Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Moving Day 3: Baking Bread while Packing

We're almost there. Yesterday the containers were delivered and we spent an arduous afternoon lugging nearly all of Do's and my worldly possessions down to the curb. We can almost fit everything into one container, but not quite. Bummer. That said, we've kept up a pretty impressive pace: all that's left is half the kitchen and the stuff we've been using (mattresses, sheets, towels, etc.). Today should be the last day.

In other phenomenal news, Do has got us a beautiful new home in North Oakland. It's the bottom half of a duplex, with the adorable landlords and their young daughters living upstairs. The neighborhood is a vibrant, mixed income community, yet safer than the South Side Chicago neighborhood where we lived during college. The place is also very close to all forms of public transportation (yes!! The less we have to use the car, the better!). The apartment itself is HUGE. We have no idea what we're going to do with all that space. My Dad has suggested that he move in six-months a year (I really, really hope that was a joke), and my Mom reminds us that we'll hopefully be living there until Do gets his Ph.D., so we'll definitely be acquiring stuff. Do and I agree that we're going to miss our cute, teeny, European-sized apartment here in D.C., but, well, onward and upward. If its worst flaw is that it's too big, well, I think we'll cope.

SuperMom decided that we were going to have meatloaf sandwiches for lunch yesterday (meatloaf = lots o leftovers), and asked me to bake a loaf of bread (to make a dent in the baking supplies). The cookbooks were already packed, but my little index card-recipe box was still out. In it, I rediscovered the perfect "baking bread while moving" recipe: one that uses baking soda instead of yeast and therefore doesn't need to rise. So, ladies and gents, if you're ever in the middle of moving and suddenly realize that now would be the perfect time to bake a loaf of bread, well, first acknowledge that you're just plain weird, and then use this recipe. As a disclaimer, I baked the bread in the early morning when all my packers were still injecting themselves with coffee. The bread was ready before the caffeine addicts were.

This recipe comes from a Mennonite cookbook, Simply in Season, which was recommended by a friend. The book was really appealing for someone learning how to eat seasonally: recipes organized by season, and the in-season ingredients are highlighted. Pithy little Mennonite blurbs are sprinkled throughout, extolling the virtues of family dinners and local ingredients. There were even some real winners, including several dynamite bread and soup recipes. However, I ended up giving the book to my Mom because most recipes just didn't fit what Do and I enjoy about food and cooking. The food was very middle-America, down-home hearty, no surprising flavor combinations or mind-expanding ideas. It's not a book for folks who are looking for a challenge, technically or cerebrally. The recipes are not sexy. And several of the Americanized adaptations of foreign foods (a curry, a couscous, etc.) were downright awful. So I gave it my Mom and copied down the winner recipes onto index cards.

This bread itself is dense and chewy, rather than dry. The Molasses flavor really comes through, making it perfect for sandwiches or butter & jam. It's also even easier than baking cookies.

No Rise Whole Wheat Molasses Bread (from Simply in Season).

Oil for greasing the pan
1 2/3 cup buttermilk OR plain Yogurt OR 1 1/2 cup milk & 2 Tbs white vinegar
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup molasses
  1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease loaf pan.
  2. If substituting sour milk for buttermilk, warm milk gently (30 seconds in microwave) and add the vinegar. Stir Molasses into soured milk/buttermilk.
  3. Mix dry ingredients in a larger bowl. Stir liquid into dry ingredients, just enough to combine, then pour batter into greased loaf pan.
  4. Bake until firm and toothpick comes out clean (45min-1 hour). Cool on rack for 15 minutes before removing bread from pan.
For a Lighter version:
Use 1 1/2 cups whole wheat and 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, omit cornmeal. Substitute honey for molasses. Beat 1 egg into wet ingredients. Proceed with recipe.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Moving, Day 2: Obliterating Leftovers

This past year, unrestricted by homework or tuition payments, Do and I have luxuriated in disposable time and income. It shows in our cooking forays. We've dabbled in homemade bread, Indian food from scratch, Food & Wine and Silver Palate recipes, etc. Admittedly, we've also learned a lot about less glamorous/pretentious kitchen activities. We can both hammer out a healthy, interesting weeknight meal without blinking (or whining). We've got our clean-up routine down pat (she washes dishes, he clears the table, puts leftovers into lunch containers, and sharpens knives). All in all, pretty predictable for a childless, two-salary, 9-5 jobs (more like 8-6, but same idea), foodie household. I suspect that none of these skills will be useful in grad school.

We know nothing about leftovers.

One of my very first blog posts was about emptying the fridge of leftovers. "It was not quite so much a Herculean event as an exercise in guilt -- all these great (expensive) ingredients, all that time and loving effort, and here we were, months later, admitting defeat." We've gotten a little bit better, better at automatically dividing "Serves 4" recipes and at re-assessing the contents of the fridge every garbage day. But still. We suck. Incorporating old ingredients into new dishes? Figuring out a use for an opened cream carton or fresh herbs before they go bad (20 seconds)? Not so much.

Enter SuperMom.

SuperMom looks at an empty fridge and sees a week's worth of dinners. So imagine what she sees when she looks in my fridge/freezer, which has to be empty by tomorrow. Unlike me, SuperMom needs no recipes. She knows exactly which substitutes will work, which ingredients we can do without, and how many dying vegetables you can add to a dish without killing it. If you compliment this amazingly useful skill, SuperMom will brush it aside with, "oh, it's no big deal -- I'm just cheap, that's all." The rest of us know the truth: dealing with leftovers is a SuperPower, and we just marvel, laud, and learn.

Don't believe me?

Exhibit A) Lunch for Moving Day 2: Pumpkin soup.

While the rest of your family is scampering around disassembling wine racks and folding dress shirts, you disappear momentarily into the kitchen. Take a giant Tupperware of Puréed Pumpkin (frozen last October), remove the purée by running the whole damn thing under hot water, and throw the purée into a pot. Add a chopped onion, and turn the heat to medium. Guesstimate the volume of liquid and add bouillon cubes for flavor (since there are no vegetables in the fridge). Once the soup is entirely liquid, let it cool. Throwing in three trays-worth of ice cubes will help. Purée using an immersion blender. Add leftover cream (1/3 cup-ish). Serve to your exceedingly grateful and exhausted family.

Exhibit B) Snack for Moving Day 2: Strawberry Shortcake.

You decide that your family will need a Pick-Me-Up snack in the mid-afternoon. Because you're SuperMom, you decide to make Strawberry Shortcake. Your mother (Neen's grandmother) makes a great version that calls for hot milk, so you google "Hot Milk Cake" and end up using Wikipedia's recipe (Neen's insertion: !!!!!!!!, my Mom cooks off Wikipedia!), which you divide by two in order to bake a one-layer cake. While the cake bakes, you whip leftover heavy cream, adding a couple teaspoons of confectioner's sugar just before the peaks become stiff. You then use the same beaters (why clean them?) and beat the handful of leftover, almost-dead strawberries that you found in the back of the fridge. When the cake is done and cooled, you cut it in half horizontally and spread leftover blueberry jam between the layers. You top cake slices with the strawberries and whipped cream, and serve it to your exhausted, adoring family.

Oh, and while her family eats, SuperMom packs up fragile artwork.

Does one simply become more competent after giving birth? If not, I'm afraid there's no hope for me. SuperMom has set the bar pretty damn high.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cooking while Moving

Q: You know when blogs are really useful?
A: When all your cookbooks are packed in boxes.

Q:You know when you feel really stupid?
A: When you're up to the elbows in Challah dough and you realize that your blog post a) has a typo when referring to the quantity of liquid required, and b) didn't bother to mention the oven temperature.


My little brother was really cute and asked me to make Challah. Apparently, during his finals last week, some girl in his dorm made Challah as a way to de-stress and shared it all around ... and it wasn't as good as my Challah. (Yes, I now am fluffing my shiksa feathers like a peacock). Well, with a compliment like that, how could I not oblige?

Despite the typos on the blog, the Challah turned out excellent. It did require a panicked tearing open of already-packed boxes to find the original recipe, but hey. Good thing it was only Day 1 of packing, so everyone was very forgiving.

The correct version of the recipe is typed out below (for my and your future reference), and I'm going to correct the other posts that mention it (here and here).

For 1 challah:

1 package dry yeast
warm water
1/4 c vegetable oil
3 1/4 c all purpose flour
1 egg, beaten
1/8 c sugar (on the plus side)
1 tsp salt (on the plus side)

Set the oven to 325 degrees
Proof yeast in a small bowl by mixing yeast, 1/4 c warm water.
In a large bowl, mix flour, eggs, sugar, salt, oil and 2/3 c warm water. Add dissolved yeast mixture, mix together and knead well, folding the dough over itself so as to capture air pockets. (Depending on how dry your dough is, you may need to add a Tablespoon of warm water). Cover and let rise anywhere from 1.5 hours to 4.5 hours.
Divide into three strands, and braid. Let rise another hour. Bake for 25 min.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Biscuits at Dawn

Since the last time we spoke, Do has hightailed it out to California and is trying simultaneously to impress his new boss (aka work the expected 14-17 hour days of a graduate student) and to find us an apartment in Berkeley/North Oakland. My parents and my little brother have come out to Washington D.C. to help me pack up the place, which makes it very déja vu from all those childhood moves (only now we're 4 adults, which is a whole new dynamic). My last day at my job was on Friday the 13th, and I was much less melodramatic about it than everyone expected. I really loathe goodbyes in the gerund form: I'm here or I'm gone, there's no anguished leaving. That said, while walking out of the ugly Federal building, I did turn around and realize with astonishment that I spent a whole year of my life here. Was it a year well spent? Have I grown, changed, matured as a result of that year? Or was I just treading water? 1/23rd of your life is an awful big fraction.

Anyways. Last night we had a minor adventure when, sometime between witching hour and the crack of dawn, a painting decided that it would preempt the move and leaped, valiantly, off the wall. Unfortunately, in between the wall and the floor was a bookshelf with a wine glass on it. The resulting crash around 4 a.m. brought us all to our feet, and then to our hands and knees hunting down shards of glass. Needless to say, none of us was really able to get back to sleep after that adrenaline rush. So my Mom, being the amazingly gracious hostess that she is (even though, technically, it's my home and she's the Yankee component of her cross-Mason-Dixon line marriage), baked us all biscuits from scratch.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that my maternal line has a gift for baking. These biscuits are no exception: light, fluffy, flaky, and they don't taste like commercial dinner rolls. The keys are real butter and buttermilk (or a substitution of yogurt and milk, if you're moving and are trying to use up the ingredients in your fridge). Another one of my Mom's hallmarks.

Mommy's Sunday Morning Biscuits
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbs chilled butter
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 c yogurt
1/4 c milk (You can replace the yogurt and milk with 3/4 cups buttermilk)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Using your fingers, squeeze butter with flour until the butter breaks up into small bits. Make a well in the center and add the yogurt and milk all at once. Fold it all together with a light hand, until it forms a dough. Put the dough on a floured surface and pat it down to make it 1/3" thick. Use a glass as a cookie cutter, and place biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned (12-15 min).

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pasta For "A Ladies' Night Out"

I will admit to being a little slow when it comes to foreign languages. My mother's extended family is all French, but my French is non-existent; I had a good friend in college who taught me some Italian - let me tell you, it's long gone. So I suppose it should come as no surprise that I did not immediately make the connection between "Pasta Puttanesca" and the French word "putain." For those not familiar with either French or Italian, the Silver Palate cook book - which I continue to recommend to those of you who do not yet own a copy - had the following description. (image taken from the Food Network)
It is not known whether the Italian ladies of the night (the puttane) who gave their name to this racy pasta sauce did so because they were short of time cash or both. In any case, puttanesca is quick and cheap and we hope it offends no one's memory to say so.
(Silver Palate Cookbook, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Michael McLaughlin)
I am curious how Italians feel while ordering it. Could you imagine going into a restaurant and saying, "oh, I am not sure what I want... I guess I will have the pasta of whores - that sounds good." Maybe that is just my prudish side showing through.

As to the dish itself, it is relatively simple - though it requires removing all of the juice from the canned plum tomatoes which is a little time consuming. My first thought was to skip that step entirely, but I am glad I didn't. Once you see how the pasta cooks it becomes obvious that one of the reasons it is such a fast dish is that there is no need for a long simmering process to thicken the sauce because there is so little juice in it. The depth of the flavor is delivered from the canned anchovies, while the complexity is born of the combination of garlic, capers, and olives. It is a great combination.

I multiplied the quantity of red pepper flakes by a factor of 8 - Neen wasn't in town so I figured I was allowed to go hog wild with my red pepper flakes - but the factor of 8 was a little too much. Probably a factor of 4-6 would have been better. It wasn't too spicy, it is just that the flavor of the red pepper flakes was much stronger than the flavor of olive, which was an unfortunate loss. Thankfully, this corrected itself over time - the second day the pepper flakes were back to a nice balance with the rest of the dish.

Overall, I think this is a pasta dish that deserves more attention in my collection. It is very fast, with a lot of potent flavors. It might be complicated to serve at a dinner party simply because of how strong the flavors are, and if someone doesn't like the flavor of anchovies - well, there isn't much you can do. When Neen gets back into to town, I will try the dish out on her and see if she likes it as well. If she does, I think we will have ourselves a real winner for fast pasta.

Recipe from Silver Palate:
1 lb spaghetti
2 lb 3 oz peeled and canned Italian plum tomatoes
1/4 cup best quality olive-oil
1 teaspoon oregano
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (pr0bably better with ~1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 cup tiny black Nicoise olives
1/4 cup drained capers
4 cloves garlic (why stop there - I would up this to between 4-8 cloves depending on size)
8 anchovy fillets, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
2 teaspoon salt (I added only a sprinkle and it was already salty enough for me)

1. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Add salt and stir in spaghetti. Cook until tender but still firm. Drain immediately when done.
2. While spaghetti is cooking, drain the tomatoes, cut them crosswise into halves and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
3. Combine tomatoes and olive oil in a skillet and bring to a boil. Keep the sauce at a full boil and add the remaining ingredients (except pasta) one at a time, stirring frequently.
4. Reduce heat slightly and continue to cook for a few minutes or until sauce has thickened to your liking. Serve immediately over hot pasta and garnish with additional chopped parsley.