Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Being Food Smart


Each passing year, I find myself more and more inspired to eat locally, cook simply, and to be smart about our food and our meals. This change in me really started once I met my husband, and it really went into overdrive once we got married. All of a sudden, we were a family! A family that we have to keep healthy and happy! I wasn't my single self anymore, when a handful of cooked edamame and a grilled cheese sandwich was enough (although, to be honest, that's still one of my favorite snacks). I found myself beginning to cook and bake more, and before I knew it, I'd become a cooking crusader.

So, my to-do list this summer involved reading more about this subject. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was at the top of my list, and a few weeks ago I drove to our local library to pick it up.

Not quite a documentary, not quite a recipe book, her story tells of how their family moved to a farm and pledged to eat only local foods; either what they produced from their own hard work, or food that was produced by neighboring farmers. At times the book gets somewhat political, criticizing meat-processing methods and huge mega-corporations. She touches on Monsanto's frightening seed monopoly and how they are crippling the local farmers across the country with their lawsuits. Very similar to the documentary Food, Inc., she covers a wide range of food-related topics.

I find myself so incredibly passionate about this, but at the same time somewhat helpless. I would love to say that we're going to pack up our home tomorrow and move to a farm to live a sustainable life style, but I can't. So I try to do what is right for my family, and what I believe is right for our world. Eat local when possible, cook at home, don't waste, and support all of the wonderful farmers and growers in Memphis.

For more great links, check out Animal Vegetable Miracle's website.

And if you're interested in keeping a green and efficient kitchen, here is another great post by Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate and Zucchini.

Update: I've finished the book. And, honestly, the more I got into it, the more I became perturbed at her underlying tone of righteousness, especially towards the end. Countless times, I found myself scoffing; Kingsolver tends to lump all of America into one giant heap of unknowing and unthinking beings who will eat anything prepackaged and fast. She also flirts with hypocrisy, patting herself on the back for having an entire Thanksgiving meal comprised of things from their farm, only to indulge by buying a bag of cranberries from the store to "keep with holiday tradition." Give me a break.

I was also fairly annoyed with her obvious use of a thesaurus. At one point, she uses the word "comestible". Seriously? For those of you who aren't sure of what that means (because I didn't, although I could figure it out from the context), it means "articles of food; edibles". So...food.

So, I give this book 3 stars, for any one who cares. I at least enjoyed her facts that she had gathered about food production in the United States, and the short blurbs by her husband about various farming issues.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chocolate Mint Chocolate Truffles

chocolate mint chocolate truffles

Our decision to join a CSA for the summer was the best one we've ever made (aside from marrying each other, of course...haha...but no really, the CSA is a close second). Starting in May, we've been getting a bundle of goodies each Saturday from the local farmer's market. It's ranged from lettuces, chicory, braising greens, tomatoes...and now that summer is in full swing we've been getting more squash, wax beans, french beans, etc. Of course, we've also been given beets and radishes. Which we tried. And didn't like. But there you go, that's what a CSA is for...supporting local farmers, plus really figuring out what you do and don't like!

In addition, they usually they throw in a few sprigs of fresh herbs, including dill, parsley, oregano...and this week, they gave us chocolate mint. The guy filling up my bag at the farmer's market said rather casually, "Oh, and this is chocolate mint, and this is oregano..." but all I heard was the chocolate mint.

What is chocolate mint, you ask? Here is a great link. It smells like chocolate, and yes, mint. I'd say that it is similar to an Ande's mint - a very smooth, yet complex combination.

As soon as I got home, I knew what I was going to do with it. Yes, truffles. I could think of no better way to use this amazing herb than to steep it in heavy cream, then combine it with the richest chocolate I could find.

Chocolate Mint Chocolate Truffles
adapted from Joy of Cooking

12 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1-1/4 cup heavy cream
8-10 good sized chocolate mint leaves, torn (regular mint would work here too - but reduce the amount; it's a bit stronger than the chocolate mint)

sifted unsweetened cocoa powder
sifted confectioner's sugar

1. Set your chopped chocolate in a medium-sized glass mixing bowl.
2. Combine mint and cream in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan and bring almost to a simmer, stirring constantly. Using a fine-meshed strainer set over a large bowl, strain the cream-mint mixture. Discard the mint.
3. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let sit for one minute, then stir slowly, thoroughly combining the chocolate and cream.
4. Let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Transfer to refrigerator and chill for 3-4 hours (or overnight, which is what I did).
5. Line a baking sheet with wax or parchment paper. Scoop out 3/4" diameter balls from your ganache mixture, rolling quickly between your hands. Warning: this will be messy. You will feel like your truffles will never be right and that they are melting all over the place, but don't worry what they look like just yet. Place your lumpy forms on the baking sheet, then chill for another 2 hours.
6. Set out your coating choices (I used both) in low shallow bowls, and line another baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the truffles from the fridge, and one by one, quickly roll them between your hands to improve their shape (there! now they look round! see, I told you not to worry). Gently drop them in the coating, then roll it around by tipping the bowl every which way until it's sufficiently covered. Carefully remove, and place on the clean baking sheet.
7. At this point, you can either refrigerate for a few weeks, or freeze them for up to 3 months. Or, put them in cute candy cups and serve! These make wonderful gifts.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cherry Pandowdy


Ordinarily, I love going to the grocery store. Is that weird? There is something about perusing the aisles, selecting our food for the week, putting it in the cart, and being able to bring it all home and put it away...there is something ridiculously satisfying there.

However, if I'm tired, and - even worse - hungry, then oh no. Watch out. This was the case yesterday. I went in to the office for a few hours on Sunday, and for some dumb reason I neglected to eat anything all day. I then went to the grocery store, and I didn't realize how tired and hungry I was until I found myself in the baking aisle, tiredly trying to decide if I really needed one of those dish sponges with the handle on it. And this was already after I'd thrown a melon baller and an onion-saver container in my cart. I then moseyed over to the shampoo aisle, where I think I spent a good 20 minutes testing out different scents until I found one that I liked. Just call me pokey! I finally woke up when I turned around and was startled to find an older gentleman right behind me. "Oh, don't worry, I'm not stalking you," he told me reassuringly. "I'm just trying to admire your beauty." Um, creepy old man, that's pretty much the same thing.

After that wake-up call, I made a bee-line for the check-out lane. But suddenly, I spotted cherries over in the produce department. Cherries. Yessssss. I excitedly grabbed a bag and threw it in my cart, looking over my shoulder the entire time for Mr. Stalker.

So I spent my late afternoon pitting cherries. Which is always better than being at work. Here's a trick to pitting cherries: use the blunt end of a bamboo skewer (or chopstick) to push the pit out. Easy!

And have you ever made a Pandowdy? I hadn't, either. I chose this recipe because I already had a pie crust in the freezer that I'd made a few months ago and was wanting to use it up. A pandowdy is basically an easier version of pie. As you can from my pictures, my pie crust ended up being torn into pieces and laid on top, because someone was tired and couldn't roll out her crust very well.

Cherry Pandowdy
adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything

6 cups washed and pitted cherries (about 2 lbs cherries with pits)
sugar to taste, plus 2 tbsp
the juice of 1 lemon
butter for greasing the pan
1 recipe pie crust (Bittman recommends using his Sweetened Enriched pie crust, which uses 2 yolks and more sugar...I plan on doing that next time)
1 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Toss the fruit with the sugar and lemon juice, and let sit for 5 minutes. Spread the fruit in the bottom of a greased 8" square or 9" round baking pan.
2. Roll out your pie crust, and carefully lay it over the fruit. Tuck in the corners and edges under the fruit. Brush the top of the crust with milk. Mix the remaining sugar with the cinnamon, and sprinkle on top.
3. Bake for about 30 minutes. At this point you can score the top in a "x" pattern, or push some of the crust down into the hot, bubbly fruit. Bake for an additional 15 minutes or so, until the crust is nice and browned.
4. Serve with vanilla ice cream, if desired. And why wouldn't you want to do that?

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Flavor Bible


I've always been intrigued by new and exciting ingredients in baking, but now I'm to the point that I like to invent my own recipes, or take a recipe and doctor it to my liking. Are you there too? Do you read recipes and think, um, this would be so much better if I added x, y, and then topped it with z?If you are, then please buy this book.

It's not a cookbook. Rather, think of it like a giant thesaurus or reference guide, but for food. Basically, it tells you what goes with what. That's probably a terrible description, so here's an example. Tonight my husband and I are going to a (free!) and outdoor concert, so we've planned to take a picnic of wine, cheese, olives, and bread. The perfect dinner, huh? I think I could live on appetizers. You? So my husband came home with some Mahon cheese (boy I do love him). I looked up "Cheese, Mahon" in the Flavor Bible, and guess what goes with Mahon Cheese? Quince paste. Yeah, I had no idea either. But we'll go get some quince paste to try with the cheese, because this book has been compiled by countless chefs across the country weighing in on what, ideally, goes with what in the culinary world. We're not going to doubt their suggestions. So quince paste it is!

Pretty neat, huh? Have a great weekend! And if you're at the Levitt Shell tonight, we'll be there too...we'll be the couple in the blue folding chairs eating our weight in cheese and olives. Good times!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lemon Basil Shortbread

lemon basil shortbread

Well, it's definitely summer here in Memphis. Despite the above-100 degree heat index, the horrible humidity, and the constant level of sweat, I absolutely love it. I am even loving the mosquito bites all over my legs, because you know what? It means that it's not winter. If I start complaining about the heat in August, just remind me of this, ok?

You know what else is just fantastic about the summertime? When friends who own a lakehouse in Mississippi call us and invite us down for a weekend. Yes, please. Cruising around on a pontoon boat and lazily floating in the lake all day, then coming back, cleaning up, and making dinner together makes for very happy people.

I wanted to thank our hosts for their hospitality (and of course sweeten the deal so that they invite us in the future!), so I baked up these cookies. Our basil plant is not looking to good (do bugs like basil? They sure seem to like ours), so I thought I should put it to good use.

You can press the dough into a pan and score it into squares right after baking, or you can be like me and decide to cut them out with a biscuit cutter. Which, I will warn you, makes for a tad bit oversized cookies. No matter, though...they are pretty darn tasty, no matter what the size. These crumbly cookies are wonderful in the warm afternoon sun on the lake, or as we discovered, with your morning coffee, sitting on the deck of a cabin in the middle of the woods, overlooking the lake. Can we go back yet?

Lemon Basil Shortbread

2 cups butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
4-5 leaves fresh basil, chiffonaded (you could definitely increase this if you want it to be more basil-y)
zest from one large lemon (again, you could increase this if you love lemon)
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
4 cups flour

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream the butter until smooth and creamy.
3. In a food processor, combine the granulated sugar, basil, lemon zest, and confectioner's sugar, using short pulses until everything is finely mixed.
4. Add the basil sugar mixture to the butter, and beat for another minute.
5. Gradually add one cup of flour at a time, mixing until just incorporated.
6. Press the dough into an ungreased cookies sheet. You can either a) use a cookie cutter or biscuit cutter to cut out the cookies and place the cookies on a clean, ungreased cookie sheet - and in this case you'll have to manipulate your scraps to get every last bit, or b) leave the dough uncut, and bake. This way, you can score the dough and cut them into squares right from the oven.
7. Bake for 15 minutes or until they are a nice light golden color. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Buttercream Icing (and sprinkles, of course)

up close


A friend and former coworker had her baby shower this weekend, and she asked if I'd make her cupcakes. Of course! I said. Her only request (she said it was really the baby requesting it, so cute) was some sort of vanilla frosting. The rest she left up to me.

So, chocolate cupcakes with vanilla buttercream frosting it was. But what I really wanted to share with you was the decorations. This is something I struggle with, now that I'm taking baking more seriously and am starting to do it on a commission-type basis. Making a great tasting cupcake and frosting is easy. Making a great tasting and attractive (read: professional-looking) cupcake is a bit more difficult.

Think about it. The last time you had homemade cupcakes - what did they look like? I'll be honest, and say that most of my desserts aren't picture-worthy. It's just that my audience (read: my husband, or loyal friends) doesn't really care what they look like, and it's the taste that matters, right?

So, all of this to say that I needed a way to make these cupcakes look good. Icing was an obvious option, but what else?

close up of non-periels

Enter chocolate and non-periels. I had an idea to do a big initial (A for the baby's last name), so I did my research and decided to use chocolate melting chips to draw out a scripted "A". You can usually find these at any craft of candy-making supply store (I found mine at Michael's).

So how did I do it? I found an A that I liked (font: Amazing Ruler), then printed out several versions of it until I had the correct size. I wanted to A to hang off the cupcake a tiny bit, but not look grossly out of proportion.

I then slipped my "A" template under a sheet of wax paper. To soften the chocolate, I put the chips in a ziploc bag, then microwaved it in 10 second intervals, massaging the bag after each one until the chips were completely melted. Then snip off a corner of the bag (a tiny corner, don't be like me and snip off too much - this equals lots of mess), and then trace over your initial onto the wax paper. Immediately sprinkle with non-periels, then transfer to the fridge for 5 minutes to allow to cool.

And now let's look at some of my rejects. While I knew all along that I wanted to use the small non-periels, I had some other types of sprinkles lying around, and wanted to try them out as well. First up, blue sanding sugar...

blue sprinkles
Eh, this was ok. Had I used white chocolate, I think the sugar would have popped more beautifully. The dark chocolate just hid the sprinkles too much.

Next up, silver sugar...

silver sprinkles
Again, not bad.

Here is a plain A with no decoration...

IMG_3696 copy

How about large sprinkles?

large sprinkles
Ha ha. No.

The winner?

Note to self: next time take a picture without the plate behind it. You can barely see it. Don't look too hard, it will make you dizzy!

The finished product...

the tower

close up