Wednesday, March 31, 2010

NYC Spring 2010

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pizza Tonight!

My dad once went to a junkyard near home and bought a part for his still running, decrepit, '69 Datson 510 station-wagon, also known as the "Little Green Lima Bean". I don't remember what part he bought, but I do remember his description of the northern red-neck manning the junkyard. Scraggly hair, missing teeth, dirty pants and shirt. When daddy forked over the fifteen bucks for the part, the old codger crowed back towards his shack, "Pizza t'night!"

And that was that.

The car is long gone; the phrase stuck. I still think about it when I make pizza. And I love to make pizza. The dough is amazingly forgiving, and (with enough olive oil), it's crispy-tender loveliness. The toppings aren't half-bad, either.

This dough recipe comes from Rosemary Levey Barenbaum's Bread Bible-- a great cookbook for reading, learning, and baking. It's also one of the cookbooks in my growing-collection-that's-already-too-big that gives weights instead of just volume for flour. I've had a kitchen scale for a couple of years; I got it (for less than fifteen bucks) soon after I got my wheat grinder. I love it for several reasons:
  • Flour's volume is affected by the weather and can vary up to (I think-- don't quote me) 1/4 cup, depending on how dry or damp the weather is. And 1/4-cup can be the difference between a dry cake and a moist one. The safest option is to weigh your flour when your concerned about moisture, or if you're just wanting to be careful.
  • If you grind wheat, the volume between wheat berries and ground flour is quite different. If you're wanting to grind just enough, then your safest bet is to weigh your flour. (Though that's not really such a concern for me anymore; I just store the extra in the freezer.)
  • It's also easier to just measure while you pour everything into the mixing bowl-- it actually takes a step out of the process of mixing and baking.

But this post is about pizza. I've made pizza dough before, but I never made pizza that tasted this good until I happened upon this recipe, in this cookbook. I think the key difference between this recipe and others is the wetness of the dough and the massive amount of olive oil. I also modify this recipe to include 1/2 whole wheat, though I'm sure you could do all. I would add about a teaspoon of gluten, and and I think you'd be set.

I also double this recipe from the original, since the amount of dough you get from the original recipe makes either a very small pizza or a very thin-crust pizza. I like thin crust, but my dad doesn't. And the little pizza doesn't make enough for even our small family.

One last note about the recipe: Ms. Barenbaum is nothing if not exact in her directions-- it's one reason her cookbooks are great for doing something for the first time. I tend to read through the directions the first 2-3 times, then follow my nose the rest of the way. You choose. :)

Perfect Pizza Dough
from the Bread Bible

8 oz. (1 1/2 c. plus 2 T.) flour (I use 1/2 whole wheat, 1/2 bread flour)
1 teaspoon yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 c. water
8 t. olive oil
1/2 - 1 t. wheat gluten (If using whole wheat and want a little more lift)

1 large pizza pan, or a large brownie/edged sheet pan (my preference)
1 large pizza stone (I leave mine in the oven all the time-- it helps everything bake more evenly)
  1. One hour before shaping, (or for best flavor development, 8-24 hours ahead) mix the dough: Whisk together flour, yeast, sugar, and salt. Make a well in the center and pour in water. Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, gradually stir the flour into the water until all the flour is moistened and a dough just begins to form, about 20 seconds. It should come away from the bowl but still stick to it a little, and be a little rough looking, not smooth. Do not overmix-- it will make the dough stickier.

  2. Let the dough rise: Pour the oil into a 4-cup measuring cup (to give the dough room to double) or a bowl. With oiled fingers or an oiled spatula, place the dough in the measuring cup with the oil and turn it to coat on all sides. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap. If you want to use the dough immediately, allow to sit at room temperature for one hour or until doubled. For the best flavor development, make the dough at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours ahead, and allow it to sit at room temperature for only 30 minutes or until slightly puffy. Then set the dough, still in the measuring cup, in the refrigerator. Remove it on hour before you want to put it in the oven.

  3. Prepare the topping (ideas below)

  4. Preheat the oven: One hour before baking, move oven shelf to lowest position, place baking stone on shelf, and preheat to 475 Fahrenheit.

  5. Shape pizza and let it rise: With oiled fingers, lift the dough out of the measuring cup or bowl Holding the dough in one hand, pour a little of the oil left in the cup or bowl onto the pizza pan and spread it all over the bottom of the pan with your fingers. set the dough on the pans and press it down with your fingers do deflate it gently. Shape it into a smooth round (or rectangle) by tucking under the edges. IF there are any holes, kneatd it very lightly until smooth. Allow the dough to sit for 15 minutes, covered, to relax it.

    Using your fingertips, pres the dough from the center to the outer edge to stretch it into the size of your pan. (I use oiled plastic wrap to help me stretch the pizza dough; if I do it with just my fingers, I always end up tearing the dough.) If the dough resists stretching, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for a few minutes longer before proceeding. After dough is stretched, brush it with any remaining olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 30-45 minutes, until it becomes light and slightly puffy with air.

  6. Bake the pizza: Set the pizza pan directly on the hot stone and bake for 5 minutes.

  7. Add toppings

  8. Finish baking: Return the pan to the stone for another 5-10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the crust is golden. For an extra-crisp crust, use a pancake turner or a baker's peel to slide the pizza directly onto the baking stone.

are something I don't get too persnickety about. There are thousands of ways to dress a pizza, and everyone's going to have their favorites. Here are some of mine:

Pizza Bianca with Sun-dried Tomatoes and Zucchini:
There aren't pictures of this one, since I haven't made it since last summer's zucchini.
This pizza is great with a super-thin crust.

1/2-1 c. ricotta
3-4 T. Parmesan-Reggiano (freshly grated is the best)
1- 1 1/2 c. mozzarella
Sun-dried tomatoes
1 med. zucchini, sliced thinly
2-3 T. olive oil
Salt, pepper and spices (onion powder, garlic, parsley, a touch of nutmeg... whatever.)
(Or, my favorite store-bought seasoning blend for a lot of things--including zucchini-- is Simply Organic's Grilling Mates Chicken Seasoning.)
  1. Pour oil into a cast iron or frying pan and allow to heat. When hot, saute zucchini with salt, pepper and spices. Set aside.

  2. Spread ricotta on crust, sprinkle Parmesan-Reggiano and mozzarella on top. Finish with sun-dried tomatoes and sauteed zucchini. Finish in oven.

Caramelized Onion and Sausage Pizza:
1/2 lb. sausage
~2 T. olive oil
1 med-large onion, sliced in thin strips, end-to-end
~1 t. sugar
~1/4 c. white wine
salt to taste

Basic Pizza Sauce
OR: 1/2 c. Alfredo Sauce (homemade is super-wonderful)

1 T. Bleu Cheese or 1/4 c. feta cheese, crumbled
2 c. mozzarella cheese
  1. Fry sausage in a cast iron pan (or any frying pan-- I just like cast iron.) Remove from pan, leaving drippings.

  2. Add olive oil to pan and allow to heat. Add onions. Fry on medium-low heat. As onions start to color, add in white wine, sugar and salt (I usually eyeball these amounts). Let cook until onions are soft and caramelized, 20-30 minutes.
  3. Spread pizza or Alfredo sauce on pizza crust. If using Bleu cheese, sprinkle on top of pizza sauce. Add mozzarella on top, top with onions, then sausage. If using feta, sprinkle feta on top. Finish in oven.

Basic Pizza Sauce:
I never used to know what to do for pizza sauce until my friend Alyssa taught me a trick: just use tomato paste with some seasoning. So that's what I do now.

1 can tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tablespoons Italian Seasoning
  • Mix all ingredients together. (Whew! Wasn't that hard?!) :P

Alfredo Sauce:

2 T. butter
1/4 c. heavy whipping cream
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
(dash of nutmeg--optional)
  1. Melt butter into a sauce pan; add cream. Bring to a simmer, cook until cream starts to thicken. Remove from heat.
  2. Add in Parmesan and whisk until smooth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Pot Roast Post

You know when you have the perfect recipe, and you make it-- a lot-- and then you get tired of it? That's what happened to us.

Mama and I love the basic pot roast recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. I like Mark Bittman's cooking style; he writes simple recipes that work.

Basic Pot Roast:
1-2 cloves garlic
1 (3-4 lb.) piece chuck or rump roast
1 bay leaf, crumbled finely
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T. olive oil
2 c. chopped onions (about 2)
1 c. peeled chopped carrots
1 celery stalk, chopped (optional)
1/2 c. red wine
1 c. chicken, beef, or vegetable stock
  1. Peel garlic clove and cut into tiny slivers; insert into several spots around the roast, poking holes with a thin-bladed knife. Mix bay with salt and pepper; rub roast with mixture.
  2. Heat oil over med-high heat in a Dutch oven or other heavy pot that can later be covered. Brown the roast on all sides, taking your time. Adjust the heat so that the meat browns but the fat doesn't burn. Remove the meat to a platter and add the vegetables to the Dutch oven. Cook over medium- high heat, stirring frequently, until softened and somewhat brown, ten minutes.
  3. Add the red wine and cook, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon, until wine has almost evaporated. Addd about half the stock and return roast to pot. Turn the heat down to where the liquid just simmers.
  4. Turn the meat every so often (Bittman recommends every fifteen minutes, but mine's lucky if it gets turned every half-hour to hour) and cook until it is tender-- a fork will pierce the meat without pushing too hard and the juices will run clear-- about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours-- but possibly longer if your roast is large or "tall". Add more stock if it looks like it's drying out-- not very likely. Do not overcook; when the meat is tender, it is done. (Another note on this-- there are varying degrees of doneness with roast-- I like to stop when the "bones are loose" and the meat is "fork-tender".)
  5. (You can skip this step if you wish) Remove the meat from the pot and keep it warm. Skim the fat from the juice and reduce the remaining liquid until it's al most evaporated. Serve the roast with the pan juices.
  6. Note: This can be cooked in the crock pot on high for 4-6 hours, or on low for 6-8 hours. It all depends on the size of your meat. Just test it-- when it just starts to fall apart and is tender, it's done. My favorite way to cook this, though, is in my trusty IKEA enameled dutch oven. (It's not Staub or Le Cruset, but it's made in France and the top knob has no problem with oven temps. It's the same material as the pan.)

The only problem is this: we've made it too many times this winter. My dad is tired of it. We've made it with beef. We've made it with venison. We've made it a lot. So last Saturday, as I was contemplating the meat we have stored in our freezer, I decided to try something different. I've wanted to make a roast with tomatoes, Italian-style, for a while, but the basic recipe was so good that I didn't want to mess it up. But when you're tired, really tired of a recipe, you're willing to mess around. I looked in my trusty '93 edition of Joy, and found a recipe for Italian Pot Roast.

Ingredients? (sort-of) Check. Technique? Check. Time? Check. But if you've ever cooked out of Joy, you know that their recipes can be somewhat fussy. This was no exception; I took out the second reduction with wine and broth and stuck with one. I also added a smidge of sweetening because it tasted just a little too herby/sour. (But then, that could have been from the can of Italian tomatoes I threw in instead of regular. And it could have been from the dried herbs.)
And I cooked it all night in the crock pot (low heat) so we'd have less fuss on Sunday afternoon.

Italian Pot Roast (Stracotto)

3 large cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. tightly packed fresh parsley leaves (or 2 T. dry)
4 fresh sage leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1 beef roast, 3 1/2-4 lbs.
1 t. salt
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
4 oz. mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf, broken
1 1/2 c. red wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 c. beef or chicken stock
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes, crushed
(1 t. sugar--optional)
  1. Combine garlic, parsley, sage, and rosemary. Divide approximately in half; to one half add the 1 tablespoon olive oil and black pepper. Make about ten slits in the roast; stuff olive oil and herb mixture in slits.
  2. Heat remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil in dutch oven on med- high heat. Add roast and brown an all sides until brown and crusty on all sides, about 20 minutes. Remove roast from the pot and sprinkle it with salt.
  3. Add onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms and bay to the dutch oven; cook until onion is lightly browned. Add in the remaining herb mixture and cook for 30 seconds. Add tomato paste and 1/2 c. red wine, and boil until almost dry. Add in remaining wine, stock, and tomatoes. Add roast; bring to a simmer and then reduce heat so that the liquid barely simmers. Taste; add sugar if needed.
  4. Cook for 2 1/2-3 hours, turning every 30 minutes or so. When the meat is tender, remove to a platter and cover with aluminum foil Skim off fat; tasted and adjust seasonings. If the sauce seems weak, boil it down a little. Slice meat and moisten it with braising liquid. Serve with polenta.
  5. Notes: This recipe can also be cooked in the crock pot on low, 5-8 hours. I didn't turn it in the crock pot but once (I think).
The verdict? My family liked it, so I'm happy. The Italian Pot Roast made a lovely sauce, even in the crock pot. And served with the polenta, it felt extra-special.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Polenta Post

A confession: I love Sunday dinners at home. I love them for a lot of reasons: because I love to cook. Because the cousins get more time to run around and play together. Because I know what’s in the food. I love them because I love to feed people.

So, if I can, I like to plan and cook Sunday dinner. It’s usually Saturday when I start cooking, because trying to cook on Sunday morning makes me late for church. Sometimes Mama joins in the fun, sometimes not.

Last Saturday found me contemplating the recesses of our freezer. I pulled out a roast and made an Italian version of pot roast. The recipe I used calls for serving it with Polenta.

Polenta is made from finely ground cornmeal, so it has the corny flavor of good grits with the smooth texture of cream of wheat. Sauteed onion and cheese swirled in complete the flavor profile. But if you try to explain that southern style, it doesn't come out so well: anyone for some cornmeal mush with fried onions and lotsa parm?

So, on Sunday, some of my family had polenta for the first time ever. Because the roast was large, I made a double recipe of polenta--plenty for leftovers, I thought. Or not. My family ate the entire double recipe, and I ended up using pasta with the leftovers for my lunch the next day. (It's just as well; polenta isn't as good when it's left over.)

I changed the recipe just a tad to make it more healthy: I freshly ground the corn (and it's best to make sure your corn is organic--then you know it's free of GMOs), and I soaked the corn in lime water. Lime water is basically water treated with pickling lime to make it acidic, and this helps break down the phytates (indigestible stuff) in corn. I keep a half-gallon jar of lime water in my fridge and pull it out when I need it. When you're making polenta, soaking it in the lime water has the added benefit of a shorter cooking time.

from '93 edition of Joy of Cooking (with modifications)

serves 4-6
1 cup finely ground cornmeal
1 cup lime water
3 T. butter
1/2 c. finely chopped onion
3 cups chicken broth or water (or a mix of the two)
1 t. salt
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
(if you're using the box stuff, use less-- 2T. to 1/4 c.)

  • Place cornmeal and water in a lidded container; stir together until there are no lumps. Cover and let sit at room temperature for several hours (up to 24).
  • In a dutch oven or heavy saucepan, melt butter. Add onion and saute until onion is translucent and just starting to color. Add in broth and water, then add in cornmeal and water mixture. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer.
  • Let simmer for 20-25 minutes, stirring often enough to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom. As the polenta thickens, test it for doneness. The finished polenta should be smooth with very little to no grit in the texture.
  • Once polenta is cooked, remove from heat and stir in salt and cheese. (If you want, you could also add extra butter.) Serve with Italian meat sauce, vegetables, or pot roast.

lime water:

a quart or half-gallon glass jar
Pickling Lime

  • Place about half an inch of lime in the bottom of the jar. Fill up the remainder of the jar with filtered water. Let sit until lime settles to the bottom; the remaining liquid is lime water. Use to soak grains, especially cornmeal. As you use it, simply add more water to the jar to make more lime water. Store in the fridge.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Lard Post

I threatened to write this post long ago, but there's no time like the present to do it!

Lard is the fat that comes from a pig, and pigs are big animals. There's no getting around that fact. I'm sure, back in the day when people actually raised their animals from life to death, making lard was much more of a chore than it is now. For some, they look back to all of that work and ask:

Why choose to make lard when you can actually buy it from the grocery store right beside the shortening?

As our food becomes more factory-oriented, it becomes less pure. Shortening is a chemically modified fat, whether or not it has trans-fats, and the lard you get from the store is hydrogenated to improve its shelf life. You also don't know where the pigs came from, what they ate, and how they lived, which are all things to take into account when you're talking about the health of your fat. The quality of life an animal has when it is living shows up in all of its products, but especially in its fat. That's why I attempt to buy pure fat when I go to make lard. I usually buy Eden Naturals pork fat from a farmer's market.

Making your lard is also pretty cheap. This is about ten pounds worth of fat.

This leads to another question:

Why choose lard, or another traditional fat, when shortening is available at the store?
A lot of people might wonder this when they haven't heard of Nourishing Traditions, the Weston A. Price Foundation, or other sources of information that challenge commonly held pseudo-nutritional beliefs. Here's a little bit of information: the diets of your great-grandparents were much healthier than ours today, not just because they didn't eat as many pesticides and chemicals. They ate food full of lard, tallow, butter, and coconut oil. The modern industrial diet today includes more monosaturated fats, such as corn oil, rapeseed (canola) oil, and soybean oil. These are some of the most common oils in the modern U.S. diet, and each has its issues: corn oil can come from GMOs and can cause bone density loss, canola oil comes from a toxic plant and goes through many chemical processes to make it fit for human consumption. (It's also registered by the EPA as a pesticide). The last one is common as an ingredient in processed foods. Soybean oil has all the bad characteristics of soy: it's difficult for many to digest, it causes a spike in estrogen production (in both males and females), and it can be a factor in cancer or IBS. Basically, your best bets for fat are to try to eat like your great-grandparents. That's where making lard comes in.

The Process:

So far, I've tried three different ways of making lard: on the stove, in the oven, and in the crock pot. The crock pot batch was the last, so that's the one recording first.
  1. First, it really helps to have some equipment:

    Last time I made lard, I used just a cleaver to cut up the fat. This time, the food processor saved my hand, even though I still had to chop up the larger slabs of fat.
  2. Put all the fat into the crock pot on low heat, and let it cook for a really long time: 8-12 hours (depending on how hot your food processor is). What you're looking for is the fat to leach out of the structure of the cells and leave behind cracklings. You'll also smell it--a sweet, cloying pork smell. It's not the greatest, and it seems to be worse in the crock pot than on the stove or in the oven.
  3. Once your fat is rendered, you've got to remove the cracklings from the lard. It's easiest to do this by first dipping out the lard that you can, and straining it through a piece a clean rag. I've found that cheesecloth isn't fine enough and lets some sediment through, so I like to use a piece of old sheeting. (I also like that I can throw it away afterward, guilt-free.)
  4. Many folks will be content with packaging up the lard now, but I take one more step. There are still some protein fibers floating around in the lard, so I like to clarify it. All that means is that I add some water to the liquid lard--usually about 2 cups--and stir it around. I then put it in the fridge to harden. The water will pull the proteins to the bottom of the fat, and what's on top will better quality.
  5. If you don't feel like going through the last step, package up the lard into the containers you wish to use, and refrigerate or freeze. If you did do step four, take it out of the fridge, cut it up into smaller chunks, trying to leave out the protein bits. Usually, when you're down to half a container, the big lard "chunk" will come out of the water on its own; you can then scrape off the proteins on the bottom.
  6. I like to divide my lard into the right portions for biscuits, since that's what I use it for most often. I also freeze lard, since it will keep in the refrigerator for three months and in the freezer for over a year.
On the Stove:

Put the lard from the food processor in a large stock pot along with 1-2 cups of water. The water keeps the lard from burning or catching on fire. Just like the crock pot method, put the lard on the lowest heat, cover, and let cook for 8-12 hours.

In the Oven:
Put the lard on a rimmed cookie sheet or oven-proof pan. Warm the oven to 250-275 degrees and put the fat into the oven.  Let render for 3-6 hours, checking every thirty minutes or so to pour off the already rendered lard.

So, which method do I like the best? After doing the crock pot and stove methods and finishing with the oven method, I think the oven method will be my go-to one from now on. It smells less, it seems like it's less clean-up, and the whole process seems more contained.

Of course, if this sounds like too much work you can do what my sister does: she buys lard and tallow (among other things) from US Wellness Meats.

    Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    Room Redecoration: Study and Sewing Room

    These pictures are late-- really late. I finished this project over a year ago,
    though details have evolved slowly over time.

    The desk is a little too tall for me-- I usually end up putting my laptop on the keyboard shelf to type.
    When I get the courage, I'll ask Daddy to chop two inches of leg
    off .

    The "settee" that's big enough to double as extra sleeping room.
    The big pillows were a hold-up; I don't know why. They were easy enough to make!

    I'm still debating on the effectiveness of the round, shirred pillows.
    I'm beginning to think they're too fussy.

    The other side, and the wall I don't like. It's a little too blank, yet I don't want it covered with a lot of stuff, either.

    --The sewing/crafty side...

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