Sunday, December 18, 2011

Eating Canned Soup Significantly Raises BPA Levels in Your Body - The Atlantic

I'm a sucker for Journal-backed food news. This particular study found a marked increase in BPA levels eliminated (in the bathroom sense) after participants ate canned soup. Well done, kidneys!
Eating Canned Soup Significantly Raises BPA Levels in Your Body - The Atlantic

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Get Your Butter On: Inside the Christmas Cookie Jar

Good grief. My repertoire of Christmas sweets has really expanded.

For several years the staples were Rugelach, Russian Tea Cookies, and and Press/Cutout Cookies. A few years back I added Coconut Macaroons and  two recipes from my sister: Cornmeal Cookies and Amaretti. Maybe two years ago I started making Hazelnut Biscotti. I love having something chocolaty but still perfectly seasonal on the cookie tray. And last year I added Pralines and Peppermint Bark.

What I appreciate about these recipes is the variety when all are on a platter. Also, there are enough choices about fillings and what nuts to use that make it fun each year. Sometimes I use hazelnuts in my Russian Tea Cakes, other times I use pecans.

Rugelachis a hard one to pick a filling for because I like them all so much. Each filling incorporates cinnamon sugar but the varieties are apricot jam, raspberry jam, chocolate/almond, or currant/pecan.

I make  Press Cookies  because they're so kid friendly (espeically when you forego the press and simply roll out the freshly mixed dough, using cookie cutters to shape). I rarely make gingerbread men because I just love both snappy and squishy ginger cookies but gingerbread usually disappoints. Also, I'm a terrible cookie decorator.

Happy Holiday Baking!

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

5 Reasons Your Knives Need Professional Sharpening (and where to get it done)

Heck, you don't need five reasons. If even one of the following is true then you simply must take your knives to a professional:

1. You've never had them sharpened.
2. You've been feigning competence with a sharpening steel.
3. You haven't been able to slice a tomato in years.
4. Your blades are bent or damaged from use.
5. You've made the mistake of trying to sharpen them with one of those scary electric sharpeners.

Knives thicken so slowly that it's easy to be complacent. Thicken? Yes - it's the same as becoming dull. A thin edge is what will grab onto the skin of a tomato. A dull, blunt edge is so dangerous because it slips instead of grabbing, often resulting you cutting yourself. When I lived in Seattle I had a great guy take care of my knives.* He was so great that for years after I moved away I shipped him my knives once a year. It was such a pain to do without them for 7-10 days, but they returned to me in such amazing condition that I put up with it (and always tried to send them away if we were going out of town to minimize the hassle).

A couple of years ago my guy retired from sharpening to focus solely on the production of his artisan knives. Amazingly, it took me until last week to find a place in Chicago I could trust with my blades. How did I find it? I asked the cooks at Topolobampo where they take their blades. The answer: Northwestern Cutlery.  The shop was easy to find and even had parking. I arrived with eight knives (2 chef's, 3 paring, one boning, one fillet, one serrated utility) and one pair of kitchen scissors. Twenty minutes later I was back on the road with all my blades, plus a new gyoza forming tool (ours bit the dust last week after about 15 years of active duty) and a new squeeze bottle for piping dessert sauces. I seem to lose one of those every year.

Not in Chicago? Just ask the cooks at your favorite fine-dining restaurant where they take their knives. Then call the shop and ask about their method. A smith who incorporates several different devices and stages of sharpening and polishing will do more precise work.

A few notes on the 5 Reasons:

1. The factory edge on your knife may seem ok but it's nothing compared with the edge a good bladesmith will create. Every time I purchase a new knife (not often anymore as my block is full and I have every knife I need) it goes first to the smith, then into my block.
2. A sharpening steel is a great tool for maintaining an edge, but they cannot sharpen a dull knife. Most people lack the precision needed to use a steel correctly and do more damage to their blades than good.
3. Not sure if you're blades are sufficiently dull to warrant a trip to the smith? It's dull if you have to exert pressure on your knife to make it cut.
4. I've had tips break, had visitors cram my precious blades into a overcrowded dishwasher, and I'm guilty of sometimes using the edge side to scrap veggies off my cutting board. If your knives look bad they cannot perform well.
5. Throw that thing away and spread the word among your friends to do the same. A good professional sharpening will employ an array of stones, buffers and belts. You just can't do that on your own, unless you're prepared to learn the trade and acquire the requisite equipment.

* If you live in New York, Houston or Arlington, VA, you can take a knife sharpening class with him, Bob Kramer, master bladesmith, at Sur la Table. See details here.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Aequalitate, Veritas et Citrus

The beginning of the citrus season is one of my favorite things about the tide between Thanksgiving and trimming the Christmas tree. Some people like to move from one holiday right to the next. I prefer when time moves more slowly. Sure, we bring out the advent calendar and some greens for our planters outside, but we've also set out in-shell nuts and big bowls of Cuties or satsumas. The dark afternoons are a lovely time for candles and jazz. In the ten days before Christmas and for the twelve days post we are pretty festive. But for now it's more about the pure change of season.

Citrus are not created equal. The individual varieties have not gotten the marketing blitz or branding that the apple enjoys. More than that though, it's the supply of sub-par citrus that surprises me. A generic clementine (and most tangerines) generally amounts to a sour mouthful of pulp waiting to sit stagnant in your gut and make you bloated. To be fair, even a perfect Cutie clementine will act similarly but will first skip merrily down your throat and make you forget all your troubles for at least five minutes post-mastication. Even the lowly lemon can disappoint, especially when you were counting on one to be juicy but the whole weight of it was in the skin.

Some citrus truths:

1. A good satsuma is hard to come by in Chicago. I used to get great ones when we lived in the Pacific Northwest. Not so much anymore. Whole Foods has them sometimes but they're not dependably excellent.
2. Cuties are the best clementine. Nothing Compares 2 Cuties.
3. Florida should stop sending forth its nasty grapefruit. They could use the the crop for bocce.
4. Ruby Red grapefruit from Texas is the only grapefruit worth eating. Last year the best foodie gift of Christmas (or perhaps tied with the case of Dave's Albacore Tuna) was a generous box of deep red Rubies from Bell's Farm. They were just perfect.

5. What's the best way to pick citrus? Weight and smell. Generally, it's heft you're looking for. A higher water weight generally means a more succulent piece of fruit. Get comfortable smelling your produce. If it smells delicious it's not going to disappoint. If it smells bland move on.

Finally, don't let another winter pass you by without trying something new. Not sure what to do with a Blood orange or a Meyer lemon? Start simply: Squeeze blood oranges and serve the juice or make a cocktail. Make a Meyer lemon curd and serve alongside a simple cake. It's citrus season! Enjoy it.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Zero to Two: Pondering meat quantity

Meat is not something I really love - I can take it or leave it. But I have a really hard time getting excited about anything that bills itself as vegan or vegetarian. A friend recently cooked and served a vegan chili for a meeting I was attending and before I even tried it I felt sorry for myself for having to eat it. I assumed it was going to be loaded with some weird fake meat. It turned out to be a Rick Bayless recipe, one I enjoyed immensely, have cooked myself and passed along. There's no fake meat - it's really a rice and beans dish. I cooked it for a crowd of over 100 for a catering event, along with the usual suspects (chopped fresh cilantro and red onion, jalapeno rounds, hot sauce, sour cream and shredded Jack) and had zero left over. Being a RB recipe the chili is really healthy, though you can throw it all off kilter with the addition of dairy. I like my chili flourished with a burst of cilantro and red onion.

On the other end of the vegan-carnivore spectrum is the two-meat-feast that has become our modus operandi for holiday entertaining.  It's decadent, to be sure, and extraordinary, in the truest sense of the word. This year our Thanksgiving buffet included the traditional turkey but also a  beef tenderloin. My good friend Robin counseled me through my first beef tenderloin this summer. It's really quite simple. The hardest thing for me was overcoming my fear or ruining an expensive piece of meat. But if you follow Ina Garten's straightforward method you can't go wrong. Well, you can if you cut it poorly. I had a helper at a party this summer who cut the gorgeous filet  in very thin slices reducing it to a deli platter of roast beef. That was unfortunate. My husband did the honors at Thanksgiving, and set out of gorgeous platter of nearly one-inch thick slices, plated in an overlapping line on a long platter.

And somewhere in the middle are the smaller portions of animal protein we eat most nights. Four ounces of that beef filet has just under 3 grams of saturated fat. I generally serve 4 to five-ounce portions of lean animal protein, including fish and skinless chicken breasts. That amount suits our bodies and never weighs us down. My portions are always challenged by the butcher or fishmonger, though. I guessing it's a combination of them trying to drive sales and me purchasing smaller portions than most. What size portions do you serve at home?

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Monday, November 28, 2011

On the Menu This Week

Every once in awhile a market trip yields so many great ideas for dinner. Everything looked great today. I need to use the gorgeous arugula I picked up last week and forgot to use while we had family in town. The salmon looked particularly great at Whole Foods, so tonight we had Pan-fried Salmon on Arugula along with a side of Tomato Basil Soup. It's been a soupy few days - we're still enjoying Turkey and Rice soup. Our Thanksgiving turkey was particularly lean and flavorful this year. The stock is just wonderful.

Speaking of the Great Bird, the Wishbone Breaking Event of 2011 merits mention on account of its unprecedented conclusion. My children were competing for a serving of caramel-cheese mixed popcorn which promised a certain amount of doe-eyed begging on the part of the loser. I had anticipated some drama but needn't have: the wishbone split down the middle. Popcorn all around!

Anyway, I picked up some ground lamb for Lamb Burgers later in the week and am also really looking forward to Gyoza and Pad Thai, which we haven't had for awhile.

Have a great week.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pinch's 2011 Thanksgiving Menu

Fruit Salad
Rosemary Raisin Toast with Apricot Jam
Scrambled Eggs with Gruyere
Eggnog Lattes

Amuse Bouche
Bacon-Wrapped Medjool Date

Butternut Squash Demitasse with Spiced Pepitas

Mixed Greens with Pomegranate Seeds, Candied Pecans, and Prairie Fruits Farm Chevre

Cranberry Granita

Roast Turkey with Gravy
Beef Filet with Assorted Sauces - Bearnaise, Stilton or Horseradish
Mashed Yukon Potatoes
Vegetarian Stuffing
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Leek and Pancetta
Grand Marnier-spiked Cranberry Sauce
Some Sweet Potato Concoction
Golden Pillow Dinner Rolls

Pumpkin Pie
Pecan Pie
Chocolate Pound Cake with Chocolate Glaze
Frozen Peanut Butter Pie

Liquid Assets
Blood Orange Soda
Pinot Noir or Prosecco

A menu should speak for itself so here are a few notes:

I always plan breakfast. It needs to be satisfying enough to hold one over until dinner, yet simple since there's much cooking to do. I picked up a fragrant pineapple (determined by smelling the bottom of tens of pineapples. Does everyone know this is how to pick a melon or pineapple?), a Tuscan melon, some grapes, strawberries and blackberries.

I got these great ceramic appetizer spoons at World Market for the Amuse Bouche and some white ceramic sake cups for the Butternut Squash Soup. The petite sake cup will be just right for less intrepid diners.

The Intermezzo is a shout out to a Thanksgiving of yesteryear, celebrated here. Could anyone spend even one night in a cozy A-frame buried in the snow and not fall in love with mountain living? Sigh. An intermezzo serves to cleanse the palate between courses, in this case I'll bring it out after the salad. It's hardly sweet, just enough sugar to balance the tart market cranberries (you should see the size of these things, procured Wednesday at the Green City Market!), and has just a hint of orange.

The main event needs little explanation, just the basics with a new tweaks from year to year. I'm tired of green beans, so the Brussels Sprouts will be new, assuming I get my act together. It's after midnight, the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning, and it's just occurred to me that I forgot to get Brussels sprouts at the market today.

Dessert is fixing up to be a whole buffet of sweets: Pecan and Pumpkin pies, baked in the thin French tart pans I like so much. My skilled daughter will contribute her Chocolate Pound Cake which is rich and delicious with chocolate glaze on top. And now that I finally sourced the elusive Famous Chocolate Wafer at Apple Market I am going to make a frozen peanut butter pie, also for old time's sake. We used to eat FPBP whenever we went to Paul's Pasta in Groton, Connecticut. I'm going to improvise that recipe, but will essentially conjure a peanut butter mousse using peanut butter, cream cheese and whipped cream, freeze it in a chocolate crust, then top it with a thin layer of chocolate glaze and whipped cream. It's totally unsophisticated but sure to a hit among those less than thrilled with traditional Thanksgiving pies.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Thursday, November 17, 2011


Thanksgiving is nigh and I am bound for the nuthouse. Nuts are a fabulous snack. Throughout the winter we keep a supply of in-shell nuts in a pewter bowl, along with a small fleet of nutcrackers. I'm still a little twitchy about the hand-pinching metal nutcrackers that tormented me during my youth. The perennial favorite remains the olive wood screw-type model I tucked in my younger daughter's stocking one year.

The nuthouse is, in this case, Treasure Island or Whole foods, where I can purchase in-shell nuts in bulk bins, not bags. Bulk is preferable to bags because I like to control the number of Brazil nuts that go into the mix. Brazil nuts are cool to look at but they are super fatty and really hard to crack. They taste a lot like an over-sized macadamia nut. They actually have less total fat than the macadamia but the breakdown of fats is less favorable in the Brazil. Where 3.5 ounces of macadamias have 74 total fat grams, 10 of those grams are saturated, 60 are monounsaturated and 4 are polyunsaturated. The same weight of Brazil nuts has 66 grams of fat, about 17 of which are saturated, 27 of which are monounsaturated and 22 are polyunsaturated.

I mention fat math because sometimes people think that just because something grows on a tree it's a good idea to shovel it down the gullet. 10 grams of saturated fat is the very low end of a daily limit for many people, so macadamias are probably sort of a health hazard, even with their glorious ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat. The thing with nuts is to not go overboard. Really. Keep it to a few at a time. This is why the in-shell variety is so great - all that cracking and hand-pinching slows you down.

In-shell nuts are a winter tradition I'll never break. For parties or gatherings where a cocktail assortment is just the thing I have a new recipe.  I made bowls of roasted nuts for a party this summer and stashed them around like a 50s housewife would stash ashtrays. They were an enormous hit. I adapted a recipe from the ever-reliable Martha Stewart's Hors D'oevres Handbook. This is what I did:

Cocktail Roasted Nuts
Makes 3 cups

1 cup each raw almonds, cashews and pecan halves
2 t canola oil
2 t kosher salt
1 T packed brown sugar, or maple sugar
1/8  t cayenne

Preheat oven to 350. Place nuts in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast for 6-8 minutes or until fragrant.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the remaining ingredients. When the nuts are done roasting, add them the bowl and toss to coat. Allow to cool briefly before adding to serving bowls. They are great warm. Reheat if you like for about 5 minutes at 300.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

As the Bundt Breaks

The bundt cake is challenging the lemon pudding cake as my sworn enemy. Back when I worked at Campagne there was one cake that I never mastered. That's not to say I always got it wrong. But I never knew if I had gotten it right until it did its time in the oven. Had I mastered it I would have been able to recognize success or failure just on the appearance of the batter. The lemon pudding cake was a very delicate cake that required a very exact temperature and combining of ingredients. I got it wrong 60% of the time, and then I had to throw the all away (they were individuals) wash the forms myself (gasp!), and start all over.

In a sign that my pastry skills are suffering from underuse, I now find myself in the position of having lost mastery of the very simple bundt cake. I have a 12-cup heavy-weight, nonstick NordicWare bundt pan that has been reliable for years. And now, nearly every other time I make a pound cake it gets stuck in there the only way to get it out is to break it up. Drives me crazy that I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Luckily, should I ever really need to be in possession of a chocolate pound cake I can turn to my well trained grasshopper. My oldest makes this cake P-E-R-F-E-C-T-L-Y.

Anyhoo, I made one this morning and knew I had beat too much air in it when it quickly deflated after it was done baking. The writing was on the wall. I tried to remove it anyway, but it was solidly stuck. Very quickly we had a huge cake mess, with half the cake turned out on a plate and half still stubbornly clinging to the pan. My kids were off school today, so it was sort of perfect. The little one has been very eager to make cake balls ever since her babysitter told them what they were (she has since eaten them at Starbucks). I was not about to let all that Valrhona cocoa go to waste, so we mixed up some ganache, crumbled up the cake, and rolled up our sleeves.

It was fun (and useful as I needed to bring a dessert to my girls' school today) but I would definitely not make cake balls again. For one, it was a huge time sink - we easily spent an hour and half mixing, forming, coating and covering those stinkers. And two, the amount of chocolate that went into this things was sort of obscene. We made 50 cake balls (the whole bundt would have make another dozen but we ran out of ganache). We used about 10 ounces of chocolate to make both the ganache and chocolate glaze. The end result: for the serious chocoholic only. They were deemed too rich for my daughter's taste. Hope the teachers liked them, as that's where they went. It was report card pickup today and parents take turns providing treats for the teachers during the conferences. If I did do it again, I would make sure to first pick up lollipop sticks, sold at Jo-Ann Fabrics or a retailer with a good baking or candy-making section. If you do choose to make them, you really must have something to cover the chocolate coating because they look too rough otherwise. Nuts looked great, as did the coconut. Ice cream sprinkles looked fab, too.

That's all.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Steve Jobs and Potato and Maui Onion Soup

I've been thinking about making this soup since last week when Steve Jobs died. The link? Kona Village Resort, where my husband and I honeymooned (sixteen years ago this week!) and spent several subsequent family vacations. Jobs was a frequent visitor there and we saw him once or twice.

There were strict but unstated rules about technology at Kona Village: no phones, devices or laptops allowed on the beach (or really in the public areas). There were no telephones or televisions in the hales (thatch roofed bungalows). Being at KVR meant unplugging. Relaxing. But no one ever bothered Steve, who I recall on one particular morning, plunking away on his laptop on the lanai, as other guests mingled between tables and the outdoor breakfast buffet.

The food there was good. Entrees were not usually anything to write home about but the fresh fruit, local veggies and fish were always wonderful. Two things were my favorite on the menu: the French Toast, which I ate with ying-yang puddles of maple and coconut syrup, and the Cream of Potato and Maui Onion soup. Both contained enough dairy fat to sink an outrigger canoe.

KVR made other food introductions for me. Thanks to the generosity of my west coast family for whom a trip to Hawaiʻi is just a hop, skip and a jump, I almost always have a bottle of coconut syrup and a jar of Volcano Island White Honey in my pantry.

Kona Village suffered substantial damages as a result of the March 2011 tsunami and has been closed since. I do hope they reopen. Where else can you wake to the delicate but relentless chirping of a thousand birds? Where else can you watch a donkey picking its way over a hardened mass of black lava? Where else is the air is scented by plumeria? Next door at the Four Seasons Hualalai? Death first!

Well, soup first, anyway. Now is a good time of year to pick up a sweet onion. I got a fairly generic one at Trader Joes. Other varieties of sweet onions include Vidalia, from Georgia, and Walla Walla, from Washington State. Just pick up a big one. I use a scale for this soup to make sure the proportions are right, though I did include rough estimates so you can make the soup without a scale.

Potato and Maui Onion Soup
Print recipe only here

2 T olive oil (or 1 T oil and 1 T unsalted butter)
1 large sweet onion - Maui, Vidalia - trimmed and chopped (250 g)
4 medium-large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped (500 g)
32 ounces Imagine Organic chicken broth
1/2 cup water
Salt and fresh ground white pepper (if you have it, otherwise use black)

Set a medium-large soup pan over a medium flame and add the olive oil (or combination with butter). Add the onion and turn down the flame a bit. Sauté for 4-5 minutes until softened. Add the potatoes and stir to combine. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add the broth and water and bring to a low boil. Turn down flame and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through. Turn off heat and allow to cool. If you are in a rush, transfer it to a bowl and set that bowl in a bigger bowl filled with ice. Stir until the soup is at room temperature.

Blend the soup, working in batches, and strain through your finest mesh strainer into a clean soup pot. Reheat and taste for seasoning. If it's too think you can add more stock or dairy (nonfat, lowfat, heavy cream - your choice, but please no that the soup is plenty cream without the addition of any dairy). But if you deem it too thick you can add up to a cup of liquid.

Serve and enjoy.

If you want to fancy it up a bit, you could add one of three accoutrements:

1. Sautéed leek - Trim white park of leek into 3 inch pieces, then cut in half so you have two half circles. Separate the leaves a bit, then slice very thin strips. Sauté gently in a bit of olive oil until just softened, then spoon them into a light, floating puddle in the center of the soup.

2. Chives - finely chopped and scattered in the center of the bowl.

3. Old school dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche, in the center.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sì, Ho Fatto Ciabatta!

I love Google translate, but this particular translation (Yes, I made Ciabatta) looks to have been completed by Jabba the Hutt, and not just because Ciabatta sounds a bit like Chewbacca.

If you are a fan of Ciabatta you simply must try this recipe. I've made two batches now and while I still have miles to go in tweaking my form and the loaves' final appearance I'm pretty stoked to be able to turn out some great bread for sandwiches or antipasti. We had flank steak sandwiches tonight on fresh ciabatta and they were wonderful.

The photo here is from my first batch. I made it on Friday and served it that evening with Italian Beef and Giardinera. At lunchtime on Saturday I toasted it a bit and it made for a nice Avocado Lettuce & Tomato sandwich. Tomorrow my girls will find a caprese sandwich in their lunch totes. I'll say, those neoprene lunch totes must have hit the tipping point with the elementary set over the summer. My daughters and all their friends showed up with them on the first day of school. Anyway, the caprese sandwich is something they had at Red Hen over the summer - the classic, too-good-to-fail combination of  fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and tomato slices. At Red Hen they serve it up on their jaw-breaker ciabatta, drizzled with a bit of balsamic. It's become a favorite sandwich of theirs, especially on Bennison's ciabatta which we prefer. But now that I can turn out a decent loaf myself, my ciabatta purchasing days are a thing of the past.

Let me know if you try the recipe and what you think. I used the first recipe, not the semolina. You will really need a scale, and a solid stand mixer. I could measure out the flour and give you approximations, but that's just not how bread is made. A kitchen scale is a great tool. This is a close relative of the one I have. I've also seen decent ones (Salter is a great brand) at Bed Bath & Beyond in the Beyond section.

Yawn. Nighty-night.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Don't Let the Pigeon Can Tomatoes

I forgot this until this very moment, but my nickname for a scant few years of childhood (a scant few years itself, childhood) was Pidge. Short for Pigeon. It was on account of my propensity for chasing pigeons. Silliness is so underrated.

Last week, the lovely Catherine and I embarked on an inaugural canning event. It's always good to undertake a project like this with a friend. They will provide moral support and sound advice. And in Catherine's case, the wisdom of experience as well. I had not canned anything in about 15 years but she regularly puts up glossy jars of summer berries. Her blueberry jam is wonderful. Makes me think of the wonderful Blueberries for Sal book. Ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk.

Tomato canning was not difficult, and it didn't take that long. We wrapped up the work part in, oh, two hours?? The rest was just watching the pot boil. This is the order of operations:

1. Get some tomatoes. We're city girls so we didn't have choice but to rely on the good farmers who come to the Green City Market. We bought 25 pounds from Kinnikinnick Farm. We did this pretty late in the season so we got what Kinnikinnick had. Next time we'll do it earlier and get all Romas. Romas are the best for canning because of their lower water content.

2. Get wide-mouthed quart-sizes mason jars. Run them thru the dishwasher.

3. Size up your stockpots. You need to submerge the mason jars. We were able to put 4 jars in each stockpot. I only have one stockpot so it was great that Catherine brought two of her own.

3. Boil water like like a couple of midwives. As in, get a pot on every burner.

4. Roll up your sleeves. You need to core and score all those tomatoes: cut out the core and mark the bottoms with an X.

5. Boil the tomatoes - not too many at once - for about 2 minutes to release the skins. We boiled them as we cored and scored.

6. Ice, ice, baby. Have an ice bath ready, probably in your sink. You will need to transfer the tomatoes to the ice bath to stop them from cooking.

7. Peel away.

8. Load them into the jars. Twenty-five pounds will fill around 12 quart-sized mason jars. Our yield was 10 jars.

9. Mash down the tomatoes with the handle of a wooden spoon. Add a few more tomatoes if necessary. You want to fill the jars with no air bubbles, up the the lowest part of the rim.

10. Boil the lids to sterilize the lids and soften the wax.

Steps 1-10 are easy enough. Here's what the Pigeon can mess up:

1. Not having enough lemons on hand. You need to add about 2 T of lemon juice to each jar. I barely had enough.

2. Not having the magnet stick to help you retrieve lids out of the boiling water.

3. Not sufficiently wiping the glass rims before placing the lids. There won't be a good enough seal and you won't know it until you've boiled the jars for 85 minutes. The solution is simple: do it over. Remove the lid, wipe the rim, boil the lid, replace it, and boil the jar for another 85 minutes.

4. Getting #3 wrong twice.

Only one jar failed to seal and I'm not positive that it failed the second time. To be sure, I saved that jar in my fridge and need to cook them soon.

Honestly, I'm sort of terrified to try them. If I love them I'll want to hoard them and if they're no good it will be disappointing. I'll make Tomato Basil Soup tonight along with our Lamb Kabobs and Quinoa and let you know.

Want to know more or can stuff yourself? Check out Food in Jars.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Zen and the Art of Weeknight Cooking

A former neighbor, a lovely woman with money to burn, once explained to me the necessity of employing a cook. The timing of dinner preparation fell right smack in the middle of the time when her children needed her most. When kids come home from school they have a lot going on - homework, school projects, after school activities, play dates, not to mention (sometimes) wanting to tell you everything about their day, or air their grievances on a variety of subjects. My neighbor felt better about being present and engaged with her children than cooking for them. The part about employing a cook was unrelatable for several reasons (my inability to abstain from micro-managing included) but, even tho at the time my children were not school aged, I understood completely that when they were I would have to navigate the late-afternoon/early evening with a skillet in one hand and a science fair rubric in the other.

Tonight I had planned to make Asian Grilled Salmon Salad but even before I picked my children at the end of the day I knew there was no way that meal was going to happen. So I changed things up and made Teriyaki Salmon Bowls instead. And given the cool fall night we're enjoying, it was a better meal than the salad would have been. Here's what I did:

Teriyaki Salmon Bowls
No recipe. Just follow my lead.

The critical task was that earlier in the day I made it to Whole Foods and purchased a 1.25-pound farmed Norwegian salmon filet (skin on). They had King available but it didn't look great. Also, King is so darned big and I do like staying away from the bigger fish.

Back at home, between supervising and correcting school work, unsticking the mouthpiece from my daughter's trumpet, and collecting my other daughter from her after-school sports, I made a pot of rice. Brown rice would have been my preference but I made Basmati since it was already 6:30. I rinsed the filet with very cold water, patted it dry, and transferred it to a small baking sheet. I poured over it a tablespoon or so of my favorite teriyaki sauce (Veri Veri Teriyaki) and gently but intentionally stabbed it all over with a dinner fork. This makes me feel like a bad person, but my fishmonger says it makes for a good marinating practice. I preheated the grill for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, I turned off my rice, fluffed it and replaced the cover. I chopped a green onion on the diagonal. I didn't have any broccoli, but I would have steamed some at this point. I also pulled out a jar of sesame seeds.

When the grill was ready, I put the fish on, skin side up, for about 5 minutes. I flipped it and cooked the other side for 2-3 minutes. It was perfect when I pulled it off. I slid the whole filet onto this beautiful plate my lovely friend Nora gave me and brought it to the table. And there, with the rice in its cooking pot on a hotplate on the table, ramekins with green onions and sesame seeds, and the jar of Veri Veri, we assembled our Teriyaki Salmon bowls: rice on the bottom, topped with salmon and the green onions and sesame seeds on top. The broccoli was missed, but I heated up some frozen edamame, so we had something green.

And that's it. This is one of those meals I make when there's really no time to cook. The time between starting and when we sat to eat was about 20 minutes. I hate giving times for things - I've done this meal before, so don't be mad at either one of us if it takes you longer. I cannot overstate the importance of setting a meal plan for your family for the week, and shopping to support the menu you write. I'll post on how my menu takes shape - and how the menu is shared with the family - later in the week.

Happy Monday.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Smoked Salmon Spread (or, Put a Little Protein on that Giant Carb)

It's ill-advised for me to think about math too early in the day, but here's a pre-coffee postulation for you:  breakfast is a binary event. Win/lose. Carb/protein. Sugar/salt. You choose between an Omelette or Waffles. Well, you might order bacon with your pancakes, ye who just have to have it all. But usually I approach breakfast hungry for one - sugar/salt or carb/protein (win/win either way) - or the other.

A bagel with smoked salmon is one of my favorite things. This is exactly how I like it: the top half of a fresh onion bagel (not toasted, unless it's not fresh) with a thin shmear of cream cheese, a smattering of very thinly sliced red onion, a layer of smoked salmon, three not-too-thick slices of tomato, several turns of fresh ground pepper and a pinch of kosher salt or a few dashes of Redmond Real Salt. Having drained my coffee, it occurrs to me that you get a smidgen of protein with your carb here. But let's be honest, like 99% of the calories here are from the bagel.

One day, with a need to bring something breakfasty to a meeting and a short supply of smoked salmon, I conjured up a recipe for salmon spread. Oh, it is SOOO good! And wonderful for a crowd because it takes some of the work out of layering process. I served it recently at a 60-person brunch along with a basket of sliced bagels and a platter of sliced red onion and tomato. No capers. Boo, capers. Anyhoo, I had a bit leftover and it made a nice little afternoon snack atop Triscuts.

Smoked Salmon Spread
Print recipe only here

8 oz. cream cheese
2 T heavy cream
pinch kosher salt
2 T shallot, minced
1 tsp. fresh parsley
4 oz. smoked salmon, gently shredded

Soften cream cheese in a mixer using paddle attachment.

Add cream and beat for another minute or so.

Add shallot, parsley and salt and combine briefly. Add shallot, parsley and salt and combine briefly. Add salmon and stir in by hand (or use mixer on lowest speed for just a few turns). Do not overmix.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mind These Peas, Please

I've been noshing on peas like these all summer. The original recipe came from a cookbook by Sarah Raven called In Season. It's a great resource of a cookbook and is a great complement to James Peterson's Vegetables cookbook. Anyway, I have to give Mariana a shout out for gifting me Sarah's book. It's yielded a number of tasty sides.

I've played a bit with the original recipe, sometimes sauteing the mint, sometimes tossing it on at the end. On one occasion I followed Raven's recipe and added some fresh squeezed lemon juice but I really didn't care for it. Another time I added shallot at the beginning, sauteing it gently before adding the peas to the softened shallot and warm oil. But this way is my favorite way.

I don't know how good this would be using frozen peas. The might be ok, but I think the beauty of this dish is the crunch of the fresh pea and the marriage with fresh mint. I hope you won't have trouble sourcing fresh peas. You can always check the salad section at Trader Joe's. Their 10-ounce bag has not disappointed.

Bright Summer Peas
Print recipe only here

1 to 2 cups fresh peas
1 t olive oil
2 T fresh mint, finely chopped
generous pinch kosher
fresh ground pepper

Gently pulse peas in a food processor to crush them a bit. Don't overdo it. You want to retain their texture.

Transfer peas to a small saucepan or saute pan. Add the olive oil, salt and pepper. Stir gently for 3-4 minutes over a low-medium flame. Turn off heat, add chopped mint, stir and serve.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

A Desk of One's Own

I had a bee in my bonnet all summer about finding a desk. Complicating the search were the dimensions (it had to be small, like no more than 48 inches wide) and determining the exact spot it would inhabit in our house. My interim desk was a bookshelf to which I bellied up a bar stool and into which I would fold one leg. My back is still complaining about that arrangement.

Sometime in the last week of summer before the kids went back to school I discovered, while trolling the internet, an antiques shop in nearby Oak Park. And nearly every morning during that week I announced my intention to skip out there and see if they had my desk. And every afternoon, around 2 pm, when the window had nearly closed on agreeable transit times between Chicago and Oak Park, I caved to my children's pleas to enjoy their last bit of summer and not spend it shopping. Wise children, I have.

Lo, on the first day of school, after the school doors closed behind them, and the parental meet and greet and Room Parent meeting had adjourned, I got in my car, cranked some hillbilly rock (the Avett Brother's Mignonette album) and drove myself out to the land of Arts and Crafts. And there, tucked in a back room of Oak Park Antiques was my desk. Unlike Mary, who Bruce Springsteen sings about in Thunder Road ("You ain't a beauty but, hey, you're alright"), she is lovely, just lovely. That line - worst pick up line, ever - always makes me chuckle. My bet is that Mary did not take the long walk from her front porch to Bruce's front seat.

If I had any uncertainty about that desk being my desk (it is shy of 48 inches and I was slightly concerned I would need a bit more space) it melted when I opened the top drawer and found an old book of short stories from the New Yorker. It has a couple of names inscribed inside, as well as a handwritten date: December 1942, the month and year my mother was born.

I've been thinking about my mother a lot since last month when I turned the age she was when her life ended. I've been thinking about how to live my life more fully, about working and playing harder, about appreciating the life I have without complaint.

My mom and daughters are good at reminding me to stop shopping, or tidying, or busying myself with activity less important than cramming onto the couch, holding my cards close to my face so the children pressed in against me can't see them, and being commanded in variety of silly voices, to hand over all my Sevens. Lucky, too, for a desk at which to consider it all.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Three New Summer Cocktails (or Sippin' on Gin and Cukes*)

This summer we've been enjoying a rotation of three cocktails that we've never made before. It was high time for some new drinks. The margarita lost her appeal years ago, followed by the mojito. Pierce Brosnan ruined the mojito for me. He ordered one in Die Another Day and his affected Latin accent zapped allure right out of the drink. Plus, it's rare to find a mojito that compares with  Honga's, especially the Piña one. Mmmm.

The number of ingredients in a cocktail is inversely proportional to my enjoyment of same but correlates to hangover intensity. The reason for the latter has to do with sugar. I love the eight-ingredient make that ten-ingredient Mai Tai but there's just too much juice in there. Makes my head hurt. Three is the magic number of ingredients in the Summer of 2011 cocktails.

They are...

Hendrick's Gin and Tonic. What I love about it: the cucumber garnish and essence in the gin itself makes for a very clean drink. If spas had bars they would all serve these.

To make a HGT: fill a 10 ounce glass with ice. Pour in one shot of Hendrick's. Top with tonic. Stir gently. Add three round, thin slices of English cucumber. Serve and enjoy.

I've been meaning to dig out a tool one of my cooking school teachers gave me - it's a channeling tool, used commonly to remove dark green ribbons from a lime. You can also use it to carve out the edges of a cucumber so that, when you slice it, the circles have fancy ridges.

The Dark and Stormy - What I love about it:  the spicy kick of ginger. Spend any time in the Caribbean, or pal around with anyone who has, and you'll end up with one of these in your hand. This was the case when we bare boated a few winters ago in the BVIs. That trip set us off on a goose chase for a sufficiently spicy ginger beer. Goslings, sold in Chitown at Binny's, does the trick tho not quite as well as some of the Caribbean microbrewers.

To make a DNS: Fill a 10-ounce glass with ice. Pour in a shot of Goslings Black Seal dark rum, then fill the rest of the way with Goslings Ginger Beer. Squeeze a wedge of lime into the glass, then drop the wedge in. Stir gently and serve.

Moscow Mule - What I love about it: the simple 1-2-3 proportions. And the lime. I am a sucker for a fresh squeezed lime juice.  Also, the vessel. If you wanna be truly authentic about you drink out of a (fairly large) copper mug. A drink with a dedicated vessel? Awesome.

To make an M2: Search online for a copper mug. Quit when you realize it's silly/extravagant/stupid to make said purchase. Make a mental note to buy them as a hostess gift for someone. Squeeze lots of limes, like a dozen. You drink M2 in the company of lots of friends, so you're going to need lots of juice. Fill any sized glass with ice. Top with one shot vodka, two shots of fresh lime and three shots of ginger beer. The proportions are 1-2-3. Stir and enjoy.

* If only Dynamite Hack would do a version of this song, clad in crisp country club whites holding Gin and Cukes!

That's all.

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Sunday, July 31, 2011

On the Future of Bacon

Vincent was right: bacon tastes goood. But the market for frozen pork bellies futures has been dwindling. As of July 15 frozen pork belly options and futures are no longer traded at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange where they had been trading since 1961.* Anyone left holding a pork belly contract surely ain't gonna have no money to buy their son the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip.**

BTW, the totally awesome drawing here is by Alyson Thomas. I just love her butchery diagrams.

Futures, as explained by Motley Fool, are agreements between two parties to buy or sell a certain amount of a specified item for a specified price at a specific date. Don't ask me to explain options. It cannot be done!

Various news sources (NYT, WSJ and NPR) say that the market for bellies was historically strong in anticipation of summer sales when folks wanted to eat BLTs. That one sandwich was responsible for the rise and fall of the Duke brothers' (and others') fortune is ludicrous. Those sources say that year-round demand for bacon has caused the demand for frozen bellies to dry up. This is partly true. The full story of the death of the contract involves changes in the industry and how the contract failed to adapt accordingly. (Click here for Jeff Carter's explanation.)

What I don't understand is why the the contract didn't change. I get why the market for frozen bellies is down but why not allow for futures trades on fresh bellies? The fall of the contract comes at a time when you can't eat out without seeing pork belly on the menu. The belly garnered a noisy, intellectual, well-heeled fan base, similar to that of other humble foods such as the donut, BBQ, tacos, ice cream. Each are being produced by careful craftspeople and being consumed, discussed and venerated.

The "bacon tastes goood" statement voiced a truth that carnivores everywhere held but were too wrapped up in their cholesterol levels to celebrate. Once stated, the market - led in part by the Charlie Trotters and Alice Waters of our nation's restaurants - started giving us more of what we liked. Slow roasted! Glazed! Braised! God forbid frozen! From his chaise in the Caribbean, Billy Ray Valentine is making a killing on freezer space futures. Looking good, Billy Ray!

So what's the future of bacon? I couldn't tell you. But I can elaborate on the asterisked items above:

* A frozen pork belly futures contract consisted of 40,000 pounds of frozen pork bellies, cut and trimmed, where 1 point = $.0001 per pound ($4.00)

** That's from Trading Places. You can't talk pork bellies without letting Billy Ray Valentine doing some of the talking.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Happily Ever After: Tales from an arranged marriage

The truth is we did not know each other well before taking the plunge. There was no pre-marital canoodling to test each other out. I found out as much as I could beforehand, but had no idea how well we would match up. He might have thought me an amateur. He is so handsome that I doubted his ability to perform.

This is the arrangement we all have with new cars and appliances. You do the research, you ask around, then you hand someone a wad of bills and hope for the best. Will it be reliable? Will it be a lemon? Will you have to adapt your technique or cooking/cleaning/driving habits just to get the best performance out of it?

When we moved into our new home I had to select and purchase multiple new appliances. This was a total treat - especially the range in the kitchen. I chose well. His name is still evolving, but he's either Wolf or Wolfie (a la Puck or Mozart). Like his canine cousins he is eager to please, territorial, and awesome.

Wolfie has six-burners and a griddle. After cooking on a barely functioning Jenn-Air cooktop for the past six years (I cannot bring myself to knock the brand because we have a Jenn-Air outdoor grill that is a rock star*), Wolfie appeared one day as the clouds parted, angels sang, and four sweaty dudes grunted and heaved him up the steps to the kitchen. Years ago I had a Viking. Each of its six burners required planetary alignment before igniting and I had to replace the hinges on the oven door three times over seven years. The Viking did not so much like to run at high temps and I regularly cook pizza at 500. I'd cook it at 800 if I could, but you can't get that kind of heat out of a residential appliance. Anyway, that appliance was a total disappointment. The Viking brand was conceived to fill a void in the market. Nothing more than eye candy for the kitchen.

I'm often asked about my affinity for all gas ranges. But before that I'd like to take this opportunity to air my grievance with the so-called dual-fuel range. There's uno fuel: natural gas. Dual energy would be better.

I wouldn't consider an electric cooktop. Gotta cook with flames. And I do prefer the unified range to the separate wall oven and cooktop.  When you have a cooktop you have to deal with that awkward cabinet below it and I prefer my cabinetry have a sense of confidence. The cabinet under the aforementioned Jenn-Air was like Eeyore, always presuming he'd been forgotten or that it was going to rain.

A gas oven cooks with more moisture than an electric oven. This is great for roasting and baking cakes. Some things, cookies and granola in particular, seem a bit better off in an electric oven, especially one with a convection setting. Wolfie doesn't convect, but he does have a fan that helps out immensely. The first time I made granola in the Wolf it didn't dry out sufficiently. Now that I run the fan it's fine.

The griddle has been the best surprise. I almost skipped it in favor of more burners and that would have been a major oversight. You should see how well the Wolf griddle handles eggs. Unreal. I'd like to fling my nonstick pans off into the alley but I still need them for tarte Tatin and crêpes.  The only design flaw with the griddle is the drip hole. The dual energy model has a sweet drip tray that is a cinch to clean. I don't care for the hole on my Wolfie. We don't generate enough drippings to even really use it but the whole area around it gets splattered. The tray is genius, but unavailable on the gas models.

Another decision that was not hard to make was about the burners. I really, really like open burners as you get a much better flame. I don't have any issue with that drip tray, either. With closed burners all your mess stays on top and waits for you to clean it. With opened burners the unwatched pot boils over a bit but everything is contained in the drip tray.

It's been a two-month honeymoon and Wolf is a well-seasoned partner in the kitchen, and shows every indication of having the stamina to go the distance. May you all experience similar wedded bliss.

* If company history intrigues you as it does me, Jenn-Air was acquired by Maytag in 1982. In 2006 Whirlpool bought Maytag.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Don't Name Your Restaurant

Naming posts, restaurants, stories, books, films, children - is hard work. Originality is good, within reason. An article  in The New Yorker concerning summer movies gave demerits to Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses because those names tell the story before you've seen the picture. (The Maltese Falcon, by comparison, was celebrated for giving away nothing.)

One of the best baby books I read was called Don't Name Your Baby. I'd like to quote from it, but I lent it to a pregnant friend. Anyway, its author does not suggest you refrain from naming your young breed. What he does is tell you what's wrong with every name you're considering. It's very funny and makes a good gift. And it drives a point home about names: they're important. They say something about you. They need to be good.

Every once in awhile I'll come across a restaurant with a really bad name and it's always shocking. How could someone go thru securing a location, hiring staff, filling out the necessary paperwork, establishing a line of credit with suppliers and then print "Pink Meat" on their awnning?

And yet, these places exist.  "I will never eat at Happy Teriyaki," I told my husband when we were newlyweds living in downtown Seattle. I'm sorry to report I didn't stand by that proclamation. A scant few months later and I was going there for lunch alone, and even took an out of town guest there. I'm not sure why. It wasn't good.

Then it was Tellurice, a now-shuttered Asian restaurant in my old hometown of Telluride.  As I told a friend, "The name is just too stupid to eat there." I stood by that one. If an owner puts a name like that on the shingle one can only assume that there's some stupid sneaking into the food. My friend relayed a story from when she ate there and, get this: they were out of rice.

Lately, I've been grumbling to myself about an establishment that's going in around the corner. It's called Jam and Honey. And it's not a boutique shop selling the kind of imports that make me giddy. It looks to be a restaurant, complete with a hostess stand up front. They are optimistic about reservations, I suppose. I can only assume they will serve more than Jam and Honey, but what else?!? The name is so terrible I'll never find out. I can only imagine this scenario:

"Welcome to Jam and Honey."

"Hey! Got any grapes?"

"No, we only serve pink meat."

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

On Marriage and Moonspoons

Moonspoon is a recent discovery. I can't recall where I first saw their wares, but it was either an online or print ad, probably among the home magazine and sites I've been trolling for ideas and inspiration. And then, as I was worming around the awesome shop at Gethsemane Garden Center, I stumbled upon an abundant display of the very Moonspoons that captivated me in the first place: pickle forks, honey sticks, butter boards. It was a fated encounter and I did not leave the shop without a few.

What followed was a shock: my husband did not like the Moonspoons. This baffled me until this morning, as my oldest daughter and I noshed on the apricots procured at the farmer's market yesterday. We had been waiting, impatiently, until today because they needed a day to ripen. We stood in silent reverie of the wonderous fruit and in that moment I remembered: my husband does not like apricots, either. And while this shocks me I take no umbrage on behalf the fruit in a "more-for-me" kind of a way.

But his dislike of the Moonspoon presents a bit of a problem - particularly the diminutive sugar spoon I bought for our Nicholas Mosse sugar bowl. I liked it because it was so tiny it fit perfectly inside the sugar bowl. The lid of my beloved sugar bowl does not have a lip for a protruding spoon. And so the little hammered steel sugar spoon we've been using causes the lid to sit unevenly on the bowl which makes me uneasy in the morning, pre-coffee, and uneasy in the afternoon when I'm twitchy from too much coffee. The tiny Moonspoon afforded me approximately 36 hours of serenity before my husband returned from a business trip, discovered the impostor in the sugar bowl and pronounced his dislike of same. And the fact of the matter is, the dispensing of the perfect amount of sugar into your mug is critical. We had it down with the hammered steel spoon. So it's back, and my tiny Moonspoon awaits another assignment.

That's all.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

On Packing Tape and Box Cutters

To be sure, there have been up sides. But moving is a lot of work.

One plus: I will never have to buy packing tape again. The movers left at least a case of it behind. This is very convenient for me as a Zappos shopper. I end up with a fair amount of returns and you have to tape those half-sheet paper USPS/UPS labels onto the box. I used to think I liked internet shopping because I lived in a remote place (when Telluride was my home). I'm a city dweller now but my love for online shopping abides, owing to the hefty surcharges of city tax and downtown parking fees. I troll the web and shop almost exclusively at retailers who offer free shipping and returns. Hence the need for packing tape.

Unpacking has been way more work than packing. It's kind of the reverse of packing for vacation. Outbound preparation demands attention to selecting and packing with great care so your travel clothes arrive in suitable condition. On the way home you can just shove everything in your bag and let the wrinkles come out in the laundry.

Packing our house was the opposite. We did not move far - just 300 yards - and we moved the kitchen ourselves to save time and bubble wrap. Everything else was boxed up over a scant few days. We've been in our new pad for a month now and I still have several large boxes skulking on the periphery of most rooms, like a dog that wet the floor. The problem with these last few boxes is there it's not obvious where I'm meant to store their contents. My office accoutrements, for example, will remain boxed until my star-crossed desk finds me.

Unpacking the boxes that were packed earliest took the most physical effort as we were much more liberal with the tape when packing the first dew dozen boxes. Afterwards it was, like, one strip per box, then on to the next, because there were a lot of boxes -a fact that was obscured in the early hours of packing when we had more time and energy.  Once it came to the unpacking it was a huge relief to be able to use a box cutter again. I'm certain that I did not once touch a box-cutter since the Towers crumbled. But with Bin Laden out of the picture it felt ok to use the tool for its sole, intended purpose. Other sharp tools aren't adequate or even really available when one first arrives in a new home. Scissors and Swiss army knives are packed themselves. But our box cutter, which makes its home in a bright yellow tool box, was readily available. My long-suffering box cutter, stained by the 9/11 hijackings, could rejoice at having its status restored as Useful Tool.

The dust has begun to settle and I'm very much enjoying the new Pinch kitchen and the patio garden that feeds it. More on those things soon.

Have a lovely Independence Day!

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Friday, June 24, 2011

On Acquisitions, Consumption and Produce Bags

I am not, or ever have been, a Trekkie. I'm spelling it here with two Ks only because Google made me. That Google is also an aggregator* of Trekkies should not come as a surprise. I would have spelled it with one K, but I guess it follows the same rule as doggie, nutter, and coffee.

Anyhoo, at some point in the not-too-distant past, I came across the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, which are a must read. The Ferengi were an extraterrestrial race from Star Trek and they were obsessed with profit, sort of like the Underpant Gnomes from South Park.  In addition to the Rules, there are also the Five Stages of Acquisition, delineated here:

1. Infatuation: An unreasoning love or attraction … "I want it."
2. Justification: Moral excuse used to explain … "I must have it!"
3. Appropriation: To take to one's self in exclusion of others … "It's mine at last!"
4. Obsession: A compulsive or irrational preoccupation … "Precious!"
5. Resale: The action of selling something previously bought … "Make me an offer."

The time span between Obsession and Resale is amusing to consider. I prefer to think of it as split second, as flightiness is always funnier than being deliberate.

But it's necessary to be deliberate about meal planning and shopping to eat well. And doing your part to reduce waste requires taking responsibility for what you consume. Carting home market acquisitions in reusable bags has become a practice for many, but reusable produce bags are still up and coming. I began using these ones about a year ago after seeing many friends from Telluride using similar ones. The Town of Telluride went so far as to ban the use of paper and plastic grocery sacks, but plastic produce bags are still on display like those giant slabs of meat skewered and rotating before a vertical rotisserie in the window of  Greek restaurant. Well, there are no Greek restaurants in Telluride, or vertical rotisseries. My point was that many of the most environmentally friendly markets are still supplying plastic bags for produce.

Using reusable produce bags demands having an adequate supply of them, as some will remain in your fridge preventing the formation of fruit unions. I have five, and probably need five more. My system is to return my reusable grocery sacks to the car soon after unpacking them. The produce bags get tucked inside so they're right where I need them. Having a few more of them will really help. I often find myself at the market with only one or two reusables and need to supplement with plastic.

You can pick up the bags in many grocery stores. I like mine because they have a handy drawstring and they're washable. They make no claims about keeping produce fresh for longer, so you might look for something in that category if that's a concern for you.

Have a great weekend!

* Different from an alligator only in the shape of the jaw.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Boka Group 86s Landmark

The hobo cookie, definitely.

If you had to pick the item on the Landmark menu that signaled that the end was near, it would have to be the massive chocolate chip confection that looked as if it were baked in a Campbell's soup can. No, they didn't intend for it to be shared by the table. To their credit, it was called Gigantic Chocolate Chip cookie on the menu. But nothing could have prepared me for its mass. It really was if they let a creative eight-year old come up with the dessert. The can shaped cookie was unsophisticated and an embarrassment, even to the server who presented it.

Boka Restaurant Group has a pretty good thing going. Perennial Virant opened in May (you could say it reopened but it was altered and improved beyond compare) and is turning out incredible food. Boka remains a safe bet and there's a 10-week wait for a table at Girl and the Goat (I'm going in mid-July).

So, the news that Landmark has closed and will reopen with a new chef and name (Balena, which is Italian slang for fat man) isn't surprising. Chris Pandel, who will run the kitchen, hails from The Bristol on Damen. He worked previously at Tru and Cafe Boulud in New York. He doesn't arrive at Balena with the buzz that Paul Virant still has, but I'm expecting good things in time for the 2011-2012 Steppenwolf season.

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Summer? Nice to meet you.

There has been some uncertainty regarding the season in which we find ourselves. I might point out to those among you grumbling about the rain and reluctant sun that it is still spring. Complaints can be free to flow in 24 hours. Until then, make peace with the rain.

Several things change in the tide between seasons. Winter is over when the last Ruby Red is shipped from Texas. Spring is over when the first corn and peaches hit Chicago. Where these come from is a question without a good answer. Independence Day is not far off and corn went in the ground late this year owing to record spring rainfall in the Midwest. Corn is nowhere near knee high and yet it's been on our plates for a few weeks now. When I go to Trader Joe's later today to refresh my supply of both I will make inquiries as to the origin.

This morning we enjoyed a fine breakfast of Crêpes, thanks to the efforts of four of my favorite girls on earth. They rose early and used every drop of milk and nearly every egg, but they made the batter and tucked in into the fridge to chill and rest, as is necessary for crêpe batter*. By the time I was up all I had to do was make a few lattes and warm my crêpe pans.

Since we wanted to make things extra-special for our houseguests we got really jiggy with flavors. Usually we just do cinnamon sugar or raspberry jam filled. Today I pulled out Catherine's blueberry jam, nutella, sliced almonds and chocolate chips and let people fill their own. Kata had a brilliant idea of adding sliced peach to one of hers. When she offered to fill one for me I had to try her combo: a thin slathering of raspberry jam topped with fresh peach slices and rolled up. Peach with blueberry jam was equally heavenly. We have a fair amount of batter leftover and I can't wait to have another peach-blueberry crêpe tomorrow.

I don't care to waste a minute on less-than-stellar produce so I'm always giving and taking recommendations for the best sources. The corn on the cob (unshucked) and peaches (by the case) at TJ's have been perfect. Don't be nervous about buying 12 peaches. You can always chop some up and freeze for smoothies.  Treasure Island has fantastic watermelons right now.

*  "Why?" you ask. Because after all that whisking you've worked the gluten in the flour. Retiring the batter to the fridge allows the gluten to relax again, ensuring the delicacy of your crêpes. If you don't allow the resting time, you risk a rubbery crêpe.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Soupe a l'Oignon, Pinched

It's been a soupy spring - very wet, a little chilly, great soup weather. French Onion Soup, prepared with just a sprinkling of Gruyère on a toasted baguette slice instead of the cheese blanket on the French classic, is a favorite of mine. I learned it this way from Mary B. back when I worked with her at Cafe Nola on Bainbridge Island. Mary made a vegetarian version, which you could easily do, too, by using a hearty vegetable broth (she spiked hers with woody roots and mushrooms for depth). I, however, used a beef base (a concentrated broth). I like the one I have now, Better than Bouillon, and you can find it in Chicago at Whole Foods and the Spice House. I'm picky about broth, and beef broth often disappoints. But this one is nice.

Soupe a l'Oignon
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

3 large yellow onions, halved and sliced crosswise
2 T olive oil (or 1 T olive oil and 1 T unsalted butter)
kosher salt
1 t sugar
1/2 t herbes de Provence
1 heaping T flour
2/3 cup sherry (white wine or cognac are acceptable subs)
4 cups beef broth (I used water plus a good beef base)
4-8 slices baguette, sliced on the diagonal
3-4 T grated Gruyere
Freshly ground black pepper

Prep onions as directed above.

Heat the olive oil (or oil and butter) in a 3-4 quart heavy bottomed soup pot (I used a 3-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven) over medium-high flame.

Add the onions, salt and sugar and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently. Lower heat to medium-low and continue to cook, still stirring every so often, for another 25 minutes or so, or until nicely browned and caramelized.

Add flour and stir well to combine, cooking for 2-3 minutes.

Add the sherry, broth, and herbes and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for at least an hour, uncovered.

Add a few turns of freshly ground pepper and taste for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary.

Slice baguette and lightly toast. Grate the Gruyère and divide evenly among the tops of the bread, then return to the oven and heat gently until melted. Reserve.

When ready to serve, either place a baguette slice or two in the bottom of a bowl and ladle soup on top, or ladle the soup and perch the baguette slices on top. Serve immediately.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pinched Chicago-Style Chicken Vesuvio

I'm sure you can find this in other cities, but Chicken Vesuvio is seen as often in a basic Chitown restaurant as an iPhone is seen in the hands of a frantic/frenetic/fractious soccer mom. Disclosure: I use an Android but the alliteration applies accordingly. :)

Anyhoo, in a weekend Google goose chase I came across a  great Chicago blogger: Proud Italian Cook. I was inspired to make her Chicken Vesuvio and  Cauliflower Steaks and both were terrific. My steaks broke up a fair bit (I really only got two slabs out of the entire head) but it was all beautiful and tasty. Here are those recipes:

Chicago-style Chicken Vesuvio
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Serves 4

4 split chicken breasts (bone-in)
2-4 potatoes (2 large Russets, halved and then quartered or 4 bigger Yukons or Reds, halved)
7-8 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
Garlic powder
1 1/2 cups white wine (Proud Italian suggests Pinot Grigio)
1 1/2 cups chicken broth

- Large skillet (I used a 10-inch nonstick only because the chump that rented our house in Colorado stole my 12-inch stainless steel saute pan)
- Roasting pan

Preheat oven to 375

Wash and cut potatoes. Peel garlic.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat.

Remove skin from chicken breasts. Season on both sides with salt, pepper, garlic powder and oregano.

Add 1-2 T olive oil to the skillet. Brown the potatoes, cooking for about 2-3 minutes, tops. Transfer potatoes to the roasting pan.

Add chicken to skillet, working in batches if necessary. Brown both sides then transfer to the roasting pan.

Add garlic cloves to the skillet and saute until golden. Transfer to the roasting pan.

Add wine and broth to the skillet and deglaze. Scrape/stir to loosen any tasty bits from the pan. Heat through, cooking for 1-2 minutes. Pour over chicken in the roasting pan.

Transfer roasting pan to the preheated oven and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Add peas and return to the oven for another 5 minutes.

Cool a bit if you plan to remove the breast from the bone. Otherwise, taste for seasoning (you can add salt and pepper to the sauce), then serve and enjoy.

Photo courtesy Proud Italian Cook

Roast Cauliflower Steaks
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Serves 4

One head cauliflower
1-2 t olive oil
1 T freshly grated Parmesan
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
pinch seasoning blend (I used a shake or two of Smoke House Seasoning)

Preheat oven to 400

Remove the outer leaves and stand the cauliflower up on it's stem/core. Using a large chef's knife, cut 1-inch slabs. Don't freak out if they fall apart!

Drizzle some olive oil on a sheet pan and transfer the slabs to the same, turning to coat both sides. Sprinkle the slabs with salt, pepper, Parm and seasoning if you're using it and then roast for about 20 minutes, flipping the slabs midway thru the baking time. They are finished cooking when golden at the some edges and tender. Serve and enjoy.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What Goes in Your Easter Basket?

When I saw the movie Hop with my kids the one thing I tucked away was the image of a beautifully stuffed Easter basket. An elegant basket can be hard to do amid the over-abundance of cheap candy, beanie baby bunnies and baskets pre-stuffed with things - Fun Dip, Tootsie Roll pops, and Pixie Stix to name a few - that have no business in an Easter basket.

My kids are getting older, but we still really enjoy the tradition of the basket and our annual in-house egg hunt. Our baskets haven't changed much over the years. There are five things that always go in, and then a few random things I pick up when inspired. The five mainstays:

1. Hershey's mini eggs. Gotta have em. They're just reshaped kisses in pastel foil.

2. Cadbury Creme Egg. One time in college my boyfriend (now husband) received an Easter basket in the mail from home. It included, among other things, a Creme Egg and a basketball hand toy (ball on a string that you had to swing into the basket). I bet him that I could make the basket on the first try, but before waiting for him to accept the terms of the bet (if I succeeded he had to relinquish the Creme Egg), I shot and made the basket. Wahoo! What followed was a lengthy discussion of the terms of the bet that lasted until one of us had to go to class. By the time I resumed the debate it was moot: he had eaten the egg! Grrr.

3. Big Chocolate Bunny. It's just not an Easter basket without one. I've been buying the Cadbury Dairy Milk ones. They're solid.

4. Jelly Belly Sour jelly beans. Best beans. I buy big bag and portion them into plastic eggs for our hunt.

5. Peeps. My children have inherited intact my genetic disposition for Peeps-love. This makes me proud even though the fact they prefer Peeps to #3 is a real mystery to me. When I was a child my Peeps usually went stale. My kids gobble them right up.

There's other things I love putting in there, like an old-fashioned swirly lollipop or a cute stuffed bunny, or even an egg of Silly Putty. One year I put shaker-eggs (find them in music stores) in their baskets. One year I found those gorgeous crystallized sugar egg dioramas, but I haven't sourced them since. I had one when I was a kid and couldn't take my eyes off it.

Critical reading to balance your sugar consumption: Is Sugar Toxic from the April 13, 2011, New York Times Magazine.

Critical reading to increase your Peep knowledge: How Peeps are Made

Peeps photo courtesy Big Sis Lil Sis.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Regarding The Joy of Not Cooking

This piece, from The Atlantic, attempts to answer the excellent question of why so many non-cooks posses such well-equipped kitchens. Three paragraphs really stand out. The first is because of these stats: the 1920s, the average woman spent about 30 hours a week preparing food and cleaning up. By the 1950s, when she was raising her family, that number had fallen to about 20 hours a week. Now, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, women average just 5.5 hours—and those who are employed, like me, spend less than 4.4 hours a week. And that’s not because men are picking up the slack; they log a paltry 15 minutes a day doing kitchen work.

The second is because of the nod to South Park:

Jack Schwefel, the CEO of Sur La Table, talks about “the romance” of the high-end kitchen gadgets he sells. Take something like a Margaritaville Frozen Concoction Maker, which has “550 watts of shaving and blending power” and four preset frozen-drink settings and, according to Sur La Table’s Web site, was featured in the March 25, 2009, episode of South Park. (Stan tries to return it to the company but can’t because it’s on a payment plan and he can’t find out who owns the debt.) It retails for $349.95.

The third is where that author answers her question:

If you see cooking as an often boring part of your daily work, you’ll buy the pots you need to finish the job, and then stop. But if it’s part of a voyage of personal “rediscovery,” you’ll never stop finding new side trips to take—and everyone who’s been on a nice vacation knows the guilty pleasure of spending a little more than you should.

All I'd add is that while an enjoyable hobby or passion will always command a tidy portion of your disposable income, that explanation doesn't cover the trend in home building/kitchen design that calls for a six-burner plus griddle dual fuel range in every kitchen regardless of the residents' inclination to cook. This trend can only be attributed to keeping up with the Jones, or good old fashioned bigger is better consumerism.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pinched Chicken Parmigiana

It is nearly impossible to order Chicken Parmigiana in a restaurant and not end up with a fried, cheese-covered nightmare. The name, which translates "from Parma" belies the dish's Southern Italian roots. Northern regions cook with more butter, cream and cheese than their southern countrymen, who favor tomatoes over dairy.

Anyway, last night I was armed with  a package of chicken breasts and an overwhelming desire to eat something I hadn't had in awhile. I don't think I've ever made it for my kids. Chicken Parmigiana is impossible not to love, especially when done this lighter way. Round it out with Steamed Artichokes and a nice big salad and everyone at your table will be very happy.

Chicken Parmigiana
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

Essential Tomato Sauce
2 T chopped fresh basil
four skinless, boneless chicken breasts, pounded thin
1 egg, beaten
heaping 1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 T chopped fresh parsley
1-2 T canola oil
salt and pepper
1/3 cup mozzarella

Preheat oven to 375

Prepare tomato sauce. Add 2 T chopped fresh basil (add it right after you add the pureed tomatoes to the pot).

Place chicken breasts on a sheet pan, cover with a piece of parchment or waxed paper and pound until thin.

Add 1 T canola oil to a cast iron skillet (or whatever you've got) and set over medium high heat.

Combine breadcrumbs, Parm, parsley, salt and pepper.

Set out a roasting dish and ladle some tomato sauce

Coat the chicken in the beaten egg, then dip into the breadcrumbs. Pan fry in the skillet until browned on both sides. Transfer to the roasting dish.

When all the breasts are browned, ladle a bit more tomato sauce on each one, then top with mozzarella.

Bake uncovered for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese is thoroughly melted and a bit browned.

Serve with extra sauce.

* Photo courtesy Divinia Pe

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