Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Giving thanks for food

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I successfully made a savory pie last Thursday. A latticed pie, at that. Much of it, I think, was due to Alton Brown's crust-making technique — and, perhaps, I'm also getting the hang of this crust thing.

Some important points, I've learned, when it comes to pie: Make sure the butter is really cold, frozen even. Cool the filling before pouring it in. Use the dough that hangs over the pan to fill any tears or holes that might occur. Handle as little as possible!

From Mr. Brown, I learned an awesome method of rolling out the crust without making an awful mess of it: Take the newly-formed dough, put it in a gallon-size zip-top bag, cut open the sides, then roll out. Upon opening the bag, place a pie pan bottom-side down on top of the well-floured dough. Carefully flip this whole thing upside down, then peel away the second side of the bag so that the dough is exposed. Fit a second pie pan one top. Turn back right side up, and remove the spare pie pan.

It worked really well!

I made the crust, including the lattice pieces, and the filling the night before. Then, a couple hours before Thanksgiving dinner, I put the whole thing together. Even though my lattice pieces were uneven sizes, I managed to make the top crust happen by fitting some pieces together like a doughy puzzle. I even fluted the sides. Sort of.

It came out of the oven golden brown and smelling of creamy mushroom goodness. I felt like the proud cook taking the turkey out of the oven: it looks pretty, but is the meat really dry and tasteless? In this case, I wondered, "How did the crust turn out?" The first taste test proved it to be flaky and flavorful (thanks to the butter and sour cream), with a crisp edge. And I really liked the mushroom-cream cheese filling.

Dessert was a cheesecake, flavored with vanilla and orange zest, with a chocolate crust and topped with a cranberry-orange sauce. Making the crust involved pulverizing a large number of cookies. The recipe called for "chocolate wafer" cookies, but since I was at Trader Joe's and that didn't seem to be an option, I grabbed a container of chocolate cat cookies. And because I don't have a food processor, I did a combination of using the old "rolling pin and a plastic bag" method and turning the broken pieces into sand in the coffee grinder. (True story: It wasn't that long ago that I thought "put in a bag and crush using a rolling pin" meant beating the cookies senseless — instead of rolling to crush, as I learned from watching Sandra Lee on the Food Network. Man, my downstairs neighbors at the time must've hated me!)

And like all good Thanksgiving foods, the leftovers were enjoyed for days to come.

Mushroom Pie with Sour Cream Crust
(courtesy of Bon Appetit)
6 to 8 servings

2 1/2 c flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 c (2 sticks) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 c sour cream

3 tbsp butter
2 1/2 c chopped onion
8 c (1 1/2 lbs) coarsely chopped crimini mushrooms (I used 1 lb criminis and a 1/2 lb mix of shitaake and oyster)
2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1 8-oz package cream cheese, cut into cubes, room temperature

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp milk (for glaze)

For crust: Whisk first 3 ingredients in a large bowl to blend. Add butter and cut in with a the back of a fork or a pastry cutter (or use a fodd processor) until coarse meal forms. Add sour cream; stire until dough comes to gether. Shape dough into a disk; divide into two pieces, 1 about 2/3 of dough and 1 about 1/3 of dough. Roll out larger piece on a lightly floured surface to 14-inch round. Transfer to 10-inch glass pie dish; trim overhang to 1 inch. Roll out smaller piece to 12-inch round. Slide onto rimless baking hseet; cut into 1-inch-wide strips. Chill crust and sough strips on sheet at leat 30 minutes and up to 1 day.

For filling: Melt butter in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until soft, about 6 minutes. Add mushrooms and thyme and release juices, about 6 minutes. Add cream cheese to warm filling and stire until melted. Season filling to taste. (My recommendation: cool the filling before continuing.)
Preheat oven to 400º F. Spoon filling into crust in dsh. Place dugh strip atop filling in lattice pattern. Fold strip ends and overhang under. Crimp edge decoratively. brush lattice with glaze. Bake pie until crust is golden brown and filling is heated through, about 45 minutes. Cool pie 30 minutes.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Hot pot!

As if I didn't already eat enough on Thursday (which I will post about soon), I went to Anna's house in San Francisco on Friday for my first experience with shabu shabu, or hot pot. The concept is really very simple: make a broth, drop thinly sliced meats and other goodies into the boiling soup, remove when cooked, dip in sauce, and eat. Despite its simplicity, I had to ask, "What do I do now?" a number of times before getting the hang of it — but only because I wanted to make sure I was doing it "right."

Anna had a couple pots of broth, one of which was split into two kinds: spicy and not spicy. I never did try the spicy, which I'm telling myself is because I was sitting in front of the large pot of not-spicy. It may really have been that, while I do enjoy spicy foods, I did watch Anna put quite a bit of spicy (whatever it was) into the broth.

When I first sat down, a number of condiments were passed to me. "For the sauce," I was told. Unsure of what sort of "sauce" I was supposed to be making, I figured I'd go with what I knew tasted good. Into my little bowl went some soy sauce, sesame oil, and fish paste. Some sriracha went around, as well as rice vinegar, but neither one appealed to me. I guess I did a decent job of it, though, because my food tasted excellent after being dipped in this concoction.

Then came the main ingredients: thin slices of lamb and beef, rectangles of freshly-caught freshwater salmon, cubes of tripe, won tons made by Anna's mom, muscles, scallops, shrimp, balls of both the fish and beef tendon variety, tofu, and several different kinds of mushroom. And that was just to start! After all the meat came veggies: watercress, napa cabbage, lettuce, and mustard greens. Finally, little bundles of rice noodles were tossed in, to soak up all that broth. Of all these delicacies, my favorites were the won tons, tripe, enoki mushrooms, and watercress.

Retrieving these morsels was an adventure. After dropping them into the bubbling water, I then had to scoop them back out using a small metal net on a long handle. It was much like fishing, especially when there was so much in the pot that you weren't guaranteed to find what you were looking for right away. Often, there would be a number of people standing up, looking into the pot as they swished their little nets through the broth, looking for an elusive chunk of tofu or a muscle that had sunk to the bottom.

All of this was accompanied by many varieties of beer, including my new favorite, Hoegaarden, as well as lots of laughing and conversation.

After about an hour and a half of eating (seriously!), many of us began to fall into a food stupor. And yet, we kept on eating. In high school, we never were the types to have wild, drunken parties. Instead, we ate tons of food until we passed out — and then woke to eat the leftovers. True foodies since the beginning.

Once we had stuffed ourselves silly and the table was cleared, Anna brought out chunks of watermelon, as well as some mangosteens. Imagine my surprise to see them! I had fallen in love with their flavor while traveling in Thailand last year and had thought they were illegal to import. Anna said they had been previously frozen — which was too bad because that seemed to be the death of them. They wouldn't even yield to being torn open by hand. Everyone who tried one used a knife — except me, who insisted that I could rip it open and was rewarded by the fruit shooting out of my hand and onto the floor. Upon prying them open, we found them to be bitter and foul-smelling. Mine smelled like rotten fruit, and a tentative touch of my tongue to the unfortunately grayish flesh revealed it to taste pretty rotten, too.

Despite that, a good time was had by all. I left feeling full of beer and food — as well as a sense of comraderie that comes with eating in such a communal fashion. By the time my stomach started growling from hunger the following morning, I was already wishing I could have more hot pot and wondering what these friends of mine might have up their sleeves for the next time we get together as a group.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

What was I thinking?

The Anthropologist went to visit a friend in Sac Town and wanted to bring his camera along — but it seemed to have disappeared. After searching high and low with no luck, I offered to lend him mine, on penalty of death if he hurt it in any way. After all, he was only going to be gone a couple days, and I wasn't planning on cooking anything special that would need to be photographed.

Famous last words! First of all, I made an awesome leftover-turkey sandwich that came about completely by accident when I thought I was making one particular recipe and was really following an entirely different one. To clarify, I wanted to make a grilled turkey with brie and cranberry sauce but ended up starting with a recipe for a turkey-cranberry relish sandwich with herbed mayo. So I put the two together — and behold the magic of cooking. With no camera to record the results, I figured I'd just wait till another day, make another sandwhich (especially since there was leftover cranberry-fig relish), and bust the camera out then.

But then came the exciting part. After weighting down my sandwich with a jar of tomato sauce balanced on a green plastic plate from IKEA, I walked away. For too long. By the time I figured the second side of my sandwich had reached a nice, toasty brown, the sides of the plate, which had apparently been resting on the sides of the small frying pan, had begun to melt, fusing itself to the hot metal beneath. After removing the jar, I picked up the plate, which left stringy, stretchy green goo in its wake that quickly began to cool and harden. The plate was obviously ruined, and so was the pan, more or less. (I'm letting it cool before I see if it's salvageable. On the bright side, I got it at Target for, like, six bucks, so it's not the end of the world.)

The sandwich, meanwhile, was no worse for wear and pretty tasty, though the relish could have used more sugar (which tends to happen when I throw things in a pot higgelty-piggelty and don't taste it).

But I missed several excellent photo opportunities, including the effects of heat on plate and pan. Honestly, I'm more upset about that than about ruining some of my stuff.

The moral of the story: Plastic does not like heat. And tell your boyfriend he's out of luck if he can't find his own camera!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turkey Eve

Although, technically, it is now officially Thanksgiving. A few minutes past midnight, to be precise. Which means I did preparations for tomorrow for a grand total of six hours. And, you know, I really enjoyed myself. (Except for the aching that developed in my shoulders, which has come to be expected since it's been happening for at least ten years whenever I bend over something, like a counter or a keyboard.)

Since I'll be having lunch at my mom's — an hour's drive away — I wanted to get as much done as possible today, so that for dinner with the Anthropologist, all that needs to be done is assemble the pie, put everything in the oven, and pour the sauce over the cake. I chopped and sauteed a mountain of mushrooms, rolled potato wedges in panko crumbs, whipped up a cheesecake and put it in the oven, blended up a soup for a last-minute addition to the menu, and rolled out pie dough, all with the company of Law and Order: CI and SVU reruns.

Suffice to say, I'm pooped.

Thanks to my erractic oven, which could never quite settle on 350 degrees (preferring either 300 or 400), the cheesecake developed an ugly brown skin on top, which I decided to partially peel off, just in case it tasted burned. Since it'll have a sauce on top, it doesn't really matter what the cake looks like. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

And, even though brussels sprouts are supposedly grown in this area, there were none to be found at the market today. So instead I decided to do a medly of roasted root vegetables, including carrots, rutabega, and celeriac.

I wish you all a delicious Thanksgiving. I'm off to bed!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Turkey Day menu

I have had zero time to make any more pies, sadly, but with Thanksgiving this week, I'll have much to blog about over the weekend — including a savory pie! Here's what I'll be serving up in a vegetarian dinner for two:

Mushroom pie in a sour cream crust
Crispy potato wedges
Roasted brussels sprouts and carrots with lemon-chive butter
Cranberry-orange cheesecake with a chocolate crust

Much thanks will be owed to Bon Appetit for the recipes — as well as to Alton Brown for covering pie crust on Goods Eats last night.

I have much admiration for those who are participating in the 100-Mile Meal. You should know by now my love (some may call it an obsession) for local foods, but when it comes to Thanksgiving foods, there are just some things that don't come locally that I truly find necessary. Well, really, just one: Cranberries. I love cranberry sauce, and I'm curious to see how it tastes on a cheesecake. And since I'm not strictly sticking to making a meal comprised of ingredients that come from within a 100-mile radius, I'm also not being particular about stuff like the dairy products, sugar, or flour, just as long as they're organic. I will be going to the downtown market tomorrow, though, so at least my produce (except for the berries and also probably the mushrooms, since the crimini mushroom guy is only at Saturday's market, and I have no idea where the ones at Staff of Life come from) will be local.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

It'll cure what ails ya

Between fighting a cold and working twelve-hour days, I haven't had much time to write about my latest food exploits. But I will tell you about a concoction I make when I'm feeling cruddy. I call it Disgusting Tea — and that's exactly what it is.

Take a nice little bag of organic ginger tea. Put it in a mug along with one clove of garlic which you've smashed under a knife. Steep these in boiling water and cover the mug, for about ten minutes. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper or a squeeze of lemon juice, if you so desire (I usually don't). A big spoonful of honey helps a lot in making this tea palatable.

Why this odd mixture? Well, the ginger helps soothe a funny tummy and the garlic has anti-bacterial properties, while the cayenne can help to relieve congestion and the lemon has a little vitamin C. Honestly, it does help me feel a little better after drinking it. But I would also recommend holding your nose and gulping it down quickly.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Adventures in pie making

My first attempt at making a pie completely from scratch was one of my very favorites, pumpakin. Considering the zillions of variations on this one recipe that exist, I chose one I'd never tried before: the version made by Eggbeater's own Shuna. As I do when I'm cooking, I used her recipe as a guide, adjusting things here and there to suit my tastes. I did follow her crust recipe to the letter, though, and then turned to the Joy of Cooking for further help on what happens after you mix all the ingredients together. Since I can't afford a fancy Kitchen Aid mixer, I mixed the butter into the flour by hand, with a pastry cutter that I bought ages ago for the very purpose of making pie crust. Finally, I got to use it for its intended purpose! Unfortunately, it's a little bent now from living in the back corner of the utensil drawer for so long.

Making the crust was a little bit of a challenge. It was so sticky that the first time I rolled it out, it ended up sticking to the counter. So I dusted the surface with more flour and tried again. Take two was a success — and I even managed to roll the dough onto my rolling pin to transfer it into the pie pan. I was rather proud of myself, actually. It was starting to look like a real pie!

Then came the blind baking, in which you put the raw crust into the oven for a little while, sans filling. Typically, the crust needs to be weighed down with something so that it doesn't bubble up; I used rice sitting in a nest of parchment paper. According to The Joy of Cooking, a crust should be baked for about 20 minutes with weights, then for a few minutes more without them so the bottom can brown. Now, this is where I encountered a problem because doing this turned the edge of my crust an unattractive deep brown color. I should have just taken the crust out of the oven once the edges had reached the proper shade of golden and not worried so much about the bottom. The Anthropologist (formerly known as D) said, "It's okay. It's supposed to be browned." To which I replied, "It's not browned — it's burned." (Though, honestly, it looks worse in the photo than it really was.)

While the crust cooled, I whipped up the filling. I used pumpkin that I had roasted and mashed up the night before and adjusted the seasonings so that it was similar to what The Joy of Cooking suggested, since I like my pie spicy. This meant that instead of two teaspoons of spices, I threw in about four or five and included some nutmeg as well. I noted that Shuna's recipe calls for less squash and also less sugar than the recipe in the cookbook, but I figured I didn't want to alter her recipe too much and only added a third of a cup more pumpkin.

Once the filling had met the crust, I gave the edge a little suit of foil armor to protect it from getting any browner. And into the oven it went. Forty-five minutes later... It was pie!

The Anthropolgist and I sat down for our first taste, which was done naked — that is, without any toppings. He liked it; he thought the crust was well done and tasty and that the filling had the right amount of sweetness, although he didn't think the minced sage did anything at all for the flavor. Being a harsher critic of the food I cook, I tasted it with a more critical tongue. I liked the sweetness of the crust (Shuna's recipe calls for more sugar than the cookbook's did), but I was not successful in preventing it from sticking to the bottom of the pan and I was still sad about the burnt edge. I also thought the crust was too thin in some places and, overall, a little tougher than I would have liked. As for the filling, because I had used fresh pumpkin and hadn't thought to drain the liquid, the filling was slightly runnier than I was expecting. It also wasn't sweet enough for me — and definitely not spicy enough either. It was more like a wobbly quiche; the Anthropologist agreed that it would be good for breakfast.

So for next time: Use canned pumpkin. Add more sugar and more spices. Nix the sage. As for the crust, I think I just need more practice making them. Maybe I'll use a recipe from Bon Appetit this time. Perhaps a caramel-pumpkin pie with some bourbon whipped cream?

"I give this a B-minus," I declared.
"Out of what?" the Anthropologist said. "10?"
"Yes, a B-minus out of 10."
"I give it a B-minus out of 10, too."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Feelin' spicy

As recommended by a number of sources (primarily cooking magazines), I have completely refreshed my dried herb and spice supplies, which I've done over the course of a few weeks. Today I stopped in the bulk spice section to pick up some cumin, cloves, allspice, coriander, and cardamom — and my grocery bag smelled warm and delicious. It reminded me of the holidays, which are arriving a lot more quickly than I was expecting.

That, by the way, is not my spice cabinet, but the one at my friend Greacian's place. It would be more appropriate to call it a spice closet, since it stands taller than me. It is meticulously organized and includes just about every seasoning you could possibly ever need. I seriously covet it. My spice jars hang out in a cabinet above the sink, in no particular order, so that I have to rummage around a bit to find what I need.

I used some of those spices today to make my first completely-from-scratch pumpkin pie, which is just about to go into the oven. Stay tuned for the full report.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The winter challenge

Okay, it's official.

Summer was all about ice cream making. I made everything from classics like strawberry and chocolate to more unique flavors like peach-basil and pumpkin. Even though it's been a while since I was making ice cream on a weekly basis, I'm sure I'll keep it up into the cold months. After all, why should a little wind and rain prevent me from indulging my cravings for chocolate pudding ice cream?

But it's time for a new challenge. And that, my friends, is pie.

I love pie: pumpkin and peach being at the top of the list. And making a pie from scratch seems fairly straightforward and easy -- until one considers the crust. I've made attempts at making a crust from scratch in years past, and the results were less than memorable, as evidenced by the fact that I can't quite remember how they turned out. Once, out of complete desperation, I was reduced to making crust from a boxed mix, with, as was expected, similarly poor results. The last time I made a pie (pecan, for a Thanksgiving potluck), which was nearly two years ago, I bought the crust in the refrigerated section at Trader Joe's.

No more of that, I say! It's exactly the right time of year to learn to perfect a crust, what with the holidays coming up and all. I think I'll start with single-crust pies, like the aforementioned pumpkin (and all the different ways one can jazz that up, including using non-canned pumpkin). Then I'll move on to double-crust pies, like apple. I'm even planning on tackling a savory mushroom pie for Thanksgiving -- with a lattice top crust, no less!

There you have it. On my mark, get set... go!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Blend it up!

For my inaugural post, I thought I'd introduce to you one of my favorite breakfast foods: the smoothie. Not only is a smoothie easy to make (I won't assume to tell you how to make one), it's a great way to get plenty of nutrients when you're in a hurry or on the go. I can't even count the number of times I've gulped down a breakfast smoothie -- and gotten all four food groups into my gullet in less than two minutes.

A typical smoothie for me contains yogurt, a liquid of some kind (like juice or soy milk), and fruit. In years past, the constant star would be a combination of mangoes and berries, both frozen and thawed in the microwave. (I'm not big on the idea of putting ice or frozen fruit into a smoothie. It's seems pointless, as well as a good way to get brain freeze.) In college, I would throw in a little silken tofu for protein. It blends well and is almost tasteless.

These days, since I'm on an "eat your greens" kick, I have been adding kale to my smoothies. No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you -- I really did say kale. Thanks to a tip from Mothering magazine, I discovered that adding a leaf of dino kale, my favorite variety, is a great way to add a vegetable to the most important meal of the day. During strawberry season, I whirled together a smoothie of vanilla yogurt, a splash of orange juice (for consistency mostly), a pile of red berries, a little honey, and a leaf of kale. This resulted in a pink beverage flecked throughout with bits of green. My boyfriend D called it a "Christmas smoothie." After I stopped buying strawberries, I switched to a smoothie made with yogurt, soy milk, banana, a large spoonful of peanut butter, a squirt of honey, and, of course, kale. Not only is a drink like that full of good things for your body (like calcium, potassium, vitamins A and K, and fiber), it really fills you up!

Banana and kale smoothie

As noted in Mothering's recipe, you can hardly taste the kale -- it gives the smoothie a bit of a nice green flavor. D, however, would disagree with that. He doesn't like the way kale tastes in a smoothie. So add some greens to your next smoothie... or not. But keep in mind that the possibilities are endless when it comes to your breakfast beverage.