Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cook the Books 2013 - Wrapping up with Homemade Pantry

The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying & Start Making by Alana Chernila was the perfect choice to close out our amazing year of Cook the Books 2013 Cookbook Challenge. I'm not sure how an entire year, or 12 cookbooks for that matter, have gone by already, but here we are.

As much as I appreciated learning so many new things in the kitchen, I came to most value reading other participants' posts. Along with intros, recaps, and more from our fearless leaders: Meg of Grow & Resist and Brigg of Ohbriggsy!. Each month, each post revealed different approaches, which recipes appealed, which ones flopped  literal food for thought. They also gave me personal insight into my fellow cooks; making this communal project influence me in the best of ways. New friends, new perspectives, lots of good food!

And, I think I am going to use Angela and J.K.'s  idea of cooking through cookbooks we already own in the coming year. This will be the perfect way to continue the method, while either weeding out my overflowing cookbook library, or discovering new favorites already on the shelves.

Usually I recap the recipes in the order I made them during the month, but this go around I am going to lead off with the ones I liked best.

Beef Stew
This was nice and hearty with simple but satisfying flavors. I used fancy beef which may seem contrary to stew tradition, but it sure made for tender chunks of tasty beef. I think the key steps here are the drying of the beef (tip of the hat to Julia), and crusting the pieces in the paprika-spiced flour mix before browning. I went with 1/3 red wine and 2/3 beef broth which is the right balance in my opinion.

Cereal Bars (Car Snack 1) 
These turned out great! Not only were they super easy to make, they last well in the fridge and make for a perfect snack on the go. They were also excellent impromptu gifts, requiring just the addition of parchment paper wrapping and a bow. I didn't have enough sliced almonds on hand, so toasted some pumpkin seeds to make up the difference which I liked a lot, and would probably go half/half on next time. Any mix of dried fruits will do, but the mix of coconut, apricot, cherries, cranberries and a little bit of mango was a winner. I also recommend sprinkling a layer of Maldon salt over the top before you put them in the fridge to set. Yum!

Chocolate Pudding 
Previous posts have revealed my love of pudding, so I won't rhapsodize again here. A dramatic cooking mishap unfortunately intervened in my pudding making this time though...I dropped my iPhone into boiling milk, sugar and corn starch. Miraculously, my phone survived! My pudding on the other hand got a bit overcooked, so it set more firmly than I would have liked. Still, this pudding I liked a lot.

Peanut Butter
So easy! Why have I not made my own peanut butter before?!? That is the beauty of a book like this. Per the nut butter recipe, I started with raw peanuts and roasted them lightly. Perhaps not enough, as this had a very unroasted, raw nut flavor. Which was nice, and rather unusual, but I'd go for a bit more time in the oven for my tastebuds next time. Also, I recently scored some spiced peanut butter at the food swap, and see myself definitely experimenting with some chile pepper enhancements down the line.

Buttermilk Ranch Dressing
This is another great use for extra buttermilk. I am not the biggest ranch dressing fan honestly, but the boyfriend is. I reduced the amount of mayo, and used some sour cream instead, which lightened it considerably and made it much more to my liking. I imagine using plain yogurt would work great too. This was awesome on a smoked trout salad.

Potato Leek Soup
A straightforward soup, which always pleases me. Even more so with the addition of bacon! I also used less milk than called for, since overly creamy soups are not my thing. A solid soup recipe to have on hand.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
This was my least favorite recipe/result. The roasted garlic flavor overwhelmed, though I did wing it a bit on proportions, so maybe that was my fault...

Fruit Gelatins: Black Currant and Peach 
I'm cheating a bit here, as I actually made these for the October food swap. But, since they are from this book, I'm including them with full disclosure. Choose your juice flavor wisely — I recommend a clear juice (not something thick like nectar), and something you really like the flavor of as that is basically what these will taste like. Actually, I wonder what you might use to give these a little bit of a flavor boost? Some kind of extract or booze or infusion might be just the thing to make these magnificent.

Many of the staples in this book I have made, or make regularly already, but my biggest regrets this month are not getting to the Toaster Pastries or the Fig Bars. Alas. But, I am inspired for an awesome yogurt flavor I will post on in the new year. Which is literally upon us! Farewell 2013...you delivered a lot of good cooking and good times.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cook the Books 2013 - The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook

Even though I was very excited for November's cookbook, The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook, after all the rich food from October's Cook the Books I wasn't ready for a lot of heavy baking. I tried to stick to some of the healthier recipes, and I kicked things off with something savory...

Tom's Tasty Tomato Soup - p 342

Tomato soup is good food in my book, and this soup gets top marks.

Most incredible to me is how it didn't taste like it was made with canned tomatoes. And, it was just the right amount of creamy and rich without going overboard. I really appreciate that I now have a trusted go-to recipe using canned tomatoes during the winter months. And, I had scored a huge bag of croutons from the last food swap, so was happy to put them to immediate use.

Seatown's "Golden Spurtle" Steel-Cut Oatmeal - p 115

This recipe has made me a steel-cut oat convert! 

We make a lot of oatmeal around here, but I typically go with rolled oats. I guess I always thought steel-cut took forever to cook, but this recipe was so simple and in 30 minutes there was a delicious breakfast on the table. I like how it calls for including salt and brown sugar in the cooking process, with a result that is slightly sweet but still nutty and savory too. À la Goldilocks, I give this a "this porridge is just right!" endorsement.

Best Bran Muffins - p 77-78

Bran muffins are another favorite — and who can resist the claim of "best" anything, right? — but they are actually something I never make myself, and I am subsequently often disappointed. These do not disappoint.

I also got parchment muffin/cupcake liners for the first time when making these and will never look back. In love...

Roasted Carrot, Leek, and Goat Cheese Hand Pies - p 212-14 (using Whole Wheat Pastry Dough - p 215)

These are perfect for a winter's day lunch. I think that's all I need to say. Except that they were way easier to make than I had anticipated. Afterwards I realized I find it simpler to work with dough rounds (versus rectangles) for a simple popover type hand pie.

I had some leftover dough, and was so inspired that I also made mini apple hand pies. I think my new mantra may be: because one hand pie is never enough. Oh yeah, hand pies are going to be fixation, I can tell.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Cinnamon Streusel - p 106-7

My mom makes a killer cinnamon coffee cake. So I have never bothered. Kind of pathetic, I know. But, now I have changed that! This is fruity and fairly light, and everyone who was served some dished up praise, so well done me and Dahlia Bakery Cookbook!

My biggest regret is that I did not get to the Toasted Pine Nut Amaretti. These type of cookies (pignoli) are one of the only cookies I will go out of my way for. By the way, for you San Franciscans, there are excellent ones at Dianda's Bakery on Mission Street. I will have to rely on those until I make some of my own. And, I will be in Seattle in March and plan to eat a number of the things I didn't make from the cookbook when I'm in town.

Next up is something right up my alley: The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making. Excited!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cook the Books 2013 - Marcella Hazan & the Essentials of Italian Cooking

I was struck not only with sadness at the recent passing of Marcella Hazan, but also with a bit of déjà vu. Last year cooking legend Marion Cunningham passed away while I was just a few weeks into cooking my way with a group of friends through her famed The Breakfast Book. This time, it happened just days before Cook the Books 2013 was to begin cooking from Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. What better tribute to these enormously influential women chefs, than to cook their food?

Frittata is one of those dishes my mom whips up regularly, and one she taught me to make early on. Though she uses a different style than Marcella's, this of course just made me want to try my hand at a different technique. I based my frittata on the one with Tomato, Onion and Basil on p 281, but instead used cherry tomatoes, broccoli, kale, and fresh sage and thyme. I ended up baking mine in the oven (alternative method on p 279) versus using her broiler method. This was a satisfying and healthy breakfast dish which was very easy to prepare. And, leftovers are extra handy for workday mornings.

Minestrone is a favorite. And it is officially soup weather, so the Minestrone alla Romagnola (pp 84-6) recipe was a no-brainer pick for me. And one I did not regret. This large batch fed us numerous times, over many days...and was filling and satisfying every time. I'm with Marcella, taking the time to slow cook a flavorful soup base is where it's at. Go onions and carrots and celery! Minestrone, is a soup par excellence, with simple ingredients making magic together.

Pan-Roasted Potatoes with Anchovies, Genoa Style. Period. Do I need to say anything else? Yes, I suppose I must, or you might not understand how crazy delicious these are. Crispy, golden, soft, salty, with a kick from the anchovies that is not at all fishy. Oh yeah. With slight deviance from the recipe, I added the garlic in with a few minutes left to cook, and then the parsley with a minute or two more in the pan before serving. Everything. was. just. right. There were no leftovers.

Foccaccia with Rosemary: it's hard to go wrong here. While I'm not a big bread baker, I've made my share—but never focaccia! Which I love. In fact, I think I might have subsisted on this delicious tomato-y scallion-topped focaccia in Santa Cruz during my college years. Anyhow, memory lane aside, this focaccia was very easy to make and has great olive oil flavor. And it's fun to stab it with your fingers for the "pockets". I would definitely top mine with sea salt next time and see if I could get the dough right with a little less flour, making it more moist and soft. Also, this makes a honkin' slab of focaccia. If you're not having a party, get ready to pop some in the freezer (per Marcella's advice) or make your friends and co-workers very happy with fresh baked bread. Heck, do both.

Eggplant Parmesan is another one of my mom's staples. But in this case, it has meant I've never made it myself. Yup, eggplant lover and all, I'd never made this beaut of a dish before. And there's no going back now. I think I cut the eggplant a bit thick, which meant it soaked up too much olive oil, which I didn't drain very effectively (apparently), so it was a bit heavy. I'd look to thinner slices, and less oil next time. But so glad this has made it into my repertoire, and I liked the colander layer technique for salting and "purging" the eggplant.

The best thing I can say about this book? I didn't want to stop cooking from it. You won't either. Though I do feel like I need to go on a diet after eating potatoes and focaccia and fried cheesy eggplant in just the past few days. Oh wait, next month's pick is The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook, so that plan is a farce. Onward I march in the name of Cook the Bookery...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Double whammy! Cook the Books meets Tasting Jerusalem

I love serendipity, and this month it struck with the convergence of two communal cooking groups. Cook the Books 2013 with Meg of Grow & Resist and Briggs of Ohbriggsy! focuses on a different cookbook each month, and Tasting Jerusalem with Beth (@omgyummy) and Serene (@fringefood) selects a different ingredient each month from a single book. So September brings Jerusalem and pomegranate molasses to the spotlight.

Plenty is a favorite cookbook (though I'm nowhere near vegetarian), so I bought Jerusalem when it came out. While I admit I don't turn to it as often, I have been inspired by the flavors and recipes over the past few months. Choice dishes I've made have included Roasted Cauliflower Salad (p 62), Baharat spiced grilled eggplant over Mejadra (p 120), Baharat eggs over Mejadra, preserved lemons (p 203), and Lamb Meatballs with Currants, Yogurt & Herbs (p 199).

On the menu this month:

Cardamom rice pudding with pistachios & rose water (p 270) - As previously confessed in my Cook the Books Gran Cocina Latina post, I adore rice pudding. And rose flavored things. Especially the combination of cardamom and rose (see my french toast and meringue posts). As usual I made some of my recipe reading mistakes (long grain rice instead of short grain) and some substitutions (half & half instead of heavy cream, and a little extra milk with some sugar instead of condensed milk), so my version was no doubt a little less rich than Ottolenghi and Tamimi's...but it still looked and tasted gorgeous! The overnight liquid soaking part felt a little fussy to me; I wonder if there might be a way to impart the flavor of the spices without that step. Also, my sister gave me one of her rugosa rose bushes, which produces amazing blooms and rose petal jelly! The petals went into this dish too.

Shakshuka (p 66) - Me and Tunisian cuisine both have a passionate love affair with eggs. The recipe states it's a seasonal summer variation, and using all fresh farmers market produce and eggs really emphasized this point. The fresh flavors of the peppers and tomatoes shone through, and the harissa brings some spicy depth without overwhelming. Over the moon with this satisfying dish despite my less than perfect presentation. I halved the recipe and used only whole eggs (not whole eggs + yolks), so found it was a little tight in my pan and swirling the whites was just a bad idea for me. There will be a next time, so I'm sure this is a practice makes perfect kind of thing.

Wheat berries & Swiss chard with pomegranate molasses (p 100) - This dish was a strange one for me. First of all, though I should have had a sense of it from the cooking time (all together over 80 minutes), but I wasn't expecting it to be so stew-like. Served up with poached salmon on the first night, it was really tasty. Though the BF liked it less than me. True, I may have been a little heavy-handed with the pomegranate molasses, so it was pretty tangy, but to my palate a nice combination of textures and flavors. A couple days later we had some leftovers, and it had become much less pleasant tasting; bitter and strong. I did skip serving it with the suggested greek yogurt both times, so maybe that would have helped mellow out the strong flavors. I would maybe make this again, and fiddle with the ingredients and proportions in order to make it more savory, with just a hint of sweet, and less dominant sharpness.

One of the really fun things about immersing yourself in a single cookbook each monthor for longer!is to investigate and savor different ingredients. I love going out to the various ethnic grocers in our neighborhood (rarely do I need to go further) and buying things I usually only look at or wonder about. And I frequently discover new ways to use a familiar ingredient too. At home in my own kitchen, I feel like I journey the world through food. And the exploration is made that much more interesting with good company. I can't wait to see what everyone else, from both cooking communities, cooked up this month!

And for the record (the second time), I WILL make the Chocolate Krantz Cake one of these days...

Note: My trusty old Canon PowerShot SD650 is on its last legs, and I recently crossed over to the dark side and now have an iPhone. I'm trying out all iPhone photos for the blog. and though I haven't spent any time exploring more than basic functionality, so far...I'm not convinced. Tips, thoughts and camera recommendations are all welcome.