Spring Share, Week 1: Still Life with More Lemons

It’s starting to be spring here in Chicago, though you wouldn’t necessarily have figured that out by Friday’s weather–we had rain, sleet, snow, AND hail, at one point or another during the day. Saturday it was cold enough that snow was dusting the rooftops a lot of the morning, even with sun shining on it, but it’s been warming up a bit since Sunday. In addition, the daffodils and hyacinths and all the other spring flowers are bursting into bloom; I sometimes think that I could watch one grow and bloom all in one day if I just sat and stared at it.

The spring farm share has started as well. The spring share is every week, and we started last week with carrots, spinach, greens, and turnips (the greens were red rain mustard greens). As you may be able to tell from that list, even though things like flowers are blooming, and trees are starting to bud, the growing things one can eat are only beginning to grow and are nowhere near producing. Two of the four items in the box were from the fall growing season–the carrots and turnips–but lasted since then, and a third item, the spinach, is hardy enough such that it’s been growing in the greenhouses most of the winter and has been included in the winter shares as well. This spinach has thick leaves; it’s not the tender baby spinach. It’s very tasty, and it’s especially good for cooking, because it doesn’t disintegrate into green mush within seconds, but it, too, is something other than the sprouty stuff we see around us. The fourth item was probably at least started in the greenhouses, and it’s also pretty hardy, I think. What this means, in part, is that eating “seasonally” doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s diet changes as soon as the weather changes.

I used the mustard greens in some chicken broth with orzo last night (I felt as though I might be fending off a cold, so I had some chicken soup), some in the mac and cheese I had for lunch today (a coworker brought lunch), and the remainder will be used as the base for chili, perhaps, as will the spinach. It was nice to add veggies to my lunches in that way, and the greens actually added a purplish tint to everything because of the red in the greens. The carrots are being consumed with the remainder of the white bean, garlic, and sage dip. The turnips got handed off to the hunter, who’s heading off turkey hunting this week and who brings a batch of gumbo and a batch of chili with him to share with his uncles. The turnips can be added to chili or gumbo without adding that brassica note that can be tiresome in mass quantities.

This weekend’s projects are to do some preparation for the coming onslaught and to use up or prepare some items. Item number one is the lemons. I still have a half a dozen lemons in the fridge, and no plans to use them, so this weekend I’ll preserve the peels and freeze the juice. The peels can be preserved in sugar (I can describe that in detail if you want) and then stored forever in the fridge, and the juice can be frozen in cubes and then just bagged, so you can take out a cube of it when you need a tablespoon or two.

Meanwhile, though, check out this article–Bittman provides great resources, and I like the way he discusses the evolution of his cooking and eating habits.

226 Grams of Butter

I don’t really have much to report yet. I made the brioche starter and biga, and I subbed some pumpkin for some of the butter (though it’s still 20% butter), but I’m not going to mix the dough until tomorrow night. I rolled out the cookie dough–this time I rolled it between two silpats, so I didn’t have to use any extra flour. I also used about half whole wheat flour, and the cookies came out just fine. Not quite sweet enough, if you can imagine such a thing, but I’m going to put icing on them, so it will be fine. I was going to make more Amazing Crackers, but I’m ordering some sunflower oil from my farm share people (along with a chicken! they’ve started doing chickens, delivering them frozen), and I think that might make a better cracker even than the olive oil, so I’ll make them next weekend instead. All of that said, today’s topic is that 20% up there.

What that means is 20% of the weight of the flour. I have learned two different versions of this method of calculation, and they’re functionally very similar. It’s in reference to something called baker’s percentages. I’m going to leave it as an exercise for you to operate the Google, if you’re interested, to follow the links that appear, but both the King Arthur website and the Wikipedia entry have extensive overviews. (It is my understanding that Europeans use weights rather than volume, and American recipes increasingly include weights, but it’s still not that common.) In essence, bakers think of the flour as the main ingredient, and everything else is expressed as a percentage of the flour. Thus, if you’re using 500 grams of flour, the “20% butter” identified above would be 100 grams, or 20% of the weight of the flour. You will also see this in terms of hydration of bread dough (or sourdough starter): 100% hydration means you use an equal weight of liquid and flour.

Let’s go with an example. My sourdough starter was originally 100% hydration. Whenver I fed/refreshed it, I would throw out (or use) all except 100 grams of the starter. To that, I would add 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. Thus, the flour and water were always in equal proportions (because the starter was also originally 100 grams of each). Peter Reinhart uses 75% hydration for his starters, so I changed mine, too: when I feed it, for every 100 grams of starter, I add 100 grams of flour and 75 grams of water.

When I was in pastry school, though, we calculated so that the ingredients were proportional to each other and always added up to 100%. In the above example, if you had 500 grams of flour, 500 grams of water, and 200 grams of butter (and I doubt you would), the flour is 500/1200, or 41.67% of the total recipe, the water is also 41.67% of the total, and the butter is the remaining 17%.¬† This method is particularly useful when there isn’t any flour in your formula, and, frankly, I prefer it. Most of the recipes I see use the flour-based calculation, though–Reinhart does, in his book, and that’s what we used at the bakery as well. (The real challenge at the bakery is that they still used pounds and ounces rather than grams, and it was a complete pain in the ass to do those calculations.)

There are two major advantages to these methods. For one thing, scaling recipes is much, much (much) easier. Instead of fiddling with odd measurements of cups, you just do the math. It’s particularly useful if you’re not doing an even scaling–i.e., you want 2.5 times the recipe, not simply double. The second advantage is that weights are more precise than measures. Depending on humidity, how you scoop something, how you level something, etc., the weight of the ingredient can vary pretty widely. That doesn’t always matter, of course, but it often does matter in baking. Little by little, I’ve been making notes in my cookbooks and recipes; many ingredients have the weight/volume exchange on the package, and you can use that to alter what you do. For example, 1/4 cup of flour is 30 grams, according to my KAF flours; thus, a cup is 120 grams. Whenever something calls for x cups of flour, I do the math to convert it to weight.

These methods are useful in cooking, too, especially if you’re trying to either maintain proportions of some kind in a recipe or if you’re trying to calculate the nutritional profile of something. Think of the last time you cubed squash or carrots: were your cubes the same size as mine? Or the same size as the author of the cookbook? How would you know? So, get yourself a kitchen scale–you can get one that goes up to 11 pounds for less than $50–and start making notes of your own.

Anyway. Tomorrow after work I’ll mix the brioche dough, then shape it, then it needs to rise for several hours before I bake it. I think I’m going to add cranberries and candied orange peel, as well, to give it a more festive air, and I have colored sugar (gold, green, and purple) for the decoration. All of which is probably a bit amusing, given that Fat Tuesday is a Catholic event, and I was raised by atheists.

Then again, my father’s dictum holds with regard to food, too. I once asked him why we celebrated Christmas if we didn’t believe in Christ, to which he replied, “We celebrate Hallowe’en and we don’t believe in ghosts; why give up a perfectly good holiday?” The same holds true for holiday-specific foods, at least in my kitchen.

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.

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.