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Archive for the ‘Cooking’ Category

Good food

Holidays give us a great excuse to spend a little extra time making good food. It doesn’t always work out that we have the time, and ocasionally the day is just another ordinary day, as it was for my friend Liz in San Diego, who shared a galley-cooked meal with a crew of Navy sailors onboard a dockside submarine.  But when circumstances permit a gathering of hungry friends or family or both, it is a splendid opportunity for culinary excess.

Our gathering here at Bear and Thistle Farm was small this year; just Bear and I, and the two dogs.  But I cooked my little heart out, we stuffed ourselves on wonderful good food, lolled about watching movies all day and laughing at the dogs’ antics, and generally enjoyed ourselves very, very much.

I am so thankful for the goodness and blessings in my life.

The duck roasted up beautifully.  After a great deal of internet research on how to cook a duck, I ended up using Julia’s instructions for roasting a large chicken, which starts it out at 450 degrees, turning from side to side, then finishes at 350, breast up.  Everything else was focused on getting the fat to drain from the bird, and these little ducks have virtually no fat under the skin at all.  Here it is, ready for the oven:

And despite my intention to take a picture of the roasted result, the carving knife got busy too quick and so we just dug in.  It was delicious; dark and succulent and very mild-flavored.  The gravy was spectacular, as well.  Paired with mashed potatoes, herb and onion stuffing, fresh beets from the garden, and Bear’s favorite 60-minute rolls, it was a splendid meal.

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sourdough bread, no-knead version

 I’ve always loved baking my own bread.  My journey into the art and science of breadbaking started many years ago as a teenager still living at home, experimenting with recipes and flours, amazed at the flavor and crunch and freshness of a hand-made, fresh-baked loaf. 

Through the years I have tried many methods, with as many failures as successes, but I’ve never stopped making bread.  Mostly I mixed and kneaded dough by hand, the long way, with long proofing and rising times, resulting in bread that took four or more hours from start to finish.  Delicious, but a lot of work.

When Bear and I married, we got a Chefmate bread machine as a wedding gift; one of the first bread machines on the market, I think.  I still use it today, mostly for kneading and rising my multi-grain hamburger bun dough, and for making specialty wheat-free breads when the occasion arises.  I’m not sure why, but the non-traditional doughs mix and knead really well in that little machine.

A few years later I bought my trusty Kitchenaid stand mixer, and I was convinced the dough hook was the easiest way to knead bread ever invented.  I still use the 60-Minute Roll recipe from the book that came with it (simply awesome!)  but I no longer make our daily bread “the long way” as I refer to it now.   Goodness, no.  I wouldn’t be baking all our own bread if I were.

Then one of my favorite magazines, Cooks Illustrated, featured the “almost no-knead” bread recipe in their January 2008 issue, taking the original New York Times’ version and adding a smidge of vinegar and lager beer to boost the flavor and mimic rustic sourdough bread.  I was a convert after the first loaf, and have never looked back.  Being a beer drinker back then, I always had some Sam Adams or wheaty micro-brew in the fridge, and already owned the necessary cast iron dutch oven to bake it in, covered, at 500 degrees, which gives the loaf a rustic crisp crust.

The “no-knead” part is no lie.  The no-secret of it is a process called autolysis, which is a period of rest that allows the dough to relax. After the initial mixing of flour and water, the dough is allowed to sit. This rest period allows for better absorption of water and allows the gluten and starches to align.  Essentially, most of the kneading is done for you by allowing the flour and moisture to work together over the long rest period. 

The original recipe calls for mixing ingredients into a “shaggy dough” which is covered tightly and given an 8 – 16 hour autolysis; I’ve found an overnight session, up to 24 hours, works very well and makes this method quite compatible with a working person’s daily routine.  In other words, I can mix up a batch of shaggy dough one evening, cover and let rest until the next day, and simply shape into loaves in a few minutes’ time and bake the next evening.  The baked loaves are cool enough to slice and bag for the freezer before going to bed.  All in a day’s (or two day’s) after-work routine.

The foray into developing my own sourdough starter eliminated the instant yeast and beer/vinegar additions and greatly simplified the mixing process.   My weekly two-day breadbaking process now typically goes like this:  I pull my starter out of the fridge on Friday morning, feed it with fresh flour and water and cover it with plastic wrap.  Friday evening I mix a shaggy bread dough using the proofed starter, flour, and additional ingredients;  cover, and leave overnight.  Saturday morning, afternoon or evening – the choice is mine – I shape the now-elastic dough into loaves with a few minutes of kneading and a scoop of flour, place on slings of parchment paper in skillets to rise for 2 hours, then bake in cast iron dutch ovens in a hot (500 reduced to 425) oven for 30 minutes covered, 15 uncovered.

A double batch yields two large round loaves that provide lots of breakfast toast, sandwich bread, and supper menu accompaniment for the week.  Perfect for two hard-working, hungry adults. (If I had kids, I would have to make more than two loaves.)  Is the bread perfect?  Well no – though it usually looks like the photo at the beginning of this post, sometimes the loaves are smallish, and a little more dense; sometimes they’re larger and rougher like the one I’ve got proofing right now.  It depends a lot on the moisture content of the shaggy dough, the environmental conditions, and such.  I’m happy when the bread is edible, which is always.

Besides allowing this overnight bread dough to almost knead itself, the autolysis period (moist dough resting long time) and the acidic fermentation of sourdough starter together provide the significant nutritional benefit of reducing the phytic acid content of the wheat flour, which leads to increased bioavailability of many nutrients, enhanced magnesium and phosphorus solubility, as well as boosting enzyme content.  In other words, this bread digests very well, is remarkably healthful, and it is possible that even gluten-intolerant types might be able to eat it safely.

I’m a bread-eater and always will be; this method of bread-making allows me to enjoy my own fresh-baked, healthful sourdough bread every single day with minimal fuss and effort.  It’s a small victory, a minor battle won in the war we’re all fighting to take back control of our daily food, despite the onslaught of convenience-driven choices in the supermarket and insane demands on our available time.

I’d be happy to share my experience with developing a sourdough starter and the recipe I’m currently using for my daily bread – just holler.  Got a loaf ready to put in the oven right now – enjoy your Sunday evening, all!

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Food is on my mind a lot these days, probably because the holidays are so centered around it in our home.

It’s getting a lot of attention everywhere, though.  In the press, in new book releases, documentaries, and on the internet, many urgent conversations are going on about finding, growing, buying, and eating nutritious, organic, and local food.  

Perhaps I am just being optimistic, but in my experience at least, an increasing awareness seems to be taking hold and spreading in the general populace, creating a ground swell of movement in favor of sustainable agriculture.  More people than ever before are being exposed to the awful truth about our failing industrial food system, realizing that our grandparents ate better tasting and higher quality food than we do, and are looking to get that pre-WWII level of nutrition and food safety back.

The good news is, that’s possible.  The not-so-good news is, it requires skills, that not everyone have. 

Mainly, that way of eating involved a lot of cooking, from scratch.  Not just heating up food out of a can, or assembling meals from prepared ingredients, or microwaving frozen dinners.  Cooking before the age of supermarkets with their vast offerings of ready-to-eat, processed foods was the real deal.  You started with simple, single ingredients, and transformed them into soups, casseroles, breads and pies; main dishes, snacks, breakfast and lunch, and don’t forget, deserts. 

Sounds romantic and a bit magical, doesn’t it? 

For the non-cook, it is.  My husband, for instance, would never, ever, attempt to bake a pie.  He loves pie, just doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to turn flour, butter, pumpkin, eggs, milk, and various spices into a delicious holiday dessert.  And vegetables?  If given a pound each of carrots and beets, a half an onion, three cloves of garlic, and a jar of home-canned chicken stock, he could no more make a pot of soup than pull a bunny from a hat.

Without my cooking skills, pie for him comes from the bakery section of the grocery store, and soup comes from a can.  He’s not alone in that category, and it isn’t just because he’s a man, that he doesn’t know how to cook.

It also generally takes more time to cook from scratch, and it creates more dirty dishes than making meals from cans and packages and freezer boxes.  These were the drawbacks that Madison Avenue capitalized on as the post-war economy blasted into the rocket age:  advertisers convinced women everywhere that cooking was a drudgery that had to be escaped from.  The new technology promised fast, delicious, convenient meals for the modern family, and with women joining the work force in leaps and bounds, it was a reasonable proposition with few detractors. 

Seemingly overnight, cooking became as simple as 1-2-3.   Brown some meat, boil some noodles, add a can of soup, and call it dinner.  Or, remove pizza from box, bake until cheese is brown and bubbly, and serve.  Better yet:  cut slit in plastic film over vegetables, microwave on high for 3 minutes; stir, heat 2 minutes more, and enjoy.

Not much skill involved, but that’s what makes those sorts of meals really convenient and hard to resist.  Sure beats eating out or ordering in on evenings when time is at a premium and the refrigerator is empty; sometimes a frozen pizza is all I have time or energy for, too.

Which is as much a part of the skill of cooking as knowing what to do with the ingredients. 

Planning meals around available foodstuffs, keeping basic ingredients on hand, knowing how to use produce in season, and being willing to invest the daily time and effort required to create meals from real food; this is an entire complex of essential skills for anyone really interested in eating well, whether you grow your own food, buy it from a farmer or farmers market, or shop the organic section in your local supermarket.

It is not difficult, but it is a lot of work, if you’re not used to it.  It is certainly more work than I want to do at the end of a long day sometimes, and I’m only cooking for two.  And I love to cook.  And, I’ve been cooking for thirty years, which means I’ve learned a few shortcuts and techniques that make it fun, and I’ve accumulated a wealth of kitchen tools and equipment that make it easier.   Still, doing it right can be a struggle many days.

But it is worth it.  Yes, it is very much worth it.  Because every meal I create from food taken straight from the ground or the pasture, as close to where it is grown as possible, is an act of farming.  It means I do not need the industrial food system, with its endless, empty variety and addicting convenience, to feed myself and my family.  I firmly believe that knowing how to cook with real food is just as critical to changing the shape of agriculture as is making different choices in the food we buy to eat.  

As surely as eating is an agricultural act, as Wendell Berry has so eloquently said, so too is cooking. 

Because let’s face it:  all the fresh, organic vegetables and meat from healthy, happy animals grown on sustainable farms, are just pretty photo props if you can’t turn them into dinner.

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