6.29.2009

the bandwagon



I have never been one for the bandwagon.

I acquired my first cell phone only two years ago. I still do not have a Facebook page. In the early nineteen-nineties, the New Kids on the Block craze completely passed me by, and in the early two-thousands, despite a rather long pair of legs, I have managed to keep my jeans untucked from my leather boots. I don’t set out to be contrary. Back in junior high, when my friends started drinking coffee in order to “acquire a taste” for it, I did my best to join in. But the bitter brew never lived up to its aroma, and I had to abandon the cause. The trouble is, try as I might, if I don’t find something appealing, I just can’t fake it.

There’s a certain romance in dancing to the beat of a different drum. It seems honest and brave. But the downside is that, sometimes, I just plain miss out on things.

In 2006, Mark Bittman published Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe in his New York Times column, The Minimalist. The result was a bread-baking revolution. Would-be bakers everywhere dusted off their cast iron pots, and produced the crusty, airy loaves that dreams are made of. When their cookware couldn’t take the heat, these apron-clad revolutionaries took to the streets, looting and pillaging, swiping Le Creuset knobs from sales displays with their still-floury hands.

Time and again, I heard about the virtues of Lahey’s no-knead bread. But frankly, it just never occurred to me to try it. Why, I reasoned, would I want a no-knead bread recipe, when I already have a bread recipe that I love? When I don’t mind the kneading one bit and, in fact, actually enjoy it? (Yes, I realize that this “reasoning” is glaringly empty of reason. I tend to be overly attached, clingy even, to my favorite tried-and-trues. I’m working on it. Just don’t ever make me part ways with Martha’s pâte brisée, okay?)

Years passed, and the most celebrated no-knead bread of all time simply fell off my radar.

dinner

A funny thing happens when you write a blog like this one. You go on a little about food, post a few photographs, and soon everyone on the planet has just the recipe for you. It’s my favorite perk of the job. Most people are content to suggest a recipe in an e-mail, to dictate it over the phone, or to scribble it down and slide it across the table once the plates have been cleared. A few months back, our friend, Rich, left a link to Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe in a comment right here on Sweet Amandine. But he didn’t stop there. Dear Rich went so far as to leave the country and lend us his lake house, to slip the printed recipe between the pages of the The Joy of Cooking on the counter and – here’s the kicker – to tuck a Le Creuset pot into the bottom drawer by the oven. Rich, do Martha and the kids know that your summer trip was just a ruse to get me into your kitchen, the stage you set so perfectly for the baking of Lahey’s no-knead bread? If not, your secret’s safe with me.

Four crackly-crusted loaves later, I am so securely on board, I have picked up a trumpet and joined the band. For the uninitiated (that is, assuming another soul exists who has not yet baked this bread), Lahey’s secret weapons are time and a covered heavy pot. Mixing together the dough takes only about a minute. No joke. Instead of kneading it to develop the gluten, a long fermentation process – 18 hours – does the work for you. The trick behind the crisp, golden crust is the moisture in the dough. It transforms the covered heavy pot into a miniature steam oven, which mimics the larger steam ovens in which professionals and artisans bake their loaves. Suddenly, that elusive shattery crust is not only within reach, it’s tumbling out of your very own oven.



It’s really something.

If you have held out this long, dear reader, and have not yet enjoyed this recipe, let me gently suggest that the time has come to have at it. Bake this bread. You’ll see. Some wagons are indeed worth the hop.

bread and cheese

No-Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey at the Sullivan Street Bakery via Mark Bittman at New York Times

3 c. all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1/4 t. instant yeast
1 1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 c. water
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed

1. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, yeast, and salt. Add the water, and stir until blended. The dough will be shaggy, sticky, and loose. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Lahey says to let the dough rest for at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature (about 70 degrees). I have had the best results waiting 18-20 hours.

2. The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place the dough on it. Sprinkle the dough with a bit of flour. Grab the left and right sides of the dough and fold them into the center. Then do the same with the top and bottom sides of the dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap (you can use the same sheet of plastic that covered the bowl) and let rest for about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to your work surface and your fingers, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth - it will stick) with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal. (I use cornmeal.) Flip the dough onto the towel, seam side down. Dust the top with more cornmeal (or flour, or bran). Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for 2-3 hours. When it is ready, the dough will be more than double in size, and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least half an hour before the dough is ready, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a 4-6 quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic)* into the oven as it heats. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over into the pot, seam side up. If it looks like a giant, ugly blob, you're right on track! Shake the pot once or twice if the dough is unevenly distributed. It will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with the lid and bake for 30 minutes. Then, remove the lid and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until the loaf is beautifully browned. Turn out onto a rack, and enjoy the lovely crackling as it cools!

Yield: One 1 1/2 pound loaf.

*I read up a little about the issue of plastic knobs that may or may not be heat resistant to 450 degrees. Some people report that the plastic knobs on their Le Creuset pots have cracked, melted, or even exploded (!) in the very hot oven. Others claim to have had no trouble whatsoever. To play it safe, I simply unscrewed the plastic knob from the pot and stopped up the hole with foil. Then, I carefully slipped the top on and off with oven-mit-protected hands. Another option is to order a stainless steel replacement knob from Le Creuset. Or, find a heat-safe knob (drawer pulls, I've been told, do the trick) at your local hardware store.

6.26.2009

room for dessert

Last night, inspired by a three-pound sack of sweet English peas from the farmers market, we gave the grill a rest.



We shelled and we shelled. For every two pods that we emptied into the bowl, we scraped one directly into our mouths with our teeth. It's possible that I have these numbers reversed. We had to keep our strength up, after all.



One of the nice things about a simple, pasta-and-salad meal is that it leaves room in your belly for dessert. Room for dessert is always a venerable goal. But it takes on special meaning when you're visiting Washington State in late June, and therefore swimming in a sea of just-picked cherries. At a stand by the side of the road, cherries were going for little more than a dollar a pound. A steal, people. We couldn't resist and, apparently, neither could our friends who drove up to visit us the following day. And that, dear reader, is how we ended up with not one, but two bursting bags of cherries on our hands. It was truly an embarrassment of riches.

The only sensible thing to do was to bake a clafoutis.

As far as I'm concerned, clafoutis is French for "throw some fruit in a dish and dump a bowlful of batter over top," because that's really all there is to it. The eggy batter puffs up while the clafoutis bakes, and then sinks back down and around the cherries as it cools. The result is something that more closely resembles a custard than a cake. If a dessert can be defined, in part, by its serving utensil, clafoutis is somewhat of an enigma: Its firm-yet-creamy consistency is equally suited to slicing and scooping. And the cherries? They burrow into the sweet, cushiony custard, release their juices and - all tuckered out, I suppose - slump lazily in their own private craters.



There was much bowl scraping, last night, and spoon licking today, after bites stolen directly from the fridge.

Cherry Clafoutis
Adapted from Garrett McCord via Simply Recipes

Traditional clafoutis is made with unpitted cherries because of the almondy flavor that the pits impart to the dish. I decided to pit the cherries, nevertheless. The original recipe calls for a 9x9 or 10x7 inch baking dish. I didn't have either on hand, so I used a 12-inch deep-dish pie plate. If you are not as fortunate as I am to have hit the cherry jackpot, you can make this clafoutis with raspberries, blueberries, plums, apricots, or peaches instead.

2-3 c. of fresh sweet cherries, pitted
3 eggs
1 c. sugar
1 T. brown sugar
1/2 c. all-purpose flour, sifted
1/8 t. salt
1 c. whole milk
2 t. Amaretto, or 1 t. almond extract
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
Powdered sugar for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and lightly flour the baking dish, and toss in the cherries.
2. Whisk the eggs, sugars, salt, and flour together until smooth.
3. Add the milk, almond extract or liqueur, and the vanilla extract. Whisk until smooth. Pour into the baking dish.
4. Bake for 40-50 minutes until lightly browned. It is done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. The finished clafoutis should still jiggle slightly in the dish.
5. Place the dish on a cooling rack. The clafoutis will deflate as it cools. I like to serve clafoutis slightly warm, with a dusting of powdered sugar on top.

Serves 6.

6.23.2009

an open space

I love vacationing in cities where I used to live. It’s a special kind of homecoming, a potent reminder that home is like an ocean, far too wide and deep to be defined by a single shore.

Hello, Seattle. It has been too long.



Martha and Rich, two exceedingly generous friends of ours, invited us to stay at their house on Lake Wenatchee while they are away. Eli and I will be out here in the woods for a couple of weeks, and then round out our trip with four days in the city.

Our plane touched down, and we wasted no time in gathering provisions. Seattle welcomed us back as only she can, with a bag of Red Vines, a pound of cherries, and two of our favorite Beecher’s cheeses, Flagship and Honey Blank Slate. We filled a cooler with Copper River salmon, lamb, chicken breasts, and steaks for the grill, and sped east, into the Cascades.

This time away is a working vacation, for me. But out here, working hard feels like hardly working. I open my eyes each morning to the emerald stillness of the lake, and the blue, Pacific sky. We get up early. After a light breakfast, we hike halfway up a small mountain called Dirtyface. The higher we climb, the more stunning the view. We pause at the waterfall to take it all in.

Back at the house, I get down to business, studying for my remaining two exams. In design, as in life, Martha and Rich have their priorities straight. I love their understated style: the natural light, the exposed wooden beams and chattered wood floors, the smoky slate and muted earth tones. An open space like this opens me up. Studying feels luxurious and easy.

Eli spends his days climbing in the nearby Icicle Creek Canyon. In the six or seven o’clock hour, he returns home and fires up the grill for dinner. Eli is in charge of the protein and grilled vegetables, and I handle the bread, the salad, and dessert. Which brings us to the kitchen. And in particular, to a certain Viking range and oven that stopped me in my tracks when I first walked through the door. I never knew it was possible to have a crush – an actual weak-kneed, sweaty-palmed, woozy crush – on a kitchen appliance. It cooks with a gentle power, with the grace, precision, and economy of a gifted poet. It is also very handsome. Deep red. Martha, Rich, if you had lent us only your kitchen, I gladly would have camped out on the floor each night beside the Sub-Zero refrigerator. It still would have been a dream vacation.

After dinner, we enjoy a fire or a soak in the outdoor hot tub, and fall into bed a little earlier than we would at home.

Then, we wake up the next day, and do it all over again.



Thank you, Martha and Rich, for this tremendous gift.

The summer solstice is now behind us. Sweet Amandine enters her third season. I thank you, very dear reader, for traveling with me this far. Wherever you may be, I hope that your summer is off to a wonderful and restorative start.

6.19.2009

state of graze, part II: salads and sautés



With my Russian history exam now behind me (!), it’s time I update you on the State of Graze that has sustained me over these last, study-packed weeks.

Lest you worry that with all of the nut munching and yogurt spooning going on around here, I have been skimping on my vegetables, rest assured. Broccoli played a leading role in the graze-y days leading up to the big exam. It’s a highly graze-compatible vegetable: Simply reach into the refrigerator, snap off a stalk, rinse, and eat. However. There comes a time in every State of Graze when the thought of one more snap, rinse, and eat becomes too much to bear. That’s where simple meals – yes, actual meals – in the form of salads, sautés, and cereals, come in.

Since I have already shared with you my everyday cereal, I thought we might move along today to the remaining two categories: salads and sautés.



That raw broccoli is no one-trick pony. Add a tangy dressing, some almonds, and a sprinkling of raisins, and you have yourself a salad that is downright addictive. What’s more, the broccoli remains wonderfully graze-able: Most salads and slaws droop and play dead if left in the refrigerator overnight. The nice thing about broccoli is that it bravely stands up to its dressing. Several days later, this salad will still respond to your bite with a satisfying crunch. Practically speaking, that’s very good news when you find yourself in a State of Graze. One batch of broccoli salad, and you’re set for the next seventy-two hours. Just pry open the Tupperware, pluck out a vinegary, creamy head of broccoli, and consume. Lick your fingers, and you’re good for at least another thirty minutes of tsars and imperial decrees – or whatever it is you happen to be working on. When you’re standing for the thousandth time with your head and upper body engulfed in the refrigerator, it’s nice to have options.



On to the sauté, the one not-so-graze-y meal amidst all of this nibbling. This dish is something that I really, really like to eat. It’s what I make when I don’t know what I want for dinner. Come to think of it, it’s what I make when I do know what I want for dinner. Baby bok choy and tofu. After a long day of studying, or a long run along the river or, frankly, a long day of doing absolutely nothing, it’s what I want to eat. I would say more, but with two recipes now demanding your attention, I don’t want to keep you.



Broccoli Salad, or “That Broccoli Business”
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Deb, over at Smitten Kitchen, dubs this recipe “broccoli slaw.” She suggests using either a food processor’s slicing blade or a mandolin to cut the broccoli – stems and all – into small chunks and ribbons. From her beautiful pictures, you can see that the result is indeed something slaw-like. I decided to use only the flowerets and the very tops of the stems, and to cut the broccoli into pieces no smaller than bite-sized. This technique makes for easier plucking and popping into the mouth during study breaks.

I brought this salad to dinner a few weeks ago. My friend, Jonathan, took a bite and, liking what he tasted, asked, “What’s in that broccoli business, anyway?” We have been calling this salad “That Broccoli Business” since then.

For the salad:
2-3 heads of broccoli (2 if you plan on using more of the stem, 3 if you plan on using less)
1 c. whole almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
½ c. raisins
½ of a medium red onion, finely chopped

For the dressing:
1/2 c. well-shaken buttermilk
1/3 c. mayonnaise
2 T. cider vinegar
1 T. granulated sugar
1 generous pinch each (or several grinds) of salt and pepper

Prepare the nuts:
Heat the oven to 350. Pour the almonds onto a baking sheet, and shake them into a single layer. When the oven is hot, toast the almonds for 7-8 minutes, until fragrant. Once they have cooled, dump them onto a cutting board and chop coarsely. I like my almond pieces relatively large in this salad, which means just 2-3 passes with a chef’s knife.

Prepare the dressing:
Whisk together all of the ingredients in a small bowl. Or, shake the ingredients together in a small, clean, mustard or jam jar.

Prepare the salad:
Wash the broccoli and snap off the flowerets (and, if you’re me, about ½ to 1 inch of the stems) into a bowl. Cut the larger flowerets down to just bite-sized as you go. If desired, chop up some or all of the stems, and add them to the bowl. (Watch out – the bottoms of the stems can be woody.)

Toss the broccoli with the chopped, toasted almonds, raisins, and finely chopped red onion. Pour the dressing over the salad, and toss well. Season with additional salt and paper to taste.

Makes about six cups of slaw.

I like this salad best after the broccoli has had a few hours to marinate in the dressing. Deb writes that it will keep, refrigerated, for up to a week. I have never had it last more than three days.
__________________

Baby Bok Choy and Tofu with Toasted Pecans and Lime

1/2 to 3/4 block extra-firm tofu (If you can’t find extra-firm, you can use firm, or even medium)
4-6 baby bok choys
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 of a lime
1 T. olive oil, plus extra for brushing the tofu
1 T. soy sauce
1/2 c. pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oven to 350 degrees, and toast pecans 7-8 minutes, until fragrant. When they have cooled, coarsely chop them.

Meanwhile, finely chop the garlic, and prepare the bok choy: My preferred method of cleaning bok choy is to break of all of the leafy stalks and throw them into a large bowl filled with water. I swish them around, and use my fingers to push off any dirt caught in the white bottoms of the stalks. Then, I empty the water, and spin or lightly pat dry. Don’t dry them all the way. You want some moisture on the leaves so that they will steam a little in the pan.

Cut off the leafy green parts of the bok choy from the white stalks. (The stalks will take longer to cook, so you will add them to the pan first.) Slice the stalks into pieces no thicker than ½ inch. As for the greens, they will reduce during cooking, so you only need to chop them in half or, at most, into thirds.

Then, over the sink, gently press the tofu between two small plates to get rid of excess moisture. Slice into 4-6 tofu “steaks.” Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or foil, oiled), and place the tofu steaks in a single layer on the sheet. Brush the top of the tofu with olive oil. (The back of a spoon also works just fine.) Season with salt and pepper, and bake in the oven for about 25-30 minutes, until the tofu is golden on top, and maybe a little crispy around the edges, but not dried out.

When the tofu is about 10 minutes from completion, heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, and when the fragrance rises, add the stalk slices. Sauté until they are slightly soft, but still crunchy. It usually takes about 7 minutes. Pile the bok choy greens on top of the stalks, cover the pan, and turn down the heat a bit. Allow the greens to steam for 2-3 minutes, until just wilted. Remove the lid, add the 1 T. soy sauce, and stir.

I serve this dish over brown rice. Scoop some rice onto each plate, cover with the garlicy bok choy, and lay a couple of tofu steaks over top. Squeeze some of the lime juice and sprinkle a handful of the chopped nuts over each plate. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper.

Serves 2-3.

6.15.2009

happy 58th to the one who taught me to keep it in the bowl



I do not have my mother's brown eyes, her small, slender fingers, or her perfectly curving silhouette. She is endlessly patient, kind to a fault. I do not take after her. "We're sure who the father is, we're just not so sure who the mother is," my parents used to joke. But before we write off her X-chromosome genes as entirely recessive, we must consider all of the evidence.

My affinity for turkey and chopped liver sandwiches, the tendency to wash my hands far more often than necessary, and my love of breakfast for dinner, I clearly owe to her. It is from my mother that I learned how to eat an artichoke, how to sop up the runny yolk of a fried egg with toast, and how to turn up my nose at corned-beef that is sliced any thicker than paper thin. When I was a child, Mom would ask me everyday, "How does it feel to be Jessica today?" Then, she would listen. And in so doing, she taught me how to listen, how always to make space for the other person in the room. Mommy mine, I could not be more grateful for this fine inheritance.

On the occasion of her 58th birthday, I'd like to celebrate some of my dear Mommy's lesser-known qualities: There is, for example, her unparalleled, two-step method of purse-rummaging. At cash registers the world over, she reaches deep into the mouth of her purse, and grabs hold of every credit card, business card, and receipt within reach. Her hand emerges with a motley stack that smells faintly of spearmint gum. Then, with the dexterity and speed of a Vegas dealer, she fans and shuffles until the sought-after card rises to the top of the deck. I've never seen a woman rummage so gracefully. And this birthday portrait would not be complete without mention of my mother's odd susceptibility to foreign accents. In mere thirty-second conversations, she has been known to take on the lilts, drawls, and cadences of her interlocutors. To be honest, it's a little disturbing. But also strangely endearing.

My earliest memories in the kitchen are with my mom, baking - as she dubbed them - "After-Preschool Brownies." I would measure, pour, and even work the mixer. I did the best I could, but my four-year-old "best" inevitably involved some runaway batter on the counter. Mom never said, "don't make a mess." She preferred a gentler, kinder directive: "Don't forget to keep it in the bowl."



I remember these brownies as the richest, most chocolaty things I had ever tasted. I was just a few years out from having started on solid foods, so they probably were. This morning, I learned that what passes for an intense dessert in preschool takes a very different shape on the palate a couple of decades later. They resemble more a good, simple chocolate cake than the sinfully decadent dessert most often associated with the name "brownie." But I'm not complaining. Over a warm, After-Preschool Brownie and a glass of milk, I got to thinking. When, exactly, did we enter the age of the extreme brownie? Must every brownie earn its title with a full pound of chocolate, cacao powder to boot, a clever twist of mint or caramel, and a sheet of chocolate frosting? After-Preschool Brownies are this question's best answer. Somewhere between cakey and fudgy, these brownies provide a smooth, solid hit of chocolate - nothing more, nothing less. They are pleasantly two-toned, with a dark and moist interior and a crackly light-brown crust. After-Preschool Brownies are mild and understated in a brownie world that's gone all glitz and glamour.

To all of you readers out there under the age of five, I heartily recommend this recipe as an excellent first brownie. Any grownups looking for a lower-key brownie that doesn't leave you groaning on the floor in a state of sensory overload, you might want to give this recipe a try, too.

Dear readers, if you happen to see a woman today with a faux southern twang rummaging around (ever so gracefully) in her purse, please give her a big birthday hug for me. As for you, dear Mommy, happy birthday. I love you.



After-Preschool Brownies
Adapted from the Kitchen of Mom

I gave this recipe a bit of a face lift with the help of high-quality chocolate, the addition of salt, and a reduction in sugar. We always left out the walnuts in Mom's kitchen, so for the sake of posterity, I left them out, too.

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I used Scharffen-Berger 70%)
2 sticks butter
4 large eggs
1 ½ c. granulated sugar
¼ t. salt
2 t. vanilla
6 T. flour
1 c. toasted, chopped walnuts (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 13”x9”x2” pan.

In a double boiler (or metal bowl) set over barely simmering water, melt the chocolate and the butter. Stir occasionally.

While the butter and chocolate are melting, crack the eggs into a glass, measure the sugar into one bowl, and whisk together the flour and the salt in another.

When the butter and chocolate have melted, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Meanwhile, beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla on high speed for about 4 minutes, until the mixture is thick and light in color.

Stir a bit (a few tablespoons) of the egg mixture into the warm chocolate to lighten. Then, beat the lightened chocolate into the egg mixture. Mix in the flour and the salt. The batter will be liquidy, but will firm up as it bakes.

Pour the batter into the pan, and bake for 20-25 minutes, until just a few crumbs cling to a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan. If you prefer a more fudge-like brownie, remove the pan from the oven closer to the 20 minute mark. For cake-like brownies, leave in the oven for up to 25 minutes. Do not overbake.

Allow to cool in the pan until they are not quite room temperature. Cut into squares, and remove the brownies to a cooling rack.

6.07.2009

nice play

Good morning, dear readers.

I don't have a recipe for you this morning, so how about this: Let's go out. That's what Eli said to me a couple of Sundays ago before I even had the chance to glance in the direction of my office, let alone crack open a book. Intercepted by breakfast. Nice play.

We went to Sofra, a Middle Eastern cafe and bakery run by Chefs Maura Kilpatrick and Ana Sortun.

hazelnuts

I have one foot out the door to New York this morning, so I must be brief. Suffice it to say, that unless you have an aversion to a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg, you really must order the Turkish breakfast.

And if you have never tried drinking your rhubarb, with mint, over ice, allow me to offer you a sip.

ice cold rhubarb mint

Oh, and one more thing: a coconut macaroon for the road. They're a little crispy on the outside, and so moist on the inside that the coconut practically tumbles out.

coconut macaroons

And with that, I hit the road.

Happy Sunday, all!

6.04.2009

opening day

Those of you who have been reading for a while may recall a cold, snowy day back in January when I signed up for the Siena Farms CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Well. Today was opening day.

mesculun greens

The very first box of the season came bursting with greens: bok choy, sweet spinach, peppery mesclun greens, radishes, pink and white, and - be still my heart - green garlic!

And so, I present to you today's lunch: Mesculun greens topped with sliced radishes, a grind of sea salt and pepper, and a few drips of olive oil.

radish salad

For dinner, I sliced the green garlic and let it sizzle in olive oil for a few minutes. Then, I turned down the heat, piled spinach on top, stems and all, salted and peppered lightly, and covered the pan until the leaves just wilted in the steam. It was gorgeous, and I'm sorry that I don't have any pictures to share with you. How about a mouthful of garlic breath, instead? On second thought, perhaps I'd better keep that to myself.