Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cellophane noodles with sunflower sprouts and egg

Tip of the day: Learn to cook.

This may seem like obvious advice, being that this is a cooking blog, but I don't just mean be able to read a recipe and put all the ingredients together to make a meal. I mean really get to know your food. Learn what goes with what — which herb goes well in what sort of dish, which sauce can go on which pasta, what flavors taste amazing with other flavors. Learn cooking times and cooking methods until what you're doing in the kitchen when preparing a meal is almost entirely automatic. Doing this can really help when you've got an odd assortment of food in your fridge or your cupboards are feeling practically bare — it'll save you the expense of going out to eat!

The dish pictured above was made up entirely out of my head. No recipe, other than the vague memory of recipes that inspired the final outcome. I've had some leftover mung bean noodles sitting in the fridge for about a week, and it was high time I got around to using them up. I'd originally used the noodles to make pancit, a Filipino noodle dish, but I hadn't been entirely happy with the results. (It's hard to get food to taste just like your mom's!) So I wanted to try something new.

The noodles were a little firm from being in the fridge for so long, so I refreshed them with some boiling water. Then I stir-fried them in a pan to cook off any remaining water. I mixed up a sauce that I normally use to dress stir-fried asparagus or long beans, from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, which involves oyster sauce, patis (fish sauce), and sugar. I didn't measure — I just added different amounts till it tasted good. After removing the noodles from the pan, I threw in some sunflower sprouts and wilted them with the sauce. I added that to the noodles, but then decided there weren't enough greens in there, so I just dumped what little was leftover of the sprouts, uncooked, and mixed them in.

Something seemed missing. One of my favorite breakfast foods is a bowl of rice with a fried egg on top, sprinkled with a little oyster sauce. An fried egg seemed like the perfect topping for this very simple, light noodle dish.

It was really good. 

I've been doing a lot of cooking like this lately: taking whatever I've got around the kitchen and throwing it all together to make something delicious. I'll write more in the future about the kinds of things I've been whipping up, so that you can learn to do this, too.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Do the can-can

I've had Meyer lemons coming out the ears the last couple of months. First, my tree, which is container planted and has been living at my mom's, was full to bursting with fruit. Then I acquired several pounds of the stuff when taking a walk around the neighborhood in which, up until a week ago, I used to work. What's a girl to do with so many lemons?

After making lemon bars twice, squeezing and freezing plenty of juice, and contemplating making limoncello, I decided it was high time I tried my hand at canning. I'd never done it before, though I'd definitely been wanting to. I even had a canning cookbook sitting on my shelf. But it was my new favorite book, The Urban Homestead, that finally convinced me with its no-nonsense instructions — and its insistence that you don't need a ton of fancy equipment to do it.

You can buy a canning pot, which is a really big pot with a lid that can hold several quart-size jars, depending on its size. You could also use a stock pot, if you've got one. I don't, and Amazon.com sells an inexpensive canning pot, which is what I went with. It comes with a jar rack, which is meant to prevent the glass jars from touching the bottom of the pot. It only fits quart jars, though, and seemed flimsy anyway. So I did what the Urban Homsteaders recommended and put a kitchen towel at the bottom of my pot.

I also purchased a jar lifter to move those boiling hot jars in and out of the pot, as well as a wide-mouth funnel, which made a huge difference when ladling steaming marmalade into the jars by preventing a big drippy mess.

Last but not least, I needed canning jars. (For those of you who don't know, you need to buy jars specified as canning jars. They come with special two-part lids, which create the hermetic seal that will keep them fresh in storage after processing.) I didn't want to buy them online for fear that one or two would crack in transit. One evening, my good pal L-Train and I searched high and low for jars, going everywhere from Home Depot to Ross to Michael's. No luck. I finally found them at Ace Hardware, though — and I didn't have to wait for them to be shipped!

If you're interested in canning, too, I would recommend getting a book like the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. It's really important to read up on how to properly process the jars in a hot water bath, if you want to avoid getting food poisoning — or poisoning someone else if you plan to give the goodies away as gifts.

For the Meyer lemon marmalade, I followed the recipe on Simply Recipes. It includes a step for turning into pectin the seeds, ends, membranes, and anything else that isn't going into the actual marmalade. It also does not include a water bath canning process at the end (she heats her jars in the oven and just lets them cool after filled, and I don't know if that'll preserve the goods for up to a year the way water canning does) — which, again, is why I recommend you do your homework before you begin your canning adventure.


Some challenges: I have a candy thermometer, so I was able to keep an eye on the temperature as the marmalade boiled. But I couldn't get a hang of the "wrinkle test," in which a little bit of marmalade is poured onto a frozen plate and then pushed with a finger to see if its set. My marmalade was liquid every time I tried it — and I tried it numerous times. It boiled away at 220°F, the temperature it's supposed to set, while it continued to fail the wrinkle test. It was finally when I noticed that the wooden spoon I was using to stir the marmalade, when allowed to cool on the counter, was developing a film of jelly, that I decided the marmalade was ready.

Also, that kitchen towel at the bottom of the pot only sort of worked. It kept the jars from touching the scorching hot bottom, but the corners flew up under pressure from the bubbling water, knocking some of the jars on their sides or tilting them to that they touched the side or bottom of the pot after all. Righting them with the jar lifter took some maneuvering. I was uncertain if the fact that a couple of them had been on their sides would affect their ability to process properly, but upon final removal, all the jars eventually gave off satisfying pops as the lids created vacuum seals on each jar. I decided, though, that next time, I would just use a washcloth.

The marmalade turned out to be a combination of sweet, sour, and bitter that goes really well with butter and toast. I also think it would go well with vanilla ice cream. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with canning, and I hope to make lots of jam and pickles this summer. I also think that the next time I come into a boat load of Meyer lemons, I'll see about making some of that limoncello.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Easy as pizza pie

Those of you on Facebook saw me post this photo the week I made it: a Valentine's heart-shaped pizza. Made with pizza dough from the refrigerated section at Trader Joe's, it took a little work to convince the yeasty mass into the form of a heart — which it vaguely held onto as it puffed up during baking. Hidden under a generous layer of cheese were mushrooms, anchovies, and a thin layer of homemade tomato sauce.

That Valentine's Day was the first time in ages that I'd made a pizza. The Anthropologist loves pizza (who doesn't?), and we'd had our fair share in India, as well as in sports bars and from delivery before and after the trip. But since making it myself last month, I never want to call for take-out ever again. Pizza made with Trader Joe's dough is really that good. It has become by go-to dish when I don't have anything else planned for dinner, especially since I now keep canned tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and pizza dough as staples in the kitchen.

I'm not opposed, of course, to making my own dough. I suppose I'll eventually start making large batches to keep in the fridge or freezer. Maybe I ought to start making my own mozzarella, too, so that I can have pizza made entirely from scratch. Once in a while, that might be fun, but I enjoy the ease of cutting open the plastic pouch that holds the dough, throwing some tasty toppings on, and sticking the whole thing in the oven for ten minutes. It's faster than delivery — and at $1.29 for a ball of dough, it's much cheaper.

As with anything homemade, one of the best things is that you get to control what you put into a dish. You can top your pizza with veggies straight out of your garden or from the farmers' market, pepperoni or sausage without nitrates, and maybe even some cheese made by a local dairy. I love that I can open up my fridge and invent some creative and tasty toppings — like the above slice, which has asparagus and cheese with a pesto bechamel sauce. At this very moment, I've got a pizza in the oven with some frozen corn under sliced (rather than shredded because I was feeling lazy) mozzarella, since I'm out of fresh veggies right now.

I don't think I need to convince you any further to take on the task of making your own pizza. Just do it! You can thank me later.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Bulk up

Tip of the day: Buy in bulk.

I may not have to tell you that the bulk aisle is a great place to save money while buying organic. Taking a little extra time to scoop out your own dry goods means you buy only what you need, which can result in a lower grocery bill. If you reuse your bags, it also cuts down on packaging. Plus, there are all sorts of interesting things in the bulk aisle that you may have never thought to try before, from different kinds of beans and grains to a wide range of dried fruits to vegan gummy bears — and again, because you get to choose how much you buy, you can test run a serving or two instead of immediately committing to an entire box of something you might not like.

I love the bulk section for spices. Don't let the price on the container scare you. It might say $12.45/pound of whole peppercorns, but are you planning on buying an entire pound? This past weekend, I bought "0.11 lb" (according to my receipt) of organic peppercorns for $1.37, which filled up my pepper grinder with more to spare. If bought prepackaged in a jar, 2.65 ounces can cost as much as $14. My favorite spice to buy in bulk is whole nutmeg — which gives you better flavor when you grate it yourself, rather than using already-ground. Two organic nutmeg seeds, at $17.99/pound, cost me a grand total of eighteen cents.

Buying in bulk means you need to have places to store all these goodies. Leaving them in their plastic bags is an option, if you plan to use up the contents quickly. I would recommend getting some plastic, glass, or ceramic containers, which will last longer, keep your foods fresher (and sealed away from pests), and free up the plastic bags to be reused on your next shopping trip. Buying containers can be a little costly, depending on where you buy them and what they're made of, but it's an up-front investment that will serve to benefit you and your wallet over time. Alternatively, you can also reuse jars from spaghetti sauce (if you're not making your own yet!) or mayonnaise, although they won't be big enough to hold items you'll want to have large amounts of, like flour or sugar.

But you don't have to take my word for it:
Buying from the Bulk Bin Saves More Than Just Money, from Eat.Drink.Better.
Save Some Money in the Bulk Aisle, from Let's Be Green Together
Bulk Food: A Simple Way to Save, from The Co-op Food Store

Monday, March 01, 2010

Quest for the perfect pancake

Weekends are good for breakfast foods that require some effort. During the week, I generally stick to cold cereal, oatmeal, or, on the odd occasion, hard-boiled eggs. Weekends, when breakfast doesn't usually happen until noon, allow more time for things like omlettes, muffins, and pancakes.

We've been eating a ton of pancakes around here lately. Which is funny because I'm not the biggest fan of them. Don't get me wrong: I'll eat a stack of pancakes if they're there. I'm just not over the moon about them. To be honest, I could take or leave most breakfast foods. I realize that breakfast is the most important meal of the day — but it's not my favorite meal.

Being not from a box, I make my pancakes from scratch. Why use a mix when it takes just a couple extra steps to make your own (without all the preservatives)? I'd been using the basic recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, when one day, the Anthropologist commented that my pancakes seemed chewy. Determined to make a fluffy version, I attempted Bittman's "light and fluffy" recipe, which requires more effort in the form of beating the egg whites separately before folding them into the batter. The verdict? Still chewy — and tasting more of egg than cake.

Well, what was the problem? I'm not Alton Brown, so I didn't know. But I decided to try an entirely different recipe: the one on the side of the package of Baker Josef's (Trader Joe's) all-purpose flour. What makes it different from Bittman's recipe is that it calls for both baking soda and baking powder (Bittman only uses powder), as well as melted butter and a smaller amount of flour. This all apparently aids in losing some of the chewiness of my previous pancakes.

In the last couple months, I've made strawberry pancakes, nectarine pancakes, and yogurt-flaxseed pancakes with nectarines (all made with fruit I had in the freezer from last summer). Pancakes are so easy to fiddle with, and since they're incredibly easy to make, you really could eat different kinds of pancakes every day and (probably) not get sick of them.

A final note: When melting butter in the microwave, keep en eye on it. Butter melts very quickly in the microwave, so it only takes about ten seconds or so — and if it doesn't, it's easy enough to add another five seconds of cooking time. Even though I know this concept very well, I somehow manage to forget it whenever I stick some butter into the microwave. I punch in "45," and let it rip. This typically results in a popping sound and melted butter dripping from the ceiling of the machine. Let this be a lesson to you!

Baker Josef's Light n' Fluffy Pancakes

1-1/2 c all-purpose flour
3-1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1-1/4 c milk
1 egg
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla (optional)

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients together. In a measuring cup, measure the milk, then add the egg and butter (and vanilla, if you're using it), and beat until well combined. Pour into dry ingredients and mix until smooth.

Heat a lightly oiled griddle or skillet over medium heat. Add batter by 1/4 cupfuls for each pancake. When edges look dry and small bubbles begin to form on top, turn and cook till brown.

Makes about 6-8 pancakes.

- Substitute plain yogurt (thinned with a little milk if very thick) or buttermilk for milk.
- Add chopped fruit, such as strawberries, peaches, or apples, to the batter with the wet ingredients.
- Substitute half the flour for whole wheat flour or cornmeal.