Friday, February 19, 2010

Ode to the chocolate chip cookie

I love cookies. If it's got chocolate or is from Bakesale Betty, it's destined for my mouth. Lately, I've been on a crazy cookie-baking kick. I make cookies at least once, if not twice, a week. I come home from work, and I want a cookie. After dinner, I want a cookie. While watching a movie, I start getting cravings for — yep, that's right: cookies. I'd probably eat cookies for breakfast if I didn't have this crazy notion that normal people simply do not eat cookies first thing in the morning.

Chocolate chip cookies are my go-to cookie when I want to bake. They were the very first thing I ever learned to cook all by myself, at the tender age of ten or eleven. At our school's book fair, I'd bought a book called The Best Cookie Book Ever, in which a parade of anthropomorphic teddy bears in late 80's garb instructed me on how to make a variety of cookies. The recipe for "Teddy's Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies" is splattered with bits of batter that had gone flying off the electric hand mixer nearly every time I baked.

Back then, I used margarine in my cookies because... well, didn't everyone? Many years later, throwing together a batch of chocolate chip cookies while vacationing in Austin, TX, I found only butter in the fridge. I was hesitant to use it. Butter had always seemed too decadent for the average cookie, and besides, it was expensive. Those cookies turned out to be the best I'd ever made — and so I only ever used butter from then on. (I now think spending the money on organic butter is totally worth it, as you can probably guess.)

 I used to have a problem with my cookies being too cakey, and they would practically retain their shape after being scooped out of the mixing bowl, instead of spreading in the oven. I haven't quite figured out the science of cookie baking, though I do know that a slight reduction in the amount of flour and a larger brown to white sugar ratio (á la the recipe on the bag of Trader Joe's chocolate chips) has helped create cookies that are still soft but more traditionally cookie-shaped.

They're damn good, if I do say so myself. The Anthropologist agrees.

All this talk of cookies is making me want one. I think it's time to whip up another batch.

The only chocolate chip cookie recipe you'll ever need
(courtesy of me)

2 1/4 c flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c white sugar
1 c softened butter
1 tsp good-quality vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 package semi-sweet chocolate chips
optional: chopped nuts, dried fruit, or whatever floats your boat (I put cranberries in the ones above)

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Combine flour, salt, and baking soda in a bowl, and set it aside. Using an electric hand mixer, cream together the sugars, butter, and vanilla. Add eggs and beat. Add dry ingredients and continue to mix. (At this point, my ancient mixer — the one I found abandoned at the back of the cupboard when I was moving out of my freshman year apartment — can no longer handle the work, and I switch to a wooden spoon.) Stir in chocolate chips and any additional add-ins.

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto a non-greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until golden. Transfer to a wire rack and cool.

As Teddy likes to say, "Did you turn off the oven?"

Makes about 2 dozen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The best tomato sauce ever

I'm not the biggest fan of tomato sauce. Even on pizza. I think it goes back to college, when practically everyone I knew ate pasta with jarred tomato sauce like it was going out of style. I realize that it's a cheap and easy dish for poor and not necessarily culinary-savvy students to prepare — but I wish someone could have told them there's more to life than penne with Classico marinara.

When given a choice, I'd rather eat my pasta with cream, Parmesan, and lots of vegetables. An open jar of tomato sauce in my refrigerator is almost guaranteed to grow moldy before I'd used even half of it.

Last month, I read about a recipe for tomato sauce on one of my favorite blogs, Smitten Kitchen. This sauce was apparently so good that other Big Names in the food blogging world had been raving about it for years. So were Smitten Kitchen's readers: while typically her posts get around 150 comments, the tomato sauce post generated 500+ comments.

Then, inexplicably, I found myself craving this sauce. Driving home from work one day, I began to daydream about how the sweetness of an onion really could vastly improve a mess of tomatoes. So I went home and threw it together. It's ridiculously easy to make, considering that all that goes into it is canned tomatoes, halved onions, and butter. Open a can, peel and cut an onion, unwrap a stick of butter. Dump it all in a pot.

I really wish someone had told my friends about this recipe when we were in college.

It is surprisingly good, perhaps even the best pasta sauce I've ever had. For dinner, I threw in some peas and topped it off with Parmesan. But for lunch, it was just the sauce over rigatoni — it's delicious even without cheese. I never thought I'd like a red sauce that much. It must be the butter.

To be honest, I'd never made tomato sauce from scratch before. But now that I've made this, I definitely don't plan to buy jarred ever again.

Marcela Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onions and Butter
(courtesy of Smitten Kitchen)

28 ounces canned tomatoes (SK used whole, but I use diced)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
Salt to taste

Put the tomatoes, onion and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer then lower the heat to keep the sauce at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally. Remove the onion*, add salt to taste.

*You can toss this out, but why waste perfectly good food? Eat it with crusty bread or in a scramble. Or straight out of the container you've put it in after removing it from the sauce.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Grand re-opening

I'm back and ready to cook! Actually, I've been cooking quite a bit since returning from India and moving into a new apartment with more counter space. The trip has left me in quite a bit of debt, but I still want to stay true to the food values that I try to stick to: buying locally, eating organically and ethically, and cooking sustainably. This is generally perceived as something that requires a lot of money to do. Just look at a place like Whole Foods ("Whole Paycheck") or New Leaf ("New Thief"): it really can be extremely expensive to do your shopping there. When I looked for sites that gave advice on eating local, seasonal, and organic (LSO) when on a budget, I discovered that there's not a lot out there (apart from this interesting site).

But it doesn't have to be. It shouldn't have to be! And I'm here to show you how to do it.

If you want to eat LSO with limited funds, you have to be willing to not eat certain foods. Meat is a big one. I haven't bought meat in the seven weeks since reacquiring a kitchen because ethically-raised meat is damn pricey. (Ground buffalo goes for $8.50/lb at the farmers' market!) Junk food and convenience foods are also out. You know why Whole Foods is so expensive? It's because they charge an arm and a leg for pre-prepared meals and frozen processed food. If you stick to the perimeter, like you're always hearing you should do, the prices are a little more reasonable. So, really, you can follow a lot of advice for people who are eating a conventional diet on a budget — with just a few tweaks here and there.

To start: Buy store brands of canned or frozen organic foods, such as beans, peas, or corn. (For beans, it's even cheaper to use dried.) Cook in batches and freeze extra portions for lunch or dinner another time. Grow herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, or whatever you have room for. Spend more time thinking about food and cooking it, instead of eating out all the time, eating mindlessly, or being "too busy" to eat well and eat LSO.

Also, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a food photographer. The whole food porn thing has never really worked for me, since the lighting's always poor, my camera's not fancy enough, and the close-ups are rarely visually satisfying (or out-of-focus). Which isn't to say I'm not going to take photos. I'm just going to go about it in a less traditionally food blogging manner.