A mother-daughter conversation on food and cooking (mostly)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Foods Eaten in Washington, DC

I've managed to eat pretty well considering I'm on a dorky business trip, working all day in an office building in an office park and staying in a hotel in the very same office park, all of it surrounded by chain restaurants. But I'm with people who like food, so we've found some good things:

  • A tiny Caribbean place with just a counter and two tables. I had curried goat with beans and rice. On the side were sweet plantains and a sort of cabbage vinaigrette. This was one of the best meals I have ever eaten.

  • A fancy Thai place. I had broiled tuna with basil and red curry. The fish was overdone, but the sauce was good. My boss's duck was excellent.

  • An Israeli deli. I had a beef kebab sandwich on the best homemade grilled flatbread with cucumbers and tomatoes and tahini dressing. A nice boy in suspenders and a yarmulke brought us a complientary bowl of homemade dill pickles (SO good) and green olives.

  • A little deli/grill with an Italian name run by a Korean family and featuring such varied offerings as Denver omelets and sushi. I have been eating piles and piles of perfectly prepared vegetables from the salad bar, some of them quite foreign to me. The bok choy is great; the snow peas with dried cranberries are, too.

But then, of course, there have been meals of mediocre chain pizza and mediocre prime rib in Elks Lodge-like surroundings. It does not help that Lawson's garden far to the south is spitting out eggplant and zucchini faster than he can eat them. I am ready to cook again.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fort Knox

Here is the Fort Knox of compost enclosures. We were frustrated by javelinas pillaging our compost bin, tipping it over and once even rolling it down the arroyo behind our house. So with our recent landscaping we included this structure. It has a concrete slab, stuccoed concrete block with rebar, and wrought iron gates. The two bins are "The Recycler" by Beaver State Plastics in Oregon.

Take that, javelinas.

Microwave Jam

Here's an easy way to make a small batch of jam--one or two jars.

Berries, peaches, apricots, etc.

In a large Pyrex cup or bowl, chop or mash fruit to make about 3 cups. Add sugar to equal one-half of the fruit (that is, for 3 cups of prepared fruit, use 1 1/2 cups sugar.) Add 1/2 teaspoon of butter. Mix well.

Cover loosely and microwave on High for 5 minutes. Stir again. Microwave uncovered in two-minute increments until it begins to jell when dribbled from a spoon.

Can't tell when it's jelled? It will be sticky but not thick. If you're not sure, put a tablespoonful on a plate to cool in the fridge. You can always cook it more later. Cooking time varies widely with the fruit: I cooked this batch of strawberry a total of 9 minutes, 5+2+2.

Place in clean jar. Refrigerate or freeze after it's cooled.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Summer Food

This is food for those summer days when just the idea of turning on the oven or stove makes me sweat. I love bean-based main dishes, and this requires no cooking. You can use any summer herbs and vegetables you have around. This particular version contained:

Two cans of garbanzos
Diced red pepper
Chopped tomato -- the first garden tomato of the year!
Lemon juice
Olive oil

I let the flavors combine at room temperature for about an hour. There was plenty left over for lunch the next day.

Canned garbanzo beans are the absolute best thing ever. I lived an entire summer in graduate school eating them at least four times a week. I didn't have much money, so I mostly kept the air conditioner off in my apartment; I didn't have a car, so I walked 90 minutes a day to and from the library in the 95-degree heat; and I ate one or two cheap, bean- or egg-based meals a day -- vegetable curries, bean salads, stews, scrambled eggs. My clothes were falling off me by the end of the summer, which was neat but unsustainable once I started having money for things besides rent again. Maybe I can get rich on marketing this in diet book form. The Sweaty Bean Method. Hmm.

I did make these potatoes in the oven. They are somewhere in between Southern raw fries and Mireille Johnston's various potato recipes in Cuisine of the Sun. I just sliced them, tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary, and roasted them at 400 for about 25 minutes. They were too salty, but I liked them.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Yes, Hot Dogs

We're still trying to use up the leftovers from a party we had several weeks ago, which is why I'm eating hot dogs for dinner. Although the party involved homemade pizza and fresh fruit, it also involved slaw dogs...and people ate all the dogs but left a bunch of leftover buns. So we bought more hot dogs. This was a totally logical thing to do.

Slaw dogs are one of the more bizarre Southern foods I've encountered. I'd heard of them and figured they were just hot dogs topped with coleslaw, until I found myself in a hot dog restaurant near the beach earlier this year and ordered one on a whim. It turns out a slaw dog is a hot dog topped with mustard, meat chili, and coleslaw. And I swear, it's completely delicious. Unreal.

For our home experiments I bought the all-beef, less sketchy hot dogs, and they're good. We have no more chili or coleslaw, so we're eating them plain. These were the last of them, grilled, served plain on whole wheat buns with ketchup and mustard. With them we had sauteed beet greens with garlic (on the left). My favorite thing about buying beets is that you can get two separate vegetable dishes out of one bunch -- the beets one night and the greens another. We also had the first garden eggplant of the year, grilled and tossed with olive oil and garden basil (on the right).

Mom, are you totally horrified that I eat hot dogs now? In my defense, it was probably you who fed me my first hot dog. It was probably cut into small slices with a toothpick in each one.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Grilled Catfish with Peach and Black Bean Salsa

Here's a mostly local meal: U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets marinated in lime juice, cumin, and coriander seed and then grilled; a salsa made of South Carolina peaches and red peppers, black beans, and a can of Herdez salsa verde; and red romaine lettuce. For a second course, Lawson made zucchini soup with zucchini that he grew, chicken stock, a Vidalia onion, coriander seed, sherry, and a little cream.

The catfish was odd: the hind half of each fillet was flaky and tender and delicious, while the front half had big gristly bands of fat and general nasty toughness. I like the idea of locally farmed catfish -- it's sustainable, it's an economic boon to the rural South, it's not from China -- and was really ready to love it. I just wish the whole fillet had been like the back half.

Herdez salsa verde is the ultimate secret ingredient. We keep no fewer than five cans on hand at all times.

Banana Bread

Recently I've been working on a banana bread recipe. For years I've been using recipes that produce banana bread that is:

- Too sweet. Especially that bland, white sugar dessert-timey sweetness. Gaah.

- Too cakey. If the bananas are too well-mashed and the flour too white and delicate, the banana bread will be moist but homogenous and flat, with small little brown lines of cooked banana matter that look like parasites. I like banana bread that is chunky and rough-looking but tender.

- Not salty enough. Really. Banana bread can handle more salt than you might expect.

- Not buttery enough. Lots of recipes use vegetable oil only, which is good for moisture but bad for flavor.

- Unhealthy. This sounds silly as I plead for more butter and salt in my banana bread, but really: I want some whole grains in there. But at the same time I don't want an oaty brick. So there are several tensions to resolve here.

Carver's, a brewery/restaurant in Durango, Colorado, serves grilled banana bread, which remains my banana bread ideal. It's warm and thick and buttery and falls apart when you eat it. It is nothing like the banana pound cakes most cookbooks try to pass off as banana bread.

So here's the recipe I've developed over the past month, with copious notes.

Bowl One -- The Dry Ingredients

Whisk together the following:
- 1 cup graham flour. Graham flour, I have discovered, is magical. The miller takes apart the whole wheat and mills the bran and germ separately from the endosperm, then mixes them back together, and somehow this is completely different from regular whole wheat, which is milled all together. I guess it makes sense -- it behaves more like white flour with tiny pieces of bran that toast up all delicious and almost crispy. I love it. So yes, try graham flour. Otherwise, use whole wheat flour.
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup oats. Use steel-cut oats instead of rolled oats, or else pulse some rolled oats in the food processor for just a few seconds. Rolled oats seems to get tough instead of crunchy.
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder (One recipe I used to use calls for almost 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and you can actually taste it in the bread, all metallic and wrong.)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 scant teaspoon salt. Really, try using that much. It brings out the buttery and banana-y flavors really well.

Bowl Two -- The Wet Ingredients
This part is kind of like a cake: you cream together the butter and sugar, then add eggs and the other business.
Beat until soft:
- 4 tablespoons butter at room temperature

Beat in, in this order:
- 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
- 2 eggs
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Bowl Three -- The Bananas
You will need two bananas of very advanced age. I only make banana bread with bananas that are too gooey and thin-skinned and black and nasty to consider eating raw...and I tend to eat very ripe bananas raw. These should be only a day or two from the compost heap.

Do NOT mash the bananas with a fork. Put them in a Pyrex cup or a small bowl, and with a thin spatula or similar implement and an up-and-down motion, cut them into pieces of roughly 1/4 to 1/2 an inch. They should be chopped and messy, not a bowl of goo.

So now you have three bowls. First, fold the dry ingredients into the wet bowl with as little mixing as possible -- just moisten all the flour. Then, fold the banana chunks in. Finally, fold in:

- 1/2 cup walnuts, broken up with fingers if not pre-chopped

Scrape gently into a greased small loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for an hour.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Convection Baking Out of Doors

I bought a little convection oven at J. C. Penney for $70. I want to try baking outside during the hot summer months, now that we have an outdoor countertop with a convenient outlet. Also, my indoor oven is very small and I can never fit in the corn pudding and extra stuffing at Thanksgiving dinner.

Here is my first loaf of bread. It baked in 25 minutes at 400 degrees, rather than my usual time of 30 to 35 minutes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Caramel Coconut Bars

This first picture is Mexican Macaroni, not coconut bars. Last night we had it with chayote, fresh strawberries, and dark chocolate.

The night before, we got some Copper River Red Salmon! We grilled it for Grandma, accompanied by roasted vegetables and a tomato-basil salad. For dessert we had these bars from a recipe I found in the Phoenix paper. Very simple and delicious.

Caramel Coconut Bars

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup flour

Combine above ingredients. Spread and pat in a 9x13 baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flaked coconut
1 cup chopped pecans

Mix remaining ingredients and pour over crust. Bake 20 minutes longer, or until brown. Let cool before slicing into small bars.

Monday, June 4, 2007

More Dog Food

Some of my most successful cooking lately has been for Emily. After she got sick from commercial dog food, we decided we would take the trouble to make homemade food for the rest of her life. It has been rewarding--Emily thinks I am a fabulous cook! She eats with obvious relish and admires everything I do in the kitchen.

I often make ground turkey/brown rice/frozen mixed vegetables; yesterday it was chicken/bulgur/peas/corn; but today's dinner reached new heights: salmon/oatmeal/grated carrots.

I make a batch of several meals and freeze it in pint Ziploc bags.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Another Breakfast

Because I am actually hungry in the mornings since I quit smoking four months ago, I am now obsessed with breakfast. This is homemade apple cinnamon oatmeal. The apples are raw, which I much prefer to the sticky sweet mushiness of cooked apples. The cinnamon is minimal -- it's SO easy to overpower a dish with cinnamon. And the oats are toasted oats, maybe steel-cut, definitely slow-cooking, from that local mill I ramble on about all the time. (Can I mention for the eightieth time that my friend works there? My friend works there.)