Saturday, September 27, 2008

September Daring Bakers: A Quickie


Well, I survived my first week of work, and even managed to eat all of my dinners at home - something that I've heard most people my age consider to be fairly outrageous. Although working "normal" office hours is certainly a change of pace for me, I'll admit that the feeling that comes with the approach of the weekend is kind of fun.

I was feeling it today as I sat down for my morning blog-fest and discovered that today is the posting date for this month's Daring Bakers challenge. Yikes. I hadn't really thought much about it, especially since I had been assuming all week that I'd have until the 30th.

Luckily, this month's challenge was a quick one. The quickest, actually, that I've completed. No multi-layer, multi-day cakes or pastries this time; just a simple batch of Armenian lavash crackers. I've made my fair share of crackers, so I wasn't too worried about this challenge, even though it calls for a yeasted dough. Unlike yeasted bread, yeasted crackers aren't particularly fickle, and the yeast is there for dough structure and flavor more than it is for lift.


What I'm trying to say is this: yes, I completed the challenge, but I don't have much of an interesting story to go along with it. I made the simple dough (flour, water, oil, sugar, yeast, salt), let is rise for a bit, rolled it out, and baked it. Oh, and then I ate lots and lots of crackers.

Although I didn't feel very challenged by this month's recipe, I did enjoy the crackers that I made, and was happy to make something that I would normally eat (no, I don't normally eat gargantuan Danish braids). The only change I made to the recipe was substituting whole wheat flour for the all-purpose that it called for. Crackers are great for whole wheat flours, since they don't need to rise much. The whole wheat makes them a bit darker than white-flour crackers, but they are hearty and delicious and have a wonderful texture. I found that the key to making these crackers was rolling the dough as thin as possible, and then watching them in the oven to make sure that they came out nicely crisp, but not burnt.

We had free range on the cracker toppings, and I chose one sweet and one savory. The first batch was dusted in cinnamon and turbinado sugar, and the second was za'atar themed, with sesame seeds, thyme, and ground sumac. Both were wonderful, although I think the za'atar version would be particularly good with all sorts of spreads and cheeses. Speaking of which...this month's challenge also called for making a spread or dip to go with the crackers. And, well, I kind of....didn't do that. I was thinking about muhammara, which I love, but in the end, I ended up eating the crackers plain, and was quite satisfied. Besides, these challenges are supposed to be about the baking, right?


Thanks to Natalie and Shel, this month's Daring Bakers hosts. Be sure to check out the other Daring Bakers creations, and get excited for next month's challenge...I'm already looking forward to finding out what wild and crazy recipes October will bring!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Real World Muffins


Well friends, the time has come for me to hang up my twenty-something-of-leisure hat and plunge myself into the real world. I'm happy to have had this past summer to do some exciting culinary experimentation (and don't worry, my sourdough starter is still surviving in the fridge!), but, probably for the best, I've officially started my day job.

This doesn't mean that I won't be cooking, but probably does mean that I won't be cooking with as much regularity, and, um, complexity as I have been recently. Like probably no homemade crab ravioli for Tuesday dinners. But on Saturday night, anything goes.

On the bright side, I am hoping to start including some recipes for working girls (and guys), now that I'll be forced to come up with some good ones to keep me sated and happy during the week. Also on the bright side is that I'll now be able to comfortably afford my Whole Foods bill.

[nice and spicy]

To get the ball rolling, I've decided to share a recipe for bran muffins, which is a fantastic recipe that makes for easy and nutritious snacks and breakfasts. I like to make a big batch of muffins, and then freeze them individually. They last basically forever this way, and are easy to defrost. The night before I want to eat them for breakfast, I take a couple out of the freezer and let them sit on the counter until the next morning.

I tend to make chocolate chip bran muffins for Jonathan (not everybody loves raisins as much as I do, I guess), but this pumpkin version, chock full of nuts and dried fruit, is my favorite. You could even add diced apple or pear, or substitute apple sauce or banana for the pumpkin, if you wish. Use this recipe as a base and switch it up according to your tastes.

This recipe is pretty straightforward, but it's a real keeper. I always try to keep a bunch of muffins in the freezer for emergency bran/breakfast situations. So here it is, my bran muffin recipe. And here I am: consultant by day, foodie/chef/baker/blogger by night. We'll see how it goes. But for now, enjoy!


Pumpkin Bran Muffins

1 c. wheat bran
1/2 c. multi-grain hot cereal or oats (unprepared; I use Bob's Red Mill)
1/4 c. uncooked millet
1 3/4 c. boiling water
2/3 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 c. barley flour (or use more whole wheat)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon each nutmeg and cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbs. turbinado sugar
1 tbs. honey
1 tbs. molasses
1/2 c. solid-pack pumpkin
1 egg, separated
1/4 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
handful chopped toasted pecans
handful (or more) raisins


Directions:

Half an hour (or up to a few hours) before baking, combine bran, cereal, and millet with boiling water. Cover and set aside to soften. When ready to bake, combine flours, spices, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolk, buttermilk, vanilla, pumpkin, molasses, and honey, and stir to combine. Add the bran mixture and the pumpkin mixture to the dry ingredients, and stir just until combined. In a small bowl, whisk the egg white until frothy, and then add and incorporate into the batter. Add raisins and pecans and stir just until incorporated. Divide batter between 12 muffin cups, and bake at 375 F for 18-20 minutes, or until firm to the touch. To freeze: allow muffins to cool completely, then wrap each muffin individually in plastic wrap or foil. Store in a sealed zip-top bag in the freezer. To defrost: remove muffins from the freezer and allow to sit at room temperature, still wrapped, for a few hours.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Company's Coming Soup


The past two days here in Boston have certainly been teasing us with the promise of autumn. It's still sunny and warm enough, but the air is a bit chillier, less humid, and altogether much more pleasant than it has been in the past few weeks. And while this autumn brings things to remind us that life isn't all fun and games and cooking (school for Jonathan, work for me), it also brings soup, which is undoubtedly a good thing.


When it comes to soup, the possibilities are endless. Really, you can sneak almost anything into soup, as long as it's delicious. The problem with soup isn't making it taste good, but rather (in my experience at least), making it look good.

Most of the time, I don't really care much about the appearance of my soup. I know we "taste first with our eyes" and all that, but when it comes to soup, it's more about the steamy comfort of it all, and not so much about the presentation. That said, it's nice to serve soup to dinner guests, and it's also nice to serve visually appealing food to them, too.


I don't mean to imply that I wouldn't serve a hearty vegetable soup to dinner guests, but the soup today, with miso and vegetables, is as much a treat for the eyes as for the taste buds. The soup is very simple, with a mildly flavored broth, and is filled with a bouquet of vegetables, tofu, and green touches of scallions and seaweed.

I served this soup a couple of nights ago as an accompaniment to homemade sushi, and it was both perfectly light and satisfyingly warm. It was also a great way to showcase the adorable baby carrots and glowing beauty of a squash that I found at the farmers market that morning. I also added tofu, which, along with the squash, provided the right amount of substance to complement the rest of our dinner. Next time, though, I might try adding soba or udon noodles to the mix to create a real one-dish meal.


The best part of this soup, of course, is how quickly it comes together. I based this dish on traditional miso soup, which calls for making dashi, a broth flavored with kombu (dried kelp) and bonito (dried fish flakes). I used the kombu, but skipped the bonito and added some vegetable stock, which added both color and flavor. The broth takes only 10 minutes or so to complete, and from there, it's just a matter of adding and lightly cooking the vegetables. In order to speed up the dinner preparations, I steamed my squash beforehand, since it takes a bit longer than the other vegetables to cook. I would imagine that it could also be cooked directly in the broth. Oh, and the miso: miso should never be boiled, so I added it at the very end, softening it with a bit of hot broth and then mixing it in to the finished soup. Lovely, light, and wonderful for dinner in autumn.


Miso Vegetable Soup

2 c. low-sodium vegetable stock
4-6 c. water (use more if you haven't pre-cooked the squash)
splash each soy sauce and mirin
2 pieces dried kombu
1-in. piece peeled ginger
3 scallions, roughly chopped
6 small carrots, halved lengthwise (or 2 regular carrots, sliced)
4-5 large shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 small winter squash, cubed
12 oz. silken extra-firm tofu (I like Mori-Nu), cubed
1/4 c. white miso, or to taste
chopped scallion, toasted sesame seeds, and crumbled nori, for garnishing

Directions:

Combine stock, water, ginger, kombu, and scallions in a pot and bring just to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Remove ginger and kombu and discard, then add soy sauce and mirin. If you haven't pre-cooked the squash, add it to the soup and simmer until just tender. Add carrots, mushrooms, and tofu, and cook for a minute more, until carrots are slightly softened. Remove soup from heat. Mix miso and a spoonful of broth in a small bowl until softened, then add miso mixture to the pot. Adjust for seasonings, adding more soy sauce or miso as necessary. Serve immediately, and garnish each bowl with scallions, sesame seeds, and nori.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Stalk Market


While most markets seem to have struggled over the past week, my new favorite farmers market, located smack dab in the middle of Boston's Copley Square, seems to be chugging along at an impressive pace.

California markets have plenty to boast about in the final weeks of August, with all of the lingering summer produce and stone fruits, but New England markets start coming into their own in these fall-tinged days of September. On Friday, I was lucky enough to find McCouns, my favorite variety of apple, and I bought just enough to hold me over until tomorrow, when I'll be heading back to the market for a dozen more (yes, I eat New England apples at an alarming rate).


Even though I'm an equal-opportunity produce consumer, all of the vegetables I buy in the fall are really just complements, vehicles, and foils for the apples and squash that, to me, are the jewels of New England's best season: autumn. That doesn't mean that I won't get excited about the occasional random find at the market though, and today's recipe proves that claim.

I was browsing at one of the stalls at the market, eyeing the peppers and eggplant, when I spotted a stack of brussels sprouts stalks behind the counter, almost out of view. Perhaps the vendors don't consider brussels sprouts a hot item, but I was intrigued. One of the perks of shopping at farmers markets is that sometimes you get to see the produce in their natural forms, not plucked or shucked or combed-through like they are in the supermarket. I'd seen a stalk of brussels sprouts before, but hadn't ever purchased one. At $3 each, the stalks seemed like a reasonable bargain, and I soon found myself bouncing home with an unwieldy branch of sprouts peeking out of my tote.


I generally think of brussels sprouts as a late-fall or winter vegetable, but I'm not one to turn them down in any season. I prepared them simply; first shredding, then sauteing, then dressing them in a lemon-tahini sauce with just the right amount of acid and sweetness to balance their pleasing cabbage-y bitterness. I often prepare sauteed brussels sprouts with a honey-mustard vinaigrette, but the tahini and lemon here add some extra character and brightness. The recipe below is hardly much of a recipe, but one my favorite things about shopping at the farmers market (aside from walking the mean streets of Boston with giant sprout stalks as my only weapon) is that the cooking really becomes an exercise in letting the beauty of the produce shine through.


Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Lemon-Tahini Vinaigrette

brussels sprouts (as many as you want to eat)
1 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. tahini
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp. honey
1 tsp. spicy or whole-grain mustard
splash of white wine or cider vinegar
1-2 tsp. water
salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

Peel outer leaves of brussels sprouts and discard. Slice sprouts in half lengthwise, then finely slice. Rinse and drain thoroughly. Heat olive oil in a small skillet, and add the shredded sprouts. Saute for about 5-10 minutes, until sprouts are vibrant, just beginning to brown, and have wilted slightly. Season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, mix remaining ingredients to make a vinaigrette. Remove sprouts from heat, and dress with the vinaigrette. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Week in the Making


I don't want to make this a baking blog, but...

The baking project that I'm featuring today is something that was a week in the making. Yes, a week. After much waffling and culinary procrastinating, I finally was motivated to make my own sourdough starter in an effort to bake some real, artisan-style bread. It's not that I'm not a fan of the whole Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day fad, but it doesn't really compare to real, wild yeast sourdough.


I've kept this little project under wraps because I wanted to surprise Jonathan with some homemade sourdough when he got home from California on Sunday evening. Jonathan loves sourdough, and always laments the inferiority of Boston bread as it compares to the famed San Francisco stuff. And who can blame him? I'm always surprised that there aren't more bakeries in the Boston area, and I've mentioned my love for Acme loaves here once or twice.


Feeling a bit inspired by my soft whole wheat loaves, I decided to take the plunge into the vast and highly complex world of sourdough and starters. I tried to do my research on the internet and with the help of some different books, and felt decidedly overwhelmed by the glut of information and opinions about the topic. In an effort to keep things simple, I went with the cultivation method outlined in my trusty King Arthur whole grains baking book.


The first few days were a little iffy (and my starter smelled a bit...funky), but in the end my pain au levain worked out pretty well. I won't go into too much detail because I'm far from an expert on this stuff, but the two little boules that I made were very tasty and had that nice, open crumb that I've never been able to achieve with other baking methods. I think my dough was a bit too soft, and the slashing was basically a disaster, but for a first try I was pretty pleased. This loaf was only about half whole-wheat, but I see many more bread-baking experiments in my future. I will try to post the more successful ones as they emerge from my oven.

For now, here's my first pain au levain, which made a lovely accompaniment to the vegetable, wild rice, and chicken meatball soup Jonathan and I had for dinner on his first night back in town. Yum!

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Learning Curve


As anybody who has read my musings on the art of baking bread knows, I'm kind of into dough right now. Especially the yeasted kind. Cracker dough, pita dough, sandwich-loaf dough, pizza dough...the list goes on and I love it all.

If you've never made bread simply because it's a scary endeavor (I'm not saying it isn't), I urge you to give it a shot. Trust me, I'm no master, but it's fun to play around with sticky dough and nothing beats the excitement of checking up on your ball of doughy deliciousness after a long rise or a proof. Knowing how to work with yeast opens up so many culinary doors, and besides, anything that is as mysterious and time-consuming as making bread must also build character.

But back to the whole "I'm really just a novice baker who just likes to get my countertop dirty" thing. I find that the more I read about making bread, the less I know. The world of baking bread - yeast, rises, proofs, starters, soakers, poolishes, etc., etc. - is just so vast that trying to absorb large chunks of it at a time can be a bit much. On top of the general difficulty of bread-baking, I like to focus on whole-grain loaves, which is really a different animal than normal white-flour baking.


Instead of trying to crack the bread code, though, I've started just experimenting with different techniques and recipes, in the hopes of building my knowledge and intuition about baking in general. The latest technique is one that I got from the Gourmet website, and it's for a "sweet" enriched dough. Don't be fooled, though; this dough is not actually that sweet, and is nowhere near as "enriched" as something like a buttery brioche. Although the recipe calls for regular white flour, I was bold and substituted with 100% whole wheat.

The fact that this dough is enriched really worked in my favor here, since whole wheat generally needs a little extra "oomph" when it comes to yeasted breads. What really intrigued me about the Gourmet recipe, though, wasn't so much the ingredient list as the kneading technique. The dough is very, very wet, and requires a kind of kneading that I had never tried before, but which seemed to work quite well.


This is the only 100% whole-wheat loaf that I've made that has a texture similar in density and crumb-openness to a store-bought loaf. Of course when you eat it fresh, it is infinitely better than anything that comes bagged and dated in the supermarket. Although I don't mind the dense breads that usually result from using whole grain flours, this light and airy little loaf (the mini-loaf pans are back in action!) was a nice change of pace, and a reassuring reminder that whole grains really are versatile and veritable substitutes for traditional refined flours.

As I mentioned before, I used this recipe mainly for its kneading technique (the Gourmet website also has an awesome video of this technique), and made a few substantial changes to it. The first of course, is the whole wheat substitution. Secondly, I let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator, and then let it rise again in the refrigerator after punching it down once (although this takes a long time, it is pretty fool-proof). And finally, thinking I wanted a loaf with some serious character, I kneaded in some fennel and caraway seeds and some raisins before the final proof. Oh, and I also baked it in loaf pans instead of free-forming it, because my little pans are just too cute.


I loved the flavor combination of fennel, caraway, and raisins; it gave the bread a lovely balance between sweet and savory. The bread worked well on its own, and was delectable with the addition of a few sandwich ingredients. Since Jonathan is still in California, I went wild and bought some smoked salmon (he's allergic to salmon, so we never eat it otherwise), and then topped a few toasted mini-slices with salmon, cucumber slices, and fromage blanc. Classy, I know. But also really tasty, and really easy. In fact, I might just have a single-girl sandwich to go along with my single-girl salad.

I won't write out the recipe for the bread here, because it isn't really my recipe (except for the fennel and raisins, which I highly recommend), but do check out the original recipe and video for some serious bakerly inspiration. This dough is a blast to work with - it goes from wet and sloppy to smooth and supple as you knead it - and results in a wonderfully light-textured and versatile loaf. If I can do it, so can you!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Red on Red


No matter how short or how long my shopping list is, I never manage to escape the grocery store without a rogue item ( or three) that catches my eye. This, I think, is generally a good thing: it forces me to come up with new things and ways to cook in order to use the ingredients that I pick up on impulse.

The other day, my impulse buy was a small and overpriced bag of Bhutanese red rice (should they start shelving it next to the National Enquirer?). I've been meaning to try red rice for quite a while now, but it seems never to have caught my eye before. Red rice is a whole-grain rice, like brown rice, but instead of brown, it's....you guessed it.


As any reader of this blog knows, I'm a faithful consumer of anything whole-grain, and I'm particularly fond of grain salads and pilafs, which combine grains with other treats like vegetables, spices, seeds, and nuts. Preparing grains with these additions is a wonderful way to mix new flavors and to brighten up an otherwise dull side-dish. Before blogging about my new red rice, I wanted to come up with a grain salad or other similar recipe to showcase the grain, but was a bit stuck. When pairing grains with other flavors, I often rely on ethnic flavors - quinoa with "New World" flavors, bulgur with Middle-Eastern touches, or brown basmati rice with peas, cashews, and Indian spices. I was at a loss for what makes something Bhutanese though.

Being the worldly citizen that I am, I decided to scrap the whole Bhutanese thing and just go with color. Red rice? How about some more red stuff to throw in there? I finally decided on the simple, yet unusual combination of red chard stems (not leaves!) and apples. This was based both on what I had in my refrigerator and what I thought would amount to a season-appropriate, warmly-flavored but light dish. And guess what? I was right! This red rice pilaf, heightened with the flavor of some diced shallot and a hint of curry powder, is flavorful and satisfying, and has a lovely combination of textures and flavors.


The chard stems in particular are a great ingredient to use, not only because they add nice texture and a slightly sweet, earthy, beet-like flavor, but also because they are often something that gets tossed in my disposal whenever I'm making chard. You know the old saying: one man's compost is another man's whole-grain pilaf.

The trick with chard stems is to cook them long enough so that they lose their toughness, which is only about 10 minutes or so. I pull off the green leaves (and save them, of course), chop the stems into half-inch lengths, saute them for a minute in a frying pan, and then add a bit of water and cover so that any crunch is steamed away. Their flavor here works beautifully with the apple and curry.


And then, of course, there is the rice. The most common descriptor for red rice seems to be "nutty," which is the ubiquitous and indiscriminately-used term that describes just about every whole grain there is. Indeed, many grains do have a nutty flavor; I think millet and brown rice do, among others. However, I would not describe red rice as "nutty" so much as, well, tomato-y. Oddly enough, cooked red rice has an almost sweet hint of tomato juice - it's not overwhelming by any means, but it's there, and it's delicious. I find red rice to be refreshingly different than other varieties of rice that I've tried. Its mild, yet pronounced flavor make it just the right thing for dishes like this, which are meant to be about the grain, and not about garnishing a big hunk of meat. In fact, this dish could certainly be the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal (and then again, it would also work as a nice stuffing for a chicken or turkey...)

But I'll leave those choices up to you. Here's the recipe for red (chard and apples) on red (rice). Enjoy!


Red on Red Rice Pilaf

3/4 c. uncooked Bhutanese red rice
dash of olive oil
2 shallots, diced
stems from one bunch of red or rainbow chard, cut into 1/2 in. lengths
1 small sweet/tart apple, such as Paula Red, finely diced
1/2 tsp. (or to taste) curry powder (I used Sun Brand Madras)
salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

Prepare rice: bring rice and a little less than 1 1/2 c. water to a boil with a pinch of salt, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer until water is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Set aside. In a small frying pan, heat a bit of olive oil and add diced shallots. Then add chard stems, a bit of salt and pepper, and saute for a few minutes. Add a couple tablespoonfuls of water to the pan, cover, and cook until the chard is soft and no longer tough, about 10 minutes. Uncover, add diced apple and curry powder, and saute for another minute or so, until the liquid in the pan has evaporated. Adjust the seasonings, then add mixture to the rice. Stir to combine and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 2-3; can be scaled up for a crowd.