Friday, October 30, 2009

The Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge!

So in addition to just finding a place to share stories and recipes from my life, one of the other reasons I started this blog was to post results from what is being called the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge.  A food blog I follow called issued a challenge to readers to obtain  Peter Reinhart's  The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread, and work through the recipes, and then come together as a community to help each other out as they went.  

The book covers old world techniques and learning the art of dough and bread making.  Lots and LOTS of really yummy recipes and I'm looking forward to working through them and of course posting my results as I go!

My first experiences with fresh homemade bread came from dinner at my Godmother and Godfather's home.  Good friends of my parents, we would visit with them fairly regularly when I was younger, and my Godmother, trained as a chef, would prepare the most amazing meals.  This meant that bread with dinner whether loafed or rolled was always fresh and hot out of the oven.  Some of my fondest memories of bread are sitting in her kitchen enjoying a piece of something she just baked.  The amazing smells filling that kitchen are unforgettable even to this day.

And while I've tried my hand at bread a time or two, I've never felt competent.  Part of that of course is just more practice, and at this point, I can definitely make something edible and reasonably tasty, but I'd really like to turn it up a notch.  I've never made things like bagels, or even French bread.  And I've really wanted to find and make the perfect cinnamon roll recipe. 

I'm excited to try my hands at things I never would have thought to try, and I'm looking forward to really learning the process.  Yay for Costco memberships and ingredients in bulk!  At this rate, I may not have to turn on the heat this winter which will be an additional cost savings in this process.

Anybody care to play?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hand me my tongs, Q!

So it wouldn't be a geek blog without a talk about kitchen gadgets.

I tend to be of Alton Brown mind when it comes to gadgets.  I wouldn't say I'm hard core about not having uni-taskers in my kitchen, but I understand the sentiment.  I live in an apartment with limited space.  If I'm going to bring something in that takes up space, it better have worthwhile use.

In my humble kitchen, I do have a few things I tend to favor and appreciate.

Waiter's Helper/Corkscrew

I know these days there is a love of the lever style corkscrews that come from all the finest makers of wine accessories.  Clamp it on, squeeze it down, and then lever it out.  But they just have never called to me.  I have friends who keep theirs in the fine wooden, felt or satin lined box in which it came, and it becomes quite a ceremony to open a bottle of wine.  While I appreciate the pomp and circumstance, when I'm cooking with it, I just really like to get into the wine.  For myself, I keep around a nice Waiter's corkscrew.  Designed to be operated predominantly with one hand, you can cut the foil, drive in the screw, and lever out the cork rather effortlessly.  And whats best about them is that not only are they not so expensive as their high end cousins, but they multitask as well, typically having a bottle opener built in.  Whether its wine with the ladies or beers with the guys, I've got it squared away in one simple tool.

KitchenAid mixer

I will admit, there is nothing wrong with a little elbow grease when it comes to cooking and baking.  Getting arm-deep into your ingredients and forming a connection with your concoction is half the fun.  That said, there are times when you just want to get it mixed, blended, or whisked, and you want to have the power and the finesse to pull it off.  My KitchenAid mixer was one of my most prized gifts.  Aside from the basics of whisking and mixing and even making dough, KitchenAid mixers come with an accessory port that can be host to all sorts of useful attachments including meat grinders, juicers, and pasta makers.  They are sturdy, powerful, die-hard, and are found in some of the greatest home kitchens in the world.  I can't speak highly enough, and wouldn't trade mine for anything.

Kitchen Computer

What true geek in the kitchen doesn't keep a computer around?  Not every one may have a dedicated computer, but no one can deny the usefulness of having one.  I have an old beater laptop that performs admirably. Between looking up new recipes or researching kitchen gadgets, or even researching ingredients for that next amazing dinner, having a window into the information age really brings a lot to the table.  Even just having your virtual cookbook open so you can follow as you cook is a wonderful thing.  And aside from those basics, you can even find more elaborate ideas that incorporate shopping lists and bar code readers that allow you to keep an inventory of your perishables and suggest recipes based on what you have on hand.  And when that's all said and done, you can even spin off a blog entry to immortalize your fun. :-)

Instant thermometer

In every good cookbook or recipe with regards to cooking a slab of animal protein, done-ness is never a function of time.  And how could it be?  Everybody's grills, ovens, and cook-tops are all different, each with their own eccentricities and quirks.   The true test recommended by chefs and health specialists alike is temperature.  Digital or analog, knowing how heated through your meat is can make the difference between a flavorful meal and a trip to the hospital. 

Condiment Squeeze Bottles

I never realized what I was missing until I finally bought a few of these.  These are generic versions of the bottles you see sometimes in restaurants for mustard and catsup.  They are very versatile and work for everything from homemade sauces to oils or dressings.  I keep a couple of them half-filled with my two favorite cooking oils so I have easy access when I need a squirt in the pan.  They are easy to fit on a shelf or on a stove ledge and even in the fridge as necessary, and I always feel like I have more control when it comes to putting what I want where I want it.

Cookie Scoops

This is another one I've been slow to adopt.  I've never been a fan of the ice cream version of these, but for things like cookies and batter, these rock.  Portions are always consistent, and with the wiper, I almost always get full release.  Makes lining up cookies on the cookie sheet fast and easy.  And with a spritz of non-stick spray, they work great for batters when filling molds and the like, or when you really need to keep control of how much you use.  Highly recommend these in a couple of sizes.


Whether metal, or bamboo, or plastic, tongs have a lot of uses in the kitchen.  I find them easier to use than any other utensil when frying and griling things.  They provide distance between your hand and hot or messy situations, and they can even be used for cutting in a limited capacity.  I keep a couple of sizes of metal ones for regular duty, and I have a pair of bamboo ones for working on the non-stick.

So those are a few of my favorites.  Like I say, I don't generally go for elaborate ones, which I know can take from my geek cred, but there is really something to be said for simplicity.  Both in cooking gear and in a meal itself, simple wins.

What are some of your favorite cooking gadgets?

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Burger By Any Other Name....

One of the interesting things I find with regard to my history of food is learning that there exists a great dichotomy in terms of how I view food my family would make.  There are certain dishes for which no other will compare.  It doesn't matter who makes it or how much better it should be, it will never compare to my Mom or Dad's home cooked version.  Then again, there are some things for which, to this day, I am confused that we ever ate in such a state. 

Burgers is one of the latter.

I think it stems in part from my Mom's over-zealousness with food preparation safety.    Meat in our household had a tendency of getting cooked past the point of flavor into the realm of charcoal.  It wasn't until much later that I realized my disdain for things like pork chops and good steak had more to do with the fact that I never had really had any, and once I did,  it was all downhill after that. :-)

It was difficult for her in other respects as well.  My father tended to have very simple tastes, and while he did appreciate spicy food, he never was overly keen on flavorful food.  My mom, on the other hand, grew up with a budding home chef for a father and he tended to make all sorts of amazing food with very simple and cost effective ingredients.  As such, my mom always felt like she was holding back when cooking for the family.

Burgers in our family generally were very simple.  Form the patties with ground beef.  Throw them on the grille.  Top them with cheese as desired, and eat.  Most often, we ate them in fresh homemade tortillas instead of buns, and my father would top his with fresh roasted New Mexico green chile. And even with such simple burgers, there is something to be said for a good tort-burger.

It wasn't until I was at a barbecue at a grade school friend's home that I realized that burgers could actually have flavor and that I might actually have a choice in how done they could be.  That experience changed my whole view of a burger.

These days, I generally still keep it simple.  I've come to appreciate enjoying the burger itself without all the need for extras.  Thats not to say I don't enjoy a few extras now and then, but really, if they take away too much from the flavor of the meat, I don't go there.

I generally take about a pound or pound and a quarter of middle of the road fat content ground beef.  Too fatty, and most of your patty ends up leaching out.  Too little, and you lose not only flavor, but your patties won't stay together very well without filler.

To that, I mix a good sprinkle of garlic powder (maybe a teaspoon), a good shake of Montreal Steak Seasoning (minced garlic, salt, black pepper, and a little bit of cayenne), and a light dusting of dried dill (1/8 teaspoon).  I mix that in thoroughly and form patties.  Works out to be about 3 large patties or four modest ones.  You can of course up your meat and seasonings to accomodate however many you'd like.

Cook them on the grill until they are just on the edge of done and top them with a thick slice of sharp cheddar or some other interesting cheese.  Toss it on a bun, and thats about as simple as it gets.

Alternately, I often also like to top it with pepperjack, and then whip up some homemade guacamole to spread on the bun.

And I too have been known to take the same burger, cheese it as desired, slice it in half, top it with fresh roasted green chile, and roll it in a fresh flour tortilla.

Simple, but delicious.  And a long way from the cheese-covered hockey pucks I grew up with.

And now, if you'll pardon me, I'm drooling. :-)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Who's alfredo of the big bad pesto?

One of my all time favorite dishes is fettuccine Alfredo.  Add to that  basil pesto and chicken, and I fall in love!

Alfredo sauce is one of those things I always felt afraid to make, and when I tried the first time, I ended up with a greasy lumpy mess.  But with the help of recipes and patience, I managed to come up with something smooth, creamy and delicious.

The basics for two servings are pretty straight forward for this.  I pre-make my pesto when Basil is fresh in the store.  A basic blend of basil, olive oil, and pine nuts that I make in the food processor.  I freeze it in an ice cube tray lined with plastic wrap and then pull them out and bag them in a zip-lock bag.  Then I can pull them out and use them whenever I want to add pesto to a dish.  Since they are mostly dry, I drop them straight into the sauces and as they defrost, they blend well.

So I start with a little bit of olive oil and a 2 tablespoon pat of butter that I heat up in a large saucepan.  To it, I add 2 or 3 minced cloves of garlic.  Heat them up on low heat just to get the garlic releasing its awesomeness, but not hot enough to brown.

To that, I add about a pint of heavy cream.  I drop in two "cubes" of the pre-made pesto (about 3 tablespoons).  Then I give it a good few turns of fresh ground pepper from a mill and then I bring up the heat and let it begin to bubble.  Don't want to boil it, but want to get it up to a good simmer, stirring frequently.  I like using a silicone scraper to mix.  It's heat resistant, and it does well to scrape the sides of the pan where splash-ups will thicken faster than the rest of the sauce.

Once it heats through and starts to thicken up a little, I add about 1/3 cup of shredded parmigiana in small sprinkles at a time.   The idea is that the cheese needs to blend and not lump.  I sprinkle a little, let it heat, and then I switch to a whisk (plastic or silicone if you're using a nonstick pan), and then I beat the hell out of it.  Little more cheese.  More beating, and so on until its incorporated.  The sauce should be hot enough that the cheese won't lump and stick to your whisk.  If you find it is, pick up the heat just a bit, and remember to keep up the whisking so it won't stick to the bottom.

One thing to keep in mind is that the sauce will thicken as it cools, so if you find your sauce is hot and already thickening up too much, you can whisk in a small splash of milk to bring it down a little.

And that's the basics!

I toss some fettuccine or even sometimes some angel hair pasta in salted boiling water and pull it out just as it turns al dente.  Grill or fry up a chicken breast, cut it up, and serve it over the bed of pasta and smother it in the sauce.  Serve with a baby spinach salad, and you have a meal fit for a food coma.

So these days I'm not so afraid.  Like with most cooking the trick is to keep up with it and not step away.  And boy is it worth it. :-)