Oh Dear

I think I may have ruined my oven. 

All right, that’s being a little overdramatic.  Rephrase: I think I may have really really messed up my oven.

All I did was roast a chicken.  I bought it from the store I always buy it from.  I bought the same size (3 lbs) and type (fryer) that I always get.  I cooked it the same way I always do (15 minutes at 450, 1 hour at 350).  I did EVERYTHING the way I always do!

I guess this chicken just had malevolent designs upon my oven.

I can’t say that I noticed it being particularly fattier than usual when I was prepping it for the oven.  I did cut off about two tablespoon’s worth of fat from inside the cavity, but I always do that.  The skin was difficult to separate from the flesh, but not unduly so. 

Somehow, somewhere, SOMETHING caused the fat in this chicken to just explode all over the inside of my oven.   The top, the bottom, the sides, the door–they all have floor-to-ceiling 4-inch-wide streaks of greasy soot.  From about 30 minutes in to the cooking time to the end of it, big billows of smoke pushed their way out of the vents and filled the house, no matter how many windows I opened. 

The chicken is not burnt (in fact, it tastes quite nice).  The pan is not warped.  It’s just the oven that’s a disaster area.  And, of course, the house that is now permeated with smoke.  (Not to mention my hair).  And have I mentioned that my oven does not have a self-cleaning cycle. 

At 9:30 pm I will get home from work.  I don’t know how long it will take me to clean the oven.

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Published in: on October 31, 2007 at 11:56 am  Leave a Comment  

Wine Works Wonders, Once Again

I think I have eaten more ice cream and sorbet in the past three months than I have at any previous time in my entire life.  I’ve had the ice cream maker for five years, and we certainly used it plenty last summer, but I don’t think a week has gone by, since May, that we didn’t churn something up at least once a week, if not twice.  This week we may get up to three. 

Our latest creation, and my current favorite, is pear sorbet.  It’s so incredibly simple that it barely needs to be described.  1. Cut up ripe pears into chunks, throwing away the core and the stem (and the little stringy part that connects the two).  2. Put them in a saucepan with a squeeze of lemon juice, a glug of simple syrup, a vanilla bean, and several big sloshes of wine. 

Yes indeed, wine is once again making an appearance in my fruit sorbets.  However, whereas during the summer I used red wine in berry and stone fruit sorbets, the deep red color complimenting or enhancing the already rosy nature of the fruit, now that fall’s pomme fruits are taking over the markets, I’ve switched to white wine.  Not only does its lack of color not muddy the pristine, white inner flesh of the pommes, but its clean, light flavor is a better match to the crispness of apples and pears.  A red wine would be too deep and mellow, in my opinion.

But back to the sorbet: we have a saucepan full of pears and flavorings.  What’s to be done with it?  3. Put the saucepan onto medium heat and cook the pears until they are soft and mushy.  4. Take the vanilla bean out of the pan, dry it off and save it for something else (like poaching more fruit).  5. Put the rest of the contents of the saucepan into a food processor and whiz it up until it’s a loose pearsauce.  (This step is really only necessary because I didn’t peel the pears.  I like the added texture of the peels, but I doubt that removing them would be a disaster.  If the pears were peeled before cooking, the mixture could probably just be mashed with a potato masher, right in the pan).  6. Tip the pearsauce into a tupperware container and chill it in the fridge for at least a day.  7. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker.  Voila: sorbet.

The sorbet may be simple, but it is incomparably delicious.  It tastes like the essence of pear–the lemon juice, vanilla and wine only enhance the natural flavors of the pear, adding a sparkling background, but not dominating at all.  And, just like red wine in berry sorbets, the white wine provides an amazingly luxurious texture, making each bite as smooth as velvet.

We have only two servings of this ambrosia left; now I just have to create a meal worthy of serving as a prelude to it.

Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 12:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

I am More an Antique Roman than a Dane, but Even So. . . .

Waaaay back at the beginning of September, when we were still in the middle of a heat wave, public schools jumped back into session and Teacherman went back to work.  To celebrate/console, I made him a special breakfast–cherry Danishes. 

I’d never made Danishes before, and always had an impression of them as Way Too Much Trouble.  I had a vague desire to someday make croissants from scratch (I’ve read so many recipes that I technically know how to do it, I just never have), but Danishes, for all that the technique of preparation is so similar, seemed over the top.

As so often happens, though, one day in mid-August I was re-reading a Nigella Lawson cookbook (the particular one I don’t recall–I just know it was one that I don’t own).  Lo, there in the breakfast chapter was a recipe for Danishes, and it seemed extraordinarily easy.

One simply cuts butter (a huge quantity of butter) into a mixture of flour, a tiny bit of sugar, a packet of yeast, and a pinch of salt, then mixes the dry ingredients into a lumpy sludge with some milk, and egg and some water.  The mixture goes into the fridge overnight, then the next day goes through a series of foldings and rollings-out, until one has perfect Danish pastry.

The recipe acknowledges that the result isn’t a ‘pastry shop-type’ Danish, but rather the sort of Danish that actual Danes make in actual Denmark.  The butter is cut into the dry ingredients, rather than formed into a square and rolled in (just as for croissants), and all the rolling and folding happens at once, without interminable periods of refrigeration between each one (just as for croissants). 

The recipe recommends cutting the butter in with a food processor, but mine has been acting rather dodgy lately, so I did it by hand.  It only took five minutes, and it reminded me that the smell of pie dough (for that is essentially what this is, only with twice as much butter and a packet of yeast added) is one of the best smells in the world.

The next day I squoodged the dough together into a ball and rolled it out on a heavily (HEAVILY) floured board, marvelling all the while at how smoothly and easily it rolled out.  (Unlike pie dough, this took absolutely no effort to roll, and the gluten didn’t activate and elastisize the dough back into a postage-stamp-sized square.  It did require an inordinant amount of dough on the board, though).

I folded the dough in thirds like a business letter, turned it 45 degrees, rolled it out to cover the board again, folded it, turned it, rolled it, folded it, turned it, rolled it, then cut it in half.  One half I wrapped in foil and stuck into the freezer, the other I rolled out to cover the entire board again (can you believe that it was that easy?  What other dough would DO that??)  

I cut the dough into 6 more-or-less (mostly less) equal pieces, dolloped a little cherry preserves into the middle of each piece, then folded the corners to the middle and squished them together.  They looked a little more like enormous hamantaschen than Danishes, but whatever.  All that remained was to let them rise for an hour at room temperature, then bake them for 20 minutes.  Voila, Danishes.

Nearly a month later, Teacherman went to a breakfast tailgate, and I went along, too.  I had never been to a tailgate before (and I probably won’t ever go to one again), but it gave me a wonderful opportunity to make lotsandlots of food to feed to unsuspecting university marching band alumni.  I made sausage and mustard and bacon and all the things that have become my standards, but I also pulled that second batch of Danish dough out of the freezer. 

This time I cut the dough into 12 pieces (which didn’t make them small, just not ENORMOUS) filled each one with a sweet, cheesecake-like filling.  Feeling uncreative, I shaped them the same way–into little pyramid/hat/knob things.  They were devoured.  Among the devourers was Teacherman’s mother, who raved and moaned and fell about and made broad hints about her birthday. 

Last Tuesday was her birthday and, for a myriad of reasons, this Saturday we will be visiting her in Detroit.  Danishes?  Coming right up.

Back before the power of the Danishes became manifest, I was planning to bake an apple cake for my mother-in-law, and take it along to Detroit to surprise her with, but with Danishes specifically requested, I had to change my tune.  Apples, though, were stuck in my mind.  It’s fall–perfect apple season, even for the supermarket scary varieties, and even better for the exciting antiques from the farmer’s market*.  I determined to make apple Danishes.

I made an applesauce with Wolf River apples, a little cinnamon and a little cider, the heat turning the apples into such a fluffy, perfect mush that I didn’t need to puree them at all.  I cooked the sauce down a little farther than I might have for regular eating applesauce, just so it wouldn’t run when used as Danish filling.  The final filling was considerably stiffer than a commercial applesauce, but not as far gone as apple butter.

On Thursday night I made the strange, knobbley batter, and on tonight I rolled and folded and filled until I had eight little apple-spiced pillows (why not twelve?  Birthdays call for a little indulgence).  Tomorrow we are off to Detroit, where I will let the Danishes speak for themselves.

* Do not trust all antique apples, though.  I bought one type, untasted, this last weekend, only to discover at home that they tasted like bug spray.  I am not kidding.  Even washed, even peeled, even cooked and sweetened: bug spray.   Yech.

Published in: on October 12, 2007 at 8:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Albino Horror

Almost exactly a month ago, now, I went to the Madison, WI farmer’s market and came home with a mountain of produce.  Buried amid the bounty were two specimens of a vegetable that I’d never seen before: white beets.

They were enormous (at least 8 inches in diameter) and cheap (50 cents a piece).  “Ugly but good!” said the sign, and thinking, oddly, of the Italian cookie, ‘bruti ma buoni’, which means the same thing, I bought them.

They were very large.  And very white.  And “Good Lord!  That’s not a vegetable, that’s Swamp Thing’s heart!” said our upstairs neighbor.  I cooked them anyway. 

I peeled, chunked and roasted the two behemoths, for once not needing to worry about magenta (or orange, or pink, or blood-red) stains.  I forgot about the foil packages for two hours, the way I usually do, and when I came back to get them: Ugh!

They were all BLACK!  And dirty-looking!  And just grotesque!

I had no other vegetable to serve for dinner that night, so I sliced them into matchsticks, tossed them with a pickle-y vinaigrette and ate them, averting my eyes.  They were extremely tasty, but with less than zero visual appeal.  I blended up the second half of the unfortunate cubes, put the puree into a tupperware and shoved it to the back of the freezer. 

Throughout the month of September I thought about that container of greyish puree.  I knew I should do something with it–aside from the fact that it would be wasteful to discard that much food, the beets actually tasted GOOD.  I just couldn’t get over the color.

Finally, I was rescued by an unexpected savior: curry. 

In one of my many forays into a library cookbook I found a recipe for curried beet soup with apples.  I liked the idea of the earthy sweetness of the beets playing off the lighter sweetness of the apples, with the spices to warm up the flavors, and finally–grudgingly–decided to defrost the beets.

I sweated a small, roughly chopped yellow onion until it was limp and translucent, then added a chopped apple (Northern Spy, in case you wonder) and two teaspoons of bright yellow curry powder.  I let the apple get slightly soft while the aroma of the curry powder bloomed in the heat, then added the beet puree.

Magic!  The turmeric in the curry powder transformed the grisly grey color into a lovely umber  I was immediately more sanguine about my meal prospects.  The soup had smelled delicious all along, but it was only that moment when I began to really believe it.

I added 2 cups of my homemade chicken stock, put a lid on the pot and let it bubble for half an hour–long enough for all the ingredients to amalgamate into a harmonious whole.  Meanwhile, I seared some cubes of pressed, ginger and soy-marinated tofu, to serve as “croutons” on top of the soup.

It was delicious–and pretty–saving the beets from a doomed existence at the back of the freezer. 

Published in: on October 10, 2007 at 6:39 am  Comments (1)  

Annals of the Unnecessary

On Saturday night, I made something that might actually rival bacon as the most extraneous-to-modern-home-preparation food item that I have yet created. 

I made ketchup.

As I have reiterated over and over to colleagues and acquaintances, it’s not that I’m so concerned with self-sufficiency–it’s just that I think it’s cool and fun to make things from scratch.  I haven’t eaten ketchup in years, but when I determined to make a recipe that included it as a major ingredient, I figured: why not make my own?

For the past several weeks I’ve been seeing slabs of pork ribs for sale at the grocery meat counter.  I’d never in my life cooked a rib of anything (chicken doesn’t count–it comes attached to the rest of the bird), and I don’t actually know if I’ve ever eaten pork ribs.  There was a barbecue place that my family frequented when I was growing up, and I know they served ribs there (Iowa=big on pork), but my childhood self was fixed upon the foot-long hot dogs.  Even when I lived in Texas, my barbecue meat of choice was brisket, followed, if absolutely necessary, by smoked sausages.  Ribs never made it into the picture.

I do not know why, therefore, I zeroed in on those ribs at the meat counter.  For some reason they called out to me, and after three weeks of staring at them out of the corner of my eye, I bought a slab.  Now what was I supposed to do with it?

Pork ribs, it seems, are almost universally barbecued.  Given my lack of experience with the subject, it’s quite possible that there’s some iconic method of preparation that I’m unaware of, but barbecue-sauce-glazed, heat-blistered pork ribs are almost an American cultural byword.  This, then, is what I decided to make. 

I had the main ingredient: pork ribs.  Or is that the main ingredient?  Whole cookbooks have been written on barbecue sauce, and there are so many bitter rivalries among sauce afficionados as to make the Scandinavian sagas look peaceful. 

Sauce, therefore, was important, and should be phenomenal.  A major problem inherent in this realization is that I don’t like commercial barbecue sauces, for most of the same reasons that I don’t like commercial ketchup.   They’re too sweet, lacking in complexity, and with only the passing memory of a glance at a tomato.

You are shocked, I know, to hear that I decided to make my own barbecue sauce.   And, since most barbecue sauces start out as modified ketchup, I decided to make my own ketchup.

I did not, however, start with fresh tomatoes.  One kitchen appliance that I do not have is a food mill.  The idea of peeling and seeding the poundsandpounds of tomatoes necessary for even modest ketchup production is enough to give me the vapors.  Also, and more embarassingly, I don’t own a splatter screen; thus, I didn’t want to make anything that would require hours of boiling and reduction, for fear that the majority of the resultant ketchup would end up on the stove (the walls, my shirt, the dog) and not in the pot. 

So.  Yes.  Cheat-worthy as it is, I started with tomato paste. 

I put the contents of 2 6-oz cans of tomato paste into a big nonstick skillet, then added a minutely diced shallot and a practically pulverized stalk of celery (courtesy of what Teacherman would call his “mad chopping skillzzz”).  The pot also took in small quantities of all the winter spices–cinnamon, cloves, mace, allspice, nutmeg–some salt, a few cups of water, a little white wine vinegar, and a tiny bit of sweetener.  I brought it to a boil, smacked the lid on, and left it there for a few minutes, hoping that I wouldn’t ever have to expose the volcanic contents to the open air.

Alas, I did have to–even when you start with tomato paste ketchup still requires SOME reduction.  Through careful monitoring, I was able to keep the stove free of anything more than a light freckling by the time the sauce reduced to the point I wanted.  I strained the mixture through a wire strainer, pressing on the celery and shallot flakes to squeeze out all of their juices.  I let it cool, then tasted it–I ended up adding another spoonful of vinegar, but that was it.  I divided it into four cup-sized portions and froze three, leaving the last cup to be modified into barbecue sauce.

This modification was easy–I added soy sauce (thinking of bulgogi), garlic powder (because chopped garlic would be too strong), chipotle powder (because I wanted both more smoke and more heat), and a little more sweetener, to make it sticky.  I let the flavors meld overnight in the fridge, and voila: barbecue sauce.

After all of that, the ribs were effortless.  I baked them at a very low temperature for 2 hours, then covered them in sauce (and an extra sprinkling of chipotle powder, at Teacherman’s request) and broiled them until bubbly and nearly blackened.

The were both delicious and beautiful.  I meant to take a picture, but forgot entirely in the rush to taste one of the delectable things.  The result?  Tangy, porky bliss.  The pork was flavorful and toothsome in of itself, and the sauce added a sticky sheen and just enough ancillary flavor to complement the pork without overwhelming it.  This is one uncomplicated and ‘unnecessary’ sauce that I’ll be making repeatedly. 

Now pardon me while I go finish gnawing on the bones. . . .

Published in: on October 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hmmm

Hmm.  We seem to be having a spot of technical difficulties, what with not having photographs anymore.  Rest assured, we are working on it. . . .

Published in: on October 2, 2007 at 8:32 pm  Leave a Comment