Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kale recipe, and genetic apologizing

I come from a long lineage of sorry cooks.

To clarify: they’re not particularly sorry people, nor is their food particularly sorry; instead, they are the ones who are sorry, usually unjustifiably, for their food.

You see, both my mother and grandmother are experts at preemptive apologies for what they’ve put on the table. “I’m sorry, there is probably not enough salt,” my mother will say before anyone has even taken a bite. Or, if you were my grandmother, you would talk about how the last time you made the potatoes, they were much better. You’d say that these ones don’t look quite the way they did the last, presumably prevailing, time.

I’ve been conditioned to offer up equally preemptive compliments, too, always tinged with a sense of reassurance. But the fact of the matter is, nothing is ever really that off. The potatoes are always great, if not consistent, and everything is, for the most part, salted perfectly. (I happen to also come from a long lineage of women who are, though self-deprecating, pros in the kitchen.)

It’s become a practice so ingrained it’s borderline genetic, by now. And it would seem, by the rules of science, that I’m next in line. I’m hoping, though, that since I’ve caught it early, I will be much better prepared to resist falling into the traps of anticipatory apologizing.

Last week I was back at my home home for lunch. Again, as lineage would predict, there my mother was, hunched over her newest recipe, apologizing for the wayward kale, which was refusing to wilt. As it turns out, the pile of kale and potatoes she was so unhappy with was a dish certainly not worthy of apologies. In fact, it was worthy of a second go. Then a third. This dish is perfect for winter, when kale abounds, and I find it’s better if the kale is left slightly unwilted, so that it still has a bit of a bite. (What do you think about that, Mom?)

Wilted Kale and Roasted-Potato Winter Salad

(Adapted from Gourmet)

When I made this, my co-op had these really appealing versions of both purple and red potatoes, so I used those. (As in most things, if there is a purple version, I go for it.) Feel free, though, to use whatever kind of potatoes you like best.

Also, if you don’t have any cheese on hand, forge on ahead anyway. The salad is great with it, but the tahini dressing can stand up on its own if need be.

Also-also, like many things, this recipe is fantastic with a fried egg on top. So do that, too.

2 pounds potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
scant 1/4 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves (3 thinly sliced and 1 minced)
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup well-stirred tahini
2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 pounds kale, stems and center ribs discarded and leaves thinly sliced crosswise (I did a thicker version of a chiffonade.)

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Toss potatoes with oil and a bit each of salt and pepper, and spread out evenly on a baking sheet. Roast, stirring once, for about 10 minutes. Stir in sliced garlic and roast 10 minutes more. Sprinkle with cheese (or don’t) and roast until cheese is melted and golden in spots, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, purée tahini, water, lemon juice, minced garlic, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a blender until smooth, about 1 minute. If you want your dressing a bit thinner, add some water, but I found this one produced a pretty good thickness.

Toss kale with hot potatoes and any garlic and oil remaining in pan, then toss with tahini sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Resist apologizing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On 1000-mile drives, and working alternators

For most of my license-holding years, I’ve appreciated older cars.

Older cars, I thought, had character, that worn-in feel that boasts both experience and a nice, rounded dip in the seat that makes you feel like you’re in the right spot. They’ll often have their own idiosyncratic noises, too; but instead of being disruptive, they just make you feel like you know your car that much better. It’s yours. Anyone else would be worried by the whirring and the shaking that happens when you gear into reverse. But not you – you know it’s just the character, the experience, and that worn-in feel all at work.

There’s a decent chance that this developed in order to convince myself that my modest little Volvo who is ten, going on eleven, is really as sprightly as ever. Or that Pete’s car, lovingly named Old Blue, (who is rounding out twenty-two years on this earth, and has only one working speaker), is really just as good as any other. Since Monday, I have learned that cars that old, though, are not to be trusted.

I have also learned that towing services are indispensable, and that one thousand miles might be too many to try driving in one day.

You see, Pete is staying in South Carolina for the next few months, motivated by its warmer weather, and shmancy golf courses. He found a place to stay and a course to play (ha!), mostly by the good graces of family friends and connections. I thought I’d tag along for the first week, before my last (last!) semester of college in Connecticut.

We started our drive before the sun was up on Monday, hoping to make it down by that evening. Old Blue got us just over the border of North Carolina before deciding he’d had enough. After countless phone calls, one new alternator, a Firestone lounge, and a lot of bad coffee, we forced Blue to forge on.

By the last two hours of our drive, we were fighting sleep. But as if Blue was apologetic for putting us through what he had, his right side speaker came to life for the final miles. Through it we blasted Arcade Fire as loud as it would go, and tried to sing, or rather scream, along to keep ourselves awake. You might say we owe our lives to Win Butler.

Even though Monday was the opposite of smooth, I’m not even that mad, because this is what I’ve been looking at for the past two days.

And this.

And Savannah is only a half -hour ride (or in newly-fixed Blue who maxes out at 65 mph, about 45 minutes), so I’ve also been looking at this.

That’s what I’ve been up to for the past few days, and will continue to be up to until next Monday, when I come back to brave the Connecticut Cold. I have kale and potatoes to tell you about, too. Until then, make sure your alternators work, and I’ll see you soon.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Chocolate Peppermint Bark: The Anti-Baking

(Part I of II: Musings on precision, ovens, and whatnot)

Hello again.

Have you all made your scones yet? I only ask, you know, because breakfast is supposed to come before dessert, on most occasions, (notwithstanding the mornings after your birthday, or the occasional fork-in-the-leftover-pie) and today, I have peppermint bark for you. Well, peppermint bark and a little whining, because what’s a post about dessert from me if it comes without complaint, right?

During my Rampant Christmas Baking Spell, which I have decided it’s now called, and I think might become annual, I tried to approach baking calmly, all laid back, and with a clear head. I’ve found that it’s the best way. I also tried making Macaroons, which, for me, proved to be the divas of all cookies. If these cookies could, they’d ask for their water to be a certain temperature to the degree, for multiple outfit changes daily, and they wouldn’t settle for any less than private jets. Their name even sounds like pretension, to be said in a British accent, and perhaps with one raised pinky. They are downright high-maintenance, if you ask me. All fragile and petite and green, they were the snazziest things I’ve ever made, and just about the antithesis of the calmness I was looking to maintain.

Slightly misshapen macaroons behind me, I was feeling weary of baking too much in one day. I have my limits, you know. So I didn’t bake; I just melted a bit, stirred a bit, spread a bit, and chilled.

This chocolate peppermint bark is a little bit tedious what with its three layers, but it’s entirely worth it, and nowhere near the almond-peeling-and-grinding hell of macaroons past. Really, if you can melt chocolate, and spread it onto a baking sheet, you can do this. You also get to crush peppermint candies with a soup can, which is fun, or useful if you, like me, tend to enjoy the frustration catharsis of breaking a bunch of small candies. Either way, this bark, with its sandwiched layer of peppermint-laced chocolate ganache, is totally worth each and every one of it’s three layers.

Chocolate Peppermint Bark

(Adapted from Bon Appetit)

Note: If candy canes taste too much like the holidays to you, I’m sure there are plenty of variations on this you could try. Like, try swapping the peppermint extract for almond extract, and sprinkle the layers with almonds instead of peppermint candies. The possibilities are endless, and not bound to any one season. Go wild.

Also, this recipe calls for your chocolate to be chopped. But, in the end, it’s all going to be melted anyway, so chips work just as well; just make sure it’s still a relatively good quality chocolate.

17 ounces good-quality white chocolate (I used Ghiradelli), finely chopped
30 red-and-white-striped hard peppermint candies, coarsely crushed, or at least half a cup
7 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons whipping cream
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract

Turn a large baking sheet bottom side up and cover it with foil. Mark a 12 x 9-inch rectangle on foil. (This just has to be approximate. Don’t worry if the chocolate isn’t perfectly rectangular – you can just call your bark “rustic.”)

Stir white chocolate in metal bowl set over saucepan of barely simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water) until chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove from over water. Pour 2/3 cup melted white chocolate onto rectangle on foil. Using an offset spatula, spread chocolate to fill rectangle, then sprinkle with 1/4 cup crushed peppermints. Chill until set, about 15 minutes.

For Ganache: stir bittersweet chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat until just melted and smooth. Cool a bit, then pour mixture evenly over white chocolate rectangle. Using icing spatula, spread bittersweet chocolate in even layer. Refrigerate until very cold and firm, about 25 minutes.

Rewarm remaining white chocolate in bowl set over barely simmering water to smooth again. Working quickly, pour white chocolate over firm bittersweet chocolate layer; spread to cover. Immediately sprinkle with remaining crushed peppermints. Chill just until firm, about 30 minutes. Though, the longer you wait, the easier it will be to cut.

Lift foil with bark onto work surface; trim edges. Cut bark into 1 inch squares or just random pieces, if you, you know, want to live on the edge. Using metal spatula, slide bark off foil and onto work surface. This will stay for about two weeks, stored in the fridge.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Chocolate Chip Scone Recipe

(Part I of II: Musings on precision, ovens, and whatnot)

Scones, I’ve promised scones. So those are on the menu today. And there’s also peppermint bark. Those two will finish up my musings on precision, ovens, and whatnot, and then I’ll have to tell you all about my new favorite books. It’s never ending, I’ll say.

So I’ve officially conquered scones. The first time I made them, they made a fool out of me; it was trickery of the highest order. The recipe looked deceptively simple, yet the scones proved to be exceptionally finicky, the jerks, and served only to reinforce my grudge toward foods that depended too heavily upon baking soda, flour, and sugar chiefly among other ingredients. In order to move forward in any constructive way, I had to repress this incident, and with my competitive spirit urging me forward, try it again. Try it to win, that is.

The chocolate chip scones I made a few weeks back could be considered a win, to be sure. They rose, bless their heavy-handed dose of baking soda and powder, and they actually resembled something I would want to eat for breakfast, alongside a cup of coffee. They’re orange-scented, scattered with a generous handful of dark chocolate, and they go particularly well with new Christmas pajamas and a large gathering of relatives. You don’t need that exact combination, of course, but I would highly recommend it.

Chocolate Chip Scones
(Adapted from Bon Appetit)

Note: The orange flavor, with only 1 tablespoon of grated peel, is faint. If you want a more robust, citrusy scone, add a bit more. Also, if you want a slightly higher yield and slightly smaller scones, use a circular cookie cutter. That’s what I did.

3 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1 ½ sticks chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces
Generous handful dark chocolate chips, or about ½ cup
1 cup chilled buttermilk

Get your oven good and ready at 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda into large bowl. Stir in orange peel. Add the butter, and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal, much like you would with a pie crust. Gently mix in dark chocolate. Gradually add buttermilk, tossing with fork until moist clumps form. Roughly ball the dough together with your hands, being careful not to overwork it.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface. Knead briefly to bind dough; you only need to knead (sorry) about four times. Form dough into 1-inch-thick round. Cut into 8 wedges for traditional shaped and sized scones, or use your cookie cutter to make smaller circles. (Be sure to consistently ball up the leftovers to make more circles, until dough is all used up.) Transfer scones to prepared baking sheet, spacing 2 inches apart. Sprinkle with a bit of sugar if you’d like, and bake until tops of scones are golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. Let stand on baking sheet 10 minutes.