Simple pot roast for a comfort-needy Monday

pot-roast-vegetables

Many thanks for all the birthday wishes last Friday, via comment or otherwise — it was, to say the least, an exciting day. This was foreshadowed by a comment from my big sister (by a mere 15 months) on that post:

Sorry to be a big bucket of cold water… but please be careful of the weather today. You are headed to an area that has an almost 100% chance of tornadoes.

And, I mean, I knew this. I have access to weather.com, knew that schools in the Southern part of the state were letting students out early. But it was my FORTIETH BIRTHDAY. We had reservations at a great restaurant, had pricelined a something-star non-refundable hotel room for the night. My in-laws had come to town to keep our kids, my BIL & SIL were driving from Lexington to meet us. The plans had been in place for weeks. In short, we would be driving to Louisville that day. Weather be damned.

But then a few hours later, we found ourselves waiting out a second tornado warning in a rest stop off 65-south, just three miles north of Henryville, IN — where the most intense damage occurred. Late Friday night, looking at a map of the tornadoes that touched down that day, the biggest cluster was exactly where we were Friday afternoon. We literally drove into tornadoes.

This fact flies in the face of each of my family members. Of the females in my family, I am the only one without a tornado phobia (we can discuss the phobias I *do* have at a later date). All three of them, I’m sure, considered us certifiably insane.

So the next morning, at breakfast, my big sister sent an email to my whole weather-phobic family. It included a tongue-in-cheek list of upcoming vacation ideas for me and Tim:

  • Sightseeing in the Gaza Strip
  • Deep sea fishing off the shores of Somalia
  • A “Hugs, Not Drugs” mission trip to Northern Mexico
  • Camping trip to the Fukashima nuclear site in Japan
  • Cageless-shark diving just offshore from South Africa, in chummed waters (because chum actually makes great white sharks sleepy)
  • Time travel back to June, 1944, for an lovely picnic for two on the seashore in Normandy, France

She’s a funny one, my big sister.

Once we got there, it was the perfect celebration; but even late-starting birthday trips must end. When ours did, we returned home to a sick child (confession: he was sick when we left — do you now get how badly I wanted to go to Louisville?). Between nurse-playing for the past 48 hours and getting caught up on laundry, I wanted to start this week with something easy and comforting for dinner: enter the slow-cooker pot roast.

pot-roast-seared

(the chuck roast after being seared, before hitting the slow-cooker)

I love this recipe because it’s simple, cheap, and makes its own gravy (a stick blender helps in making this a sort-of one-pot meal). The long-braising makes what can be a tough cut of meat fall-off-the-bone tender. All you need is mashed potatoes and a green vegetable, and you’ve got the perfect comfort dinner.

Just what a girl needs after a birthday-bashing, sick-kid-nursing, tornado-chasing weekend.

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I use a small (2#) bone-in chuck roast, because that’s what came with our beef quarter. The bones give the dish more flavor, and since the meat falls off anyway, there’s no reason to get a boneless chuck (though that should work if it’s what you have). If you have a larger roast, you can use the same amount of vegetables, but might need more stock or water for adequate braising.

Recipe: Simple Slow-Cooker Pot Roast

: serving sizes vary; a 2-pound bone-in roast will serve 2-3 adults

Ingredients

  • 2-5 pound bone-in chuck roast, preferably grassfed
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp rendered fat or olive oil
  • 5-6 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with a string
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 or more cups stock or water

Instructions

  1. Season the beef roast on both sides with salt and pepper.
  2. In a large heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the fat until just starting to smoke. Sear the roast on both sides until brown, about 4 minutes per side. Place in slow-cooker, and lay thyme sprigs on top.
  3. In now-empty skillet, saute the onion, carrot, and celery over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute just until fragrant.
  4. Pour 1 cup stock (or water, though not as flavorful) into the saute pan, scraping up any bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour vegetables and liquid over the roast in the slow-cooker.
  5. Add more broth or water, if necessary, so that the liquid level comes halfway up the sides of the roast.
  6. Cover and cook on high for 4 hours (or low for 6-8 hours, this is a dish that can go longer since it falls apart anyway).
  7. Remove roast and bones from crockpot. Using a stick blender, puree the liquid in the pot to use for gravy (use a food processor if you don’t have a stick blender).
  8. Serve with gravy and mashed potatoes or winter squash.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

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The one that was supposed to be about cultured cream cheese.

Last week was just one of those weeks, you know?

I was supposed to write about making yogurt cheese. I even took pictures of the process, in preparation for the post — but it just would never come out, it just felt tired and a bit meaningless.

Last week was hard in pragmatic ways. Tim left town for the week in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, and before his plane landed in Seattle I had taken my Little Man to the ER for stitches in his cute, pudgy ring finger, a toy box lid having closed like a door onto its tip, sheering off much of the fleshy pad. When it happened, my friend Emily had stopped by — just for a few minutes — to help me choose a paint color for our kitchen. Instead, within 10 minutes of being here, she found herself helping me try to stop the bleeding of a finger that my son would let no one touch, and watched me fade into a fog of disillusion over the realization that a bandaid was not going to fix it.

So she scooped up her two kids and my 2-year old, threw them all into her 8-seater, and coaxed me and the injured to the backseat. She then drove us (all the while, my son screaming) to the ER, dropped us off, took the rest of the kids to kill time at Trader Joe’s and a thrift store (appropriate, if you know Emily), and then came by to pick us up again after the lidocaine and stitches had been painfully administered (one friend asked if they had to velcro him to the bed, and I replied that no, I was the velcro — fun times).

That afternoon, without going into the comical (in a comedy of errors sense) details: in an effort to pick up two tickets to the Arcade Fire show I’d won in a twitter contest the night before, I managed to also pick up a $75 parking ticket in downtown Indy. That’s the kind of monetary scenario that keeps me up at night, replaying a movie screen of decisions and choices, of blame and cynicism, until all joy from the initial slate of victory is wiped clean.

All this, in just 7 hours. So Emily said, hey, come to my house tonight. We can grill burgers for the kids, and we’ll pour you wine, grill you a steak, and put some sauteed morels on top. At first, out of sheer exhaustion, I said I’d have to think about it, as all I wanted to do was put everyone in my house to bed and fall into a forgetful sleep. But then I asked myself what could be difficult about someone else cooking for my family while drinking wine and complaining to sympathetic adult ears about my horrendous day?

(And, of course, there were the morels. Something I’d never had before, but will most definitely have again, even if I never find out where Emily foraged for them and have to pay the going rate of $35 a pound. Morels, they are the subject of another post. They are, in a word, magical.)

The rest of the week held highs and lows (a high being the Arcade Fire show, which I attended with my existing purchased ticket, and also sold my two prize tickets for exactly $75 in a moment of nervous [perhaps-illegal?] deal-making that is also the subject of another post; a low being Little Man’s diagnosis with both strep throat and a double-ear infection on Thursday). But the thing that effectively sealed the lid on my ability to write about yogurt cheese was a single day of horrendously bad weather that slammed into the south late Wednesday.

It seems that everyone has a distant disaster with which they might especially resonate. While I feel for the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires, I have very little personal experience with them, so they feel other-worldly. With tornadoes, I know a thing or two. I grew up in tornado alley, where multiple times each spring and fall we found ourselves listening to sirens from the central hallway of our house, a mattress pulled over our bodies. When I was very small, we even had a full-blown tornado shelter embedded in our backyard, and when the threat was especially high we were carried through rain by our parents into the wet steel bunker.

In all those years under mattresses, I never once saw a tornado. One might hit the next town over, or hover in our area but never touch down. And it became tiresome, all that hiding from storms. But after spending a few days looking at images from Smithville, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, I now realize that hiding in a bathtub really does save people’s lives; but also that sometimes no matter where you hide, the tornado wins.

I look at those images, wondering what it must be like to be hunkered down in a closet, to hear a deafening roar for less than a minute, and then look up to find your house torn from around you. In mere seconds, an entire town is left in ruins.

It’s a bit mind-blowing. Simultaneously putting things in perspective (my week? I was losing sleep over a parking ticket?) and wondering how these people will manage to put lives back together. Of all our friends and family in the South, no one I know was hurt — but we know the places, and in a sense we do know the people there. They were the people that grew up all around me, they are the lives of small towns and college campuses.

I was reading this morning, about people going to Tuscaloosa, the town that suffered the most devastating death toll and damages, to offer help. One group went to a hard-hit area, and brought pancakes. Homemade pancakes, to offer to those who were cleaning up the remains of their lives. The reason being that they thought the folks could use some comfort food.

Pancakes. We might initially think that these people don’t need pancakes, they need clothes and shelter and bulldozers to scoop up what’s left of their entire lives — and that is true. But, in a moment that brought me full-circle back to the steak and morels offered to me after a difficult Tuesday, it seems to me an entirely appropriate thing to give. We can’t snap a finger and undo what was done; we can’t in one fell swoop repair so many devastated lives. But the offering of food, of something warm and made with caring hands, brought to a place where there isn’t much left of comfort, is much more than the calories or nourishment or fullness it provides. It is a recognition that we are all helpless, at times, that our humanity gives us that feeling to share. It’s about giving time to the preparation of a meal, and offering it to someone who can’t spare the effort. It’s about bearing one another’s burdens, even when the burden feels big enough to crush a community.

Now living in Indiana, I can’t be like my sister Angie, and collect a truckload of clothes and supplies at a local club and then drive it 45 minutes over to Smithville. But I can be like Emily, and offer a meal and glass of wine to a friend who’s had a (relatively) horrendous day.

Perhaps also, after making all these connections and getting my priorities and inconveniences back into some sort of adequate chart of relativity, get back to making yogurt cheese. Because thankfully, graciously, activities that mundane are the ones that most days are made of.

 

 

 

Irish Lamb Stew

Sometime in the last year, we (meaning I) made the unofficial (meaning it’s official about 85% of the time) decision to only buy humanely-raised, grass-fed (or pastured, in the case of poultry) meat. After reading a good bit about CAFOs and the fact that the nutritional value of meat is heavily dependent on what the animal ate during its lifetime, it seemed like a direction I wanted our family to go. But this kind of meat can get expensive, and it took a while to figure out how to eat quality meat without taking out a second mortgage.

Our first venture into acquiring a bulk amount of grass-fed beef potentially involved a scenario where Tim would wield a handgun, go shoot a cow, and drive it to the processor via the luggage rack on our Subaru. I’m relieved to say that we’ve come a long way since those days, making big progress when we scored a deep freezer on craigslist — and have since purchased a beef quarter (one, I might add, that Tim didn’t shoot or transport atop our wagon) and 60 pounds of chicken leg quarters.

But the beef is now gone, and I’m down to my last 20 pounds of chicken. Enter a fortuitous email from my friend Emily. She knows a guy in Michigan (her brother-in-law, not as shady as it sounds) who raises grass-fed lamb. He was about to have a slaughter processing day, and would we want to split a lamb with her family?

A lamb! Or rather, half a lamb! I scrambled, flipping through my Christopher Kimball cookbooks, looking for the best cuts (when you order a whole or portion of an animal, you get to choose how it’s processed). I placed the order, and a week later I had 30 pounds of lamb in my deep freezer (lambs, I was slow to realize, are a LOT smaller than cows).

Until this week, I had never cooked lamb. I decided to start with a stew since I’ve made enough beef versions to feel confident even with a new kind of meat. I found this recipe at Cook’s Illustrated — it seemed simple and straight-forward, and I had fortuitously purchased turnips at last weekend’s farmer’s market. The key to a really delicious stew is to darkly brown the meat before adding the rest of the ingredients — even if you make it in a slow-cooker (yes, that means you would be browning lamb at 7am, but the difference in flavor is worth that early-morning step). I used my dutch-oven for this one, and started it about 2 1/2 hours before dinner (two hours of that time it’s in the oven).

This stew was such a pleasant surprise. We were amazed at the tenderness of the meat, and the delicate flavor of the lamb that was front-and-center in an uncomplicated dish. The turnips added their characteristic hint-of-spice, and the sauce was, really, unbelievably flavorful, considering the fact that there was no wine or stock added — just water. My only regret was that I didn’t make more — but I was limited by the amount of stew meat I had — just two pounds (cf: lambs are small). Since my kids ate about two pieces of lamb each, it fed both adults for dinner, with leftovers for lunch the next day.

The original recipe called for bone-in lamb shoulder that you then cut into cubes. I had boneless, pre-cut stew meat, so I adjusted all ingredients accordingly. We ate the stew over thick pieces of toasted country bread — and the next day over fried grit cakes. Thick egg noodles, potatoes, or rice would work too.

If you’re not yet interested in purchasing a bulk portion of lamb for your freezer, check your local sources for high-quality meat, and see if they offer grass-fed lamb. I’ve seen it locally at the Indy Winter Farmer’s Market and Goose the Market; it is worth a little extra cash to experience a splurge night of not-beef stew.

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Irish Lamb Stew
adapted from this recipe at cooksillustrated.com

  • 2 pounds lamb stew meat, preferably cut from shoulder in 1 1/2″ cubes
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil (plus more if needed)
  • 1 1/2 large yellow onions, coarsely chopped (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 4 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 pound carrots, cut into 1/4″ rounds
  • 1/2 pound turnips, peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
  • a handful of chopped Italian parsley

Preheat oven to 300º, and adjust rack to lower-middle position.

Heat olive oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half the meat to the pot, so that the pieces are not touching. Cook, without touching, for about 2-3 minutes, until well-browned on one side. Turn pieces with tongs until most sides are well-browned, about 5 minutes longer. Remove pieces to a bowl, and repeat for rest of stew meat.

In the now-empty pot, add another tablespoon oil (if necessary to coat bottom of pan) and reduce heat to medium. Add onions and 1/4 tsp salt, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to loosen browned bits, until onions are brown (about 8 minutes). Add flour and cook, stirring to coat onions, for 1-2 minutes.

Add half the water to the pot, scraping the bottom and sides of pan to loosen more browned bits. Gradually add the rest of the water, stirring until thickened. Add thyme and 1/4 tsp salt, and bring to a simmer. Add the reserved stew meat to the pot, along with any accumulated juices. Stir and return to a simmer. Cover, place in oven, and cook for 1 hour.

Remove pot from oven, and scatter carrots and turnips on top of meat. Cover and return to oven, cooking until meat is tender (another 50 minutes). Remove from oven, and stir vegetables into the stew. Let sit for 5 minutes, and skim any fat that has risen to the surface (this won’t be necessary if your lamb is grass-fed).

Stir in parsley, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve immediately.

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This post is part of the Tuesday Twister at GNOWFGLINS.

Let’s hear it for a Lucky 2010

hoppinjohn

I don’t believe in luck, in a metaphysical sense. It’s kind of like Santa Claus: a fun idea; not real. But just like the idea of Santa, there’s a small part of me that sort of believes (or wants to believe?) just a teensy bit — against my logic and eschatology. Maybe that part of me is the motivation behind a “lucky” New Year’s Day meal. It’s either that, or I simply love a day when the menu is pre-set, and I don’t have to think, I just have to cook.

I’ve been making a classic Southern New Year’s Day dinner  — some arrangement of black-eyed peas, ham, collard greens, and cornbread — for a few years now. And even without truly believing that eating this meal makes the year any better, it makes sense to partake. First, it’s nice to have a tradition, especially when it’s a meal we don’t eat often on other days of the year. Second, it’s cheap, which is nice when you’re facing the first day of a new year — one usually fraught with plans for saving more, being more generous, and the like. Third, it’s pretty darned good for you, and rings in the annual January respite from all the rich, sweet foods we’ve been indulging in just a little more (ahem) since way back in November.

When I awoke New Year’s day, I realized that I had not planned. Wasn’t sure I had black-eyed peas, and knew I didn’t have any collard greens. I dug around in the pantry, tossing about unlabeled plastic bags of various legumes and grains, and found a chalky half-bag of dried peas — maybe leftover from a year ago, purchased for the same purpose in 2009 (and yes, that does mean that I moved across 3 states with a half-bag of dried peas). It happened to be the exact amount of dried legumes I needed — maybe my luck was starting already? — so I set them to soak and went about making sure I had everything else I needed. My goal for the day was to hit as many thrift stores as I could in a 3-hour window of precious time alone (maybe my luck would hit double on January 1, and I’d find that 9-tray Excalibur Food Dehydrator marked $15 at Goodwill!), but I figured I could also squeeze in a stop for collards.

I got to thinking more about luck. If I were asked in a survey if I considered myself “lucky,” how would I answer? My immediate answer would probably be no. And the reason would be because somewhere along the way, my definition for luck became something synonymous with amassing great amounts of financial wealth (with, of course, little or no effort involved). Or, perhaps winning contests and giveaways and sweepstakes. Or maybe going to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and actually leaving with a new driver’s license. Truth be told, I don’t have a history of winning things, I always get a ticket if pulled over, and it might end up costing me several hundred dollars in court fees to get a license (not quite as dramatic as it sounds; it has to do with a nickname that was never legally adopted and unfortunately living in the most law-abiding state in the union). Do these things make me unlucky?

We went to a New Year’s party Thursday night. I heard myself saying to more than one person that I was more than ready to say goodbye to the Decade of the Aughts. One of the people who heard this desire was my husband, who gently reminded me (to the amusement of others) that I was basically wishing away the decade that comprised our entire relationship. Oh, right. Ok, no, it’s not like that. It just so happens that the past decade — the one we rang in with 9/11 — has been personally life-changing in no less than 7 ways (one marriage, three cross-state moves, three children, etc.). Those things can be really difficult, especially for someone like me who doesn’t really enjoy major life changes (even when those changes bring joy). And it’s true — when I look forward, I see more stability; at least from my meager viewpoint. We’re 90% sure that our family’s quiver is full, and we have the feeling we’ll be in Indiana for a good while.  When I wish away the old, it’s all that tiresome change that I consider.

After my day of bargain-hunting (no, I didn’t come across the food dehydrator, but I did find some other great and needed items for my kitchen), I came home to quickly prepare dinner. I stirred the Hoppin’ John in my cast-iron dutch oven, and then did what I always did to clean off my stirring spoon: whacked it a few times on the rim of the pan. I was using one of my favorite wooden spoons — a short, thick maple one that had been a wedding gift from Tim’s Aunt Barb, way back in 2001. As the spoon hit the side of the pan with that familiar ring, it split in two, weak from the 9 years of abuse from my hand. I exclaimed, first in surprise, and then in sadness, that a favorite utensil had met its demise. I set it aside, unwilling to toss it just yet, and the next time I needed to stir, reached in my utensil crock for the brand-new bamboo slotted spoon that was a Christmas gift from Tim’s mom. Good thing you got that spoon for Christmas, Tim said.

Maybe our tradition of eating this meal on New Year’s Day can evolve into a time of consideration. What would have to happen for us to consider this new year lucky? As I look ahead to coming months, I see a lot of unknowns; we have no idea where we’ll be living come June 1st, we don’t know if we’ll be able to buy or need to continue renting, and we have a child with health problems that remain mysterious and have potential long-term consequences. But as I look back, I see provision for our family every step of the way, at every turn in the last decade. If someone asks me in the year 2020 if I consider myself a lucky person, I hope I say yes. But rather than answering so because I have won a sweepstakes or have at some point actually become a legal driver in this state, I hope my answer is yes because I’ve learned that sometimes spoons break — even spoons that have sentimental value; and I’m lucky because in the history of my life, I can look back and see that every time I’ve really needed a spoon, I’ve never been without.

brokenspoon

Lest you fear that my blogging frequency is directly proportional to the amount of food I’m consuming

I know, you have nothing better to do than sit around and wonder what we’re eating. You spend hours worrying about what my lackluster appetite is doing to my family. Oh, wait — no, that’s me.

Hours might be a slight exaggeration. It does take me longer than usual to come up with the good ol’ weekly meal plan. I just sit and stare at my notebook, then get up and flip through old notebooks and back-issues of Everyday Food, then sit down again and stare. It’s not that it’s so hard to come up with dinner ideas that are relatively cheap and quick, it’s throwing in the over-demanding variable of my appetite that’s the kicker.

If x = my appetite, then the following are true:
x + cheap ≠ healthy
x + healthy + quick = pricey
x = a real headache
and so on, and so forth.

Weekly menu aside, I can usually come up with something that I do really want. And it usually involves chocolate. Chocolate cake, chocolate milk, chocolate pudding. And, per my usual, not just any of these things will do. It’s usually a homemade version of chocolate (fill in the blank) that I want, but since I don’t usually have the energy to make it, I just sit and want. Trying to find anything in my kitchen that will fulfill that desire, and coming up empty. Even Nutella has a point of maximum enjoyment, and I passed it a month or so ago.

BUT. Tuesday afternoon, we were scheduled to eat leftovers for dinner, so I had the extra time and energy to whip up my long-desired batch of homemade chocolate pudding. You know what’s great about making chocolate pudding? No custard base is necessary — it is thickened with corn starch. So it’s practically as easy as the kind in a box — all it takes is some stirring on the stove, and the patience required to wait until it cools. I like to change up the version from the Joy of Cooking, omitting the bittersweet chocolate and adding some 2% milk in place of a portion of half-n-half (you know me — I’m not one to skimp on fat — but using the half-n-half and chocolate in this recipe makes a pudding that’s almost too rich to eat). If you get a hankering in the next few days, here’s my recipe:

Chocolate Pudding (adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

This makes about 3 cups of pudding. You can either let it set up in one bowl, or pour it into a few ramekins for individual servings.

Mix together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa
  • 1/8 tsp salt

Gradually stir in, until a smooth runny paste is formed:

  • 1/3 cup warm water

Stirring constantly, bring to a boil over medium heat, then remove from heat. Stir in:

  • 1 3/4 cups whole milk or
    1 1/4 cups lowfat (not skim) milk plus 1/2 cup half-n-half

Place into a small bowl:

  • 3 Tbsp cornstarch

Very gradually add, while stirring, until a smooth paste is formed:

  • 1/4 cup half-n-half

Add the cornstarch mixture to the chocolate mixture, stirring to thoroughly combine. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. Stirring briskly, bring mixture to a simmer and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat, and stir in:

  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Pour the pudding into bowl or individual cups. To avoid a pudding skin, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface (this wrinkles up your presentation) of the pudding. Refrigerate for 2 hours, or up to 2 days.

Of course, served topped with

  • whipped cream

See if this pudding isn’t so much better than what’s in a box, you vow to never buy the box again.

Highlight reel

I know that what I’m about to write could be considered curious content from a person who has decided to publish a food blog, but,

I’m just not enjoying cooking right now.

Are you surprised? (My recent posting history has been slight, to say the least.) I sort of made an unspoken deal with myself (are deals-with-self ever really spoken aloud?), when starting this whole thing, that I would try to avoid excuses and overt apologies in my posts. So I’ve been avoiding writing about this, shall we say, lack of felt inspiration in my culinary life. But it then occurred to me: this is a part of every culinary life. So why not share it?

Like any creative drought, I can pinpoint some practical culprits. The first and foremost being that I’m pretty much wiped out all the time, counting the days until I no longer look like I swallowed a soccer ball (something a random 3-year old accused me of this morning, just as he was peering under my shirt to see if his suspicions could be backed by physical evidence). Another could be a predictable and previously documented case of summer blues, back as they are every August. Yet another factor could be the seemingly endless demands of feeding a child with difficult food allergies. Sometimes it takes all my kitchen energy just to keep up with his menu; cooking chicken, rendering and freezing the fat, making soy yogurt, making bread, etc. I think these tasks are difficult because they, by nature, can’t be new and exciting.

But the reasons ultimately don’t matter. Cooking is a creative task, and all creative acts must go through unique versions of doldrums. Fall is around the corner, as is an end to the cumbersome act of carrying a child (although I am aware that a new and different exhaustion must be faced at that time). And I do believe a day will come when my son will be able to eat new foods. The things that seemingly thwart inspiration right now will not continue to do so; this, too, shall pass.

In the meantime, I have managed to enjoy some food. Enough to share a few tastes of late that have caused me to be thankful for the miracle of tastebuds.

  • Real, homemade hot fudge. Served at a party for some friends where everyone made their own ice cream sundae. I topped my vanilla ice cream with a hearty covering of this fudge, along with sliced strawberries and whipped cream. It was a thing summer was made for.
  • Golden cherry tomatoes, from the local farmer’s market. The farmer at his stand let me taste one before I bought them, and they were the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. Like candy. I bought up a bag, and used them in my latest tomato pie, which ended up being, by far, the best tomato pie I’ve ever made. Which goes to show, a tomato pie is 100%, undeniably, ALL about the tomatoes.
  • Really good chocolate cake. Eaten at a party for a friend visiting the states from overseas (it was fun to see you Meagan!). A lovely chocolate layer cake, with chocolate buttercream frosting. The host said it was a Southern Living recipe, and it rivaled my current-favorite Grit recipe for chocolate cake.
  • Day-old pastries from a rockin’ bakery in Chattanooga, TN, called Niedlov’s. We had friends from that fair river city come for an overnight visit, and they graciously brought with them an assorted baker’s dozen of breakfast pastries. Chocolate croissants, muffins, cinnamon rolls, almond croissants. Even a day old, and reheated in my oven, they made a wonderful breakfast sampler platter. They even inspired a verbal claim to my husband that, when I grow up, I want to work in a bakery.

As I read the list, and think about other moments of mouthwatering joy, I realize they are almost all centered around food that I did not prepare. It’s times such as these that I better understand my friends who don’t enjoy cooking. If cooking were always as seemingly cumbersome and exhausting as it feels right now, I’d find very little reason to carry on doing it. Not to mention spend a lot more money eating out. But, hard as it is for me to believe today, I will actually forget what this feels like. And will go back to my usual, overly-excited, a bit overbearing, kitchen-obsessed self, proselytizing to any willing ear why my latest food obsession should be everyone else’s, too.

In the meantime, I’ll be here — avoiding the heat, looking for candy-like tomatoes and homemade chocolate cake to appear before my eyes. And willing the glorious month of October to show us its first day.

For Kitchenaid-mixer-owners (with dough hook) only

First things first: my apologies to you if you tried to visit TFF last week and were met with a confusing message about databases or error codes. I had some technical difficulties, but thankfully have friends in high places (shouts-out to both Ben and Scott, neither of whom read this blog), and now we’re back on, ready with a brand-new, week-old post: a lovely hearth bread.

Re: the title — I’m really not trying to discriminate — just want to avoid the rabid frustration of my readers. Today’s post will detail the makings of one of my favorite dinner breads, but its ease is dependent on that hook. If you do not currently own said Kitchenaid mixer, you have 4 choices:

  1. Go to this link and watch the podcast on making Cook’s Illustrated’s version of Almost No-Knead bread. I made it this weekend, and it was good. Not as good as the bread following, but a good all-around, super-easy bread.
  2. Knead it by hand, baby. I only recommend this if you’re comfortable with hand-kneading, enough to handle a sticky dough without tears.
  3. Acquire yourself a mixer.
  4. Continue reading, mouth watering, but stifle any erupting desire for the mixer. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Alrighty then. Now that’s out of the way, I share with you today a dinner bread that is rising, as I type, in my slightly-too-cool kitchen (because of this, my dough is rising slowly, causing me to skip the second rise before shaping, but I think it’ll still be ok, that’s why I love this recipe). It’s from The Bread Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. This is the ultimate bread reference book. You will understand so much more about bread after just skimming a few recipes, and it will empower you to develop your own. My single criticism (because you know there’s gotta be at least one) is that she’s a little too convinced that her exact measurements will produce a perfect loaf of bread every time. I do think that bread-making is slightly different in the ridiculously humid South than it is in lower Manhattan. But that’s just me, the person who was definitely not consulted before the book was published.

The loaf is called Heart of Wheat bread, and the author says it became her signature loaf while researching the book. And with many good reasons — it’s easy, somewhat forgiving, and boasts a wonderful wheatiness without actually being a whole wheat loaf. The airiness and soft texture are the result of using all white flour, and the more comlex flavor comes from the addition of raw wheat germ.

I’m making it tonight to serve with Cream of Potato soup. I usually only get around to making dinner bread when a meal kind of needs it — i.e., I wouldn’t be baking if I were also going to roast a chicken. But when I have the forethought, it turns a simple supper into something much more interesting.

I’m going to greatly condense the book’s detailed instructions, or else I’d be typing until sometime tomorrow. You should plan to start the process at about 8 am on the day you plan to serve it. This will give you a loaf that’s ready to cut for a 6pm dinner (you might need to skip that second rising, like me, if it’s a cool day).

Heart of Wheat Bread from The Bread Bible (Rose Levy Beranbaum)

The Sponge

  • 1 cup bread flour (King Arthur is best)
  • 3 Tbsp fresh (untoasted) wheat germ
  • 3/8 tsp instant yeast (Red Star’s Quick Rise or Instant Active Dry, or Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise)
  • 1 1/4 tsp honey
  • 1 1/3 cup water, at room temperature (70º-90º)

In your mixer bowl, combine all the sponge ingredients, and whisk by hand (or with whisk attachment on lowish speed) until very smooth, to incorporate air, for about 2 minutes. It should be the consistency of batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside while you make the flour mixture.

Flour Mixture

  • 2 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 tsp instant yeast

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and yeast. Gently scoop the flour mixture on top of the sponge, covering it completely. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and allow it to ferment at room temperature for 4 hours. The sponge will probably bubble up through the flour, this is fine.

Mixing
With the dough hook, mix on low speed (#2 on a Kitchenaid) for about 1 minute, until a rough dough is formed. Scrape down any bits of dough, recover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 20 minutes. (This is an important step — called an autolyse — and allows the flour to absorb the water more evenly, among other things).

Sprinkle on the dough:

  • 1 1/2 tsp table salt

Knead the dough on medium speed (#4) for about 7 minutes. The dough should be very elastic, smooth, and sticky enough to cling slightly to your fingers. If it is still very wet, add a little flour (1 Tbsp at a time). If it is not at all sticky, spray on a little water and continue to knead for another minute.

1st Rise
Place the dough in a large bowl that has been sprayed lightly with cooking spray. Gently press down the top of the dough, and spray lightly with cooking oil. Cover with plastic wrap, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes (or in a cold kitchen, up to 1 hour 15 minutes).

2nd Rise (optional if you run out of time, but definitely ideal)
Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured counter and press gently into a rectangle. Give it one “business letter turn” (yes, just like you’re folding a letter), round the edges, and return it to the bowl, seam-side down. Let rise until doubled again (it will already be fuller than it was in the first rise), about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Shaping
Turn dough onto a lightly floured counter and gently press down to flatten slightly. Pulling the edges toward the center, flip the dough over (seam side down) and continue to tighten the top of the round by pushing the dough under the ball. There’s no easy way to write this, without illustration — and there are many ways to shape bread. I found these videos on YouTube, and while not exactly what I have done, they look good to me, and could be very helpful if you’ve never done it before. Set the dough on a baking sheet that’s been lined with parchment paper or a Silpat liner, and cover with a large inverted bowl or oiled plastic wrap. Let rise until almost doubled, 45 minutes to 1 hour 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 475º about half an hour before dough is done rising, and place the oven rack on a lower shelf of your oven. If you happen to have a pizza stone, place it on the oven rack before you preheat the oven.

Bake
Sprinkle the risen dough with a fine dusting of flour, and make one or two 1/4″ deep slashes on the top, using a serrated or other sharp knife. (This can be tricky — try to do it fast, and if it looks funny, it won’t affect the flavor at all!) Quickly place the baking pan directly on the pizza stone (or on the rack) and immediately shut the oven door. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 425º, and continue baking for 20-30 minutes, until the bread is golden brown. If you have an instant-read thermometer, the interior of the bread should be about 200º.

Remove the loaf to a cooling rack, and let cool completely before cutting (this’ll take about an hour).

If this is your first dinner loaf, you should definitely take a picture!

The Best Tomato Soup

It really is. And alarmingly simple, too. I’ve tried several other tomato soup recipes, all more complicated and time-consuming, and not one has compared, even remotely.

Every time I serve this soup to guests, they comment on how fresh it tastes, and usually ask if I used fresh tomatoes (I think to myself that I’d rather eat a can of Campbell’s than use a storebought tomato at this time of year). But I wouldn’t use fresh tomatoes even if I had an endless supply of a perfectly-ripe heirloom variety; this isn’t a gazpacho, it’s a cold-weather soup, and the texture and flavor of canned tomatoes are necessary. The original recipe was scrawled on a scrap of paper at my friend Megan’s house, where I first had the pleasure of eating it. I now have it memorized, because we eat it 2-3 times a month in the fall and winter, and it’s only four ingredients — and my meager brain can actually remember a list of four things, but only after months of repetition.

If you make it and don’t agree it’s the best, please send me Your Version Of A Better Tomato Soup recipe. Because I’m just curious.

(The Best) Tomato Soup

  • one yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 (28-oz) cans of tomatoes (I use one can of diced and one can of crushed)
  • one quart vegetable or chicken broth (homemade makes a big difference here!)

In a large saucepan or dutch oven, sauté the onion and garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil, until soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes and broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 45 minutes. Puree the soup using a hand blender, or in batches in a blender or food processor. Salt and pepper the soup to taste (this will depend a good bit on the salt content of your broth). If desired, stir in a couple tablespoons butter (this will round out the acidity) or 1/4 cup heavy cream.

Tastes best with a grilled cheese sandwich on the side.

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Coddling the cold

About ten years ago, I was just starting grad school and had moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. I packed with my belongings a book that was all about altering your diet based on your blood type. I had just begun my foray into healthy eating (new life, new state, new food, etc.), and the book was recommended by a respected (and somewhat eccentric) friend. The general idea was intriguing; and while it’s been ten years since reading it, I recall the premise being that your blood type was indicative of your genealogical origins, and your body therefore responds to food the way your ancestors used it. I am an O+, and I remember something about Europeans of yore, and eating lots of meat, but avoiding dairy and wheat (unless it had been sprouted). I was hard-core for a while, but soon lost steam, though several of the ideas stuck with me (I still believe I’m much better off when avoiding cow’s milk).

I think of that book when the weather turns cold. I may have grown up and still reside in the deep south, but something in my genes absolutely loves the cold. I’m fully convinced that my ancestors wore lots of wool, spent much time in front of fires, drank their weight in tea and ate gallons of soup. And even being a very cold-natured person — so much so that even when we’re sitting in front of the fire at night, and I’ve got my cup of hot tea cradled in both hands, I still sometimes bring out my electric blanket to put over my legs and feet on the couch — I somehow relish it. It’s been cold this week; most mornings I bundled myself and the kids up and walked outside into an 18º chill. And I’m thinking, FINALLY. It’s winter.

I wrote a post a while back about how much I love my crock pot. One of the first things I made when I got it a few Christmases ago was from a book called The Gourmet Slow Cooker. The recipe is for Dublin Coddle, a simple but wonderfully comforting dish calling for layers of sausage, bacon, potatoes, carrots, and onions. I inadvertently began making this dish yearly in the month of January. I seems almost like New Year’s Day food, though I can’t put my finger on why (no greens, no cabbage, no ham… what gives?). It might be simply that it just doesn’t really get cold in the south until January. And coddle is for the cold. Tim loves this dish — I suppose his Dutch ancestors weren’t exactly basking in the sun while sipping rum drinks, either.

I don’t know about where you are, but here in Athens it’s about 60º today. Too warm for coddle. But when the next cold spell hits, be ready with coddle, a good loaf of dinner bread, and your beer of choice. The recipe, adapted from The Gourmet Slow Cooker, by Lynn Alley (this version is for a dutch oven rather than slow-cooker; I found it to be surprisingly easier, and the textures better that way):

Dublin Coddle

  • 6 slices bacon
  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh pork sausage (6-8 links)
  • 2 medium-sized yellow onions, sliced
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 cup hard cider, beer, or chicken stock (beer or cider tastes best!)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper

Heat a dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and fry until crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Add sausages and cook, turning, until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate.

Pour off all but about 2 Tbsp of the fat in the pan. Add the onions and sauté until lightly browned.

Remove half the onions from the pan, and spread the remaining half over the bottom. Sprinkle the onions in the pan with salt and pepper. Place half of the potato slices in a layer on top of the onions, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lay the strips of bacon over the potatoes. Lay the sausages over the bacon. Spread the carrots over the sausages. Spread the remaining onions over the carrots, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with the remaining potatoes, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Add the beer, cider, or stock. Cover and cook over low heat for about half an hour, or until the potatoes and carrots are very tender. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve.

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