pizza peel.  When it curls up repeatedly, curse under your breath and place the parchment paper box lengthwise across it to hold it down while you prepare the dough.

Cut off, with a serrated knife, about a third of the dough.  If it’s sticking to your hands, you can dust them with flour, but I rarely need to do that, and it’s much faster if you don’t have to get things OUT for this.  Shape the dough into a sausagey-french-loaf-kind-of-shape as quickly as you can, pulling the top under to the bottom and hanging it to lengthen it .  The surface should be taut and smooth.  This should all take maybe 30 seconds.  Set dough on parchment paper-covered cookie sheet.  Let rise 30-40 minutes (and don’t worry if it doesn’t do much.  Mine rarely does).

20 minutes before baking, put a pizza stone in the center rack of the oven and a shallowish pan on a lower rack (I find it best if the pan is not directly beneath the stone).  Preheat your oven to 450.

Immediately before baking, slash the top of the bread three times with a sharp knife.  Slide the dough, paper and all, onto the hot pizza stone.  Then quickly pour one cup of water into the pan and close the oven door.  Bake 30 minutes, turning the paper once if your oven is crappy and uneven like mine.

When bread is almost finished, use a clean towel to lift the loaf briefly, peel off the paper, and return the bread to the stone (ideally to a new, hotter spot on said stone).  Crisp for five more minutes to brown the bottom crust.

Enjoy your absolute wizardry; brag to all your friends.  Regret it when they demand taste-tests.  A few days (or hours) later, when your loaf is gone, just grab more dough from the bowl and fire it all up again.

A last note: when you go to make a new batch, you don’t have to wash out the bowl.  According to the authors at The Italian Dish Blog, the leftover yeasty doughy goodness just adds to the flavor.  And indeed it does, my friends.  Indeed it does.  Divine.

If all this sounds a little much, rest assured that it’s quicker than reading these instructions.  It’s quicker than BUYING bread.  It’s a simple habit to develop and you’ll be glad you did. (Heavens, you’d think I was investing in your bread success.  I don’t know how to do that.)  Anyway, enjoy.

Resurfacing

You know how when you get sick and worn down, nothing seems significant anymore?  And that which does is mostly depressing?  Yeah.  That’s been the past week.  But we’re all starting to get better now, which gave rise to a fit of afternoon food production around here: lentil-sausage-pesto soup and citrus olive-oil cake and even some bread dough.  Recipes are offered below.  But I just wanted to register not only this fine achievement but also an important realization: when we’re low and off-kilter and sick, we consume.  When we’re grounded and whole and healthy, we produce.  Perhaps this is not the most important thing I’ve ever noticed, but then again, perhaps it is.  Resurfacing does more than let us gasp for air — it reminds us how to swim.

Recipes:

Lentil Soup: from Smitten Kitchen (scroll down the page some to find the actual recipe amid all the hoopla and enthusiasm), but I like it best with garlic sausage instead of sweet italian; kale instead of chard; and a cup or so of pesto to keep things lively.  It’s gorgeous.  Oh, and the garlic oil they rave about?  I haven’t tried it.  I’m sure it’s brilliant.  But who has time?  This is quick, healthy, and totally delicious.

Citrus Olive-Oil Cake: sorry I can’t share it.  It’s from Rustic Fruit Desserts, about which I often rave, and I probably need permission.  Pester me if you want me to look into it.  I will mention that we used only grapefruit and orange rind and substituted lemon extract — which makes me wonder if you could use all extracts in a pinch? — and it was terrific.  I used a pretty fruity olive oil and next time will go milder.  I mean, the cake itself is GORGEOUS, but with such a strong oil, you end up with a bit of aftertaste and -feel.

Bread: this one cracks me up.  I’ve been flirting with bread-baking for, oh, fifteen years or so.  I mostly spend a lot of time to make something kind of mediocre and so I bail.  I think I really need to get a sourdough starter and try again.  But this was a last-ditch effort at ordinary yeasty hearth bread, and I tried it because it’s no-knead.  So a lot less time.  I figured it would suck, but whatever.  Here’s the thing: it’s really good! It is, so far, hands-down the best bread I’ve ever made.  The coolest part is that you make the dough, let it sit out for two hours, and then refrigerate it for as long as you want.  You cut off a chunk to make a loaf (my dough will make about three loaves, I think), shape it and set it out to rise for about 40 minutes, and then you bake it on a pizza stone.  Absolutely delicious, and with a better crumb and texture than anything else I’ve made.  Maybe bread is like garden soil: we all think we have to maul it for best results, but if we can get out of the way and let it do its own thing, it’s brilliant.  Recipe is here.

On Nemo, of course

Image

It’s not like we can write about anything else today.  At least, not those of us who live in the 3-foot zone.  But it does help to remember a few things:

1. This is one of the few winters where a storm like this wouldn’t make it impossible to see out our driveway.  Some years, it’s been like a cavern, with snow banks eight feet high on either side.  This, all things considered, is not all that severe.

2. We haven’t lost power!  Hurrah!  Celebrations!  Naturally, I kept expecting us to, so we had the woodstove on all night (including a 2:30 am run to reboot).  And then we had to do some emergency baking — Mimi’s German Apple Cake, from Rustic Fruit Desserts (the best such cookbook I’ve found).  These are not awful things.

3. Kind neighbors are glorious: one such just snowblowed (snowblew?) out the worst of our four- and five-foot drifts.  I heap blessings upon him and his family.

4. There were brownies.  From the day before.  All chewy.  And Len was too sick to really compete for them (yes, I will make this up to him, but for Nemo, well, it was what it was).

5. The beauty of all this snow is astonishing, and if you catch me at the right moment, I am even capable of seeing that.  Witness.

6. And we are, after all, heading inexorably toward spring.  See?

Bulbs in pot

The perfect pumpkin bread

I know, I know, it’s an ambitious title.  But I’ve working on this for years, and I feel some confidence in the result.  wicked good pumpkin bread

My goals were these: pumpkin bread that is a) delicious and b) healthy.  It had to be tender and a little chewy and not harden up too much in the day or two following the bake.  I wanted to have some variability in spiciness and to be able to use either canned or real pumpkin.  Done.  Check.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Makes two loaves.

Ingredients:

1.5 c all-purpose flour

1 c. whole wheat flour

1 c. oat flour (you can do what I did: buy the pricey stuff and THEN find out that you can grind oats in a blender to make it yourself, or you can just start the cheap way and feel all smug about it)

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ginger

3/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 c. loosely or not-at-all packed brown sugar

3/4 c. milk (soy or cow’s, whatever)

1/3 c. vegetable oil

2 tsp vanilla

2 large eggs

1 15-oz can of pumpkin, or mashed roasted pumpkin (I used extra this time, maybe 15 oz, and loved the result)

Optional walnuts, chocolate chips, currants, whatever — though it’s pretty awesome plain.

Process:

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Mix dry ingredients together; make a well in the center.

Mix sugar through pumpkin in a separate bowl; add to the dries.

Add whatever extra stuff you feel you need.

Pour into two greased 8 or 8.5″ loaf pans and bake for 1 hour.

Notes:

You can also add 1/2 tsp of cloves and a pinch (or more) of cayenne if you want a spicier version.  Also, be glad this makes two loaves.  Strongly consider giving one away, but know that I will not judge you if you end up not.