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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Food Is Love


In a departure from my normal weekly recipe posting, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been rambling inside my head for some time. The idea for the story has been generating for a few years and has lately become overwhelmingly obvious to me, due to recent events. But the overall gist is that I have come to conclude that food—good food, well prepared and with intent—is love. I’m not talking about using food as a substitute for love. I am talking about sharing a part of yourself, and just as importantly your time, to create dishes that fill a need, soothe the soul, and create happiness for the recipients.

One of the first inklings I had on this topic came three years ago, when my mother was in the hospital. Spending long hours there every day, I completely neglected my household duties over the course of 8 weeks. All my focus was on my mother and her recovery. But during that time, Mr. B and Brilliant Daughter trekked to the store every Sunday and did the shopping. And then my daughter would spend the day in my kitchen cooking a week’s worth of meals, packaging them up and storing them in the refrigerator. Wonderful soups, chicken potpies, enchiladas, pasta sauce, quiche Lorraine, and the list goes on.  I could come home to a hot meal, bring tasty, healthy food to share with my mother in the hospital, and I did not have to worry about everyone in my house starving or living on fast food. It was 4 hours of her time each week, but to me it was a relief, a blessing, or as I dubbed it in a subsequent post, “Love in the Refrigerator.”

Since that time, I have spent countless hours in the kitchen, not only making our regular daily meals, but canning, baking, and making homemade sausage and bacon. I also take pride in the large outdoor garden we have: four huge raised beds that replaced the useless lawn. I freely share produce and homemade goodies with just about anyone who visits or anyone I go to visit. I regularly tote jams, pickles and bacon down to LA for my brother (not to mention my really tasty bacon caramels). Butcher Son and Mr. B get packages of cookies to take to work and share on a regular basis. And when our family Sunday dinner rolls around, I usually have a meal or two prepared and packaged, as well as a sweet treat, for the kids to take home and enjoy during the week.

More recently I have found myself with a lot of extra time, business being slow. So I have tried to use it wisely.

A friend, who recently had a baby, invited me down to meet the new little guy and I offered to bring lunch. What new mom (who had a C-section to boot) has time to cook? I whipped up a hearty protein-rich quiche, a fresh salad with lots of veggies, and made a loaf of homemade focaccia. Then I made three different kinds of cookies, one of which I fashioned into little butterflies, hearts and flowers for her 2-year old daughter. I even juiced some of our prized Meyer lemons, picked some fresh strawberries and made some strawberry lemonade. I didn’t think twice about it, but you would have thought I brought a five-star meal with Cristal champagne for all the oohing and aahing and thanks I got. I mean really, I had the time, she needed the food, so what’s the big deal? But then it hit me: it is a big deal to so many people that someone would take the time to make everything from scratch. Take the time to do something for them.

And my family is very appreciative of this fact as well. Just last weekend, I smoked a pork shoulder for 6 hours on Mr. B’s grill. Then proceeded to make a batch of homemade BBQ sauce, bake up some fresh hamburger buns, and toss together a delicious salad with shaved zucchini and green beans from our garden. A simple meal really, but one that everyone recognized took me hours in the kitchen to make.

I am lucky to have those hours. And I am even more fortunate to have friends and family to share it with.

Week 23: Coconut Cream Caramels



The other day I was making a lovely curry cauliflower soup and had a half can of coconut milk leftover. Hating to waste anything, I gave it some thought and came up with the idea to make coconut caramels. Everyone loves my bacon caramels, so using that as a base recipe, I made a batch. Supplementing the leftover half cup of coconut milk with a half cup of cream, I found the taste a bit too subtle. Barely noticeable. So I decided to give it a second try this week and kick it up a notch.

Instead of the coconut milk and cream mixture, I used a full cup of Trader Joe’s Coconut Cream. I also toasted up some shredded coconut to enhance the coconut flavor and give it a bit of texture. The result was a nicely sweet caramel with the toasty crunch of the coconut.

Coconut Cream Caramels
1 cup coconut cream
5 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup toasted flaked or shredded coconut

Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper. Lightly oil parchment with vegetable oil or cooking spray.

Bring coconut cream, butter, and salt to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside.

Boil sugar, golden syrup, and water in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling pan, until mixture is a light golden caramel.

Carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will bubble up) and simmer, stirring frequently, until caramel registers 250 degrees on candy thermometer, which takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle with toasted coconut and gently press down into caramel. Cool for 3 hours. (Placing them in the refrigerator during the last 30 minutes will make them easier to cut.)

Cut sheets of wax paper into 4-inch squares.

Pull parchment and caramel out of the pan and cut into small squares or rectangles and wrap each in square of wax paper, twisting both ends to close. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Yield: approximately 40 caramels

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Week 22: Tomato Sauce Visual Tutorial


This summer has brought a bounty of tomatoes from my garden. In addition to the 3 plants I purchased in April, Butcher Son was given an additional 6 plants from customers and friends. This has yielded an unprecedented (for me) amount of Roma, San Marzano, and several varieties of heirloom tomatoes. We have had our share of bruschetta and caprese salad, I’ve made two batches of sundried tomatoes, and now find myself making tomato sauce every weekend. So I thought I would document the process in pictures, making it easy for you to follow along. Because it really is a simple process. And you don’t even have to drag out the canner. You can just pour the final product into jars or Tupperware and throw them in the freezer for use in the fall or winter when you want a taste of summer!

Step 1: Cut up your tomatoes: I cut my pear-shaped tomatoes in half and large tomatoes into quarters, removing the stem end. I usually fill one large bowl.

Step 2: Cut up your vegetables. Dice one onion and mince 6 cloves of garlic. Heat some olive oil in a large stewpot over medium high heat and sauté for a few minutes until translucent, stirring occasionally.

Step 3: Mince some fresh herbs. I use basil, rosemary and oregano from the garden. Add these and the tomatoes to your stewpot.

Step 4: Add red wine. I add about a cup of red wine to my tomatoes, but feel free to add more or less, depending on your taste and the amount of wine on hand.

Step 5: Add salt. Start with one tablespoon; you can always add more later.

Step 6: Cook your sauce. Put a lid on your stewpot and cook on medium low, stirring occasionally. I usually cook my tomatoes for about an hour.

Step 7. Pick out the skins. Every time I stir the pot, I use tongs to pull out the tomato skins that have separated from the tomato. I find this easier than skinning the tomatoes beforehand. You don’t have to get them all, just the majority.

Step 8: Puree. When the tomatoes have cooked down sufficiently, I use a stick blender to puree the sauce. If you don’t have a stick blender, I highly recommend you buy one, but in lieu of that, you can put batches in a blender and puree. Just don’t fill the blender more than half way or it will blow the lid off and burn you. (Trust me on this.)

Step 9. Cook down your sauce. Oftentimes my sauce is a bit soupy after pureeing. This is due to the type of tomatoes I use at any given time. If your sauce is too runny, just cook on medium with the lid off until the desired consistency is reached.

Voila! You are done. Let the sauce cool and pour into jars or plastic containers and throw in the freezer.

I use this sauce for pasta, adding browned ground meat or Italian sausage, or serve it with meatballs. It’s also great for lasagne, stuffed shells, or just as it is served with a bowl of plain pasta and grated Parmesan.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Week 21: Not Your Mother’s Chicken and Rice


I remember my mother making chicken and rice dishes, mostly casseroles that were heavy on some sort of canned creamed soup. Edible but not terribly flavorful, they were a staple in most households in the 1960s and 1970s. Given my subsequent aversion to casseroles and anything containing a creamed soup, I have avoided such dishes for 30+ years…until now.

In the most recent Sunset magazine, I found a recipe for Chicken Steamed Over Ginger-Garlic Rice. Full of flavor, utilizing only one pot and taking only 30 minutes, the family has determined the recipe a keeper and I can now proudly cook chicken and rice casserole.

Rather boring in color, due to the dual colors of white (rice, chicken) and green (sauce), it is anything but bland. The recipe contains bold flavors—ginger, garlic, cilantro, sesame oil and jalapeno—that give the moist steamed chicken a great kick, although not so spicy that children won’t eat it.

The recipe is low in salt, easy to prepare and a quick and hearty weeknight meal. While the recipe says it yields four servings that would be a huge amount of rice per person. I used 2 pounds of chicken (rather than the 1 1/2 it called for) and it served 5 adults, with enough leftover for one lunch. I have adjusted a few things in the recipe to satisfy our palate, but if you want the original recipe, you can find it here.

Butcher Son and Mr. B added some sriracha to up the heat quotient, our guest tried it with a bit of soy, but Brilliant Daughter and I found it perfect just as it is. Now it’s your turn to debunk the myth that chicken and rice casseroles have to include creamed soups!

Recipe on the next page...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Week 20: 40-Minute Hamburger Buns



I’m sure you are wondering why I have two posts in a row dealing with yeast breads, albeit very easy to make and tasty recipes. Our family loves fresh bread of any kind and there are few things better than warm steamy loaves coming out of the oven and eaten hot with melted butter dripping down your chin, at least in our estimation.

It is also something I am trying to become more comfortable with. Yeast breads can be tricky. I’ve been making cinnamon rolls for years but have rarely ventured out of that niche. Maybe I am trying to channel my husband’s grandmother, who baked a dozen or more loaves a week. All of five-foot-nothing, she had the strongest hands of any woman (and most men) that I had ever met. When she took you into her embrace, there was no squirming out of it until she was good and ready, and when she pinched your cheek, you felt it for hours. She would bake huge batches once or twice a week and deliver them to friends, relatives and would use them to barter with local farmers for produce.

I started making a 5-minute artisan bread back in April of 2012. It is one of those recipes that should delight every suburban cook. It takes very little time (ummm…5 minutes), only 4 basic ingredients and yields a hearty round loaf reminiscent of something you would buy at the bakery, similar in texture to a sourdough boule. I make it once or twice a month, much to the delight of the family. The focaccia recipe from last week has also received rave reviews from friends and family, and I have even talked several into making it themselves. Now they are hooked as well.

As for why I would even attempt hamburger buns, the rationale was twofold. I had initially planned hamburgers for dinner (topped with freshly smoked bacon and some creamy avocado) but had forgotten to buy buns. Yes, I could have driven to one of any number of stores to pick them up, or asked Butcher Son to bring me some home from Robert’s Market, but I got to wondering if I could make them. Secondly, I really am trying to learn to make a lot of what we eat from scratch. I have mastered the jam/jelly thing, pickles, salsa, tomato sauce and marinara, and even BBQ sauce. I have a number of mustards and rib rubs in my repertoire, as well as fruit syrups. I make sausage, bacon, pancetta. And of course, I am proficient with sweet baked goods. So this was just another thing to try.

I found a recipe on Taste of Home for 40-minute hamburger buns. Sure enough, within about 40 minutes I had hamburger buns. The original recipe made 12 buns, but they were only slightly larger than slider buns and not really big enough for my hamburgers, so on a second try I made 8 buns. Better, but I’m thinking that for a big juicy cowboy burger, you should just make 6. Or if the kids want sliders, you could probably get 16 perfect slider buns. The ingredients are basic pantry and fridge items, so no need to get anything fancy. The texture overall is denser than your average hamburger bun, but it doesn’t squish down like Wonder Bread and soaks up any juices that might be leaking from your burger. Overall I was very happy with the result and the recipe got the thumbs up from the family. So now it’s your turn to try.

40-Minute Hamburger Buns
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2+ cups, all purpose flour

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add oil and sugar; let stand for 5 minutes. Add the egg, salt and 3 cups flour to form a soft dough. Pour remaining 1/2 cup flour out onto counter or breadboard. Add dough and knead until smooth and elastic, about 3-5 minutes. You may need to add more flour if the dough become sticky.

Do not let rise. Divide into 8 pieces; shape each into a ball. Place 3 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Bake at 425° for 8-12 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from pans to wire racks to cool.

Yield: 8

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Week 19: 5-Minute Herbed Focaccia



Back in 2012 I did a post on 5-Minute Artisan Bread. I had my disbelievers, but once they made the bread, they were hooked. It really was that simple. This recipe, for Italian focaccia, is even easier and also lends itself to a variety of flavors, depending upon what you have on hand in your garden or pantry.

You don’t need anything special to make this tasty treat, just the basics will do. But I like to dress mine up, usually with fresh herbs from the garden, but I think some kalamata olives and sundried tomatoes would work nicely as well.

The base of the bread is flour, sugar, salt, yeast, egg and butter. It all mixes up easily in a bowl and then you just let it sit for an hour to let the yeast do its magic. Then you knead it a few times, throw it in a greased pan, sprinkle it with some salt and herbs (dry or fresh) and shove it in the oven. I like to chop fresh herbs and use half inside the dough (which I add while kneading) and the rest sprinkled on top with the salt.

This focaccia can be served on its own, piping hot from the oven, with a meal, or let it cool and use it as a base for a sandwich.

It literally takes 5 minutes of your time, with an hour to rise and about 20 minutes to cook. I suggest you double the recipe, because it won’t last long once it comes out of the oven. I even served it with some of the leftover chimichurri sauce from last week’s tri-tip recipe and it was beyond good. A little schmear went a long way.

So what are you waiting for? 

Recipe after the jump