Crackers and Cookies and Ranting, Oh My!

So. The crackers. The flavor really is the best so far, in very subtle ways, but the dough was MUCH harder to handle: it didn’t roll out nicely (it kind of fell apart), and it was way too sticky. I think the problem was likely the sugar content, which might have affected the way the moisture in the dough worked, and an additional problem might have been the barley flakes; they don’t have much gluten in them, which means any dough is going to be lacking in tensile strength if the barley content is too high. This, however, demonstrates what happens when you change too many factors at once: I don’t really know whether it was the pumpkin seed praline or the barley that caused the handling difficulties. On the flip side, given that I want both ingredients in the mix, I will more likely just try to adjust from here rather than removing one ingredient and seeing what happens.

It is by no means a scientific approach; hell, it’s not even a methodical approach. The results are very tasty, though, so I don’t much care. It’s one thing to end up with something that sucks–you don’t know which of your changes caused the suckage–but if something is imperfect in one dimension (ease of production) but still tastes good, it’s no big tragedy to work your way through the suckage.

The cookies are awesome, just to complete the report on the weekend’s efforts. I doubt I’ll be able to reproduce them (although I did try to take a few notes after the fact), but even getting in the neighborhood will work just fine.

That brings me to another point: while reproducibility can be desireable–very desireable, actually–it’s not the only virtue, outside of a production environment. As I noted below, if you’re serving food in a restaurant, or if you’re making products in a bakery–if you’re selling your product–you want your customers to be confident about the quality and the flavor and every other damn thing. They’re purchasing an experience in some ways–a flavor experience, if you will–and they want that experience every time.

Truth be told, there are times when I want to reproduce something, too–lots of times. There are any number of recipes I use frequently, sometimes even making the exact same changes, because I know I’ll get the results I have in mind when I do that. There are also techniques–e.g., for canning or storing food–that need to be followed for food-safety reasons, and getting lax in those dimensions could kill you. In a less dire frame of mind, I do not by any means want to discourage anyone from using recipes or techniques that produce the results you want every time.

However, I wonder if the availability of predictable results in the food we purchase to consume also makes us think that we really do have to always use a recipe, or always do something the same way. That approach also means we end up with little scraps of unused bits–a handful of leftovers, a scrap of some ingredient–and no clear way to use the stuff. The leftovers get thrown out; the ingredient is left to disintegrate, or we go buy more, just to use up the old stuff.

The cookies are a perfect example. They had some malted milk sugar in them. I had bought malted milk powder from KAF, and I like the flavor, but the product basically hardened into a lump in my cabinet. I tried grating it, which worked, but only very very slowly, and I tried chopping it, which didn’t really work at all. I tried hammering it, which sort of worked, but ended up sending bits of solidified malted milk powder flying around the kitchen, sticking to the floor, which wasn’t what I had in mind. They suggested I microwave it to soften it, which I did, but I still ended up with chunks, and it would re-solidify. I have picked away at it, with the above methods, and still had a lump of it.

So Sunday I microwaved it (a bit too long) and then quickly chopped it while it was soft. I chopped it on top of the chopped chocolate for the recipe, so it melted the chocolate and combined with it, mostly, while still keeping mini lumps of malted milk stuff intact. It was perfect for the cookies, and I think I have another lump in the cabinet, though I doubt I’ll buy it again. Well, maybe.

The point is, the product was tasty–i.e., good in one dimension–but a pain to store, i.e., problematic in a different dimension. I found a way to use it that took advantage of its good dimension and meant that I didn’t have to throw it away, which is awesome, but what I ended up doing may not be reproducible, as it was largely a method aimed at using up a product that was problematic in the aforementioned storage dimension. Leftovers are similar: sometimes I’ll have a little something left over from some other meal or use, and I’ll just throw it into whatever I’m making, just so it doesn’t go to waste.

At heart, these efforts are really contrary to both the idea of recipes and the idea of mass-produced food, both of which conspire, in both good and bad ways, to get us to desire consistency and sameness in what we eat. The good end of that spectrum is having some spectacular dish, in a restaurant, say, and taking a friend back a month later and the dish is still spectacular and still tastes more or less the same. The bad end of the spectrum encompasses fast “food” (which is really just industrial fuel, but that’s a different rant)–but I would argue that the bad end of the spectrum is also our own belief that we have to follow recipes exactly and what we produce at home should taste the way the recipe intends or taste the same way every time, no matter what the availability of ingredients happens to be.

Speaking of the availability of ingredients, this week’s farm share will include onions, garlic, carrots, spinach, tomato juice, AND a jar of tomatoes. I now have way too many tomatoes in jars, so one of this weekend’s projects needs to include using tomatoes. I don’t have any ideas yet, but I’ll work on that.

Third Time Charms

I have found a way to manage the turnips: if I combine them with the wild turkey gumbo that my friend made, the turnips add vegetation to the gumbo but the flavor is no longer overwhelming. Nevertheless, eating them more than two days in a row is a bad idea.

When I worked at the bakery, the owner used to say that it took three tries to get a formula right, and I find that he’s correct. The first time, I’m usually following a recipe of some kind, or at least basing what I’m doing on a formula, and it often is edible at the very least. The second time, I might be tweaking it in some way–changing a few of the ingredients; possibly playing with quantities, proportion, or finishing method (e.g., temperature of the oven; how thin it’s rolled out; the quantity of filling in a crust; how much of the fat I can swap out with flax or pumpkin). The third time, I combine what I’ve learned from the first two efforts and try to settle on a final version. If there needs to be a fourth time, I try to refine whatever I was doing in the third effort that didn’t work the way I’d hoped.

At the bakery, the goal was to settle on a production method that was reproducible and not too finicky, which is important if your goal is, in fact, consistent production. If you have customers coming in for a croissant, those customers want that croissant to be consistent from one day to the next, one week to the next. They want today’s miche to taste like last month’s miche. To manage that, you have to settle on formulae and then use those formulae. Even then, of course, there are variations–I was always a little amazed how some days the dough was really perfect–beautiful lamination, just the right feel, etc.–and other days were more of a struggle. It’s all relative, of course; once I got the hang of it, the range was pretty narrow, all things considered, but the more you do something, the more you notice small variations. (Thus, Filoman, who is an extraordinary baker, could always tell when the flour changed, i.e., when the batch we were using was the first of the new crop.) And, of course, there are always mistakes–something gets left out, say. That happened less frequently (especially if I remembered to taste the raw dough before putting it in the bins–it’s a good way to realize you forgot the salt or the sugar, for example), but it still happened.

At home, the criteria are a little different. Take these crackers: the first time, my sesame seeds were old-smelling, so I used the KAF Harvest Grains instead of the sesame seeds, and I put a little sea salt on top. The second time, I had new sesame seeds, so I left out the Harvest Grains. I think I added some semolina flour, too, though not much; less than 20% of the total flour, most likely. I didn’t put salt on top. I also didn’t like those crackers nearly as much. The third time I made them, I used the Harvest Grains again, and I put a mixture of sea salt and praline pumpkin seeds on top (a KAF product). Those were quite good, especially the sweet/salt mix, but there wasn’t quite enough of the sweet. Today’s batch incorporates some of the praline pumpkin seeds in the mix, as well as some ground barley flakes in place of a little of the flour. (That’s primarily to add a little fiber; I only replaced about 12% of the flour with the ground flakes.) I used a combo of sesame seeds and Harvest Grains. I’m also going to use the sea salt and praline mix on top, and I expect these to be the best yet.


KAF has the praline pumpkin seed mix on sale (I bought five bags of it), which leads me to believe that they’re going to eliminate it from their product line, just like they eliminated the Bak-O-Mega ground flaxseed flour, which I loved and of which I only have a little left. (Some of that goes in the crackers, too, in lieu of the ground flaxseeds called for by the recipe; that substitution seems pretty minor to me, as ground seeds or flax meal will likely work just fine.) Which means, if I’m right, I’ll eventually need to figure out how to replace the praline pumpkin seeds in the cracker dough. That’s a problem for another day, though.

Today’s other two tasks are a trip to the grocery store–I realize that I have been sadly lacking in green vegetables of any kind, and I am positively craving spinach and broccoli, and I do not want to wait until I get some spinach in the farm share on Thursday–and making some chocolate cookies. I’ve been trying to make some efforts to fit into my clothes again, but I still need my sweets. I’ll probably start with this recipe, but I know that I want to use whole wheat flour (and possibly a little barley flour) instead of all-purpose; add some flax meal to it, possibly in place of some of the butter; and possibly change up the sugar. For example, if I use malted barley syrup instead of sugar, it might get that nice roasty taste of a good porter or stout. I might also add some dried cherries or dried cranberries (have to see what’s in the cupboard).

Are you rolling your eyes at me yet? Because I am, a little. Here’s a perfectly good recipe–based on other things I’ve made from the website, it’s probably an excellent recipe, and it probably produces very good chocolate cookies. So why can’t I just USE that recipe? I ask myself that question a lot, and I even have an excuse answer. For one thing, I want to use whole grains whenever I can. For another, I want to add flax and fiber whenever I can–the whole grains help with the latter, and a little flax is easy to add to a recipe that has an intense flavor of some kind. I’ve been experimenting with malted barley sugar, just because, and I like the chocolate-cherry combo, in general. Each of the little tweaks swaps in something that ups the nutritional aspects of the cookies (except the barley sugar, which is more of a flavor experiment) and provides the treat I want but with a little less . . . damage, I guess, to my overall health goals. It’s still a cookie, at the end, but it’s less of a fat-and-sugar bomb and, I hope, more of a sweet-tooth-satisfying-but-not-crazy-caloric treat. We’ll see; it could fail. But it could also be awesome.

Welcome to Turnip Town

When I first started cooking a lot, especially when I was cooking from vegetarian recipes, I was a bit confounded because many of the recipes include bell peppers. I cannot eat bell peppers of any color; they do not like me, so we have a mutual non-aggression pact (I don’t eat them and they don’t bother me). I could never make those recipes the way the recipe said (yes, I did used to follow recipes more religiously, which is part of how I can disregard them more easily now), and I had the sense that I was making it “wrong,” somehow, that I didn’t know how it was supposed to taste. Eventually, though, I realized that what I was producing tasted quite good, even if it didn’t have an ingredient that the recipe’s creators included, sometimes in large quantities–which meant that I wasn’t making it wrong, after all.

Sometimes, in such recipes, I’ll make up the bulk that the peppers would occupy with more of the recipe’s other ingredients (onions, for example, or one of the other vegetables), but that’s rarely necessary. And, in general, I throw in more onions (and more garlic) than the recipe lists, no matter what the recipe is. But the spices and/or herbs, and the main ingredients themselves are what give the dish its flavor, and the peppers aren’t missed, at least not by me. I’m not going to make something where peppers are a main ingredient–stuffed peppers, for example–but that’s no different from not making any recipe because you don’t care for the main ingredient; the flavor of the main ingredient will overwhelm everything else you throw in, and there’s no rescuing it if you don’t like the main ingredient.

All of which is a preface to the turnip adventure. I finally got around to cooking some of them yesterday–the purple-tops; I left the hakurai for another day–and no matter what you do to them, they’re still turnips. For those of you who are interested in trying this at home, I cut up a lot of onions–three cups, maybe? possibly more–and garlic. I sweated them in a combo of butter, coconut cream (I got some of the box at the bottom of this on sale, and have been experimenting with how to use it), and olive oil–probably a half a tablespoon of each, then threw in the smashed and chopped garlic for awhile.

I added spices: ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, ground coriander, a pinch of cloves, some grated orange peel I had in the fridge that had dried up, some candied lemon peel and orange peel (I had made the first one, but the second was from KAF), and a handful of leftover roasted pineapple. I also had some carrots–I cut them into strips in the food processor. I took the new one for a spin yesterday, and sliced up radishes and watermelon radishes for roasting, the carrots, and all the damn turnips, after I peeled the latter two. I tossed the carrots with a little butter and coconut cream, and some ginger syrup (also made that and had it in the fridge with candied ginger) and roasted them. I would NOT have taken that step if the oven hadn’t already been on for the crackers and the radishes (and, later, the bread), but I figured I’d give it a shot. After they had roasted a bit, I cut them up very small and threw them in with the spices. I threw in the sliced turnips and about a cup (probably a little too much) of chicken stock from the freezer, but you could just as easily use vegetable stock or water.

So how did it come out? Unfortunately, it still tastes overwhelmingly of turnips–that sharp, brassy, brassica taste, the one that I love in broccoli and cauliflower and cabbage, and even in brussels sprouts, if they’re prepared well and not overcooked. I’ll end up eating them, because the only alternative is throwing them out, and I can’t bring myself to do that, but damn, I am tired of dealing with turnips. Yes, they’re very good for you; yes, I’ve managed to add enough stuff to them to complement the flavor a bit (and I’m hoping that improves as they sit in the fridge); but they’re still . . . turnips. I suppose I could have made more of a curry sauce–more coconut milk, for example–but that starts to increase the fat content rather dramatically. I’ll probably eat them with some brown rice or some bread, both of which break up the brassica taste a bit.

I also made some more braised cabbage and venison ring bologna last night, which I ate with some freshly made whole wheat bread, and it was just awesome. That recipe is such a keeper–and handy, as I got three more cabbages in my farm share box this week.

What else came out of the kitchen this weekend? More crackers! I made them with the KAF Harvest Grains again, and I like that version better than the version with sesame seeds, though I’ll probably try a half-and-half version at some point. And some whole wheat bread, except I replaced some of the flour in the soaker with barley flakes and cracked wheat, and I put a little spelt flour in the whole thing when I made the final dough. (We’ll talk about bread in more detail in some future post.) I made two smaller batards rather than one big boule, and I threw one in the freezer. The aforementioned radishes I sliced in the food processor and tossed with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and let them roast in the oven for, oh, 40 minutes or so? I’m not a radish fan, but I find that roasting them makes them a little less biting.

So, all in all, the curried turnips were . . . a success? Sort of? I mean, they’re still TURNIPS, and I couldn’t disguise that fact, but not every one of these projects is going to work as I hope. Which circles us back around to my original disquisition on peppers. On one hand, there are foods I simply wouldn’t buy–peppers are notable in that list–because I cannot eat them. When they show up in the farm share, I give them away, because there’s nothing I can do to them that will make me be able to eat them. There are other foods I wouldn’t buy on my own–and turnips are at the top of that damn list–but that will show up in the farm share over time. In the case of turnips, I can’t even “forget” about them in the fridge and then throw them out when they turn into a science project, because they last forever. (I also don’t like to do that, because it’s just wasteful.) In those cases, my project is to at least make them edible. They’re not likely to become a favorite food, but at least I’m not throwing them out. Obviously, if you don’t have a farm share you’re not going to run into this problem, but farm shares are becoming more popular, and they’re really awesome, so I doubt I’m the only person with an ingredient problem–and, more specifically, a turnip problem.

Now if I could just figure out what to do with all of the Asian greens (bok choy, tatsoi, tokyo bekana, etc.), because they’re all brassicas, too.

O Joy

Like many people, one of my first two cookbooks–a gift from my grandmother, inscribed to me, so personally meaningful to me–was Joy of Cooking. This was back in the mid-70s, so it was the last version pre-major-revision, and it still has instructions on dealing with small game like squirrels and raccoons, as well as a significant section on freezing and canning. I don’t use it as much as I once did, but it still provides a lot of basic information about specific foods and specific techniques. (For years, I read the description about how to make croissants, and didn’t quite believe it. Is that really how you do it, I wondered? And then I got a job making thousands of croissants a week, and, yes, it’s really how you do it.)

My second cookbook was the first Moosewood Cookbook. I was in college, at a party at the dean of students’, and there was a spinach cheese pie. I asked the food service person about it, and he told me where the recipe was from, and I promptly went out and bought the book. I have at least a half a dozen Moosewood cookbooks, and it is one of my life dreams to go the restaurant to eat. My personal favorite is the Moosewood Low-Fat Cookbook; it is absolutely chock full of fabulous recipes, and it doesn’t rely on the wads of oil and cheese that are in some of the other books. It also has a lot of different flavor profiles in it, from many parts of the world, which is useful for figuring out what you like. It’s actually one of my favorite cookbooks of any kind.

That said, for all of the cooking I do, you’d think I’d have (and use) a lot more cookbooks than I actually do. I tend to lean on a few favorites, if I use a cookbook at all, and I supplement all of the cookbooks with online browsing (, because it has a lot of recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetit; the King Arthur baking site). When it comes time to actually apply heat to ingredients, however, at this point I am just as likely to make it up as anything else. I still like the cookbooks, though, because they often provide guidance on a particular technique, ingredient, and/or flavor profile, which helps me not make the same things over and over. I will still sit and browse through my favorites, on occasion, just to jog my memory about what’s in them.

All the cookbooks in the world can’t help with the Turnip Problem, however. Specifically, I have a refrigerator drawer full of the damn things. They keep forEVER, so I can’t secretly wait until they rot, and then throw them out, and, just to make things fun, I’m getting more of them next week, as the first CSA delivery is Thursday. The first share will have carrots, cabbage, onions, garlic, a jar of tomatoes, and the aforementioned turnips. I think what I’m going to try is some kind of curried turnips, perhaps with a little coconut cream, and probably onions, garlic, and carrots as well. (I still have onions, garlic, and carrots from the last of the fall share.) Normally I’d add some beans, too, but beans AND brassicas is a prescription for, as they say, intestinal distress.

This morning I used the last of a stale loaf of dried-cranberry-swirled whole wheat bread to make French toast (some roasted pineapple and blueberry compote in the fridge helped round that out), the leftovers of which will be breakfast a couple of days this coming week. To make blueberry compote: dump a bunch of frozen blueberries–300-500 grams, or a bag of frozen from the store, or even fresh if that’s what you have–in a saucepan, with a little lemon juice or grated lemon rind or even preserved (in simple syrup) lemon rind if you have it, and a little swirl of honey, and cook it on low heat for a half hour or so until it simmers and reduces. It won’t be as thick as jelly while it’s still hot, and you can make it as thin or as thick as you like, but it will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks before getting moldy, and it’s fabulous on top of pancakes or french toast, in crepes, or in oatmeal. It would probably work with peanut butter, too.

This afternoon I’m mixing up another batch of crackers. I bought sesame seeds the other day and will make the recipe as written, more or less. Tonight’s dinner starts with a recipe I found in a sample issue of the Cooks Illustrated spinoff–something like Country Home Cooking, or Cooks Country, or something. (I’m too lazy to go look it up.) It’s simple as anything, and it’s a great way to use cabbage–which you may remember is also in my fridge. I have since modified the recipe a bit.

Chop and start cooking some onion; I like to leave it in thin slices rather than chopped for this recipe, but whatever suits you. (And I nearly always cook my veggies in a combination of olive oil and a little butter; I like the flavor of butter, but the olive oil has a higher smoke point and is somewhat healthier, so the combo is a perfect compromise.) When the onion has started to caramelize, add some garlic if you like it, cook it a minute or two more, then add some chopped up venison ring bologna, leftover ham, sausage, whatever. You can completely do this without meat–the original recipe did not have meat in it–but it’s also fabulous with the ring bologna. I would not use ground meat, though.

Add a tablespoon of good spicy mustard–again, whatever kind is to your taste and/or in your fridge–and some thyme if you have it. (I rarely do, and so just leave it out when it’s not around.) Also add a half cup of beer; the recipe calls for a light-bodied lager. You can use anything here, too, though I strongly recommend you avoid anything that’s very hoppy; an IPA, for example, is likely to make the whole dish too bitter, even for us hops-lovers. While the onion was cooking, you were coring and thinly slicing the cabbage; after the beer mixture cooks for a minute or two, put in the cabbage and cook it covered for ten minutes or so. The recipe also calls for two teaspoons of cider vinegar, but I bet I’ve left that out a bunch of times, too. With a hunk of crusty bread or a pretzel roll, it makes a really nice winter dinner, and the leftovers make good lunch fare, too.

The other thing I’m starting today is some pretzel rolls, using a combination of the recipes in the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking book, a version of Peter Reinhart’s soft pretzels I found online, and the formula I got from the bakery. I will use at least half whole wheat flour, possibly all whole wheat, and I will make rolls rather than pretzels.

Weights, Not Measures

The crackers are pretty awesome. They were time-consuming, in the sense that rolling out the dough to the right thickness¬† and putting them all on the pans takes time, but they’re really quite tasty and I will definitely be making them again.

The banana muffins also came out well. For those, I actually wrote down what I included (!):
60 g dried nectarines, cut (with kitchen shears) into small pieces
60 g date pieces
60 g flax seeds, somewhat ground up but not flour
45 g barley flakes, ground (in the extra coffee grinder) to coarse flour
48 g oats, ground to coarse flour
100 g honey
30 g buttermilk powder (mine’s from KAF, but there are grocery store brands available)
120 g whole wheat flour
about 330 g bananas (more on that in a sec)
50 g butter
2 eggs
baking soda, a little baking powder, and salt (I can provide amounts if anyone cares)

For the bananas, as they thawed, I put them in a strainer over a bowl. This left me with mushy bananas (which I mashed with a pastry cutter) and about a cup or cup and a half of banana juices. I took that and reduced it somewhat, and I also put the honey in with that, because otherwise the honey is harder to mix in.

When I started mixing them up, I had one bowl of dry ingredients (flours, including the oats and flax and barley; salt; buttermilk powder; and baking powder/soda), one bowl of wet ingredients (the mashed bananas, the melted butter, the honey/banana juice mixture, and, after all of that cooled, the two eggs, whisked until combined well), and the dates and nectarines. I dumped the wets into the dries, whisked enough to combine them all, then stirred in the dates, nectarines, and chocolate chips. Oh, wait–didn’t mention them, did I? They were a last-second addition, because why not. I made 24 smallish muffins–perfect size for a breakfast or a snack. I gave away a couple, tasted a couple, left one out for breakfast, and, yes, put the rest in the freezer. I can grab one in the morning and it’s thawed out by the time I get to work.

You will notice that I provided you with weights rather than measures. I had always used measures, too, but then I went to pastry school, where EVERYTHING is by weight, as it was at the bakery where I worked for two years. And, not just weights, but, at school, in grams. (The bakery was pounds and ounces, which was a pain. The metric system has much to recommend it–way easier to divide and multiply in your head by 10 than by 16.) More and more cookbooks, especially baking books, are beginning to give weights, and, the more you work that way, the more you just translate measures into weights as you go. (For example, a cup of flour is 120 grams.)

For cooking rather than baking, weights are somewhat less important, but I still find it to be much more precise, which is useful if you’re trying to figure out the nutritional content, among other things. My four tablespoons of butter is likely to be the same as yours, given the handy markings on the package, but my four cups of cubed vegetables may be very different from yours, depending on how small our respective cubes are, or even depending on the vessel we use to measure, and flour can vary wildly, depending on multiple factors. I also use my kitchen scale at the other end of the process: when I’m portioning out the final product for lunches, I just weigh it out, and when I’m making rolls instead of loaves of bread, I weigh out the pieces. If you do decide to go the scale route, get one that weighs grams and ounces, and that goes up to at least 11 pounds. You can get a decent one for under $50, and maybe under $30.

The scale is also helpful if you’re trying to figure out portion sizes. Nutritional info on most packages is pretty useful, and typically gives you enough information to measure out a portion, but other things are more difficult. Bulk cheese, for example: how much is an ounce? How about when it’s grated? It can be quite educational to see just how large or small a “portion” or an “ounce” really is, and, after awhile, you start getting pretty good at estimating.

At the bakery, one of the little games my coworkers would play among themselves was showing off how good they were at portioning. Say you have dough for 25 loaves of bread and you need each loaf to be 12 ounces of dough. You would dump the dough on the work table next to one of the scales and use your bench cutter to hack a piece off. If you throw the piece on the scale and it’s exactly 12 ounces, you then point it out and note that you really don’t need the scale anyway. (Half of this conversation is in Spanish, given that most of my coworkers were Hispanic.) Of course one would continue to use the scale, adjusting each piece as needed, but the point is, after working with this dough for years, or even just a few times, you have a pretty good idea how big a 12-ounce portion looks.

The other thing you do, if you’re the coworker who makes most of the breads, is if you have an 8-ounce piece left over, you can either hack it up or you can bake it separately and call it “lunch.” “Lunch” was the catch-all descriptor for the odd pieces, and the best was getting it hot out of the oven and cutting it open just enough to put a slab of butter inside it. (This is actually bad, in that one should never cut bread while it’s hot, but oh my does it taste good.) Much to my delight, when I stopped in at the bakery about six months ago, that coworker buttered up a lunch piece of sourdough as it came out of the oven, and then hacked it up for me to have some. He would also butter up a couple of sourdough rolls for me, when I still worked there, because he knew how much I loved them, and I usually ended up helping him run the pieces through the roll shaper.

But I digress. As I often do.

I think my point was to urge you to buy a scale and to start using it. Or maybe it was just to think longingly about hot buttered sourdough bread.

How to Not Follow a Recipe, Part 1

As you will see, my relationship with recipes is varied. Let’s take yesterday’s bolognese sauce. Marcella’s recipe calls for:

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3 tbsp butter plus an additional tbsp for tossing w/ the pasta
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2/3 cup chopped celery
  • 2/3 cup chopped carrot
  • 3/4 lb. ground beef chuck
  • 1 c. whole milk
  • nutmeg
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1.5 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatos, w/ their juice
  • salt
  • black pepper, ground fresh from the mill

to be tossed with 1.25-1.5 pounds of pasta (i.e., about a box and a half of dried pasta)

I had intended to double the recipe all along, because I had the meat and because it’s a great thing to have in the freezer. Instead of this list, I used (approximately, because I didn’t measure a thing)

  • 2-3 tblsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tblsp butter
  • a sizeable chunk of pesto from the freezer, which had been getting a little worse for the wear
  • 2 chopped onions, and most of a third (one was a bit funky on the inside, so I just tossed that part)
  • about 8 cloves of garlic
  • 4 hefty carrots
  • no celery
  • 2 pounds of ground venison
  • 2 cups of 2% milk (or maybe 1%; I’d have to go check)
  • about 2.5 cups of pinot grigio
  • 3 quarts of tomatos

Why the variations? Well, the most important one is that I was cooking with what I had. Ground venison is very lean, and normally (or so we’re told) requires a lot of fat. I have found that’s not true, so long as it’s cooked and seasoned properly. In something like this sauce, it wouldn’t make any difference at all. Also, the milk and wine tenderize the meat.

In general, I cut down on the fat in recipes–in this case, by reducing the oil and butter and by using 2% milk rather than whole milk. I find that it rarely makes any difference at all. In baking, sometimes I’ll add something to increase the moisture–e.g., pumpkin or applesauce–but in general the lower fat products work just fine. That said, I only use good-quality unsalted butter. No margarine, nothing like that. I pay a bit extra for butter that doesn’t have RBGH, and, if it’s cheap enough, I get organic butter, but Woodman’s in Wisconsin is the only place I’ve seen that for a reasonable price. (A side note about butter: cheaper butters often have a higher water content and slightly lower fat content. This rarely makes a difference, except in some baking.)

I don’t normally have celery around; unless I’m making stock or some other recipe that really must have celery, I just do without. It tends to turn into a science project, and I hate wasting stuff, so I just don’t get it that often. When I do, I find a few recipes that utilize it so I can use it up.

As for the extra wine, there was a half a cup left in the bottle, and it was too early in the day to start drinking, and we were planning on drinking beer with our pizza last night anyway, so I just added the extra wine. I like garlic in my sauces, and I like the tang of the pesto, so those went in, too, and I used more tomatos than called for because I like it to be a more tomato-y sauce.

So there you have it: yesterday I told you that I was using a specific recipe, and, indeed, I glanced at it to recall the order things went in the pot. But what I made diverged fairly significantly from the original, except for the basic notion of cooking the meat first with milk and then with wine before adding the tomatos. Was it good? Yup. Plus, I have enough left over for 8 or 10 more meals–into the freezer with it!

On the other hand, the recipe for crackers was nearly unchanged. It called for whole wheat flour, sunflower or pumpkin seeds ground into flour, whole sesame seeds, flax seeds ground into flour, salt, water, honey, and vegetable or olive oil. I had pumpkin seeds and ground those up, but discovered that my sesame seeds smelled a little off so I used this blend of seeds and stuff. I didn’t have flax seeds, but I did have some flax flour (also from KAF, but I don’t see it on their website any more, which makes me sad). I started to make one batch, but realized I had put in double the amount of oil, so I just went ahead and doubled the whole recipe. I haven’t rolled these out and baked them yet–Reinhart recommends letting nearly every dough sit overnight–but, as you can see, there were many fewer changes in the whole enterprise.

The other thing to be baked today, though, is some kind of banana muffins. I had a stash of old bananas in the freezer, and it’s time, but I haven’t settled on a recipe yet. My go-to recipe, sort of, is a test recipe from Cooks Illustrated that eventually ended up in the magazine (no free links to them), but I usually end up changing it. In general, when I’m baking things like breakfast muffins, I look for ways to increase the fiber and reduce the fat, so the product isn’t just a fat and sugar bomb. I’ll let you know what I end up doing, but it’s a good bet that whole wheat flour, some barley flakes, and maybe some golden flax meal will end up in the final product.

One last note: nearly everything in the bolognese sauce came from Wisconsin. The tomatos, onions, garlic, and carrots were from the CSA share, the venison was hunted by a friend. The milk, wine, oil, and butter were from somewhere else–presumably the milk and butter could have originated nearby as well. The basil for the pesto was from a back yard, I think, and I probably left out the pine nuts when I made it.

Welcome to Your Kitchen!

As everyone I know knows by now, one of my fantasies is being the next Food Network star–and, indeed, they had tryouts in Chicago a couple of months ago. Did I even attempt to audition? No, not at all (though I had some brief thoughts about it), in part because, even supposing I could get on the show (and take off several months from my current job to do so), and even supposing I could win (which is a huge supposition), I don’t actually want to be on television. For one thing, I’d have to stop cursing, which I’m not sure is entirely possible.

All that being said, I watched last season, and I realized that my angle–or, as they say on the show, my “POV” (i.e., point of view)–would be Iron Chef: Your House. This all started several years ago, when a friend was unemployed. He bought the bruised and battered–and cheap–veggies from the leftover produce rack at the local small grocery store, because they were, yes, cheap. I’d often go to his house of a Sunday, and we’d make dinner, and I usually handled the veggies and side dishes. He’d point me to whatever he purchased from the rack, and I’d have to try to make something tasty out of it. I succeeded more often than not.

Now, the new CSA year is about to start. Yes, my CSA does a winter share, too, though this is the first year they’ve tried it. Unlike the rest of the year, it’s every other week, and it will apparently include some frozen and canned stuff from the farm. I’m already excited about the frozen butternut squash–in the weekly newsletters, Chris, the farm owner/manager, said that they had squash that were too bruised to include in the boxes but were otherwise perfectly good. This pleased me, not least because I like butternut squash, but also because I liked the idea of not wasting imperfect veggies. This is the fourth year I’ve done this, and the CSA box is a similar exercise in using what’s on hand, even if the veggies are more expensive and in better shape. And that’s really what this is all about: how do you cook what’s on hand? How to you minimize waste? And, in my case, how do you eat local, sustainable, etc., as much as possible? (This may not be an option for everyone, because it can cost more, but you can at least try to eat seasonally.)

As I’ve thought about this whole thing, I realized that I have several things going for me that might not be the same as your life. I’m nearly an omnivore. I can’t eat a few things (bell peppers, cucumbers, cantaloupe, iceberg lettuce), but otherwise am willing to try just about anything. I do not eat very much meat, but I do eat it, and what I do cook tends to be wild game (venison, wild turkey, occasionally rabbit), because I have a friend who is a hunter (and a getter; turns out the hunting is only useful if you actually get some meat at the end). In addition, when I buy meat or fish, I am privileged enough to be able to be very picky about it and pay more for it–my basic principle is that the flesh I eat not have been tortured in a factory farm while it was alive–but I also recognize not everyone can afford that. Even without the privilege, though, I don’t eat all that much meat, and I may go days without eating any.

For another thing, I don’t have to feed a family. It’s usually just me, with possibly one or two friends, and the friends I feed are also omnivores, so I don’t have to deal with kids or picky eaters, and I don’t have to deal with getting a meal on the table at a certain time. But I do bring my lunch (and sometimes breakfast) to work every day, and lunch is my main meal, so I cook with the intent of leftovers, and I package and freeze things so that it’s easy to do that: meal-sized packages are always my desired result. When I was in grad school, and even after that, when I was broke and not making much, I would spend part of a weekend making several big batches of stuff, and then portion and freeze it all. While it would probably require more cooking over all–to feed more people–the same approach could work for families. Thus, one of the purchases I recommend, if you can afford it, is a good stand-alone freezer. I have a 7-cubic-foot chest freezer, and it’s very nice to be able to throw things in it.

Finally, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve lived alone for a substantial portion of my life, so I’ve rarely had to cook to please others, which has given me a lot of room for experimentation. Some experiments are more successful than others, but I haven’t really had to worry about something not coming out properly and still have others waiting for a meal. If you haven’t been cooking from scratch for all that long, or if you’re used to only cooking from recipes, you’ll see pretty quickly that my approach is different from that. I do use recipes–though now more as a starting point than as a complete guide to what I’m going to do–but what I do more often is amalgamate what I have on hand with what I’ve learned, maybe with some glances at some recipes along the way.

Okay, enough intro for today. I’ll do more of these things as I go along, though.

Today’s food is going to be pretty simple: homemade pizza. I made the crusts several weeks ago and par-baked and froze them, because I was hauling them elsewhere for a meal. We had leftovers, so the unused crusts came back to my freezer. I also have some vegetarian tomato sauce in the freezer, as well as some sausage (from the farmers market this summer–the vendor buys a whole pig and then butchers it and makes various things from it, including sausage), fresh mozzarella, and spinach. I’m also making a bolognese sauce today, from the ground venison in the freezer. My recipes for these things are from:
Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (the bolognese sauce) and Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Baking¬† (the pizza crusts). The tomato sauce I already knew how to make, and I’ll walk you through a version at some point. The Reinhart book has become my new scripture, and it is completely awesome. If you are at all interested in baking your own whole-grain breads, it’s a fabulous source. I plan to make crackers from that book as well.

One last thing: partly because I worked in a bakery for two years, and partly because I’ve been doing this so long, I tend NOT to chop and dice everything before I start. I gather it all to make sure I’m not missing anything, but I don’t do all the chopping first. I know how long onions take to soften or caramelize, so I’ll chop the onion first, throw it in the pot, and then start cutting up the next thing that will go in the pot. This approach reduces the amount of time things take to make, but it may take some practice.

So, welcome to the kitchen! I hope you come back.