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castiron

One of the biggest non-emotional adjustments in the empty-nesting phase is learning to cook for fewer people. Cooking for three when one of those is a growing, teenaged boy is more like cooking for four, and a half. In addition to the challenge of avoiding a week’s worth of leftovers, I’ve had to learn the balancing act of often cooking for one as my schedule more closely resembles 9-5 whereas Keifel is on the seven days a week, nearly round the clock schedule of retail. I’m not adverse to cooking for one but I often don’t feel like making a big production out of it. One of my favorite dinners for one is spinach or arugula (depending on mood and availability), half a small avocado, maybe a little crumbled bacon, and a fried egg all drizzled with a mustardy vinaigrette kissed with a little honey. If left to my own devices for an extended period of time, I would probably eat it almost every night occasionally throwing in some roasted asparagus or some warmed butter beans or chickpeas.

When I’m not in a salad mood or want to putt around the kitchen a little more (cooking is most often my Zen-like state), I’ll make an oven pancake. They go by several monikers: Dutch babies, German pancake, souffléd pancake… We’ve always called them Dutch babies despite the potentially disturbing visual. If I’m dining alone, I generally make an unsweetened or barely sweetened one with a mix of whole grain and white flour. I like mine with tart lingonberry jam, but they are equally good with a dusting of powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon. They can also be a vehicle for something a little less like an American breakfast option. Just add a pinch of sugar in the recipe given below and then top your oven pancake with sautéed vegetables, a bit of leftover beef stew, wilted greens with a bit of feta or other crumbly cheese, or even a barely warmed lentil salad. May sound odd but it’s very satisfying. If you wanted to do something like it for more people and fancy it up a bit, you could make the pancakes in individual pans or baking dishes.

Victoria’s Dutch Baby

Preheat your oven to 425°F.

You’ll need:

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup milk (just about any kind will work, I’m partial to local, whole, non-homogenized)

2 large eggs (local are best, if you are using particularly small eggs you might want three)

1/2 cup flour (all purpose or a mix of all-purpose and whole wheat or spelt, or all whole-grain – though it will be heavier)

a large pinch to a 1/4 cup of sugar (depending on desired level of sweetness)

a pinch of salt

 

Melt the butter in a 8″ cast-iron skillet or something similar over medium heat while you mix up the batter.

Keeping an eye on the butter, add 1/2 cup milk to a two-cup glass measuring cup. Crack in two eggs. The amount of total liquid should be about a cup. If it’s much less than that, add a third egg. Beat the eggs and milk together. Add the flour(s), the sugar, and salt and beat together (I have a small French whisk, the long skinny kind, that works with my wide-mouthed measure cup. You may have to use a fork in a smaller measuring cup) until only small lumps remain and the mixture is the consistency of heavy cream.

The butter should have melted and may be bubbling in the pan. If it isn’t bubbling, turn up the heat to medium-high and swirl the butter in the pan to coat the bottom and about an inch or so up the sides. Once the bubbles have started to die down, pour the batter into the pan and let it cook on the stovetop for about a minute. Transfer the pan to your hot oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, until puffed and golden.

If you’ve got a well-seasoned cast-iron pan, there should be no sticking if you swirled the butter around well. In other pans, your mileage may vary. Top with your heart’s desire. Will feed 1-4 depending on the topping and how hungry everyone is.

Of tomatoes and love

victoria  —  August 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

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The cliché phrase “Life is funny” is, as it happens, overused for a reason. Life is funny and more often than not, not exactly what one expected. While we are piling on with the stock lines let’s also use “nothing is wasted on a writer.” The last week and change has been an exercise in observation of things I didn’t really expect.

Let’s begin with the tomato.

I would really like to be a gardener. When I have gardened, it’s gone rather well and I could pick things for eating with regularity. I’ve also moved house (a lot) and putting in a garden is always something I want to do but we move in at the wrong time of year and I never quite get to it. There are always excuses. The thing is, I know if it were important enough to me, I would do it come rain, shine or another house move. Clearly, I am either too lazy or it just isn’t important enough to me to overcome the admittedly low hurdles to make it happen.

So, I buy tomatoes in the summer (fresh tomatoes in the winter are wet, cottony wastes of money and time and not the subject of this post). I buy them at the farmer’s market most usually on Saturday morning. When my schedule precludes the farmer’s market, I go instead to Whole Foods and pay the convenience fee for my local tomatoes, organic pasta, and other pantry staples all being in one place.

Yesterday, when I wanted a tomato that I did not buy at the farmer’s market, I knew I would pay a premium. But it’s August and hot and now is the time to eat a tomato. I thought the sign said $5.99/each, so being slightly greedy in my tomato choosing, I chose the biggest, heaviest, orangest tomato on the pile. At the register, I learned it was $5.99 a pound and, well, not being keen on sheepishly taking the platinum-valued, $10 tomato back to the table with its brethren, I swiped my card and went about my business.

Now, how to honor this very dear tomato? I’m a firm believer in buying the best ingredients you can afford (or, in this case, splurge on) and doing as little as possible to them to honor their essence. I cut the core out of this giant tomato and then into three portions following its natural lobes, sliced one lobe into manageable slices and laid it out on a serving platter. I drizzled some California olive oil over it and scattered the slices with some crushed white pepper corns and black Hawaiian sea salt. I also dug out the beautiful, horn tomato fork my sister bought me for my birthday a few years ago. That was the salad to go with our pasta dish composed of orecchietti, sliced leftover brats, caramelized onions, a red pepper, and a glug of cream. Not too shabby for 20 minutes from walking in the door to sitting down at the table together. The tomato was perfect.

After dinner, I sliced the remaining tomato lobes, covered them in more of the olive oil and set them in a low oven for an hour to poach. We’ll have those tonight or tomorrow night as bruschetta with some local goat feta. I feel I will have honored my platinum tomato to the best of my ability.

All this cooking and thinking about food doesn’t happen in the vacuum of the Internet, of course. I have a job and a family, friends and two feline rulers. It’s a pretty good life all told. There’s a lot going on in it right now. My boychick, who is now a young man, leaves for college on Thursday. Keifel and I both have elderly parents in declining health. We have jobs that for the most part leave us fulfilled but are by no means perfect. We have friends who are experiencing their own griefs and transitions. Life is funny and messy sometimes. And then just when you think you’ve got a purchase to ride the wave you’re currently on, Poseidon, or Ursula the Sea Witch or whatever you believe controls the universe or leaves it to chaos, ramps up the machine and sends a rogue wave right at you.

My rogue wave brought a surprise invitation for the boychick to meet his birth father. I can speculate all afternoon and into the wee hours of tomorrow about why it finally happened, but I have no idea what the catalyst really was. It’s something I’ve always hoped would happen because I think knowing where you came from can be important to knowing who you are. It went well, as best as reported to me by Keifel and Jules. My son is the glassy surface of a pond when it comes to these things and he’s of the let’s-wait-and-see-where-this-goes mentality.

I do wish I had that seemingly magic ability to be unruffled by the unexpected. Okay, sometimes I do and I have learned as I’ve gotten older, it’s all unexpected. But being in my own transition with Jules’ departure for college, that rogue wave smacked me right in the face. There’s nothing like a mouthful of metaphoric seawater to startle you.

It stirred up some of the emotions that wisp around old wounds, wounds from which I fully believe I have long healed. I guess the scar still itches and maybe that never quite goes away. I’ve talked it out and gazed at my belly button and even had a couple new epiphanies about things I thought I’d finished thinking about. I’m fine as it turns out and the water is definitely calmer now.

You might be asking yourself what the hell tomatoes have to do with personal history and the turns life can take. I thought I knew what I was doing both in buying that tomato and in a long ago relationship. The costs were higher than I imagined but I regret nothing; the tomato was and life is delicious (even when messy). Also, if something is really important to you, apparently you will do it, eventually.

[edited because I always find mistakes after I hit publish]

Very small batch canning

victoria  —  July 13, 2013 — 1 Comment
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A very small batch

I haven’t had many Saturdays lately that were just Saturdays – days without real plans, made for puttering and experimenting and maybe daydreaming. Today, this Saturday, is pretty much all mine. I drove Keifel to work very early for a weekend, dropping him about 7:45am. It was too early to go to the market but silly to drive all the home so I popped into Provence on 21st. I’ve been disappointed the last few times I’ve been there, the service has been off or the floors have been really dirty. Things seem a little improved today and I got an almond croissant, my favorite, and a latte and scrolled through some social media while the other early birds flocked in.

By the time I got to the market, the day was in full swing. I got milk and fruit. There were some gorgeous eggplant but no one at my house will eat them but me and as much as I love it, I don’t want to eat leftover eggplant for three days. The Peach Truck is still going strong so I picked up a bag of peaches and traded dollars with a couple other farmers for some huge blackberries and some tiny red plums I had never seen before (I wish I had thought to take a picture…).

The house was still quiet when I got home, so I dragged out the laundry baskets and made some coffee and set about making a batch of plum jam. I bought Food in Jars last spring with grand dreams of making Christmas presents of jeweled summer fruit in jars after a Saturday spent making some iffy strawberry jam with Andrea. Since purchasing the book I have perused its pages many times and made exactly zero things from it. I have actually made (so much better) strawberry jam a couple times and some devilishly good pickled onions but nothing from the book. I even bought a Kuhn Rikon pan with a rack insert big enough for exactly one pint jar… still nothing from the book. With my bounty from the market laid before me on the counter, I was determined to make something. I settled on the recipe for Small Batch Mixed Stone Fruit Jam thinking the plums wouldn’t equal the three cups of chopped fruit required and I would need to throw in at least one of the peaches.

The plums were exactly three cups. I grated in the zest of one lemon, pouring its juice in after and sifted the desiccated vanilla bean pods out of my jar of vanilla sugar (Ms McClellan had suggested adding a vanilla bean) and topping it up to two cups from the sugar canister. The sugared, lemoned plums hung out in the fridge while I started laundry, put the dishes away and had lunch with Julian (his breakfast). Then, on to serious jam making.

The recipe says the batch should be enough to fill three half-pint jars. Apparently I don’t have any half-pint jars. Apparently I have a whole box of wide-mouth pint jars (no idea), a couple small-mouth pints and two 1/4 pints. I set everything up best I could as I have not invested in a canning pot proper but use my pasta pot with a steamer in the bottom. This is not ideal as the pint jars are actually a little tall on the rack. The directions in the book are pretty spot on though it took a lot longer than I thought it would to reach the temperature suggested for a good set since there’s no added pectin. My batch made one full pint and one 1/4 pint of deeply purple jam. Of course I tasted the slick of jam left in the pan. I am always amazed at the natural spiciness of cooked plums. If it sets it’ll be wonderful.

As I typed the last line I heard the favorite sound of all home canners: the ping of a sealing jar.

One sign you might be raising your boy right :

Julian's first pie crust

Heat be damned, I have cooked more in the last week than in the last two months. I’ve tried to carve out time for both shopping and cooking and I have to tell ya, it feels much better. I don’t mean to sound all Suzy Homemaker superior (the universe knows Saint Martha would be appalled by my baseboards) but it’s really that I get sick of restaurant food quickly. And with the heat, all I’ve really wanted to eat was fruit and more fruit. Sadly, the local batshit crazy weather has made even seasonal fruit crazy expensive but we stocked up anyway. I am convinced that it might be possible for me to become a fruititarian. Not to worry about my sanity though really; my family would desert me for the siren call of cow and pig flesh inside a week. In light of that we’ve had brats in beer, a yummy blackberry cobbler, salmon cakes, stir-fried bok choi, teeny marble-sized new potatoes, and ribs and a coffee and ancho rubbed shoulder roast. I won’t my dryer because of the heat but I did crank up my oven. Insanity thy name is hunger.

And for the usual non sequitur, the aforementioned weather and my own laziness prevented any real gardening aside from a leggy thyme plant on the kitchen sill. However, I have been watching Britains of the 1980s re-enacting gardening of the posh Victorian and starving WWII eras. The Victorian Kitchen Garden, The Victorian Kitchen, and the War Garden & Kitchen are fascinating and strangely addictive in that way that can never be fully explained by the anglophilic addict. If you find yourself somewhere loathsomely hot (with electricity and the intrawebs) and some time to kill, you could do worse than watching someone toil in the gray British summer and stifling smoky kitchens of yore. Bonus points added for an adorable ’80s professorial presenter with a spindly mustache in Peter Thoday (I can’t believe he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia article; he really is fun to watch).

Best of luck to you on the weather crap shoot this summer and safe and happy 4th.

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Pumpkins not included

In culinary school one of the things I loved best and hated most was mystery basket days. They weren’t attached to winning a million or your own restaurant or your face next to Guy Fieri (shudder) on the Food Network or even not looking like an idiot on the Food Network; they were attached to grades. For this type-A, it was a struggle between this has to be perfect and oooh fun. Stress can kick creativity in high gear and occasionally my team and I would get the blue ribbon for the day.

Fast forward five years.

I am not currently cooking professionally. I work a workaday week and have to get dinner on the table. Life is currently filled with obligations, desires and some tragedy. What’s a girl to do with a fridge full of farmer’s market whim, some staples and some things that just need to get used? What is said girl suppose to do if she is also slightly comatose from too many sleepless nights and extra braining at work?

Enter Whole Foods’ Recipe app for iPhone On Hand feature. If you ever played with Google Cooking you’ve got the basic idea. In the app you choose three ingredients you have in the pantry or fridge and touch search. The magical Internet elves sift their recipe cards and give you a list of what you could make with those three items. Obviously, the app is more limited than Google Cooking and you can’t add things like birds’ nests and unicorn horn to your larder list but it does offer some tastier options, many with healthy eating considerations.

My adventure tonight yielded white beans and sausage over polenta with kale. I didn’t have beans but I did have a red pepper. It also didn’t say add a splash of cream and the grated end of some cheese to the polenta, but, hey, I needed to use them up. Recipes are a map and I encourage detours. As always, your mileage may vary, but I like the app and the type-A in me is still challenged enough with the tweaking and tasting even if it is cheating.

No shrink ray needed

victoria  —  October 20, 2011 — 2 Comments

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Dinner for hungry teenagers

Thrown together pot pie filling: poached chicken, frozen veg mix, sautéed onion, pan gravy, and thyme. Oil-based pie crust from late 1940s edition of Good Housekeeping cookbook. Muffin tin. 375 oven. 60 minutes-ish. Ta da.

Experimental muffins

victoria  —  June 12, 2011 — 2 Comments

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Brandied cherry muffins displayed on my faux Marimekko plates from Le Target

Young Master Julian is quite the baker. His specialty is muffins. Everytime I hit McKay, I look for muffin cookbooks. I found one aptly title Muffins which we’ve made a couple recipes out of. We can’t seem to make them straight; there’s always a tweak or twist. For this brunch experiment we subbed part of the flour with almond meal as I am forever on a quest to replicate the almond shortbread muffins they used to have a Fido.

I’ll hold off on posting the recipe as the muffins didn’t hold together well. They are however truly muffins, not cupcakes pantomiming breakfast in that they only have two tablespoons of sugar for a batch of 12. We served them as suggested in the recipe with a little sweetened whipped cream laced with kirsch. Very tasty, despite the weak crumb structure.

On a shopping note, I love the unbleached muffin papers we picked up at Whole Foods. They are parchment paper and the muffins don’t stick and leave all the good, crunchy crust stuck to the paper.

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It’s still too hot to breathe let alone cook. This is an easy dinner to through together if you don’t mind a little chopping. We make a base of seasoned sushi rice (white or brown) which is served at room temp but you could make regular rice. While the rice cooks, you can put your toppings together. For ours: matchstick carrots in rice vinegar, sliced cucumbers, sliced green onions, sliced sweet peppers in rice vinegar, Japanese-style scrambled egg, sushi ginger, smoked salmon, shiso and nori rice seasonings and Jules’ fiery soy sauce sauce.

Everyone can build their own dinner without too much fuss for the cook. It’s cooling, easy and you don’t feel like an anaconda digesting a wild pig afterward either. It’s also pretty impressive when all the toppings are arranged in little bowls on the table if you need something to wow or woo when it’s this hot.

It’s hot. It’s really hot. According to the weather channel app it’s hotter here than it is in Trinidad. And, technically, at least til midnight, it’s still May. This fills me with fear and loathing. Yours truly is not a hothouse flower. I think I’m more squarely in the slow-growing tundra wildflower category. I prefer the temp 40-70F, with a breeze.

I love the produce summer brings and the long days, but then it’s too hot to cook so I go into salad and doing as little as possible to the food aside from running a knife through it. Tonight was a compromise of sorts. A lovely carrot salad and some honey-glazed chicken because you shouldn’t eat it raw.

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The chicken is an old standby. Melt together 1/4 cup honey, some grated ginger and garlic to taste, couple tablespoons soy sauce and the juice of a lemon and douse some chicken thighs (about 4) with the resulting elixir. 375F for 40 minutes, basting twice. Even folks who don’t like dark meat chicken will eye for seconds.

The salad was a riff on a Jamie Oliver recipe from Jamie at Home. Four good-sized carrots peeled and then shaved to shreds with the peeler mixed with a big handful of cilantro leaves, a shredded green onion and some very thinly sliced Hungarian wax pepper (or any mild pepper) tossed together with a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, ground cumin, black sesame seeds and finely grated (on a microplane) ginger equals some seriously tasty salad with enough left for a straight from the fridge breakfast.

Despite my trying to keep the hot cooking to a minimum, my oven is currently cranked up. Julian requested some teacher bribery for the end of the year in the form of brownies. So much for a cool kitchen/house.

(As a “by the way,” this is my first attempt at blogging from the phone so forgive any weird spellings, syntax or spacing til I check it on the big screen. Thanks.)