Niedlovs, here we come.

I love this bakery.

We’re heading to Chattanooga tomorrow, to see friends, and take in a show in a cave (yes, the whole family!). But, as much as I love my friends and the idea of seeing live music in a cavern, I keep thinking most about what I’m going to get for breakfast at Niedlovs. Oh, the possibilities.

Chocolate croissant? Breakfast sandwich? Pancakes? Definitely a latté. Whole milk.

I’ll give a play-by-play when we return. Plus, a details about a recent night at The National. Man, oh man.

Poor girl’s pain au chocolat

No, the “poor” in the title is not a reference to our socio-economic standing — although one might wonder, as much as I complain about budgets, recessions, and bone-dry embibing funds. I do actually realize that I’m not only not poor, but quite fortunate in countless ways. Just so you know that I know.

The title is just a lame attempt to put a fancy name on one of my favorite afternoon treats. You know, the one that I so deserve because my life is so hard? A take on poor man’s fill-in-the-blank seemed appropriate, since my version of pain au chocolat is not a croissant, and uses Nestlé chocolate chips. From a whopping 72-oz “chocolate-lover’s size” bag that I buy at a warehouse club.

The photo looks like Nutella — and there is definitely a place for that in the history of my kitchen. But I think I overdid the chocolate-hazlenut spread at some point, because a half-empty jar went bad in my pantry (I didn’t realize it could go bad, either). No, this snack consists of bread, butter, and chocolate chips. And a toaster oven.

Say you buy or make a loaf of dinner bread — a French or Italian loaf. The next day, you have some leftover. It’s 3 or 4 o’clock, about time for an afternoon snack. If it’s winter, something that would nicely accompany a cup of tea. You simply slice off a thick piece of day-old bread, and lightly toast it. Then you spread a little butter on top, grab a handful of chocolate chips (semi- or bittersweet would work), and scatter them evenly on the top (it really doesn’t take much). Stick it back in the toaster oven for another minute or so. When you pull out the bread, the chips will still look perfectly formed, albeit a bit shiny. Just grab a butter knife, and spread the chocolate across the top of the bread.

Voila. A treat in which the sum is much greater than its meager parts.

A shout-out to the Mennonites

Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave me her well-worn copy of the original More With Less cookbook. If you’ve never seen a copy, it’s a collection of “recipes and suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources.” My mother-in-law is not Mennonite, but lives in an area of rural Pennsylvania where the denomination is quite common. I had never heard of the cookbook when she gave it to me, but was impressed with its concern for world food shortages and its call-to-action to act responsibly with the resources we’re given. Not the typical vibe you get from Christian people, where I come from (and I can say that because I am one).

I tend to go through phases with all my cookbooks (excepting JoC and the Kimball books, which I use very regularly). This cookbook tended to fall in with Laurel’s Kitchen and the Moosewood publications; all of them are great resources for understanding food, how to use up all you buy, and how to eat a variety of foods across the spectrum that give you complete proteins and balanced diets. But they aren’t always good recipes, per se. My husband gives all three books a 50% success rate for attempted recipes. Sometimes you’re just left thinking, what was Laurel smoking that day? Or, ok Doris — it’s fine if you want to dump everything in your fridge into a pot, no matter what it is, but I just don’t see myself eating pizza soup.

So I hadn’t cracked open the falling-apart copy of MWL in quite some time, when my Mom gave me a brand-new copy for Christmas. This was quite the perceptive gift, I thought; she had no idea I had even heard of it, and picked it out of all the cookbooks in the bookstore. And what a timely gift it is; I have been trying to reduce our grocery budget for months now, while still eating as many local foods as we can, and while continuing to shell out extra bucks to cater to my son’s allergies. I was due for a refresher course in eating on limited resources.

But the cookbook has its quirks. I’m not a fan of using the word bake as a noun (for example, “Mandarin Rice Bake” on p. 132) or of using the word skillet in any way other than describing the vessel in which your dinner is cooked (“Spanish Noodle Skillet” on p. 121). There’s also many a recipe calling for “leftover meat scraps,” which I think is best followed by the phrase, “for your dog.” These frugal women use canned goods a bit more than I like (other than tomatoes and the occasional emergency-can-o-beans), and while they use fat sparingly, rely on animal varieties a great deal. But reading the cookbook can get a person into a mindset of being aware of what you have, and trying hard to use it. For example, it was after being inspired by my new cookbook copy that I saw that container of mushrooms, going bad, and decided to find a way to use them instead of letting them get worse and having to be thrown out. I need these types of reminders, since it’s so easy for me to slip into doing what’s convenient. Which is probably why my grocery bill is what it is.

I think I’ve mentioned before (to you, blog-readers? Who knows. To someone, probably yet another cornered listener) that the old term “home economics” gets a bad rap. It doesn’t signify cookie-making and hem-sewing; it signifies the fact that, if you have some part of the responsibility of feeding your family, it is an economic work (as I remember from that one required class in college). It is supply and demand, cost-benefit analysis, and return-on-investment. It’s not easy work, and I think we grew up in a society that told us it should be.

At the end of the day, it also means that sometimes you eat something for dinner that just doesn’t sound that great (though I refuse to name said dinner a fill-in-the-blank loaf). But in my limited experience, sometimes that is exactly what it takes to discover something new, something really tasty. I have a husband who, thankfully, is willing to go with the punches on this. My kids are a different story, but I’m still sticking with my “you-must-try-one-bite” and “if-I-know-you-like-it-you-don’t-get-anything-else” policies. Tough love, right? Just more fodder for their therapists when they grow up.

I’ll leave you with a new recipe that has nothing to do with using up leftovers — I just like it. It’s adapted from the same-titled recipe in MWL. I’m watching two loaves rise in their pans right now*; it’s been a good distraction from our regular, wheat sandwich bread. I’ve added more whole wheat flour — primarily because it’s cheaper for me, since I’ve been milling my own wheat berries into flour, and since a bag of unbleached, all-purpose King Arthur is over FOUR DOLLARS right now. I’ve also reduced the sugar a good bit, since the original recipe seems like it would be quite sweet. The original also calls for quick oats, but I typically buy regular rolled oats, and they work fine (although it might make the bread more hearty).

*which, subsequently and frustratingly burned, when I turned off the oven timer without taking the bread out of the oven. In the words of Alexander’s mom, “Some days are like that. Even in Australia.”

Oatmeal Bread (adapted from More With Less, p. 60)

  • 1 cup quick or rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3 Tbsp brown sugar, turbinado, or honey
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil

Combine above in a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer. Pour over the mixture:

  • 2 cups boiling water

Stir to combine, and let cool to lukewarm. Combine in a small measuring cup:

  • 1 pkg (about 2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water

Add to the oatmeal batter once it has cooled. Then stir in (or add, then mix using the dough hook on your mixer):

  • 5 cups flour (any combination of whole wheat and unbleached all-purpose, though I wouldn’t go more than 3 cups of whole wheat)

Knead by hand, or in your mixer for about 8 minutes (longer if you’re kneading by hand). If kneading by mixer, stop it 2-3 times, remove the dough, and rearrange it in the bowl for more even kneading. The dough should be somewhat stiff, but also still cling to your fingers a bit. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and let rise until doubled (45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen).

Remove risen dough, and divide into equal halves. Knead each half into a ball, and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes. In the meantime, grease two loaf pans with shortening. Shape the loaves and place into pans. Cover, and let rise about an hour (preheat your oven to 350º about 45 minutes into this rising). Place pans on lower-middle rack, and bake 40 minutes. Remove baked loaves from pans, and cool completely on a rack before slicing.


Cream of Mushroom Soup

First things first: my apologies if you’ve tried to visit sometime in the past few days, and had to swallow an error message. My server was a bit under-the-weather, but after a call to the doc, is now feeling much better. Thanks for your patience. What follows is the post I was working on when it all crashed down.

Way back when, I thought all soup came from a can with a red logo and a little gold seal in the middle. You know, the one immortalized by Andy Warhol. Back in those days, about the only variety I would eat was Cream of Mushroom.

Earlier this week, I opened my refrigerator to fix lunch for the kids, and saw half a container of sliced mushrooms, looking like their glory days had passed. None of my dinner plans this week would benefit from the addition of over-oxidized mushrooms, so my head began churning for a plan while I made sandwiches.

I remembered landing briefly on a random food blog post last week, and reading about using old mushrooms to make soup. So while I cut up carrots and apples for the young ones, I flipped through The Joy of Cooking, in search of direction. I only had about 4 ounces of mushrooms, so I couldn’t make the blogged version, inspired by one of Anthony Bourdain’s creations. My childhood can-o’-dinner-love came back in a flash; I scanned the recipe for Cream of Mushroom soup, and realized that if I halved it, I could pull it off in about 20 minutes.

I did, and it was the soup I never had. Cream of Mushroom, before Campbell’s hijacked it. I ate it for two consecutive lunches, and planned to get a picture of it, but just couldn’t put the spoon down long enough to go get the camera.

This is an ideal time to thaw out one of the bags of chicken stock you made this week (insert emoticon wink) — I can’t imagine it would be nearly as good without it (but even with storebought broth, it would be much better than canned). I’ll write the recipe as I made it, amended from the same-titled recipe from The Joy of Cooking. It should double fine (in case you want to serve more than yourself for dinner), but if you have a copy of the cookbook, it wouldn’t hurt to go there.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil, plus 1 Tbsp butter
  • 4 ounces mushrooms (about half a regular container), sliced
  • 1/4 onion, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1-2 Tbsp dry sherry (optional, but really adds flavor; I buy cheap dry sherry, and keep it way too long, but it’s nice to have on hand for times such as these)
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 – 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme (if using dried, reduce to a 1/2 tsp)
  • 2 cups chicken stock (or Swanson low-sodium canned chicken broth)
  • 1/4 cup half-n-half
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat until the foaming subsides (feel free to use all olive oil, or all butter). Sauté the mushrooms and onion until the mushrooms are wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the sherry, flour, and thyme. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. Stir in your chicken stock gradually, add 1/4 tsp salt (omit if you’re using canned broth, or if your stock is already salted, and season to taste at the end). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer about 15 minutes. Stir in the half-n-half, taste for seasonings, and serve.


Why you really should make your own chicken stock

Oftentimes, after a social gathering, or simply a conversation with an acquaintance, I think to myself, why didn’t I just shut up already?

See, I have a tendency to become a bit belligerent when it comes to certain matters, most especially matters having to do with food. And it’s not for any reason other than the fact that I get really, really excited about food, and expect others to share my enthusiasm. It has a lot to do with the fact that, when I began cooking in my mid-20s, I was shocked by how relatively simple it was to make food from scratch. The results far outweigh the effort (most times). But my excitement can sometimes come across as somewhat militant, or even as proselytizing. I’m sometimes aware that it happens; my victim listener’s eyes start to wander, or their part of the conversation becomes limited to the word, “right,” implying agreement, but really being a plea for help from the nearest possible distraction. On rare occasion, I actually take notice that it’s happening, and I either attempt a bumbling apology, or plow forward recklessly, depending on the subject matter and whether or not I’ve had access to wine.

So let me start out with a disclaimer: making your own stock is not a moral issue. Your life will not necessarily improve with its making, but your soup most certainly will. I will not think less of you as a person (assuming I know you) if you continue to purchase canned broth. I still purchase it myself for emergencies, or for freezing in 1 Tbsp portions to quickly thaw when a recipe demands that miniscule amount. The first time you make it, it might seem not worth the effort. But make it a few times, and use it in your soup recipes, and I think you’ll start to see the light (strong words, but I am drinking a Terrapin India Brown Ale as I type this).

Here’s what you need:

  • 3 to 4 pounds chicken parts (bone-in, skin-on). I always use leg quarters (the leg with the thigh still attached), because they are the cheapest part, and I love dark meat (we will be using the cooked meat). That ends up being 4-6 leg quarters, depending on their size
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered pole to pole (you can leave the root attached)
  • 1 stalk celery, with leaves (see this post to find out how to store celery so it lasts longer), cut into (approx.) 2-inch chunks
  • 1 carrot, cut into (approx.) 2-inch chunks*
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • a bunch of fresh parsley, if you have it
  • a fine-mesh strainer, preferably large and conical (this shape just makes things easier)

*If you happen to buy organic vegetables (and these varieties often cost about what conventional counterparts do, in my neck of the woods), you don’t even have to peel the carrots or onions. Just give the carrots and celery a good scrubbing

Here’s what you do. Put the chicken pieces in the bottom of a large dutch oven or stockpot (needs to hold at least 5-6 quarts). Fill with enough water to cover the chicken, plus about an inch. Put the pot on high heat, and cut up the vegetables while the pot comes to a boil. Add the rest of the ingredients, and add a little more water if necessary (just to cover — too much water will make a weak stock). Bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook for about 45 minutes. I sometimes partially cover mine, to keep too much of the liquid from evaporating. Sometimes a piece of chicken will float to the surface, and if that happens just push it back down, or let it trade places with a piece on the bottom. As long as the liquid doesn’t come to a rapid boil (in which case, turn down the heat), you don’t have to do a thing.

After the 45 minutes, remove from heat, and using tongs remove the chicken to a large plate. You can let the stock and chicken cool a bit while you do other things. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones (the meat comes off quite easily — but I will say that this task might be the one that I despise most in the kitchen; sometimes I can convince Tim to do it for me, and when he does, I know he loves me), place in an airtight container, and stick in the refrigerator. Once cool, you can transfer the meat to a ziplock bag and stick in the freezer. It’s ready to thaw for your next chicken casserole, enchiladas, chicken salad, etc. I just love killing two (or would it be 3?) birds with one stone.

The stock needs to be cooled quickly, and this might be where I lose a couple of you. I cool mine in an ice bath, which is just a nice way of saying “bucket of ice.” Take the biggest bowl you have, and put a lot of ice and a little water in it. Then set another, slightly smaller bowl in the ice. Put your fine-mesh strainer over the empty bowl, and ladle in your stock. The strainer catches all the veggies and any foam that accumulated. Discard the strainer contents. Now stir the stock every few minutes until it’s just lukewarm (rather than scalding hot). Cover tightly and stick in the refrigerator.

The next day, you’ll see a layer of fat that has solidified on the top. Skim that out with a spoon (discard, or freeze in small portions and use for cooking), and you have your stock. I ladle mine into a measuring cup, then pour it into a ziplock bag, in 1 or 2-cup portions (be sure you label and date the bag). The easiest way to freeze them is by stacking them flat on a cookie sheet, and putting the sheet in the freezer. Once frozen, you can retrieve your baking sheet, and your stock is frozen in nice, thin bags. When you need stock, just stick the bag(s) in the microwave for a couple of minutes. Once the ice is loose enough to remove from the bag, transfer to a glass bowl and finish defrosting (if you defrost comletely in the microwave, the bag tends to melt — and melted plastic in your food is creepy).

If you’ve made stock before, you might notice that I don’t add salt. This is just a personal preference of mine; this way, I always know that I’m starting from sodium-ground-zero in soups. I add salt to taste as I make the soup.

I can’t express enough how much homemade stock improves all cooking (I’ll borrow from my friend Cassia, and show you this sketch to illustrate how excited I can get about stock-making). It’s also delicious on its own (salt added) when you’re feeling under-the-weather, and I’m convinced has medicinal qualities in those cases.

Chicken stock is the easiest, most versatile stock to make (of the omnivorous varieties). I’ve never even attempted beef or fish stock — but I have a ziplock bag full of frozen beef bones ready to go on a maiden voyage. It’s considerably more time-consuming (most recipes say to simmer for 8 hours!), so I can’t see it becoming a regular in my kitchen.

But CHICKEN STOCK!!!! Really.

Lie to me, and tell me you’re gonna make it.

Locally grown

It’s not the best picture in the world, because I took it after dark, and while we love our Nikon D70, we’ve never invested in a good flash. So everything’s a bit more garish than it would be if taken by the light of day.

Photo faults aside, what is that magnificently red addition to a winter green salad? It’s called a watermelon radish, and I had never seen one in my life until I bought some last month. On the outside, they are the shape of the red radishes you might see in the grocery store, but they are much larger, and off-white-to-pale-green in color. But slicing them is where you get the surprise — they are bright pink-red in the center, the bizarro-radish of the plant world.

I could discern no taste difference between this and a small red radish. They were a lovely addition to our salad of bibb lettuce, arugula, and shaved parmesan.

The best part is that they are local. I’ve started ordering from a website called — it’s the same group of farmers that put together our local farmer’s market during the summer. And while they aren’t all certified organic, they all promise to farm sustainably, and most times that means they aren’t spraying synthetic stuff. It’s quite convenient — the farmers upload their available goods on Sunday, and then you can order from the site on Monday and Tuesday. You can pick everything up on Thursday at the old farmer’s market on Broad Street (you pay when you pick up). I’ve been getting local milk — which I was surprised to discover is actually cheaper than organic milk at the grocery. And we’ve had a good supply of arugula all fall and winter. I can’t order all my produce from them, since it’s all southern seasonal and some items are just too pricey for my budget. But it’s nice to support the local farms, and so far I’ve only gotten really good products.

I think they’re starting to expand the site to other southern cities — so click on the link to see if there’s one in your area. It’s worth looking into.

Don’t mess with a good thing

One of our favorite restaurants in town is The Grit (I can’t put a link because their website has mysteriously disappeared). I’ve mentioned the establishment and its spinoff cookbook many times on this blog; it is a place that serves meaty vegetarian food (and no, that’s not really an oxymoron — you’d have to try it to see what I mean) in an earthy Southern style of flavor and portions. Meaning: you get a plateful of comfort food that doesn’t break your budget. The restaurant has always had its minor irritations — such as no check-splitting and less-than-stellar service (ok, you might be a rock-star by night, but I don’t have a clue who you are, and right now you’re serving me lunch, so don’t act as if I came to your show and asked you if you could take a break from your guitar solo to refill my coffee. And I can say that because, while I’ve never been in a band, I have been a server, and it’s just not that hard to give people food without attitude). But the food was always comforting, filling, and worthy of an almost weekly take-out trip (the counter staff is usually very friendly) to feed my family dinner.

A couple weeks ago, we met some friends for Sunday brunch. I ordered a “Texas Toastwich” — egg and smoked gouda on thick pieces of Texas toast, and Tim ordered the special omelette. We complied with our usual m.o. — ate half of one entrée, then switched plates and finished up the rest. After cleaning my second plate, I still felt hungry. No matter, I thought; I’m still in my perpetually-ravenous post-partum phase, I must not have ordered enough food. But Sunday night, we decided to order take-out since we were returning home from holiday travels fairly close to dinnertime. The Grit has always been our standby; we usually order the Noodle Bowl of the day and one other entrée — this time, it was a veggie plate. The take-out noodle bowl comes in one of those paper cartons used at Chinese restaurants, and when I got home with our bag of food and opened up the carton, it was conspicuously only half-full. Strange, I thought. I pointed it out to Tim, and he, being Tim-like, picked up the phone and called them. Yes, they said, there is less noodle bowl in the noodle bowl — they had been giving too much for what it costs (about $7). Really? For 7 years (in our count), too much? This all of a sudden occurred to you? So we sat down to dinner (my veggie plate portions seemed small too, but who knows if it was a matter of expectations), and afterward, I had to visit my cupboard for a bowl of cereal.

Now, we have eaten at The Grit several times since I had my third child and became a virtual bottomless pit. And until the past two weeks, we’ve both been fully satisfied at the meal, and had leftovers to carry to another. Their historic portion-sizes are even touted on the back of the cookbook. But now? Now, we’d need to order three entreés just to feed 2 adults. This has the makings of a business disaster, in my opinion.

Yes, yes — we have the economic downturn to consider. Higher prices for their restaurant grocery bill, right? Fine, I say. Then charge me a dollar more for the noodle bowl. I have a feeling that might cover it, and I’d still have a full belly at the end of the day. But give me less food? When you’ve built your reputation on portions, that’s a dangerous move.

Since my blog has a readership of about five (I’ve gained two!) people, I’m not sure this call-to-action is going to pass under the eyes of those in power. But we need to do something! I’m not only fearing for my weekly chance to not cook dinner, I’m also concerned about the future of the restaurant. I’ve seen a really good restaurant, no — make that two really good restaurants — go down the tubes because of desperate money saving measures. Not The Grit!

What to do? Perhaps I should start hanging out downtown, going to shows at 2am, and pleading my case to all those uber-cool servers. Man, that set rocked. Reminds me of a noodle bowl I used to get…