Saturday, October 31, 2009

Whole Nutmeg

Have you ever seen whole nutmeg? Whole nutmeg is actually the seed of an evergreen tree that grows on Indonesia's Spice Islands. I finally got my hands on some, and after reading that a nutmeg grater is very similar to a cheese grater, I just used a cheese grater on the finest side. After a few strokes on the metal, the nutmeg emmitted a strong, spicy scent, much more aromatic than the preground. I was definitely hooked. Can't wait to try this on spiked eggnog when Christmas comes around . . .
Taking the extra time to use the whole seed really makes a difference, but not only in the taste of the food. It just feels better; there's some satisfaction in having put in a little more work. I didn't quite pluck it from the tree myself (plucked it from the Hispanic section in Wal-Mart, much less expensive than the baking section), but I was able to grate it myself, learn something myself, and in the end, put a little more of "me" into the food that I made for my family.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is It a Keeper?

What makes a recipe a keeper for you? Let's face it, we're all "taste" people. But are you also a texture person? A scent person? A sight person? Maybe a recipe is a little bland, but the texture is irresistable, so you keep it for doctoring. What if it smells divine, but the taste really didn't send you over the moon--maybe you'll keep that one too. Sometimes, though, it's just best to move on...

To be dubbed a keeper in my book, it's got to make me sit back and go yum--I mean really close-your-eyes yum. If a recipe can't do that, it's not worth my time to make it again. Lately, I've been trying to figure out exactly what makes me (and others) go yum--once you figure that out, you start to unlock all sorts of recipe and cooking secrets. Soon, you'll almost be able to determine just by reading a recipe if you might like it, if you should add something or take something away. You start to learn tastes and how tastes blend, for better or for worse.

Last Sunday, I made a recipe that I thought looked scrumptious--a sure yummer. Alas, it was not. The recipe was called Braised Chicken Thighs with Peppers and Olives, from Fresh and Simple, Cooking for Friends. I made the recipe carefully--rinsed, dried, and browned the chicken, sliced the olives, used a white wine as the liquid of choice. But, in the end it was bland and the leftovers were even worse. I'm still stumped as to why this recipe didn't really work (but others in that book are quite good!) It turned out slightly dry, but also lacking in real flavor.

There's always something to be gained from spending a little time behind the stove, even if the recipe is a flop. In my case, I have not quite yet learned all there is to know about the yum factor, but I'm one bum recipe closer!

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Joint Effort

Cooking is often a joint effort. Contributors to this past weekend’s venture included my mom (in absentia), best friend Katie, and me. The challenge: sausage gravy.

Gravy is one of those mysterious foods that, until you know all the tricks, is hit or miss. It has always baffled me that the simple ingredients in sausage gravy (milk, flour, sausage, salt, pepper) combine to form a consistency so different from their natural—if you will—state.

Katie's method is to brown the sausage, remove it with a slotted spoon from pan. Add a bit of butter and 1/4 cup flour. Brown the flour a bit. Then add about 2 cups of milk + sausage. Stir and cook until thickened. I wanted to try (a bit of my mom's influence in this method) keeping the meat in the pan, adding the flour directly to it to brown, and lastly, adding the milk a little at a time.

"A little more?" I asked Katie, as we both leaned over the pan to judge.

"A little more," she said. I added enough milk to make it look like sausage was not the main ingredient.

"It'll thicken," she reassured me. "We just have to wait."

In a few telling minutes our gravy thickened. We sat at the table and ladled full, steaming mounds of it over biscuits. It felt good to know that after 13 years of being friends, we still have things to share—a comfort reaffirmed through the common experience of making and enjoying food.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Making Apple Pie

I set a high goal for myself last weekend--to make two apple pies. Making pie is an intimidating task as so many things can go wrong. The best thing to do is take your time. I found this to be my first challenge. Taking my time is a very hard thing to with my 8-month-old toddler around. Not to mention a needy cocker spaniel and a husband (he's very sweet). Not only did I attempt to manage the peeling and slicing of 14 apples, the cubing of 4 sticks of butter, and measuring of all that flour--but also the active and demanding home.

When little Rosie wanted to be fed just as I pulled the ingredients from their resting places, and then held, and then changed...I realized I would have to revise my game plan. I made the pie dough Saturday and ended the weekend with one complete pie on Sunday, the other on Monday.

Finally, with baby pushing an unopened jumbo box of wipes to help her cruise around the kitchen, a wooden spoon or two to serve as "new toys," and a few treats scattered about to keep her occupied, I opened my cherished book by Williams-Sonoma: Pie and Tart.

I've tried a lot of pie crust recipes, and the Williams-Sonoma basic pie dough always turns out the best. The dough is the toughest part. The goal is to achieve a crust that is golden, flaky, melt-in-your mouth delicious. Too much water and/or blending and it will be tough and rock hard. The Williams-Sonoma basic pie dough recipe uses a stick of cold butter per crust -- for two pies, I used 4 sticks!

Every stage of pie making reveals little discoveries like:

  • it's a good idea to blend the "seasoning" ingredients (flour, cinnamon, sugar, etc.) for the filling before adding to the fruit;

  • taking your time to blend your butter cubes with a pastry blender thoroughly into the "small pea" stage helps with the next step (though hurts your arm after four doughs!)

  • mixing the dough with a fork only until all (or most!) of the loose flour is incorporated is a rather difficult task, but the most essential of all. You MUST NOT OVER MIX. Do not be afraid if the dough isn't in a nice ball when you stop mixing it. Mine is usually separated, until I gather it into a ball with my hands;

  • to get the "very cold water" called for, I keep a mug filled with water from the fridge with ice cubes in it to dip from with my tablespoon.

This pie dough recipe is a beautiful golden color when you roll it out--not pale like those doughs that require shortening. It's sturdy too, easy to fold and handle.

On Sunday, I finally draped the second pie crust over top a heaping mound of cinnamon spiced apples, tucked in the edge, and sealed it with a fork. After cutting the five top slits in the shape of a star and chilling it a bit, I took it out to bake.

It looked so very traditional waiting on the stovetop to be baked--waiting to fill the house with a smell that meant someone was home preparing a place for you, waiting to be eaten and to elicit that satisfied, deeply good feeling of a thing earned, a thing home-baked.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Stick of Butter

Yes, that's right--a stick of butter. Real butter. Nothing tastes like it. Nothing melts like it. Nothing browns like it. Nothing sizzles like it. Nothing brings joy quite like it.

That's what this blog is about. The joy that comes from cooking in the home and the day-to-day experience of food. I start with a tribute to butter because it makes so many things better. It's what I call a foundation food--a basic ingredient that renders your pies, cookies, main dishes, and appetizers (even regular toast!) absolutely delectable. In a word, butter keeps family and friends coming back to a table that's part of the home's foundation.

My dad flat out refused to ever keep butter substitutes in our house growing up, and I know now that it was for reasons beyond just the taste. It was for what the taste meant to him--it meant comfort, family, home, enjoyment, devotion, love--all wrapped in a stick of butter. It's good for the soul.