Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Michael Pollan is one of my favorite food writers. He’s incredibly smart, when it comes to food, but also practical and not the least bit elitist–I have no patience for people who want to argue about the “true” way to make a cassoulet, or who will spend $5 on a single designer cupcake. Michael Pollan is not one of those people. His most famous food rule is “Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.” Whenever the Foodie children complain that there’s no food in the house, I point out that there is only
food in the house. Prepared meals are full of ingredients that can be called “food” only in the broadest sense of the word–meaning that they’re edible. I’m not above buying them, for the sake of convenience, but I try to keep them to a minimum.
In an interview with The New York Times last year, Michael Pollan had this to say about the various kinds of junk food we eat:
I love French fries, and I also know if I ate French fries every day it would not be a good thing. One of our problems is that foods that are labor or money intensive have gotten very cheap and easy to procure. French fries are a great example. They are a tremendous pain to make. Wash the potatoes, fry potatoes, get rid of the oil, clean up the mess. If you made them yourself you’d have them about once a month, and that’s probably about right. The fact that labor has been removed from special occasion food has made us treat it as everyday food. One way to curb that and still enjoy those foods is to make them. Try to make your own Twinkie. I don’t even know if you can. I imagine it would be pretty difficult.
I worked at McDonald’s throughout my high school years, and I can testify with some degree of authority to the mess involved with making French fries, even excluding all the washing and peeling and cutting of potatoes, which is done long before the fries arrive at your favorite McD’s location. If I had to make my own fries, I would never, ever eat them. And although they’re one of Mr. Picky’s favorite treats, I suspect he would find another favorite if he were in charge of making them. I’m confident that’s one of the reasons we have a problem with obesity in the United States: we’re just too far removed from the making of our own food. And mass processing–which becomes necessary when people won’t or can’t cook for themselves–is what makes good food go bad.
So, this morning, I decided to find out if another Foodie children favorite–the humble Pop Tart–also followed this general rule, hereafter known as the I-Wouldn’t-Make-This-Very-Often Rule. I looked up a few recipes, none of which looked terribly difficult, since I have some practice making pie crust. I envisioned a blog post in which I might actually explain how easy it is to make your own breakfast tarts and impress your family–as a sometimes treat, of course, since they do include a lot of butter.
As it turns out, Pop Tarts most definitely follow the IWMTVO Rule. Though the pastry is similar to pie crust, it has to be rolled very thin–most of the recipes I found claimed to produce 8 or 9 breakfast tarts, but I came out with 6 after getting the dough as thin as I could (even using a chilled marble rolling pin, to keep the dough from sticking.) The crust is definitely flaky and delicious, much better than what you’ll get from a store-bought Pop Tart. But if I were to make these again, lacking a Pop Tart cutting machine, I’d follow a simpler process. For instance: cutting the dough into rounds and folding them into crescents. Much easier than trying to match up symmetrical pieces of dough, and just as tasty.
These would be really cute to serve at a celebratory brunch, in whatever shape you choose. Rather than using fruit filling, you could easily fill them with chocolate chips and approximate pain au chocolat; you could also leave the sugar out of the dough (and the topping) and make savory tarts fillied with pesto and Parmesan cheese, or anything else that tickles your fancy.
The bottom line, though: Breakfast Tarts are a sometimes food. Thus, Pop Tarts should be too. The strawberry jam filling, on the other hand, is fairly low in sugar and much better tasting than what you’ll get from the store. Try the Michael Pollan test and see if your favorite jam has more than five ingredients. I’ll bet it does. Then give this jam a try and see if you aren’t surprised by how easy it is to make. (To use the jam in this recipe, you’ll need to make it a day ahead and let it chill completely overnight.)
Strawberry Breakfast Tarts
For the strawberry jam filling:
3 cups sliced strawberries
1 cup sugar
Juice of one lemon (and 2 T.)
For the tart crust:
2 cups flour
1 T. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 sticks of butter, cut into pieces
2 eggs, divided use
2 T. milk
More sugar, for sprinkling
For the jam:
Before you get started making the jam, put a small plate in your freezer. You'll need this to test the consistency of your jam in about 10 minutes.
Stir together the strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a large saucepan. Turn the heat to high and continue stirring until the strawberries begin to give up some of their juice and the sugar dissolves. When the liquid comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium. Allow this mixture to keep cooking for 10 minutes, then remove it from the heat. Stir until any foam that has accumulated on top is re-incorporated into the liquid (or skim the foam off the top, your choice.)
Now, grab your small plate from the freezer. Test your jam by placing a small drop of the liquid on the cold plate and letting it sit for a minute, then tipping the plate to the side. Your jam should be mostly stable or run slowly to the side. If it's still very thin, return the plate to the freezer and the saucepan to medium heat for another two minutes, then test it again.
When the jam is finished, allow it to cool to room temperature before pouring it into a glass jar and placing it in the refrigerator. This jam is not shelf-stable and must be kept cold to prevent bacteria from developing. Let it chill overnight before using it as a filling for the breakfast tarts.
For the tarts:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Use a fork or pastry cutter to work the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter is in pea-sized pieces. Then add one egg and the milk, stirring with a large wooden spoon until the wet ingredients are incorporated. At this point you should have a dough that packs together easily; if not, add another tablespoon of milk.
Divide the dough in half. Wrap one half in plastic and keep it in the refrigerator (to prevent it from getting too soft) while you work with the other half. Roll the dough as thin as you can get it, then use a large, sharp knife to cut the dough into an even rectangle. Save the edge scraps for later use. Cut the rectangle in half lengthwise, then crosswise, making smaller rectangles of relatively equal size. (Of course, you can get very precise and measure your dough as you go along. But measurement is not, as you know, a strength of the Foodie kitchen, so I just eyeballed everything.)
Beat the remaining egg and add a tablespoon of water. Brush the beaten egg over all the rectangles. Place about a tablespoon of jam in a strip down the center of one rectangle, then cover with another piece of dough (egg-side down.) Use a fork to crimp the edges tightly. Brush the top with more beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar. Then use a fork or toothpick to poke several holes in the top of each tart, which will allow steam to escape during baking so the tarts will stay nice and flat.
Place the completed tart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and repeat this process until you're out of dough rectangles. (At this point I used the edge scraps to make round tarts that I folded into crescent shapes. They're just as tasty as their rectangular counterparts and, frankly, much easier to make.)
When you've worked through this half of the dough, place the completed tarts in the refrigerator while you work with the other half. Allowing the tarts to chill ensures that the dough is firm when it goes into the oven, so the tarts hold their shape and don't spread out too much.
Place the second tray of tarts in the refrigerator to chill while the first batch bakes for about 25 minutes, until they're golden brown. Allow the tarts to cool briefly on the cookie sheet before removing them to a cooling rack.
Monday, May 9, 2011
I know, I know. It’s been a week since my last post. It’s the end of the semester, not to mention the end of the academic year, and life in the Foodie household has been, in a word, hectic. But now that classes are over and finals are underway, things are settling into a slightly more peaceful routine this week. In spite of the dance recitals and their required rehearsals. In spite of the final band concert and its attendant sectionals, extra practices, etc. Yes, even in spite of the field trips and dances.
If working with the Foodie children’s schedules were my only job, I’d be golden. It’s the having of two (or three, depending on the day) jobs that gets to be a problem sometimes.
Along with the hectic schedule, we also had a freakish cold snap last week. Today it was over 90 degrees; last Monday, it was 55. And while that’s spring weather in many parts of the country, here it’s the dead of winter. I tried to keep in mind that I wouldn’t likely be feeling that cold again for six or seven months. I piled on layers of spring clothes, since the warmer clothes have been long since packed away. And then I celebrated by making soup.
Egg Drop Soup, to be precise.
This is maybe the easiest soup in the world to make, and it’s easily customized as well. Think of your favorite bowl of Egg Drop Soup and embellish this recipe with any of your favorite additions. I’ve had Egg Drop soup that featured various combinations of carrots, peas, and rice, but I’m a purist at heart. This version has very few ingredients, because the basic thing about Egg Drop Soup is the egg. Beyond that, it’s up to you. Feel free to use homemade chicken stock, a carton from the grocery store (I like the Kirkland brand chicken stock from Costco), or even hot water with bouillon cubes as your soup base.
One tip, should you decide to try this: use a large, wide saucepan. As you’re adding the beaten eggs to the broth, it helps to have maximum surface area so the egg will cook in long, thin strips rather than little globs of egg. (Of course, if you’re into globs, feel free to use any saucepan you like.)
Egg Drop Soup
4 cups chicken broth
4 green onions, sliced into thin rounds
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
2 eggs, beaten
Pour the chicken stock into a large, wide saucepan. Add the green onions, ginger and garlic; stir to combine. (If you're adding other veggies to your soup, toss them in now.) Let the broth come to a boil over medium heat. When it starts to bubble, turn the heat down to medium-low.
Let the beaten eggs drizzle from a fork into the hot broth while you're stirring it in slow circles with a wooden spoon. (This is a two-handed procedure--or you can enlist the aid of a helper.) The egg should cook on contact with the hot broth and turn white immediately. Continue this process until you've added all the beaten egg.
Serve Egg Drop Soup with crispy wonton strips (available at some grocery stores in the salad dressing section, near the croutons and other salad toppings) and more sliced green onions.
Monday, May 2, 2011
A few years after we were married, The Hubs and I made a trip to Paris to visit our friend Michael. Both going to Paris and coming home again, we were a little late in getting through the security line at the airport–not because we were late in getting there, but because this was right after the Gulf War and airport security was extremely tight. That snafu worked in our favor, though, because we ended up getting bumped into Business Class seats. We didn’t really know what that meant, at the time, but we found out quickly: Free wine. Free in-flight movies. A choice of dinner entrees. A choice of Ben and Jerry’s ice creams for dessert. And a hot lemon towel with which to refresh ourselves after our overnight flight to Paris.
No one could believe we were lucky enough to have that happen even once in our lifetime. Everyone told us to hold on tight to that memory, since it would never happen again.
And then it did.
It was a very, very good trip.
That dinner on our flight to Paris was my first experience of the combination of chicken and rosemary, a flavor pairing I fell in love with. Rosemary has a slightly piney taste–it gives everything it touches a freshness that makes me think of spring. But a little goes a very long way, and it’s easy to go overboard (especially with dried rosemary–which, like all dried herbs, is more powerful than its fresh counterpart.) This is one herb I always measure, just to be on the safe side.
This recipe also includes a sauce that can be served over the meatballs (which are particularly nice when nestled atop a pile of egg noodles.) If the sauce is a little thin for your taste, the easiest way to thicken a sauce is to use an equal amount of butter and flour–usually, one tablespoon of each is all you’ll need. Cut the butter into the flour with a fork until all the flour is sticking to a piece of butter, no matter how small a piece, and then whisk the mixture into your sauce. This flour/butter combination even has a fancy French name, beurre manié, which you can use to impress your friends the next time you use it.
Chicken Meatballs with Lemon and Rosemary
1 T. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
1 lb. ground chicken
1 small (or half of one large) onion, minced
3/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 T. olive oil
2 cups chicken broth
4 tsp. lemon juice
1 T. flour
In a large bowl, mix together the rosemary, lemon zest, minced garlic and salt. Use your fingers to rub these ingredients together, combining the flavors. Add the ground chicken and minced onions to the bowl; use your hands to knead the rosemary mixture into the chicken until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Add the breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese and mix again, using your hands. Roll the mixture into meatballs and set them aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the meatballs to the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pan. Brown the meatballs on all sides. (Don't worry about getting them cooked through; that will happen later.) As they've browned, removed the meatballs to a plate and set it aside.
When you're finished browning the meatballs, turn the heat to medium low. Add about half a cup of the chicken broth to the pan--but be prepared for it to bubble and pop and fuss when you do. Stand back until it calms down. Then, use a whisk to lift up the browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. Bring this mixture to a boil and let it bubble for one or two minutes. While it's bubbling, stir the flour into the lemon juice until the flour dissolves and there are no lumps. Then add the flour mixture to the sauce in the skillet, along with the rest of the broth, and whisk everything together. Cook until the mixture returns to a boil.
Reduce the heat to a simmer and return the meatballs to the pan, settling them in the sauce. (Don't worry if the pan is a little crowded now; it doesn't matter if everyone's snuggled up together.) Cover and cook for about ten minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Then remove the cover and turn the meatballs over in the sauce, letting them cook for another minute or two.
Serve the meatballs with egg noodles, covering both with a ladle or two of the sauce.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Last week, I mentioned to a new acquaintance that I write a food blog. “Seriously?” she asked. “I thought only stay-at-home moms did that sort of thing.” It turns out that by that sort of thing, she meant cook–not write a blog. That, of course, is something many people do, regardless of whether they have children or work outside the home. Cooking, apparently, is not.
I’m really surprised whenever people seem to take pride in the fact that they don’t cook. I just don’t see how that functions as a badge of honor. I understand that some people don’t enjoy cooking, but that’s different from being being proud that you can’t. I also understand that having a repertoire of cooking skills was, for many years, part of a gender performance that women were locked into–and let me be the first to say that if you’re in a relationship where you’re expected to do the cooking because you happen to be in possession of a uterus, then that’s definitely a problem. But it’s a problem that has very little to do with cooking.
Not knowing how to make dinner proves nothing about your feminism. I fly my feminist flag proudly, but I might just use that flag to decorate the top of a cake I’ve made. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, in spite of the fact that many people seem to think they are, or should be.
Here are the questions I’m most often asked about my relationship with the kitchen:
1. Did your mom teach you how to cook? My mom was very much a product of her generation–she enjoyed cooking, and she did it well, but her kitchen belonged to her alone. As a result, I didn’t do much cooking while I was growing up.
2. So how did you learn? Most of what I’ve learned about cooking has come via trial and (lots of) error. For instance, I once marinated chicken in champagne vinegar on the assumption that, hey, champagne is kind of like white wine; champagne vinegar must be pretty much the same. Right? (Word to the wise: Wrong.) There’s no law against making mistakes in the kitchen, so you might as well make a few and learn something from them. I also love to read about food and the science of cooking, which helps me understand why I’m doing what I’m doing and how I might do it differently. I highly recommend Cookwise, by Shirley Corriher, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
3. How do you have time to cook? Everybody’s busy these days, and I’ll be honest: there are evenings when I defer to heating up something frozen. But when you think about it logically, going out to dinner takes way more time than cooking. By the time you’ve driven to a restaurant, waited to be seated, ordered, waited to be served and driven home again, you could easily have made a simple dinner of Sesame Chicken Stir-Fry. When I get home from work, I’d rather stay there.
4. How do you plan your meals? I don’t, really. I keep lots of basics on hand–frozen chicken breasts and ground beef, various types of pasta and cheese, canned tomatoes (crushed, diced, with green peppers, etc.), cartons of chicken stock, cans of evaporated milk–and use them to throw a meal together when dinnertime rolls around. And we have some favorites that rotate through more often than some other dishes do, like Tamale Pie, so I make sure to keep ingredients for those on hand.
5. Where do you find the recipes you like to use? If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know I rarely follow a recipe exactly. I have a handful of cookbooks–I used to have a bunch, but I’ve weeded them out over the years–and I tend to rely on the Internet for inspiration. I just Google the ingredients I’m thinking of using and see what comes up. Then I make adjustments based on what I think my family will like.
6. My kids just aren’t adventurous eaters, and I don’t want to fight over dinner. How do you make meals everyone will eat? Flexibility is the key here. The Boy is so picky that I often have to alter what the rest of us are eating in some way–for instance, offering him plain chicken and rice instead of chicken stir-fry. I’m always thinking about the components as I put them together, keeping in mind what’s likely to offend. However, the rule in our house is that you try three bites of whatever I’ve made for dinner; after that, you don’t have to eat more if you don’t want to. Tastebuds change, and this is a way to teach my kids that it’s safe to try new things. Plus, I want the four of us to sit down to a peaceful dinner each night; I have no interest in making the table a battleground.
7. Doesn’t cooking make you feel a little like a Happy Homemaker? Yes. But I’m a Happy Homemaker with a Ph.D., which means I’m smart enough to know that this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
8. Do you watch Food TV 24/7? No. But I watch it more often than any other channel, since it’s the only place I’m guaranteed not to run into gratuitous cruelty. I have a very low threshold for violence. Law & Order is out of the question.
9. Do your kids like to cook? They both love to bake. Neither of them has ventured very far into cooking, but they’re both very proud of their kitchen skills, as they should be. The ability to take care of yourself is a valuable skill.
10. Don’t you get tired of cooking every night? Of course I do. There are days, even weeks, where I just don’t feel the cooking mojo rising at the end of the day. That’s what spaghetti is for. One of the reasons I think people get freaked out about cooking is that it’s tied to eating, something we have to do on a regular basis, every single day. But there are easier and more complex ways to cook, and you don’t have to reject it entirely to protect yourself from the burden it once represented.
I know cooking isn’t an enjoyable task for everyone, and I’m cool with that. But when people tell me they can’t cook, or don’t cook, and there’s an edge of pride in their voices–that’s when I start wondering what’s really underneath their refusal to hang out in the kitchen. Cooking isn’t by definition difficult, boring, or burdensome. It can be a gratifying, creative enterprise, if you give yourself the latitude to try new things and make a few mistakes along the way. What have you got to lose? (Except maybe a pound of chicken.)
Sunday, April 24, 2011
This has been a weird Easter. Not that Easter isn’t always a little strange, given the significance of the holiday (and its bizarre convergence with magical rabbits, colored eggs, and candy)–but this year, for whatever reason, it’s been weirder than usual. For instance: I’ve been having a very hard time getting my cooking mojo going. Holidays are usually the time when I let out all the stops, but this year I just couldn’t muster up any excitement about preparing the Easter meal.
I tried. Really, I did. I asked for suggestions, hoping someone would come up with an idea that stoked the oven of my culinary imagination. But nothing helped. And this morning, eating breakfast tacos in the fellowship hall after the early service at church, I threw in the kitchen towel: I decided that it made no sense to go home and make the frittata I’d planned for brunch. Not when three of the four of us were happily scarfing down bacon and eggs nestled in tortillas. (The fourth one of us, coming down from the adrenaline high of his French horn solo during church, was loading up on the comforting sweetness of blueberry mini-muffins.)
I’d also planned to make something fairly fancy for dessert–but when the frittata plan disappeared, so did the pavlova plan. All the eggs in the house (and there are a lot of them) are safe for another day.
The one thing I didn’t give up on was the honey and lavender glazed fruit salad I’d decided to make–probably because it’s the easiest of the three recipes I had in mind. Then I noticed the angel food cake sitting on the counter, and I remembered that I had some whipped cream in the refrigerator. It occurred to me that I could still make an Easter treat, with minimal effort. Add the super-cute parfait glasses I bought this past week and dessert was a done deal.
Honey and lavender are a perfect compliment to any sort of fruit you like to serve, so this glaze recipe doesn’t have to be saved for a special occasion. However, culinary lavender probably isn’t hanging out on the spice aisle of your favorite grocery store. I found it at World Market, and since you’ll only use a small amount each time you cook with it, a small package of lavender will last you for awhile. Resist the temptation to use more than any recipe calls for, even if you’re a big fan of lavender–it’s pungent, which means it’s worth measuring (even for a measurement-resistant cook like me), and less is almost always more. The idea is to add just enough that you can tell there’s something special about what you’re eating, even if you can’t identify precisely what it is. Use too much lavender and your glaze will be bitter.
You’ll have some lavender syrup left over after you’ve built your parfaits. Store it in a covered container in your refrigerator–it’s perfectly for sweetening tea, grapefruit, or anything else that needs a little sugar to be its best.
Honey-Lavender Glazed Fruit Parfaits
1 cup water
2 T. honey
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. dried culinary lavender
1 mango, pitted, peeled and chopped
4 or 5 large strawberries, sliced
1/2 cup raspberries
1/2 cup blueberries
4 slices (1/2 inch thick) angel food cake
Measure the water into a small saucepan. Add the honey and sugar; whisk together over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the dried lavender. Allow the syrup to continue boiling for 2 or 3 minutes, then remove from the heat. Set aside to steep for 5 minutes. Strain out the lavender, using a fine mesh sieve, and let the syrup cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, combine the sliced fruit and toss with enough of the glaze to give each piece a shiny surface. (Don't worry about using too much--the excess will just run off.) Assemble the parfaits just before you're ready to serve them. Into the parfait glass, layer one large spoonful of the fruit mixture. Add half a slice of the angel food cake, torn into pieces; sprinkle about a teaspoon of the lavender syrup over the cake pieces. Top with a dollop of whipped cream and repeat the layers, ending with whipped cream. Garnish with fresh raspberries, blueberries, or half a strawberry.