Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Meat and Potatoes

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

I have been cooking more than I’ve been documenting it. But tonight I remembered to dig out my camera and tripod since I was trying a new recipe, another Everyday Food offering, steak with crispy potatoes and watercress.

The recipe calls for skirt steak, but the skirt steak I saw at whole foods looked less appealing than the top loin. I decided to impose portion control by buying a single 8-ounce cut and slicing it in half to serve us both; 8 ounces may be a restaurant portion but if you’re trying to follow nutritional guidelines, the 4-ounce half is more appropriate. We were perfectly satisfied; the double amount would have been overwhelming. Delicious, yes, but too much.

This is a pretty quick recipe. For the potatoes, you slice red potatoes 1/4 of an inch thick, and toss them with a mixture of smashed garlic, oil and thyme, then roast them in a 450-degree oven for about 25 minutes, until the bottom is well browned. (OK, the recipe says 475, but I get nervous at the upper reaches of our oven dial, and this worked out just fine.)

In the meantime, you heat a heavy skillet over high heat, then melt a couple of tablespoons of butter. Season your steaks liberally with salt and pepper,  and other spices if you like, and cook them for about 2 minutes per side or until you’re satisfied with their doneness. I like rare meat; these turned out medium rare, but they were thin enough that I couldn’t have gotten them any rarer and still gotten a satisfactory sear. I removed the steaks to a dish to rest and added some red wine to the pan for a simple reduction sauce. I poured it off a little earlier than I should have, because I suddenly had qualms about cooking red wine in a cast-iron skillet; it didn’t seem to do any harm to the finish, though. (My skilled is rather well seasoned by now.) Also I got a bit of the lees from the wine into the sauce; it didn’t hurt the taste but the resulting liquid was a bit less pretty than it might have been.

And for the watercress, toss the leaves with a simple vinaigrette: Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. I took longer than I should have to prep the watercress; I haven’t worked with watercress before and it took me a while to figure out an efficient way to pull the thickest stems.

Everything tasted great.  I definitely want to eat more watercress; it has a good flavor but isn’t quite as assertive as arugula. (I didn’t think to taste it before dressing it so I’m not sure how much of the taste to ascribe to the vinaigrette.) And I am a real sucker for potatoes; it’s hard to find a potato dish I wouldn’t joyfully try.

The Bacon Explosion

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

I’m a bit late to this party; like many of you, I heard last week about the Bacon Explosion, a calorie-laden roll of sausage and bacon that’s slow-grilled and served with barbecue sauce. It’s a top-rated New York Times story, and has been hitting lots of blogs, in large part because of the creators’ savvy use of Twitter and the Web. “This is the fourth time I heard about this today,” said one of my co-workers, who was not an enthusiast, when the story made the rounds at work.

The Times story touches not just on the porky roll itself but on the broad reaction to it. Readers seem to either rally enthusiastically or recoil in horror. An e-mail exchange in our office typifies the range; one colleague said, “It should be served with a defibrillator”; another replied, “If by ‘defibrillator’ you mean some kind of blue cheese sauce, I’m all for it.” But is it a Recipe of the Damned?

If I were still a vegetarian, I’d probably be horrified but intrigued, seeing it as a kind of culinary car wreck. Really, now. Two pounds of bacon plus two pounds of sausage, 5,000 calories, 500 grams of fat; what can possibly go right here? Add the risk of the drippy roll catching fire when cooked over open flame, and it cries out for a kind of food “Intervention.” (“I love you, but I’m afraid if you eat this you’re going to die, and I don’t want to lose you. Please accept this offer of help, a spinach salad and a club soda.”)

On the other hand, these guys aren’t claiming it’s health food, or an everyday offering. The creators are barbecue enthusiasts who were trying to come up with something special. They are using real ingredients (even encouraging cooks to make their own spice rubs and sausage), and are certainly not recommending that anybody eat the whole thing at once. (Could one? I don’t want to know.) It’s decadent and overwhelming, but, truth be told, it also sounds pretty tasty.

If you think it’s wrong to kill animals for food, the Bacon Explosion must seem like a particularly egregious insult. But for anybody else who doesn’t find it appealing, it seems more laughable than insulting. Yes, if you’re trying to watch your weight, an allowable serving would probably be less than half of a quarter-inch-thick slice, but it’s pretty easy to avoid. Nobody is likely to place the Bacon Explosion on school lunch menus or make it a mandatory holiday food; it’s not going to displace Thanksgiving turkey in most U.S. households. (One or two, maybe.) Timing of the story may be a factor too; if you’re not a morning person and need to be into your second cup of coffee before you can entertain the thought of food or serious conversation, seeing this porky excess in your morning news roundup could get your day off to an upsetting start. But though I have no intention of trying to make the Bacon Explosion myself, and probably wouldn’t even if I had a smoker, I can’t class this one as Damned.

Beef Stew, Chicken Soup

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

I’m just going to give up on apologizing for how time gets away from me. The last week of January was rather busy, and this week I have been on vacation but catching up on a variety of things. I will be devoting some time in the next few days to the blog, and have a fair bit to natter about, so watch for those posts.

But today I’m writing about my most recent cooking forays, beef stew from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and chicken soup whose recipe I made up as I went along. (I also roasted a chicken on Sunday night, using guidance from Bittman as well, but my camera battery died early on and I didn’t think a photo of the raw bird would be very encouraging without the contrast of the beautifully roasted finished version. So I’ll pass over that.)

The steps for beef stew were fairly simple. You start with some diced beef (I used rump roast).

Brown it in some oil in which you have previously browned a clove of garlic, then remove the cubes from the pot and brown some onions in the leftover fat (pouring off excess).

You add some flour to the onions and cook briefly to brown a bit, which helps start a roux, then add the beef back in along with some liquid, thyme and a bay leaf.

You let that simmer for about half an hour, during which time you cut up some potatoes (I used red) and carrots. You’re also supposed to add peas toward the end, but I didn’t have any, so at this stage I also sliced some mushrooms and added them after the half hour was up. You add those and let cook for about another half hour to an hour, or until the potatoes are tender; then you add some garlic (and the peas if you had read the recipe before shopping, unlike me) and cook for about another five minutes, simmering if you’re satisfied with the thickness of the liquid, boiling if you want it to thicken a bit. And voila, tasty goodness.

I also wanted a green vegetable on the side, so I decided to roast some Brussels sprouts. You cut off the ends and cut the sprouts in half–quarters if you have any unusually large ones in the bunch.

Then you toss them with a bit of olive oil and season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, then roast in a 400 degree oven for about 40 minutes, tossing periodically for even cooking.

The roasting helps mellow the pungent flavor, and ensures a much better texture than steaming (at least in my experience).

That was Monday night; beef stew seemed like a good meal for the weather, which was in the 40s–not as cold as some days we have seen this season. Yesterday, by constrast, was snowy and getting colder, and I decided that chicken soup was the right meal for the evening. I don’t think I’ve ever made the same chicken soup twice; I always improvise it.

First I get together the ingredients I plan to use–in this case, chicken thigh meat, chopped onions, garlic, bell peppers, celery, carrots, potatoes, yellow squash, mushrooms, parsnips, some canned chickpeas, and some spices.

I start by browning the chicken, then adding the onions. At this point the food is thick enough in the pan that I’m not so much sauteeing as sweating, but that’s OK.

I add the ingredients bit by bit, saving out the bell peppers; when I’ve added all the fresh ingredients I add the chickpeas (either including the liquid or draining it off, depending on the brand), and broth to cover plus a little extra, and bring it all to a boil, then lower to a simmer and let it cook. After about 15 minutes I add the bell peppers, then let it cook for a while. When it’s about 12 minutes until I want to serve up, I bring it back to a boil and add about half or three-quarters of a cup of dried mini pasta, in this case ditalini (little tubes). Alphabets or stars are fun too. I let that boil for about 10 minutes, then fish out the bay leaf if I included one and announce that supper is ready.

Last night I also wanted to make a cookie, so while I was shopping for vegetables I made sure to get chocolate chunks, butter and flour. You can imagine my surprise when, after I had creamed the butter, I discovered that I was out of both regular granulated sugar and brown sugar. The snow was falling fast outside and the flour had been mixed with baking soda and salt; what to do? I rummaged the shelves and found some superfine sugar and some molasses, and I improvised quantities. I had less of the superfine sugar than I had hoped, so I had to use quite a bit of molasses; to keep its flavor from totally overwhelming the chocolate I added a splash of milk and some extra almond extract (we were out of vanilla too, much to my indignation). I also added more flour until I was satisfied that the consistency was similar enough to my usual chocolate chip cookie dough, then stirred in some pecan bits to help tie the flavors together, and the chocolate chunks. I spread the dough flat in a rimmed baking sheet and baked it at 350 for about 15 minutes.

Then I let it cool before cutting into bars.

They turned out tasty; I felt the molasses flavor was still stronger than I liked, but my husband thought they were delicious and rich. They’d go nicely with milk, or with ice cream. I’ll have to experiment again with a different balance of molasses and sugar; with a bit less bite from the molasses and a more pronounced nut flavor this could really be a keeper. Not bad for a panicky improvisation.

One final note: Many of the photos in this post were made possible with the help of the tripod that my husband gave me as a surprise gift earlier this month. The legs are bendable, so you can hook them on cabinet handles and shelf rims to get better angles. That plus the 10-second timer helped me get photos of actual cutting or cooking maneuvers that required both hands, relieving me of the need to learn to operate the camera with my teeth.

Brief update, short takes

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

I’m not sure how the week got away from me but I didn’t do a lot of cooking. On Sunday I repeated the chicken and soba combo from Everyday Food (the recipe for which is now available on the magazine’s Web site), and on Monday I made pizza; the other nights we went out or had leftovers, and tonight I made pizza again. Monday was a holiday and I took time during the day to make pizza dough for the freezer; I tried to make it a little softer than usual to see if that made the texture better, but it made it harder to separate the frozen layers when it was time to thaw them. So I’ll experiment with that again when I don’t plan to freeze any dough, but I’ll stick with my usual texture for freezing. I learned something, and it still tasted good, and the texture wasn’t terrible, just not ideal, so I still count it as a success.

The coming week will probably be fairly busy as well. I will be browsing through some recipes tonight to see if there’s something fast I can try out, or I may repeat the beef and lettuce wraps–that was easy and fast. But next week I’m on vacation, so I hope to spend some time playing with longer-form recipes.

My subway reading this week has been Betty Fussell’s Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef. I’m learning a lot about the history of cattle ranching and the politics of meat, agriculture, and much more. I’ll offer a full review when I’m done, but I’m really enjoying it so far and recommend it.

What’s So Elitist About Cooking From Scratch?

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

I’ve updated my sidebar to include some more good cooking and humor blogs — the previous list had some excellent resources for activism and sources, but not as much for inspiration. One of my favorites is Shauna James Ahern’s Gluten-Free Girl, and not just because I went to college with Shauna and have fond memories of playing casual tennis with her (I played very badly, but was at least enthusiastic).

After years of being ill, and growing increasingly desperate with her condition, Shauna was diagnosed with celiac disease, or gluten intolerance. Most people hearing a diagnosis of a food allergy or intolerance might react with impatience or fear; “What am I going to eat now?” is one of the first questions to come to mind. And that’s a fair question for someone who has to eliminate gluten from her diet, since it is found in a huge number of processed foods, and is a linchpin of culinary standards such as bread, pasta, pastry, and sauces. But Shauna’s approach was not to mourn the things she could no longer eat, but to focus on the things that she can eat — to find out every last one of them and celebrate them.

This is no small number of food offerings. Fruits, vegetables, a large number of dairy products, grains such as quinoa and rice and barley, meat, eggs, poultry, fish — those are vast categories. You’ll notice that they are mostly whole foods. You can find processed foods that are free of gluten. But you have to be very diligent about reading labels, not just to find small amounts of hidden ingredients but also to know if the processor uses the same equipment to handle foods with gluten; the cross-contamination can make a sufferer sick. So Shauna has not just learned how to cook healthful, delicious food from scratch; she has made it a mission to teach others how they can do the same. Of course her primary concern is teaching people how to eat gluten-free, but her guidance can benefit anyone who wants to learn more about cooking with whole foods. She has a book out and a second one on the way, and her blog offers excellent advice and tips.

And of course since blogs are what they are, it’s her blog that has attracted the inevitable commenters who charge her with elitism. She points as I did to Mark Bittman’s “Minimalist” column from last week, of recommendations about building a better pantry. Shauna notes with surprise that several responders called him out of touch, elitist, and condescending — comments she has also seen on her own work. “Why are we snobs if we want to cook the way our grandmothers did?” Shauna asks.

I wonder that myself. To be sure, the majority of the responses to Bittman’s column (253 last I checked) were thoughtful and engaging; people offered sound arguments for the use of canned beans, debated the merits of different varieties of tomato paste, and cautioned him never to boil miso (boiling destroys the paste’s unique microorganisms, and its flavor). But some people were angry and defensive.

One poster writes, “Why does it always seem to me that writers of these articles don’t live in the real world? Sure, I’d love to simmer vegetables for half an hour to make a stock, but then my family (two working parents, two kids in school) would wait an additional 30 minutes. As for dried beans, what happens if I forget to soak them overnight or while I’m at work? Oops. No chili tonight.” Of course, there are lots of people who argue that you don’t really have to soak dried beans, but I think the more important point is that Bittman is not saying that you have to do every from-scratch step on a weeknight. “Cook a pound once a week and you’ll always have them around (you can freeze small amounts in their cooking liquid, or water, indefinitely),” he says, which even a careless reader should not be able to interpret as “you may only cook your beans from scratch even on a weeknight.” And of course anyone can forget to thaw the ingredient for a particular night’s planned dinner; having a variety of pantry staples on hand makes it easier to come up with a plan B rather than just cussing and ordering pizza.

Another respondent says, “For those of us with small children and smaller budgets, this list fairly oozes elitism. As a divorced mom of two, I would love to buy lemons, fresh parsley and renew my spices every year — and when I win the lottery, I’ll get on that. These aren’t practical suggestions. In some cases — eggs, oatmeal — good food can be cheap. But in almost every other case it’s out of the reach of regular people.” I don’t know where she’s buying lemons and parsley; at my overpriced neighborhood grocery store, lemons are usually 2 or 3 for a dollar — in the coldest months they might peak at $1 each —  and parsley tends to peak at $1.50 a bunch. That doesn’t seem like “win the lottery” pricing to me. As for spices, it’s true that if she buys lots of the little glass bottles at the grocery store she’d have to spend a small fortune to turn over her spice collection, but that’s a bit like stocking up on milk for a family of four by buying half-pint cartons. A far better option is to order spices in bulk online (good sources include Atlantic Spice, Penzeys and Frontier); Shauna notes that her family’s latest restocking run to Market Spice in Seattle set them back a whopping $22 for enough spices to cook for their family of three AND test new recipes for a cookbook in the works.

One particularly irritable commenter says, “I have started thinking of Mark Bittman more as the ‘Fascist’ than the Minimalist. His ways are right and if you don’t do it his way, you’re just not with it. Sorry, Mark, this is a great list if you’re a single guy who cooks for a living and has the funds and time to do it all. But for those of us with families, those of us on a budget, and those of us with little time most of the time to cook, you’re dissing all the things that make it possible for REAL people to cook good homemade meals. Which is what I do just about every night when I come home from work and my husband and 2 girls want dinner on the table!” Testy, are we? I can’t help wondering, if this poster is so virulent in rejecting fresh parsley, dried beans and genuine grains in her cooking, what exactly is her “homemade” cooking like? Because if it relies on mixes and boxes, I’m sorry, that isn’t homemade.

Also, why do so many readers seem not to grasp the distinction between suggestions and orders? Or to consider that they can adapt these ideas to their own situation? One poster takes snarling exception to Bittman’s recommendation to buy six lemons a week, noting that four would be bad by week’s end. Um, there are two easy ways around that: Either buy fewer lemons if you don’t actually need six, or store them in the fridge. (Seriously, I have a pretty inadequate fridge and I’ve never had an uncut lemon develop mold in under a week. Which is not to say I’ve never neglected a lemon to the point that it did grow fuzz—but that’s another matter entirely.) And to be clear: Bittman doesn’t say “You have to buy six lemons a week”; he says, “Try buying six at a time, then experiment; I never put lemon on something and regret it.” Big difference.

Again, most of the responses to the column were more thoughtful, though none quite so perfectly echoing my thoughts as this one: “For the record, in the time it took me to read over 200 comments on ‘The Rising Cost of Citrus,’ ‘My Love Affair with Beans in a Can,’ or ‘Elitism v. Convenience in the Kitchen,’ I could have planned a week’s worth of meals, drafted a grocery list, checked my bank balance to make sure I could swing an extra lemon, tracked down and/or ordered hard-to-find ingredients on-line (if necessary) and buckled down and finished my work project so I could leave by 5:30 and hit the grocery store. If I hadn’t taken the time to post, I probably could have whipped up something quick for dinner, too. We’re not rich, nor do I have oodles of extra time, and I’m not cooking for four, but last night we had a nice homemade pizza, and tonight we’re having the meatballs & sauce I pre-made over the weekend. Good times. It’s not that you don’t have time. It’s that you choose to spend your time differently.”

And one last thought on elitism. Who is more elite: a family farmer working 16-hour days and driving three hours round trip three days a week to sell his produce at a city greenmarket, or a corporate vice president of marketing for a processed-food conglomerate? What and whom are you supporting with your choices?

Last Week, Cooking; This Week, Leftovers and Parties

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

I haven’t been in the kitchen very much this week; Scott and I have both had evening commitments, so have been foraging or eating elsewhere. I’ve been able to enjoy good leftovers from last week (ah, how virtuous one feels when one remembers to put things in the freezer). Last night my company had a big party for the grand opening of our permanent NY offices, and the food was actually really good–much better than one often gets at such gigs.

I expect to do some cooking over the weekend, though, if only to keep the apartment warm.

I have noticed two interesting and I think related developments in the media, though. One is a new ad campaign from the Corn Refiners Association trying to convince people that high-fructose corn syrup isn’t as bad as people think. The ads I’ve seen feature two people, one of whom is about to eat something with HFCS; the other person disapproves and says, “You know what they say about it!” in a tone that suggests what they say is that HFCS has been making out with the quarterback behind the gym. “What?” asks the first person. “That it’s made from corn? Has the same number of calories as sugar? And is perfectly fine in moderation?” Well, no. That it’s highly processed, may metabolize differently in the body than sugar, and is found in a huge number of processed foods, including a lot that you wouldn’t think require sweetening.  I am not qualified to analyze the accuracy of the claims that HFCS acts differently in the body than sugar, but I do think it’s way too easy to eat too much of it–or of most sweeteners. Also, the tagline “that it’s made of corn?” inevitably makes me think of a line from the Apple Sisters‘ “Corndy“: “I think because it’s corn.” Which makes it hard for me to take the ad campaign very seriously.

The other campaign is for Lay’s potato chips, and is touting the natural simplicity of the product: just potatoes, oil and salt. And industrial monoculture farms, high-tech processing facilities and an incredible amount of packaging. Even 10 years ago I don’t think either of these corporate interests would have felt so defensive about their well-marketed, highly profitable products. But through the efforts of people like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Barbara Kingsolver, among many others, there’s a growing awareness that maybe the best things in life don’t come in 99-cent snack sized packages that you can buy at gas stations.

Weeknight Pizza

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

Last night was pizza night.

It’s not hard at all to make homemade pizza — and you don’t have to settle for a store-bought crust. If you have time it’s easy to make the dough the same night, but it does require an hour’s wait for it to rise plus some kneading time. If that won’t work for you on a weeknight, you can make the crust ahead and freeze it.

I made this dough while I was waiting for my green curry to cook. I had originally planned to make it over the weekend, but I ended up having to go to parties both days (“having to”? I know, what a hard life I lead) and I spent my kitchen time on cake and frosting. But this weekend I will make a few crusts to freeze.

You start by pouring a cup of warm water — a bit warmer than body temperature — into a mixing bowl and adding a tablespoon of yeast. If you use the packets that come in threes, you want one packet. But if you’re going to bake with yeast more than about twice a month you should definitely buy yeast in bulk and store it in the fridge in an airtight container. Much more cost-effective. Anyway, also add about a teaspoon of the sugar of your choice — brown sugar, white sugar and molasses are all fine, though you might use a tad less of the molasses — and mix it with a fork until the mixture is dissolved, then let it sit for about five minutes, during which time you should see little blooms of yeast appear in the water. This means your yeast is alive and reacting well with the sugar, which is good. If nothing happens, your yeast is dead; throw it away and start over with fresh, or your dough will not rise.

Now add a tablespoon of olive oil and a teaspoon of salt and stir in. If you want to fancy up your pizza crust you can also add a bit of dried oregano or basil, freshly ground pepper, or grated Asiago or Romano cheese. I stuck with the basics this time. Now add about a cup and a half of flour, and mix with the fork until well combined. Start adding flour about half a cup at a time until the mixture is thick enough to turn out and knead — probably about two additions, but the specific amount will depend on the freshness of your flour, the humidity of your kitchen, and the extras you’ve mixed in if any. Scrape flour and dough down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Sprinkle some flour onto a large flat surface, such as a rolling board or a countertop, and turn out the dough mixture onto it, scraping bits from the side of the bowl as necessary. (At this point take your bowl to the sink and set it to soak in warm soapy water while you knead.) Sprinkle a bit more flour onto the dough and start to knead it: press the ball a bit flatter, then fold it in half or in threes and punch and push it together. Keep doing this and sprinkling on more flour as you work; you’ll probably need about 3½ to 4 cups total, but don’t focus on measuring; work the dough until it stops absorbing flour and feels firm and springy, and not too moist. The Moosewood cookbook The Enchanted Broccoli Forest says to work bread dough until it feels like an earlobe, and that’s probably the most helpful analogy I’ve seen for it. Springy but with substance, not tacky, not tough.

Shape the dough into a ball and let it sit for a moment while you wash out the mixing bowl, rinse it well with warm water, and dry it. Oil the bowl with either cooking spray or about a teaspoon of olive oil rubbed on with a paper towel. Take the ball of dough and thump it into the bowl, then turn it over so there’s a light coating of oil on the exposed side. Cover the bowl with a towel, set it in a warm and non-drafty spot, and let the dough rise for an hour, or until doubled in size.

When the hour is up, punch down your dough. I was stupid and didn’t take a photo of the dough before I punched it; it was quite lovely.

For this recipe I typically make two 9-inch deep-dish pizzas, so I divide the dough into two and work each half for a single crust, but you could also make a single large round pizza with the whole thing. Or four smaller individual pizzas. It’s really up to you.

So I divided my dough in half and shaped each half into a ball, then pressed it somewhat flat with my hands. I do not really know how to toss pizza dough, but it would be a good skill to learn; the stretching helps develop the crust well. I press the dough out with the heel of my hand, working from the center, until it’s a bit less than half the diameter I want, then take out Mr. Rolling Pin and roll it out.

To make a circle I do a couple of rolls forward and backward, then turn the crust over and one turn clockwise and do the same again—I’m always working along just one axis and moving the dough to ensure that I’m working evenly and symmetrically. You could also roll it square or rectangular if you want to do a Sicilian-style pan.

When the dough is about the size you want, it’s ready to freeze. On a separate surface, lay down a piece of clean or foil-wrapped cardboard about the size of the crust, and top it with a piece of wax paper that you’ve lightly oiled. Fold your crust in half, then again into a quarter; transfer it to the wax paper with the point in the center, and unfold it—no tearing or stretching.

Oil another piece of wax paper and lay it atop the crust, oiled side down. You could stack up a few crusts this way if you want; be sure to oil both sides of the wax paper. When you’re done, fold in the edges of the wax paper as best you can, then wrap the whole thing—including the cardboard—tightly in aluminum foil, label, and put it in the freezer.

When you’re ready to start dinner, pull out the frozen crust (or as many from a stack as you need) and lay it unwrapped, on its wax paper, on a counter or rolling board to thaw. Let it sit for about 20-30 minutes, depending on the temperature of your kitchen; you want the crust to be pliable and not too cold. In the meantime, gather and/or prep your toppings of choice.

Preheat your oven to 400 F. Transfer the crust to an oiled  pan of your choosing—flat, deep-dish, it’s up to you. (My husband prefers deep-dish, so I use a couple of layer cake pans that are too beat-up to make cake in.) When the oven is preheated, put the bare crust(s) in and bake for about 5 minutes.

Remove the pre-baked crusts and assemble the pizzas as you like. I used a jarred marinara sauce (there are some good ones out there, and they tend not to be overly watery), pepperoni, and sliced Kalamata olives, which are tastier than canned black olives — not that I am going to knock those in a pinch.

You could make your own tomato sauce, or use a béchamel or cheese sauce, and of course the sky’s the limit as far as meat and vegetable toppings. I finish up with a generous spread of grated mozzarella and then a light sprinkling of grated Asiago. Some people prefer to put pepperoni and other things on top of the cheese, but I like it all to go underneath. If you want you can brush a little olive oil or melted butter on any exposed crust, which gives it a nice color (and flavor). I didn’t bother with that here.

Return your pizza to the oven and bake for 12-14 minutes, until the cheese is browned at the edges.

Remove pizza from the oven and transfer to a cutting board (if you’re making a thin-crust pizza you can just slide it off the pan; for deep-dish, the crust should be firm enough to lift out; if the pizza is too large you’ll have to slice it in the pan). Use a pizza cutter or large heavy knife to slice the number of slices you want and enjoy.

If you work with frozen crust, you have to allow about 30 minutes for it to thaw, then 15-19 minutes to bake. Actual hands-on time is minimal: Assembly of the pies, plus any prep you do such as chopping peppers or grating cheese, and then slicing. You can have fresh homemade pizza ready to eat in under an hour, and little to do for most of that time. You don’t have to settle for processed crusts that taste like cardboard, you don’t have to pay through the nose, and you don’t have to fill your trash can with the little plastic doohickeys from the delivery box.

Dinner Spree Continued; A Few Other Things

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Tonight’s dinner

Tonight’s dinner was Thai green curry with tofu. I spent nearly 2 hours in the kitchen, but about 20 minutes of that time was devoted to preparing pizza crusts for tomorrow night, and a great deal more could have been saved if I’d done more prep over the weekend. I also wasn’t hurrying because I’d had a late lunch and I knew that Scott wouldn’t be home until closer to 10.

This is an adaptation of the recipe on the side of the Thai curry paste jar, filtered through my own eagerness to improvise and my sense of what I want it to taste like. I chopped a bunch of vegetables–eggplant, onion, green pepper, carrots, mushrooms, red potatoes. I also pressed most of the liquid out of some extra firm tofu, then cubed it. (My preference is to freeze the tofu first–just throw the package into the freezer when you’re putting away groceries, then take it out a day or so later and let it thaw. The texture is better, but I didn’t think I had time to let it thaw. Our freezer sometimes freezes very effectively.) And I mixed the sauce–some vegetable broth, green curry paste, light coconut milk and fish sauce. Once I had all the chopping done (or close to it) I heated some oil in a skillet, browned the tofu cubes, added onion, and then added other vegetables; then I poured in the sauce and brought it to a simmer, then let it cook until the potatoes were done. In the meantime I put on the rice cooker and chopped a bit of cilantro to add toward the end. I didn’t think to take pictures until I was nearly done. (I did get pictures of the pizza dough in process, but I’ll include those tomorrow.)

Here is the curry mixture in the skillet:

And here it is on rice:

Other things

I’m itching to get my hands on a copy of Mark Bittman’s new book, Food Matters, which appears to be yet ANOTHER example of a capable writer, cook and scholar taking unfair advantage of having actual experience and knowledge on an issue to write a book that expresses much of my core philosophy and get it published, while I’m still just babbling on a blog. It’s good that he did, of course. (See here for an interesting review from Until I do get a copy, I’ll point you to Bittman’s latest Minimalist column, which offers excellent guidance for those wishing to improve their diet and cooking in the new year.

January 2009 Dinner Spree: Sauteed Chicken with Herbed Soba

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Tonight’s main recipe came from the same issue of Everyday Food as last night’s. It’s still not online, but I’m telling you, subscribe. This was another simple one: boil some soba noodles and make a sauce for it with cilantro, parsley, garlic, ginger, scallions, vinegar and oil; sautee some chicken cutlets and slice thin; and serve them together. I also made some kale with red pepper flakes, because the recipe promised to have green leaves but not leafy greens otherwise.

I took a bit longer than my allotted hour, but I could have done some preparatory things to shorten the time. I had to rinse, stem and chop the kale; I could have done that over the weekend and used ziplock bags to keep the greens fresh and ready. In fact I only used half the bunch tonight, so now I have a ziplock bag of the good green ready to just steam or sautee as I require. I also could have made a full recipe of the sauce, or more, and saved the extra for use another time; it wouldn’t have taken much more time to prep the cilantro and other ingredients, but it would have made for more efficient use of the food processor. With a small batch I had to keep scraping down the sides so it wasn’t all just spinning away from the blades.

Here are some of the ingredients as I did my prep:


Kale, not yet stemmed

Here I want to call out a nifty little device I hadn’t really tried out. It’s a stainless steel odor remover. I got it free from some cookbook club, and haven’t really taken the time to use it. The idea is that when you handle redolent foods like garlic and onions, regular washing won’t get all the odor, but if you just rub the steel oval in your hands it will neutralize the volatile oils. So I tried it after mincing some fresh ginger root, which is mighty redolent indeed, and it worked.

I also had to pound the chicken breasts thin. The recipe calls for cutlets, but packaged cutlets cost about $2.50 more per pound than the breasts I bought, and it only took a few minutes with some wax paper and my good friend Mr. Rolling Pin to flatten them out so they would cook quickly. OK, the cats didn’t approve of the thumping noise, but it was pretty easy.

The kale wasn’t part of the EF recipe. I’ve been making this by rote for years now; I think I originally got it from Natural Health, back when it was really a substantial health magazine and hadn’t transformed itself into a clone of Organic Style. Basically you stem a bunch of kale and chop or tear the leaves into moderately sized pieces, and let the rinse water cling to them. Heat a pan with some oil (I used a combination of canola oil and sesame oil, so the sesame oil flavor wouldn’t be too overpowering), and toss in some red pepper flakes. And some minced garlic, if you remembered to mince a clove in addition to the one that goes into the sauce and do not get all lazy because you’ve washed the cutting board already. Let those brown for a few moments and then add the kale carefully (water droplets will sizzle a bit), saute it briefly, and then add about 1/4 cup of water, cover the pan, lower the heat, and let it steam for about 10 minutes or so.  (If you turn off the heat by the 10-minute mark, you can let it sit a bit longer without it overcooking.)

Once the soba noodles were done I mixed them with the sauce. It took a little effort to get it to distribute evenly, but look how pretty:

And here’s the plated meal:

Scott demonstrated his impeccable sense of timing by walking in the door as I was just minutes away from slicing the chicken and serving up. He was happy not to have been late for this.

I’ll definitely be making this again. You could substitute fried tofu or seitan for the chicken; you could probably also use mild white fish, though I’d probably add extra lemon to balance the flavors.

January 2009 Dinner Spree: Asian Beef Lettuce Wraps

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

This post has been moved to Recipes of the Yum; come check it out!