Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Yes, Virginia, There is a Way to Make Kettle Corn Without Burning the Sugar

I don't want to spoil any surprises, so I can't reveal much about what's coming out of the Pinch kitchen this holiday season. I haven't made too many cookies yet - just a batch of apricot Rugelach. I've had a hankering for those Coconut Macaroons and suspect those will get turned out soon. The younger bakers are trying to master Tara's 3D Christmas Tree Cookies and the French classic, Buche du Noel. We made a gorgeous buche several years ago - meringue mushrooms and all - and I don't seem to have captured a photo.

What I can tell you is that we've revamped the kettle corn recipe to make it completely fool proof and way tastier. Making kettle corn is tricky because recipes generally advise you to pop the corn in sugar and sugar likes to burn at high temps. It's difficult to keep the temp high enough to pop all the kernels and low enough to keep the sugar from caramelizing. Several years ago, while standing in line at Garrett's Popcorn, I watched as the popcorn monkey tossed plain popcorn with caramel and tucked the idea away. A few weeks ago I tried out different methods of adding the sugar to already popped corn to come up with the best result. Here it is:

New and Improved Kettle Corn
Print recipe only here

Serves 1 to 4, depending on degree of self-discipline

1/2 cup popcorn kernels
3 T canola oil
1/4 cup sugar
2 T water
1 t salt (or salt to taste)

Set out a serving bowl and oven mitts. Measure sugar and water into a small saucepan. Warm over medium high heat, swirling until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Turn off heat and reserve.

Set a large stainless steel pot - one you have a cover for - over a medium high flame and add the canola oil. After a minute, add the popcorn kernels and cover. Once the popcorn is popping vigorously, lower heat slightly and stay close. As soon as the popcorn has finished popping, lift the cover and quickly pour the sugar syrup over the popcorn. Working quickly, replace the cover and pick up the entire pot, and shake to distribute the syrup, taking care to keep the cover in place. You could also try to stir the sugar syrup in, but I find this method tends to break up the popcorn.

Pour the coated corn into your serving bowl and add salt. Serve and enjoy!

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why Your Pie Crust Shrunk

Thanksgiving is nigh and pie making questions have begun trickling in. I've posted before on pie crusts, focusing on the baking. Most pie crusts are baked twice. The first time, with no filling, is called Blind Baking. There's no special word for the second time. I always blind bake, even if the recipe doesn't direct it, because the crust is flakier and drier. Especially for a pumpkin pie. I just follow the recipe on the back of the Libby's can, substituting half and half for whatever nasty canned dairy product (evaporated milk, prolly) it is they call for instead.

But when your pie crust doesn't come out right, baking is just one thing that went wrong. The questions I get are always related to shrinking, though not many bakers realize it  They just know that they spent a lot of time getting the pie crust to look just right, only to bake it and have its shape morph like a drunk's face.

A few easy steps will prevent this from happening. They're all pretty much equally important. Here they are:

1. Don't overmix the dough. When you mix it (adding the butter and ice water), stop immediately when it begins to come together in the bowl. Chunks of butter chunks should be visible in your rolled pie dough. That mottled appearance promises a flaky crust.

2. Don't overhandle the dough. Heat, generated by your hands, room temperature, and by kneading and handling the dough, is the enemy of many pastry doughs.

3. Use the exact right amount of flour while rolling. This sounds like an impossible order, but don't despair - it takes practice in knowing how much flour to add, and it all depends on the natural humidity in your flour - which can vary greatly - so there's no way for me to tell you how much you will need. The general idea is that too much stickiness will cause you to stretch and pull your dough too much, overworking it, and activating the gluten. On the other hand, too much will dry out the crust and make it tougher and less flaky. Add flour sparingly while rolling, and roll gently. And don't forget to rotate your crust while rolling, flipping it over to ensure it's not sticking to the counter.

4. Once you have a nice big round of pie dough rolled out, let it sit on the counter for 5-10 min before you transfer it to the pie tin. This step allows the gluten to relax before you force it into the pie tin.

5. Lower the dough into the pie tin and firmly press the dough into corners and side edges of pie tin. You don't want to press so firmly that you leave big dents, but enough to encourage the dough to stay put. I like fluted tart shells for this reason - you just press the dough into the fluted sides and it stays put.

6. Chill, baby, chill! You MUSTMUSTMUST chill the lined pie shell for at least an hour before baking. !MUST! Chilling helps for a few reasons: it resolidifies the butter, ensuring a flaky crust, and it allows the gluten to relax. If I run out of room in the fridge, I just use the freezer. No real difference there.

7. The Weight. If you follow 1-6 but not #7 your crust will probably still shrink a little. Why? Heat from the oven will naturally relax the gluten even more. There are two ways to combat this: one by using pie weights, the other with just tin foil. For the pie weight method you will need some parchment paper and something to fill it with - I use rice, dry beans, and have heard of people using pennies, or the ceramic pie weights they sell in specialty shops. Just make sure that your parchment will be able to lift whatever you fill it with (you don't want to end up with dry rice or pennies in your pie crust if the parchment breaks during removal). Bake for about 20-25 minutes at 350, then remove the pie weights, prick the bottom all over with a form, and bake the crust for another 10 minutes. It's done when you see a smidgen of color, and no raw looking parts.

My preferred method these days is referenced here and involves simply spraying the shiny side of a large piece of tin foil with baking spray and pressing it very firmly to the pie crust and wrapping it up and over the sides of the pie tin. Bake for 20-25 minutes and you should be good to go. This method cuts baking time down a bit since there's less interference between the crust and the heat.

There it is. It's likely not going to be my final words on the subject, but maybe a few more pies will be camera ready this Thanksgiving. Good luck!

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Friday, November 15, 2013

My Thai Roast Chicken and Some Restaurant Recommendations

First things first: a shout out to a few new-to-me restaurants. The first is in spit-wad distance of the Pinch kitchen: Rickshaw Republic. It's a BYOB joint serving up Indonesian street food. I loved the Jakarta plate - an abundant compilation of roast chicken and sides, including something called Spicy Egg - basically a hard boiled egg that was then (fried? dredged?) in a sweet chili sauce. I'm looking forward to trying the Ikan Balado, a tilapia dish that sounds divine. Rickshaw's coconut rice is an important upgrade to your dinner.

The second is Slurping Turtle in River North. Chef Takashi won the James Beard award for Best Chef/Midwest in 2003 and opened his eponymous restaurant late in 2007. The restaurant Takashi, located in Bucktown, is a fine dining dinner spot, where as Slurping Turtle is a great lunch spot. The latter features bento boxes (a multi course meal served all at one in a compartmentalized lacquer box). I'm itching to go back for the housemade ramen. Takashi's food is wonderful.

The third is Big Jones in Andersonville. Wow. I was there this week, had the Gumbo (full name: Gumbo Ya-Ya - how can you not have fun eating that?!?) and tried the corn muffin, and am totally going back for the Boarding House lunch sometime soon. Either that or the Shrimp Po'boy. And the Pickle Tasting. Seriously. I can't wait to go back. The cocktail menu looked pretty much awesome, too.

Tonight we're having something I first tried a couple of months ago when my friend Caroline tipped me off to a recipe from Food & Wine - Uncle Boon's Thai Roast Chicken and sung it's praises. I don't do much in the way of whole chickens, so I tinkered with the recipe just slightly and used split chicken breasts. You can source whole coriander seeds at The Spice House or in most good grocery stores.

Here's that recipe:

Thai Roast Chicken Breasts
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

4 split chicken breasts, with ribs
1 T coriander seeds
1 T black peppercorns
8 cups water
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/3 cup turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup light coconut milk
2 limes, peeled (use a vegetable peeler to carefully remove just the green peel)

Measure coriander and peppercorns into a 3 quart saucepan. Toast for 1 minute over medium flame. Remove from heat and let cool.

Add 4 cups of the water, sugar, salt, garlic, fish sauce and zest/peel from one lime and bring to a simmer. Cook until sugar and salt are dissolved. Allow to cool.  Transfer to a large baking dish and add another 4 cups of water. Let cool to room temperature.

Remove the skin from the chicken breasts and set them into the brine, tuning to coat and poking them all over with a skewer or fork to allow the brine to penetrate. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.

Preheat oven to 400.

Remove chicken from brine and set on a baking sheet covered with paper towels. Pat dry.

In a blender, combine the coconut milk and remaining lime peel. Pour over chicken breasts, turning to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast, uncovered, for about 30 minutes or until they reach an internal temperature of 165.

Serve with Coconut Rice (recipe follows)

Pinched Indonesian Coconut-Scented Rice
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

1 cup basmati or jasmine rice
1/3 cup light coconut milk
1 cup water
1 t salt
5 whole black peppercorns
3 cardamom pods
3 slices ginger
Pinch salt

Place everything in a small covered saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to lowest setting, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and remove from heat until ready to serve, keeping covered. Taste for seasoning.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Scrumptious Homemade Caramel Apples

I am a big fan of caramel. As a kid I had a love-hate relationship with Wrapples, the discs of caramel that are meant to be wrapped around your apple. They're really hard to get right, and the caramel is not even all that good. I loved the idea but hated how it was impossible to produce a gorgeous caramel apple with them.

Many of you have made caramel apples with those Kraft caramels. My memory of those is the labor involved in unwrapping all those little squares. And Kraft caramel is not the tastiest - nothing like a Werther's or a Sugar Daddy. Mmmm. Sugar Daddies have sweetened many a road trip. They last for miles!

This year I decided to do things the right way and I made a potful of glossy caramel for my daughter's halloween party. Well, I made it twice to get it exactly right, but it was really pretty easy. Honestly, the hardest part was the sticks. I used wooden dowels leftover from my wedding cake making days (dowels support the layers). I cut them down to size and sharpened them. You need something longer and sturdier than your average popsicle stick. Maybe a craft store sells something suitable. Anyhoo, here's that recipe:

Caramel Apples
Print recipe only here

10 Granny Smith apples
1 cup butter
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
14 ounces (1 can) sweetened condensed milk
2 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
decorative toppings

Insert wooden sticks through the tops of the apples so that the stick is about 3/4 the way in the apple. Set on a parchment lined baking sheet.

Combine the butter, sugar, corn syrup and condensed milk in sauce pan over medium high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for about 25 minutes
*. Keep close by after about 20 minutes so that it doesn't start to burn. When the caramel looks dark and thick, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Allow to cool slightly. (You can also do this part in advance and pick up the dipping later in the day. When you resume for dipping, just gently reheat the caramel, adding a tablespoon of water at a time if it's too thick.)

Dip the apples into the caramel at an angle, rotating them to coat the entire apple. Lift the apple to let the caramel drip off of the bottom, scraping excess off the bottom of the apple back into the pot.

Line the apples up on a greased wax paper. If desired, decorate the apples with sprinkles, nuts, or other toppings before they dry completely. If you want to put them in candy bags you will need to let them sit and air dry for about 30-45 minutes.

* UPDATE: If you have a candy thermometer, use it and let the caramel cool until it reaches 235 or so, then remove from heat.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Salsa You'll Want to Put on Everything

There's a simple reason why it's taken me so long to photograph my new favorite salsa: it's too delicious. It's gone before I can set up a good photo. It's a quick recipe, so it gets made while prepping dinner. By the time it's done, it hits the table. Any leftovers are often gobbled up first the the next morning atop someone's potatoes, eggs, or in a breakfast burrito. Besides, even if I were to try to get the shot before we sat down to eat, the light is all wrong. Unlike yours truly, food photographs best in the light of day.

Anyway, this recipe comes from Rick Bayless's awesome cookbook, Mexican Everyday. I had been turning out batch after grubbin' batch throughout the summer. Even though tomato season has passed, this salsa remains doable. Just take care to select some good, red, vine-ripened tomatoes, as I did this week. I allowed them to ripen a few more days on my counter, and made salsa when the tomatoes had that glorious garden-fresh tomato scent on their skins.

Last night we had Mahi Mahi Fish Tacos. Fresh salsa is an absolute must with Fish Tacos. I grilled the Mahi (which I just basted with a wee bit of canola oil, fresh lime juice, salt and pepper before grilling, and an extra shot of lime juice as a board dressing while it rested post-grilling) alongside some late season corn on the cob from Whole Foods, turning the latter into a quick Roasted Corn Salsa. Tonight's dinner will be a tough act to follow.

Here's both recipes:

Fresh Tomato Salsa
Print recipe only here

1 jalapeño, seeded and roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium ripe tomatoes, quartered and cored
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1 lime, halved
2 green onions, finely sliced
Salt and fresh pepper

In Cuisinart, process or pulse jalapeño until finely chopped, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add garlic and process or pulse. Add tomatoes and cilantro and pulse until tomatoes are roughly chopped. Transfer to a small bowl.

Add sliced green onions. Squeeze juice from one half of the lime. Taste for seasoning to determine if you need the other half of the lime. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Roasted Corn Salsa
Print recipe only here

2-3 ears fresh corn
1/2 jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1/2 lime
2-3 T chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper

Preheat grill or broiler. Shuck the corn and remove all the silk. Brush with canola oil. Grill for about 5-7 minutes, rotating halfway thru, or until the corn is browned. Remove from the grill and allow to cool to room temperature.

Prep the remaining ingredients and combine in a small bowl. When the corn has cooled, cut it from the cob and add to the bowl. Add the lime juice and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

It's Baaack: The best seasonal addition to your morning coffee

Reprinted from the Pinch archives

Many a coffee purist would shudder the thought of adding eggnog to coffee, but not this one.

I've loved the eggnog latte for years, since my days frequenting Monorail Espresso in the nation's espresso capital. No Portland, not you. Portland doesn't wait for Halloween to dress up as Seattle.

The eggnog latte is probably loaded with as many calories as one of those Dunkin' Donuts muffins I've heard tale of (700 500-plus, if memory serves). I don't want those calories to end up on my tail, so I steer clear of Starbucks this time of year.

But this, this most wonderful lowfat eggnog from the good folks at Horizon, fills the void. The best way to enjoy it is to pour an inch or so into your mug and zap it up in the microwave for 10 seconds or so. Then fill your mug the rest of the way with coffee. Yum. Oh, and don't add sugar - the eggnog is pretty sweet.

2013 Update:  So, where can you buy this wondermous accoutrement? In Chicago, Horizon Eggnog is sold at most Dominick's. I got mine at the one on Fullerton & Sheffield. It seems Whole Foods and Target no longer carry it. I've been frequenting Plum Market this fall, and hope to find it there. I'm hardly ever at Dominick's, and will be even less once Mrs. Greens opens and the Dominick's on Fullerton over by Chuck E Cheese turns into a Albertson's. And I still can't believe the Jekyll and Hyde nightmare that Fox & Obel turned out to be. Wow. I've been in Chicago long enough (a scant eight years) to see some very big changes on the grocery scene.

Eggnog lovers, rejoyce! It's eggnog season!

Happy Halloween.

This post was originally published on October 31, 2008

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

On the Cutting of Lettuce (and a new Caesar salad)

Opinions abound on the cutting of lettuce, both in the prep kitchen and at the dining table.  It's one of those things that people are completely sure about and often wrong. For prep, it's generally acknowledged that tearing, as apposed to cutting, lettuce is less damaging to the structure of leaf. The nerds investigators at Cooks Illustrated tested the phenomena and more or less proved what I always heard growing up: that sliced lettuce will brown on the edges (but not for several days after slicing).

Even so, my standard operating procedure when making Caesar salad is to use a serrated knife to slice Romaine hearts. I don't use one of those "lettuce" knives either - just my favorite Henkels Utility knife. We go thru lettuce quickly so browning isn't an issue. In fact, when I make Caesar I routinely use all the Romaine hearts in the bag, so there's none leftover to go brown anyway.

Then there's the issue concerning the etiquette of cutting salad with a knife at the dining table. The new Emily Post assures readers that it is, in fact, ok to cut your lettuce at the dining table. Apparently, the no-no originated along with carbon-steel knife blades that would become discolored and corrode from the acid in salad dressing. With the routine use of stainless steel and silver, knives are safe from corrosion and diners are cleared for cutting up lettuce. This clearance is acknowledged in such few circles that I can hardly advocate it. I don't want to be blamed when your bossy aunt pulls you aside for a primer on table etiquette when she catches you cutting your salad.
Cutting salad is usually avoidable, anyway. Except in the case of the new Caesar I've been making since this summer. I've been making Kristine's Caesar dressing since she taught it to me ten years ago. This summer I came across a recipe in The Art of Simple Food and decided to shake things up. This new recipe - nearly identical to the original - is a lot like what Mary used to make at Cafe Nola. I've been drizzling it onto long, thin, delicate Romaine hearts, along with croutons and ribbons of Parmesan. Those long, thin Romaine hearts are beautiful on the plate. And they can basically be cut with the side of your fork since the spines are so crunchy. But I'm spreading the word about the acceptability of taking a knife to lettuce at the dining table.

Here's that recipe:

Cafe Caesar for Romaine Hearts
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

2 cloves garlic
2-3 anchovy fillets
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, best quality
Fresh ground pepper

Peel the garlic and and pound in a mortar and pestle, mashing it up. Add the anchovy fillets and continue to mash into a paste.

Measure the lemon juice and vinegar into a small measuring cup. Add the garlic/anchovy mash and whisk with a fork to combine. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Stack individual Romaine leaves on large plates. Drizzle some dressing on top. Using a vegetable peeler, peel long ribbons of Parmesan or Grana Padano off a large block. Serve with croutons, if desired.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

On Death and Lobster

There's a spectrum of emotional response to the how-and-when circumstances of a person's death. At one end, there's sad-but-peaceful acceptance of what many would see as a favorable death - i.e. age 82, while sleeping. At the opposite end of the spectrum is sorrow-induced rage caused by what most would agree as an untimely or unfair death - i.e. age 24, choking on food/brain tumor/auto accident.

We also care about the planned death of the animals we eat (putrid, nasty slaughterhouse at one end, state-of-the-art, clean slaughterhouse at the other?). The Humane Slaughter Act, first signed in 1958 by Dwight Eisenhower, requires requires meatpackers to anesthetize or stun livestock prior to killing, except in the case of kosher slaughter. Animals are meant to be rendered insensible to pain prior to killing so that they won't suffer. Interestingly, the Act doesn't protect poultry, fish, or rabbits, a fact not lost on proponents of animal rights. It doesn't protect lobsters, either, an omission which fuels the debate on the best way to kill them.

People who cook lobster fall into one of two categories: stabbers or boilers. Professional cooks are mostly stabbers, but I think that might speak more to a predisposition for using knives than concern for animal welfare. Stabbers like to say that their way is more humane, taking the position that swiftly stabbing the lobster in the back of the head is faster and more painless than death by boiling water. Most home cooks self-report as boilers.* A rarely-acknowledged third category includes rubes who accidentally kill their lobsters before cooking them. No one I know advocates drowning lobsters as a means of killing them. But then again, up until this summer, I wouldn't have guessed it was possible to drown an animal that LIVES IN THE OCEAN.

Ever since he published the recipe in June 2012, I've been wanting to make Mark Bittman's Singapore Chili Lobster. Since co-council was required for an undertaking of this magnitude, I enlisted help from a friend. The sauce really is the heart of this dish, and the saucier's cooking skills and palate matter tremendously. I can't take any credit for the sauce - Ari took care of that on his own. What I can take credit for is the procurement of four live lobsters, being brave enough to handle them, and being gauche enough to drown them.

What happened is that after allowing the live lobsters some time to frolic on our patio (which they declined to do, either because they knew what was coming and weren't going to give us the satisfaction, or because they were scared of the dog), I thought they looked a little sad and dry. We consulted the internet which said we could make them a seawater bath, and since I had a container of sea salt and a beverage tub, I thought: Groovy! We can make a lobster pool! I made the pool and explained the situation to the lobsters as I set them into it. The lobsters seemed to be enjoying themselves - they become a lot more active in the water than they were on the patio. But after about five-ten minutes, there was no more splashing around. I picked one up to see how he was doing and he was totally limp.

Horrified, I called Dirk's. Now, my husband and I are in disagreement about how often Dirk gets this call. My bet is that he gets it several times a summer. I'm going to call him sometime and ask. Anyway, Dirk said lobsters drown in freshwater, and city water plus sea salt does not equal sea water. [The official answer sounded like this: Something something salty blood osmosis toxic drowning.] Dirk said all that happy moving around they were doing in the lobster pool was actually their death throes. Whoops. He also said to just boil them immediately and they'd be fine, and they were. Whew!

I still feel so badly about it mainly because, and I hate that I'm saying this, but the lobsters totally knew what was up. That's what I took the time to explain it to them, that the pool was going to be fun. They knew otherwise. Next time I cook lobsters, I'm going to have to stab them, or secure co-council who will.

* This raises the possibility of validity problems in my survey, as respondents may have lied or exaggerated about their behavior in order to appear more humane, or under-report the severity or frequency of lobster-killing behavior in order to minimize their problems. In short, the author acknowledges the possibility that respondents claiming to be boilers may actually be stabbers.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A New Lamb Curry

We had an unseasonably cool summer in Chicago. And so it was that I did a lot more indoor cooking than usual. That I ate more and exercised less is something I'll have to deal with soon enough. But I've got no complaints. The summer of 2013 was, in sum, pretty much awesome. I saw some great concerts, had some fabulous meals, got a VitaMix blender (!), killed my first lobsters (more on that soon), and developed some new favorite meals.

This Burmese Lamb Curry will be with us forever - it's that good. Its origins are with David Lebovitz - he published a recipe for beef curry this spring. The idea to make it was still in my head one day at the market when I saw some gorgeous lamb stew meat. The flavors translated well to the lamb and my recipe is barely different than the original beef version.

Fresh ginger is something I'm always grateful to have on hand. Having a well-stocked pantry is likely a relic of my years in the mountains. My children were small and we lived nearly 2,000 vertical feet, several hairpin turns, and about six miles from the town grocery store. I avoided popping into town just to pick up one or two things at the market. We had a co-op from which I purchased cases of juice, whole peeled tomatoes, sprouted grain pizza crusts (Hey! I miss those!), and assorted sundries. The Walmart (3,000 vertical feet and 65 miles from the Town of Telluride) supplied nearly everything else. And we had Rose's Market, aka Clark's, for anything you might require - plus really wonderful trout from Mark at the fish and meat counter - between trips to Montrose.

Back to ginger. It's versatile and keeps for, like, ever, in the bin in the fridge. I like to buy cactus-shaped pieces, breaking off a nub as needed and just tossing the rest back in the bin. I don't even wrap it - I think it's happier left as is. I use ginger in pad thai, curries, salad dressings, kung pao, marinades, Asian lettuce wraps, and gyoza. It's an easy ingredient to add to your cooking routine - especially if you're in a bit of a rut and need to add some new flavors to your cooking.

You can source lamb stew meat at any butcher (essentially cubed boneless leg of lamb which is super lean), or substitute beef stew like the Lebovitz recipe stipulates. Here's my recipe:

Burmese Lamb Curry
Print recipe only here

Serves 2

1 pound stewing meat (beef or lamb), cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 T garlic, finely chopped or pressed
2 T canola oil
2 1/2 cups water
1 T fish sauce
2 T fried shallots (see below)
8 small shallots, peeled and left whole
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder

Mix the beef pieces in a bowl with the salt and turmeric, massaging the salt into the meat. Chill for an hour.

Mash the ginger and garlic together in a mortar and pestle, if you have one, otherwise just chop up as finely as you can. Heat the oil in a large open saute pan or wok over medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger and saute for a few minutes, stirring, until soft and fragrant.

Turn the heat up to high and add the lamb or beef and cook, stirring occasionally until browned. Add the whole shallots, water, and fish sauce. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 1 hour. If the water evaporates during the cooking, just add a bit more.

Stir in the fried shallots and chili powder. Cook another 10 minutes or so. Taste for seasoning and serve.

* To make deep-fried shallots, heat some oil and add a generous handful of finely sliced (peeled) shallots – about 1/2 cup, cooking them in a few inches of hot oil until deep golden-brown, then scoop them out and let them cool on a rack or paper towel until crisp. They can be stored in a jar for a few days if you want to do them in advance.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

A New Summer Salad

This fab summer side salad is destined to be on my summer playlist forever. I had at a friend's home in Lake Geneva, WI. I've been looking for some couscous recipes and was delighted to find a summery one. I made mine over the weekend (and enjoyed some today for lunch) with just mint, but next time I'll try a combo of fresh dill and mint. The garbanzos and feta give it some heft as a lunch.

I'd be remiss if I didn't tout the reduced fat feta from Trader Joe's. It's more than does the cheese trick on all sorts of things: atop lamb burgers, in a Greek salad, and here as well. Athenos does a good reduced fat feta, but it's like twice the price. We consume very little cheese and I often throw away about half a brick of feta, so I appreciate the lower price point on the TJ variety.

Anyway, here's that recipe:

Couscous Summer Salad
Print recipe only here

Serves 6-8 as a side dish

1 cup dry couscous, cooked according to
1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped
1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
1 can chick peas, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup fresh herbs - parsley, dill, mint, basil in any combination
1/2 Cup crumbled Feta cheese (or more)

2-3 T good Olive Oil
2 - 3 limes, juiced
Salt and pepper to taste

Follow the directions on the package for cooking the couscous. Allow to cool to room temperature while prepping the veg. Add all other fresh ingredients once the couscous has cooled. Toss with the dressing and serve. Keeps well for a few days.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Summer lovin: Board Dressings

Board dressings are a newer fascination. The first one I did was with a Brined Pork Loin, something that I make in the fall and winter. Subsequent efforts at board dressings have been even more satisfying, perhaps because of the season, because not much tops grilling and dining out of doors.

Board dressing does absolute wonders for a piece of meat that you didn't have enough time to marinate. Like last night. I had this gorgeous Bison top sirloin filet. I had intended to dry rub the steak, grill it, and serve it with a chunky avocado salsa, a meal served to me many years ago by the generous and talented Lucas (click here for my riff on his dish). But, the avocados at the market yesterday were unripe. Plan B was a necessity.

Bison can be tricky on the grill. It's lean, but can be tough. It needs enough time on the fire to soften but not so much that it seizes back up. I made a quick marinade of soy sauce, Worcestershire, garlic, salt and pepper, and let the steak come to room temp while soaking up the sodium. But I only had about 30 minutes for this, which is why the marinade was so sodium rich. With more time I would have made a red wine-soy-garlic marinade, a/k/a/ Guamba (with credit to Dave B). Guamba, it should be noted, is more than a recipe, more than a noun. It's not so much spoken as it is proclaimed. It's a call to the table (campfire, really), a conjuring of the appetite, a summoning of all that is good: wine, friends, a blazing fire, and steak. I don't always eat steak around a campfire (pity!), but when I do I prefer Guamba.

Anyhoo...I've been staring at this luscious bouquet of mint lately (if you grow mint, you know it proliferates like rabbits and that it can only be kept in check by producing a fount of mojitos) and working it into various dishes. I had a idea for a mint and lemon board dressing for my steak that would brighten up the marinade. It was wonderful. I grilled the steak to medium and made the board dressing right on the platter. When the steak was done, I transferred it to the platter, turning it over a few times to coat it in the dressing. Steak always needs to rest for about 15 minutes off the grill, and in that time, the juices flow into the board dressing, creating a puddle of love. I had a baguette on hand for dipping, and made a big salad, and we dined al fresco in total bliss.

Here's a few recipes for creating your own board dressings. The first one is what I did for the bison. The other two are ideas for another meal. Experiment as you're lead - the critical ingredients are extra virgin olive oil, some fresh herbs and a smidge of fresh garlic. The citrus zest/juice and chili flakes are optional, but highly recommended.

Board Dressing 1
2-3 T fresh mint
pinch chili flakes
Pinch kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped
1/2 lemon, zested
1/2 lemon, squeezed
1-2 T extra virgin olive oil

Board Dressing 2
3 T cilantro, finely chopped
2 T fresh oregano, finely chopped
1/2 lime, zested
1-2 T extra virgin olive oil
Pinch chili flakes
Pinch kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper

Board Dressing 3 
2 T chopped rosemary
1-2 T extra virgin olive oil
Pinch kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On Blackened fish, Kid Rock, and Summer Plans

I'm embarrassed to admit that I first heard about Walleye from Kid Rock in that All Summer Long song that took to the airwaves a few summers ago. Walleye is native to the Midwest, unlike yours truly, and is frequently served panfried. I saw it yesterday at Whole Foods and it looked lovely, so I brought it home and mixed together a quick blackened spice rub (see below), grilled some veggies on the side (just peppers and onions), and made a quick salad from the abundance of greens in my CSA sack.

This is a good time to promote the Chicago Lights Urban Farm, the good folks behind my summer salad share. I'm really pleased with the produce, and the farm itself is a little oasis in the city. This week, my share included Nero radishes, which are big, black, beautiful - and spicy! Whoa baby. If I were French, I'd slather a baguette with unsalted Plugra and top it with Nero slices. Chef Dominique Tougne was serving radish and butter aperitifs at Chez Moi last summer and they were delightful. Click here for Saveur's directions for making your own.

Back to the Walleye...I enjoy panfried fish, though prefer to do the panfrying myself. The last time I ate Walleye was at a restaurant around New Buffalo, MI, the panfrying was too aggressive. To create a good blackened seasoning, I consulted James Peterson's Fish and Shellfish cookbook and ended up following his recipe. Here it is:

JP's Blackened Seasoning
1 T dried thyme
1 T dried oregano
2 t salt
1 1/2 t cayenne
Several turns fresh ground white pepper

To cook the fish, I set my cast iron pan over a medium high flame to heat. Then I mixed the spice rub on a long platter, rubbing it all together and smashing up the dried spices with my fingers. Next I transferred the Walleye (the fishmonger removed the skin for me) to the platter, dousing one side with olive oil and turning to coat both sides of the fish with olive oil and the dry rub. Then I cut the fish into serving size pieces (I made them small-ish, so each person would have 2-3 pieces, but cut as you wish). With the pan now nice and hot, I added a tablespoon or less of canola oil, and tipped the pan around to coat the bottom evenly. I added the fish and cooked it for about 4 minutes on one side and about 2-3 min on the other side. To determine if its done, test one piece to see if it flakes - just cut off a corner and peek. Serve immediately.

What else am I up to this summer? Well, I'm going to pick up where I left off with my winter Algebra class thru Coursera (or retake the course entirely, as might be required). I'm also brushing up on my French via Duolingo. The latter allows for fierce inter-family competition, the likes of which we've not seen since Super Mario came to the Wii. I'm also looking forward to some serious cooking. Here's a taste of what will be coming out of my kitchen this summer:

Sriracha-glazed chicken skewers (already had these and they were fabulous)
Singapore chili lobster (this is going to be an adventure)
- This Ciopinno;
- Slate-griddled Porterhouse steaks with Roquefort;
- Miche, my lastest favorite bread. Get yours at La Fournette which produced a Blackhawks Miche, pictured here, upside-down;
- Breakfast Crepes with Peaches, Cinnamon Sugar, and Raspberry Jam;
- Half sour pickles (one of my favorite pickles!)

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Thai Basil Chicken (Gai Pad Krapow)

Oh, this was really good. I think you'll like it a lot. I served it up with rice and called it a day. The recipe is adapted from a site I just love, Rasa Malaysia, which is featured on the ENJOYING sidebar on the right. Her recipes are reliable and I'm always happy with the result. If you haven't dabbled in Asian cuisine in your kitchen but are open to giving it a try, I highly recommend letting her be your guide. Here's that recipe:

Thai Basil Chicken (Gai Pad Krapow)
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

1 T canola oil
4-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into thin strips
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 T fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 big bunch of basil leaves, cut into very thin strips* (I used regular basil since I had it, but source Thai basil if you can)
6 bird’s eye chilies, chopped and pounded with a mortar and pestle) OR 1-2 fresh jalapeno cut into thin strips
2-3 turns fresh ground white pepper

Heat wok or large skillet over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Add oil, then chopped garlic and shallots. Stir fry the garlic and shallots until aromatic, for a minute or so, then add the chicken. When the chicken is cooked, toss in the chilies and the seasonings (fish sauce, sugar, and sweet soy sauce) and continue to stir-fry. Add in the basil leaves and do a few quick stirs until the basil leaves are wilted and fragrant. Add the pepper, taste for seasoning, and serve.

* to cut basil into thin strips, a/k/a chiffonade, stack 5-6 leaves on top of one another, roll into a cylinder and then use a sharp knife to make thin slices thru the cylinder. Repeat until you have about 1/3 cup of basil chiffonade.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Yes, Virginia, Copper River Salmon is All That

Alright, the marketing plan can take some credit. But the Copper River Salmon*, which makes its debut this time of year is fantastic. We had it tonight (from Whole Foods for $24.99/lb) along with roasted cauliflower, early season corn on the cob, Baby Romaine dressed with Champagne vinaigrette and  Tortone, a new loaf from Little Goat that was said to contain garlic and mashed potatoes, tho the garlic was MIA. The crust was crunchier and the crumb was gummier than I expected. It didn't disappoint, per se, but it didn't appoint either. It was, essentially, a forgettable loaf.

If an elephant eats a Tortone in the woods and considers it the most forgettable loaf of bread he's ever eaten but then a tree falls on his head and he experiences post-traumatic amnesia, does it mean he forgot about the Tortone or that he was physically incapable of accessing its memory? Or did the Tortone even exist in the first place?

But back to the salmon. I grilled it**, with just a pinch of my beloved Mendocino Seasoning Sand. I'm not too hawkish around the grill. Dinnertime demands multitasking (which I now understand to mean doing lots of things, poorly), and tonight was no exception. While the salmon grilled I was prepping some pastries for an event tomorrow, giving a lecture on the lesson behind a homework assignment, and brokering a laptop-sharing agreement between two hostile parties. The muffins came out well, nothing else. Anyway, you do want to be hawkish at the grill when Copper River is cooking because 1) it's bloody expensive and you don't want to ruin it, and 2) what makes Copper River Salmon so darned tasty is the fat. Omega 3s will light up your grill and torch your fish. My grill was alight when I checked on it, but the fish was fine. I flipped it and moved it to a cooler part of the grill and left the hood up so I could keep an eye on things.

* If you don't know what Copper River Salmon is, the short story is that it's wild salmon from a super cold river in Alaska. Is it better then other wild salmon from cold rivers in Alaska? I couldn't say.  Want a longer story? Check out:
The Copper River salmon craze: How the race began - The LA Times Fresh Copper River salmon lands in Seattle -

** Grilling method for salmon: I always grill salmon with the skin on a preheated grill for ten minutes, then grilled skin side up for about 5-6 minutes with grill lid down, then skin down for about 2-3 minutes (in this case with grill lid up, though usually I close it). I like the flesh to have an hombre interior - a little darker in the center. If you must, flake off a corner to observe the interior to determine doneness. Build your poke-test skills by gently pressing on the cooked surface. Proteins will firm up as they cook - the firmer they are the more well-done. Serve on a platter, family style.

Happy Copper River Salmon Season!

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

On Bread and Bagged Lunch

I have two new favorite sandwich breads: La Brea Take and Bake Ciabatta Rolls, and the Ancient Grains loaf at Whole Foods, pictured here.

The former was a lucky, but informed, guess. I met Nancy Silverton (of La Brea Bakery) once when she was visiting my boss's restaurant. They worked together years earlier. I was young and awestruck enough to convince myself of a personal connection to Nancy: Melinda and Nancy worked together. I work with Melinda. Ergo, I've worked with Nancy. If it weren't a complete lie it'd be a brilliant way to pad one's resume.

Anyhoo, I stumbled on the rolls at Treasure Island and thought they might work for the Caprese sandwiches my kids like so much. Now, I probably fall in the middle about obsessing over what goes in their neoprene lunchbags. I've got friends who make mid-day trips to school with their kids lunches so that the children will have a freshly prepared lunch. I've got friends (more fall into this category) who make their kids' lunches the night before. I'm capable of neither. Sometime in the window between my morning Americano kicking in and Crap!-It's-Time-to-Go-Or-You'll-Be-Marked-Tardy (on a good morning this is about 20 minutes, but it's usually more like 10-15), I consider what they had yesterday, what they are apt to eat that day (and not give away or toss), and a balance of treats:protein:whole foods.

The caprese sandwich is one they really like, but it's got to be made on baguette or ciabatta, and both are often less than great on Day 2 (Day 1 being the day before, when I bought the bread).  Enter the take and bake bread idea. Since Nancy does wonderful bread, I decided to give her's a go, and I give to two thumbs up. The take and bake baguettes are great, too. And both the baguettes and the rolls freeze well, meaning you can stock up a bit and bake them as directed right from the freezer. I recommend them for anyone who likes fresh bread in their lunch but who has to buy it in advance.

On to the Ancient Grains loaf. I am not a fan of the WF bakery. But this particular loaf has a really great flavor. I would use it as a substitute for our house sandwich bread: Trader Joe's sprouted grain. It would make great French Toast, too. I wouldn't buy it to serve at dinner - it's not crusty or glorious enough.

Caprese Sandwich
Print recipe only here

Makes two sandwiches

Two ciabatta rolls, or equivalent portion of baguette
1 ball fresh mozzarella
Fresh basil - amount varies but I use lots: from 4-8 leaves
1-2 T Extra virgen olive oil
3-4 t Balsamic vinegar (I like Colavita)
1 Roma tomato, sliced (the firmness of the Roma works well in a sandwich that will be eaten later in the day)
Pinch salt

Slice open ciabbatta or baguette. Pour the olive oil and balsamic into a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, or a spoon, brush over the both surfaces of the bread. Cover base of sandwich with basil leaves.

Slice the Roma and the mozzarella and sprinkle with salt, then divide between the sandwiches. Top with additional basil, if desired. My kids like extra basil because it prevents the bread from getting soggy.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Spring Sandwich to Bust Out of Winter

The season of perfect winter citrus has ended.  We will miss the Ruby Reds. And that's about it. Spring is seriously the best thing since bread. Winter was on extended play this year, rocking electric snowstorms, psychedelic rain, and damp cold. In Grateful Dead parlance, it was an epic long Dark Star that has, at long last, segued into Bird Song.

I climbed out of a menu rut last night with a Grilled Mustard Chicken sandwich, inspired by this one from Martha.  Mine omits the cheddar and the pickles. Add them if you like. I basted the bread with olive oil before grilling and would serve it next time with frisee or arugula, tossed first in a smidge of lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. I might also include an extra sauce for the sandwich. The natives thought the wondermous new sandwich a bit dry, tho I did not concur. Anyway, the sauce from this recipe for a Smoked Chicken Sandwich, would work well. Here's that recipe...

Grilled Mustard Chicken Sandwich
Print recipe only here

1/4 cup whole-grain mustard (I used Grey Poupon Country Dijon)
3 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves, pressed
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced lengthiwise into 2-3 strips
1 large red onion, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
1 baguette

Combine mustard, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Add chicken and onion, and toss to coat. Let sit 30 min.

Preheat grill to medium-high. Grill onion and chicken for 3-4 minutes; flip over and cook another 3 minutes or so or until cooked thru.

Cut baguette lengthwise and brush with olive oil. Grill until just browned, 1 to 2 minutes.

Slice the chicken and serve piled high on baguette.

Happy spring!

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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Raise This Glass!

Pinch turns 5 tomorrow!

[Release confetti and streamers]

I've learned a lot in 5 years. I learned HTML so that I could customize my page layout and formatting. I've learned about what friends-of-Pinch like to cook, eat, and drink. I've learned to keep fresh ginger, limes, and jalapeños stocked in my fridge; not to give up on anything that hasn't yet born fruit (I'm talking about my lemon tree, which was at death's door in October but has since flowered and has a few teeny-tiny lemons growing on it); and that "the money shot" doesn't mean what I thought it meant (it means something entirely different from "a very good photo").

I've learned several new recipes from a few talented and generous cooks. Here's a quick favorite five:

1. Chicken Vesuvio: Best weeknight family meal;
2. Ragu Bolognese: Best weeknight family meal when you have an spare hour in the morning to prep for dinner;
3. Classic Chicken Curry: Best weeknight family meal when you've got enough time to also make fresh Naan OR if you only have time to serve with steamed rice. Also: honorable mention for being AWESOME left over the next day;
4. Cilantro-Ginger Steak Salad: Honorable mention for being a surprisingly scrumptious dinner;
5. Poblano Beef: Best weeknight family meal when you've got poblanos and lean sirloin steak in the fridge.

To celebrate Pinch's birthday I had some mugs made: the etched glass one pictured above. I can't tell you how many of you have confessed your fondess for glass mugs over the years! To win a Pinch mug, please send me your most Pinch-worthy recipe. The winning recipe will be healthy, family friendly, delicious, and it should be new to me. If it's not a real recipe, just something you make by heart, that's fine, just describe it for me. The winning recipe will be posted on Pinch and added to the Recipes page and the author will receive a Pinch mug and a package of Pinch granola (made with nuts in a nuthouse). 

Email your submissions to Pinchfood[at]gmail[dot]com by 11:59PM Pacific tomorrow, March 1 and I'll announce the winner on March 2.  Good luck!

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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Thing I'd Be Most Embarrassed to Serve You

I've been making these silly things once or twice a year for like 10 years. It's basically a food-based rice crispy treat, made with peanut butter (the food part), sugar (the treat part) and a combination of crispy rice and corn flakes (the crispy part). Essentially, it's like making your own chewy cereal bar, with enough peanut butter to hold you over until your next meal. I'm sort of surprised we haven't outgrown them.

Quick sidebar:  sometimes when I type C-R-I-S-P-Y there's a typo and it comes out C-R-I-P-S-Y, which sounds  like the sort of like a disease you might hear about on Downton Abbey:

The Cripsy will surely kill him if we don't act soon.

Cripsy? From the look of things, the gentleman has broken his neck and is already dead.

Anyhoo, I don't make these sweet little snacks unless we're going somewhere. I used to make them for our spring thaw camping trips to Moab. We'd go every year for a few days when the ground in Telluride still had a couple of feet of snow and the temps in Moab were a pleasant 70 to 80. Peanut Butter Smackerels are totally pedestrian, but make for an excellent little hold-over snack. Here they are:

Peanut Butter Smackerels
Print recipe only here

Makes 4-5 dozen one-inch square pieces

1/2 cup sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1 1/2 cups unprocessed peanut butter*
2 cups crisp rice cereal
4 cups corn flakes
2 t vanilla
pinch salt

In a medium-large mixing bowl, combine cereals and salt. Crunch and smash with your hands so the flakes are broken down into smaller pieces.

In a a medium saucepan, combine sugar and corn syrup. Stir over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Turn off heat and add peanut butter and vanilla. Stir well to combine. Pour over cereals and stir.

Transfer to the prepared baking pan and press down, using a piece of waxed or parchment paper, to distribute evenly. Refrigerate or let cool at room temperature for an hour or so. Turn out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch wide strips. Cut into one-inch squares. Can be stored in a ziploc bag or covered container at room temperature, or in the fridge, but they're really hard to chew when cold.

* If you use a processed PB (Jif, Skippy, etc) make sure to cut the amount of sugar in half, down to 1/4 cup.

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sanctimonious Paper Products

Whole Foods no longer carries the waxed paper sandwich bags I've been using for the past few years. They switched to the "If You Care" line which doesn't produce a waxed bag. I can't even say the brand name without rolling my eyes. Anyway, the IYC product is a greaseproof paper sandwich bag, not waxed paper. It does the job, but I don't care. I liked the the old waxed paper bags, pictured at the end of the post.

Natural Value waxed bags (the ones I prefer but can no longer source locally) are much lighter weight (used less paper) so you could fold over the top and a few times and the crease - and the sandwich or cookies therein - would stay put. I liked that there were more to a box (60 in the Natural Value box, and 48 in the If You Care). It's important to care about unit price, and it's important to care about paper weight and it's important to care about costs of transport - the one thing giving me pause about ordering a case of the Natural Value bags from Amazon at $2.99 a box.  But if I placed that order I'd have to reconcile the true cost of the shipping box, tape, the fuel needed for the airplane and big, brown truck to deliver  it (while idling, curbside) to my front door. Too many caveats for this emptor! How does one make responsible shopping selections with so many factors to consider?

I learned this some time ago: shopping at Whole Foods doesn't make me particularly environmentally-friendly.  In fact, WF tries to impart the false sense that I'm doing my part just by being there and that is just plain sneaky. The WF produce section is stocked with items sourced around the world. Its carbon footprint dwarfs the Jolly Green Giant's.  A produce-run to my local WF leaves me with fossil-fuels all over my hands (and possibly norovirus, to boot, given my disease-ridden reusable grocery sacks).

[Interlude - with apologies to WS] 

Scene 1 - Pinch kitchen
Lady Pinch is unpacking a Whole Foods grocery bag when the doorbell rings.

Tomatoes and bell peppers from Mexico,
farmed salmon from Norway,  avocados from Chile.
Lo! There's the door. Who goes there?


(shouts, cheerfully)

Opens door.

UPS Guy 
You gotta sign for this.

Hands over a case of waxed paper bags and a Delivery Information Acquisition Device. 

(signs pad, whimpering)

More freight from lands afar!
Here's the smell of the gasoline still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!

UPS Guy 
(muttering, shaking his head)
Get a grip, lady.

(returns the handheld device)
Thanks, Tom!

Slams door, and skips merrily back to the pantry to unpack the case of sandwich bags.

(to the door)
My name is Roger.

Scene ends.

The thing is, I do consider the toxicity of my consumables, but usually cut to the purchase following a fairly cursory review. I can be a horrible consumer. I like my old waxed paper bags. That doesn't make me more-environmentally-friendly-than-thou, just opinionated and overly concerned with the minutiae of lunch-packing.

Click here to view the purchase I'm contemplating.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What's in Your Grocery Bag?

This was sent to me today.

I had heard some rumblings about the unsanitary conditions of most reusable grocery bags. Every so often (yearly?), I slosh a Chlorox wipe haphazardly around the interior of my insulated grocery bag. The rest of my maintenance routine involves (quarterly? biannually?) recycling of the stacks of paper receipts that accumulate in my reusable bags.

Identifying the bacteria present on the inside of my grocery bags sounds like a great science fair experiment, except that it's likely too dangerous, given the risk of illness from contact with coliform bacteria.

How then shall we bring home our groceries? Well, those stretchy cotton net bags would be a better alternative, as would cotton totes, since you can very easily stick them in the wash each week. But what are we trying for? To reduce waste or to appear sufficiently compliant with socially-mandated RRR practices? Personally, I really like recycling paper grocery sacks for gardening waste and as kitchen trash bags. I miss using them for student book covers.

I'm not sure how to keep my bacterial footprint smaller than my carbon one, or which is more beneficial to my fellow man and our shared environment. Until I do, I'm going to have to roll up my sleeves, run a (half-full) tub of bleachy water, and wash my grocery bags. I'm not looking forward to it.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How I'm Going to Drink Winter's Milkshake

I'm not going to let Winter push me around. I'm not going to let Winter know how I don't like walking the dog in Winter. I'm going to laugh in Winter's face when Winter tries to smack me upside the head with it's 2-degree days. I'm going to hot yoga. I'm not going to feel shame tromping around in my puffy coat, tall boots, mittens and ski hat. I might even pull out my fleecy poncho and furry boots!  I'm going to cook really warm foods with lots of sides. Last night it was Tacos with Mexican Rice, Guacamole and Black Beans on the side. Only I forgot to pull out my little bottle of hot sauce from De Cero, which Angela, the owner, gave me when I was there last week. I used to buy bottles of hot sauce every time I ate there - it's great on scrambled eggs.

I'm going to eat soup for lunch and have afternoon tea every day.

I'm going to pass out calorie-packed granola bars to all the homeless and hungry people who are getting pushed around by Mister Ten Below (a/k/a Mister Icicle, Mister White Christmas, Mister Snow, Snow Miser), along with info about the City warming centers.

I'm going to be careful about countdowns to spring because my cross country coach always advised against counting down miles on a long run because it was a negative approach, and because life is too short to count down. Instead, I'm going to make sure that every week I have something really super fun planned, even if it's just a low-key lunch with a friend. This week I'm meeting three dear friends at Little Goat and I couldn't be more excited. I popped in last week, emerging with a gorgeous crusty loaf of country sourdough from the bread bakery and an avowal to return for lunch, and possibly one of the Bloody Marys all the hipsters were drinking. While there, I'm going to see if they'll explain their decision to brew Stumptown Coffee (which heralds from Portland, Oregon) and see if it's because they agree with me that Intelligentsia ain't all that.

I'm going to get sucked back into Downton and the Blackhawks. I'm going to play piano and make some progress on Code Academy, and see Lincoln and Argo (Zero Dark and Silver Linings were great). Before I know it, it's going to be March, and I'll unplug my twinkle lights from the tree outside (I'm totally leaving those up until March 1), and tell Winter not to let the door hit it on its way to the Southern Hemisphere.

In the meanwhile, Winter needs to make itself useful and throw down some snow. These flurries are not cutting it.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hearty Winter Soup: Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli translates to Pasta and Beans. I haven't had this soup in ages. It was a staple when I was a child but owing to the dictates of the bean-averse in my household I hadn't considered making it myself. Until today. There were two contributing factors. One, I had to do something with the Great Northern Beans I bought last spring. I was planning to make confit but it never got off the ground. Two, my sister fed me some seriously yummy white beans when I was in New York in November and I've had a hankering for white beans ever since.

I consulted three cookbooks before settling on a recipe, ultimately choosing Dean & DeLuca as my guides. I've mentioned this cookbook before. It's a fantastic resource. It has a lot of classics but will also inspire you to try something new, though I have no intention of ever trying the recipe that precedes Pasta e Fagioli: Cabbage Soup with Paprika, Kielbasa, and Raisins. Blechk.

The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook is also good for a little recipe backstory. Of Pasta e Fagioli they say,

"Pasta Fazool, with its bizarre Brooklyn pronunciation, sounds like the ultimate Italian-American dish. And it was a staple for years of Little Italy's checkered-tablecloth restaurants - until the 'upscaling' of the eighties did away with such dishes. Today, of course, a new wave of rustic Italian restaurants in the United States is showing Americans that "pasta fazool" was based on something authentic; pasta e fagioli, or a steaming, satisfying soup of beans and pasta."

What the soup reminds me of most is Ribollita, another rustic Italian soup. Ribollita, which means twice-boiled, could also be called Pane e Fagioli, since it's basically a bean soup with stale bread cooked in. I'm making it sound gross but it's really good. If you want to try that recipe, I recommend going with the recipe in Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray's River Cafe Cookbook, which is sadly out of print, but a version of their recipe is accessible here.

My Pasta e Fagioli was fan-tastic. So perfect for a cold, wintry day. But, at 5pm this evening it was noticeably less dark and dreary. We're on the up and up, people. We have many soups days ahead but fortunately those days are starting to get noticeably longer. And here's that recipe:

Pasta e Fagioli
Print recipe only here

Serves 4 as an entree

1/4 pound (about 1 cup) dried beans - Great Northern or Cannelini
1 T olive oil
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Dried herbs: basil, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf
1 quart chicken broth
1 cup water
1 14-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 rind Parmesan (just trim the rind off of whatever size chunk of Parm you have on hand)
1/2 cup dried pasta (2 ounces) - use a small shape like ditali, orzo, elbows, or small shells

Pour olive oil into a soup pot and set over medium heat. Add the celery, onion and garlic and saute gently until softened, about 3-5 minutes.

Add broth, water, tomatoes, herbs, Parmesan rind, and beans and bring to a boil. Simmer gently until beans are cooked and soft, about 1-2 hours.

Remove cheese rind and bay leaf and taste for seasoning, adding salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Add dried pasta to soup. Boil gently until pasta is cooked thru.

Serve, garnished with fresh basil.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

My Low-Fat Greek Fries

We've long been fans of British chips and vinegar. I bake fry-shaped potatoes on smoking hot sheet pans (preheated in a 450-degree oven), then salt them generously once they're blistered and golden. We slosh Heinz malt vinegar all oven them, once served.

And we're big fans of the super yummy potatoes served up at the nearby Athenian Room. They do the thicker-cut steak fry, and if you get the Chicken Pita Plate, the dressing from the salad swoops on over to puddle around the fries making for a taste sensation. Only, sometimes there's not enough dressing so we always ask for extra. You might recall the terrifying event of 2010 when Tina Fey mentioned the Athenian Room on a web clip. Fear set into the neighborhood, prompting some neighbors to take their dinner at 5pm to avoid the hoards. We just avoided the place for about a month, until the excitement died down. And it did - they're back to drawing their regular crowd.

Lamb and Greek Salads are staples in the Pinch kitchen. It dawned on me a couple of months ago that I could totally reproduce a basic dressing and serve up some Greek fries (baked, natch) alongside our lamb burger. Whoa, baby! These things are good. We had them again tonight, which reminded me to write up the recipe Here it is:.

Pinched Greek Fries
Print recipe only here

1-2 Russet potatoes per person, cut in half lengthwise, then cut into 1/2-cm thick wedges
Canola oil
one small garlic clove
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (they're not created equal - I ony use Colavita)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Generous pinch dried oregano

Put 2 sheet pans in the oven and preheat to 450.

Trim potatoes into steak wedges. Toss in a bowl with 1-2 T canola oil.

Divide potatoes between sheet pans, spreading evenly.

Roast for about 25 minutes, turning and shaking the pan halfway thru baking time to ensure they're cooking evenly. Meanwhile, make dressing. Combine oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and oregano in a small measuring cup or serving bowl (I use a small ceramic pitcher). Use a garlic press to press clove into dressing. Stir to combine. Reserve.

Potatoes are done when slightly blistered, golden, and delicious. Toss with salt and serve on a platter with dressing on the side.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

On the Menu This Week

I've been visiting the butcher at Apple Market more frequently these days. I was there yesterday and picked up a gorgeous pork shoulder roast which was beckoning to be included in our weekend plans. Time for a bbq! I will need to grab some Kirby cukes (golly, will I be able to find them this time of year?!?) to make those yummy pickles inspired by Chicago Q and a cabbage for Slaw. Then we just need some Cornbread and Grandpa's Baked Beans.

Our last bbq feast was a few days before Thanksgiving, the day everyone arrived in from out of town. I tried something new - slow roasting the pork in a Dutch oven on a bed of onions in a braise of apple cider. That was based on a recipe I saw on Oprah's site - click here to see it. I like to "brine" pork shoulder in a dry rub overnight before bbq'ing. I use spice blends from the Spice House (Smoke House Seasoning and Milwaukee Iron are my personal faves), sprinkling them liberally all over the roast and then wrapping the roast tightly in plastic wrap. To cook, I set my oven to 175 (you could do this in a slow cooker, as well), slice an onion and line the bottom of a 3 or 4 quart Dutch oven with the slices. Unwrap the roast and place on the bed of onions. Add about 2 cups of cider (or stock) to the pot, then put in the oven for like 6 hours at least. Pull it out when it's falling off the bone.  I love smoking the roast outside on the grill (using Hickory chips), but, let's face it, this is a lot easier.

This is a good time to talk bbq sauce, one of my favorite condiments. My all-time favorite is Noh Hawaiian, and I've picked it up at Apple Market in Chicago, but I didn't see it there the yesterday. I'm also a fan of Sweet Baby Ray's Original, which I thought of as a small-batch Chicago product when we moved here seven years ago, until the day I saw it bundled at Costco. 

Turns out, I knew very little about bbq sauce seven years ago. I thought the only differences were in smokiness or sweetness. I had no idea that bbq sauce existed that wasn't tomato-based. Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, is the only place I know where you can get South Carolina mustard bbq sauce, eastern Carolina's vinegar bbq sauce and the tomato-based condiment I love so much. (If you're still curious about bbq sauce history, geography and origins, read this from Zingerman's founder Ari Weinzweig.)

Ok, off to look for cukes and cabbage!

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bonne Année, Bon Hiver, Bon Appétit!

Whew. 2012 was all about resistance training (a/k/a lifting heavy things). Only a fraction of that activity was based in my neighborhood gym - the rest was all emotional and intellectual. I skidded into the new year on fumes, having exercised every muscle past exhaustion, having stretched every sinew of faith and patience to their max. I spent the week between Christmas and New Years couched, supine, on a diet of ibuprofen to alleviate the literal pain in my neck.

Most of the pain is not even a result of personal circumstance but what I can only describe as heartache over the world as we know it (you know, life, death, illness), especially when people I know are affected, or when kids are involved.  (If you missed it, you might enjoy Maureen Dowd's Christmas column, Why, God?)

Anyway, 2013 finds me focused on rest and restoring the nutrients (pronounced nu-tree-UNTS, in remembrance of an episode in my daughter's first grade classroom too many years ago) needed to rebuild my weary soul.

Faith and patience take the most diligence to restore, but good music (such as the Avett Brothers, whose emotionally declarative hill-billy rock always strikes an uplifting or empathetic chord), the company of friends, and a good night's sleep are all restorative. I usually turn to Jazz in January. It's not the aliteration that drives the genre decision, it's carol-fatigue. I go on a Christmas carol bender each year for which Jazz is an effective hair-of-the-dog cure. Plus, jazz plays well in a room illumined by the bevy of candles I received for Christmas. But I'm not ready for jazz yet. Maybe next month.

Certain foods and beverages do more to rebuild than others. If I were only focused on my biceps/shoulders/triceps/hamstrings I'd be talking about the balance of protein and carbs. In my present case, it's about comfort foods.  I still enjoy my morning Americano, but afternoon tea has been a savior. I've been cooking classic winter foods that emphasize warmth and coziness: Spaghetti and Meatballs, Beef Bourguignon, Pesto Pasta with Haircots Verts, Soupe a l'Oignon. We've been steadily working our way thru a box of Ruby Red Texas grapefruit, a gift from my sister and one of my favorite foods, ever.

Going to the gym helps, too. A solid cardio workout followed by resistance training makes me feel invincible. Running with my insane dog is a good interval workout because of his compulsion to sprint for squirrels. Also, he regularly finds a 5 foot long stick to bring along, firmly gripping one end so that the remaining 4.5 feet travels at his land-speed and at my shin-height, meaning that I get in some plyometrics and laughs, concurrently. Except when I don't see it coming and I get hit. That hurts.

I'll leave you with some lines from the Avett Brother's Salvation Song, playing now on my winter playlist.

We came for salvation
We came for family
We came for all that's good that's how we'll walk away
We came to break the bad
We came to cheer the sad
We came to leave behind the world a better way.

Thank goodness for everyone who adds something better to the world. That alone is a great lot to be thankful for and a great distraction from the people and events that do not.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

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