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Posts Tagged ‘Comfort Food’

Writers more qualified than I will do a better job describing homemade bread.  The way it tastes, the way it smells, the way it takes more time and thought and anticipation than anything else you’ll make.  And of course they are right to laud because there is nothing that tastes and smells and teases quite like it.

The misconception is that baking bread is hard or too labor intensive to make it worthwhile.  The Kitchen Aid and the food processor have made the labor irrelevant but even kneading by hand isn’t quite so bad when you are in the bread mentality.  Which is to say, trusting in a process whose final product may not be finished until tomorrow and certainly a few meals from now and the waiting and watching as your dough rises and gently gets pushed down and turned and dusted until eventually you have a warm crusty ball or torpedo that you’ve shaped all along the way.  Just about any step in the process is improved by a little more patience.

The other misconception is that baking bread is a science.  It might be, but my experience is that as long as you do a few things right, the rest of the process is pretty forgiving.   Letting the dough rest or rise for a little longer can compensate for any deficiency in method or style.

The basic recipe we’re going to work from is for a standard European hearth bread.  The ingredients are:
Flour: 3 cups total for all kinds
Water: 1.3-1.5 cups, depending on the flour composition
Salt: 1.5 tsp
Sugar: 1.5-2 tsp (or something else sweet)
Yeast: 2 tsp active yeast

This will be the first post in a yet-to-be-determined-how-long series on bread making.  So for now, we’ll just talk about ingredients.

Bread can be simply made with all purpose flour and not much else.  What makes bread chewy and crusty and what allows it to rise (to be discussed at length later) is the gluten proteins in the flour.  For that reason, bread flour, which has a high protein content, is your “best” choice — if you couldn’t tell from the name.  Avoid cake or pastry flour because the low protein content of those flours is best for light and tender desserts, not bread.

That said, I think the protein content of the flour is not going to be the main determinant of how your bread turns out (but you probably should still stay away from cake flour).  Having used bread flour and all purpose and whole-wheat flour, I’ve found that what matters more is how wet is the dough, how long you knead, and how long you let it rise.  A long knead and a long rise will do much more for a crusty, squishy, chewy loaf than a higher protein count.

So feel free to start with cheap, regular flour and you can experiment later with fancier and more expensive stuff.  White flour alone is not very flavorful but it is good for a soft loaf.  Whole-wheat adds much more flavor but produces a slightly grainy loaf, which is not necessarily worse, either.  We typically will do half whole-wheat flour, but you shouldn’t do more than that except for flat breads. Whole-wheat flour absorbs more moisture, so the more whole-wheat you use, the more water you’ll need to keep the dough moist.  In either case you absolutely must use salt, which will bring out the flavor of the wheat in whatever flour you use.  And for extra flavor add literally anything else you want to the dough — herbs, spices, nuts, dried fruit, caramelized onions.

Finally, you also have flexibility with the yeast, though different yeasts will be “ready” sooner while others require “proofing” (we’ll discuss yeast later).  The sugar in the recipe is just enough to give the yeast something to start nibbling on and so it is my opinion that there is no reason to use anything besides what is most convenient for you.

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This summer has been one of the most exhausting, least restful summers on record.  I realized this morning that I wanted summer to end so that I can relax–among the most ridiculous things a person (in school, no less) could feel.  Though we’re halfway through summer at this point, it still didn’t feel quite summery to me. We decided that some serious therapy was in order, and we picked up a package of chicken thighs, ten ears of corn (in-husk), and lit up the grill.

Yes, the grill!  The newest addition to our family, a beautiful fat-bellied 22.5 inch Weber charcoal grill.  We inaugurated the grill last week with a full rack of spare ribs, rubbed heavily, cooked slowly for three hours, and finished with a cranberry-habanero sauce.  But today was impromptu, so chicken, which cooks in half the time, would do perfectly.

Luckily, Stop & Shop is selling corn 10 ears for $2.  This price, of course, is irresistible.  The only thing better than grilled corn is cheap grilled corn.  Several summers Joann was very excited to make corn chowder, but corn was too expensive for my taste–“It’ll get down to 10 for $2, you’ll see, and then we’ll buy.”  Turned out that summer there was a serious crop failure in the Midwest — the price of corn never fell and this former hedge fund trader missed the trade.  And then never heard the end of it.

For added fun, we’ve started grilling bread.  It’s easier than bread-bread.  Okay, I know some people will say that bread-bread is far from easy–trust me, this is easy.  Standard bread recipe, a single rise for an hour, cut into 8 pieces, roll out or stretch by hand, grill for 2, 3 minutes per side.  And one last experiment: grilled escarole.

Three hours later, we’ve grilled twice as much food as we could possibly (or, had planned to?) eat, and it finally felt like summer.  I needed an evening with iced tea in hand, a smokey grill smoldering away, and piles of smokey corn, chicken, bread, and escarole.   It feels like summer, but we’ve decided to keep up this habit well through the winter.

We’ll have many grilling posts coming your way.

Grilled Corn: You can’t do this wrong, and my family has cooked them all of these right ways.  Leave them in the husks; take them out of the husks; dunk them in water, or don’t; smother them in butter and spices, or don’t.  My favorite just happens to be the easiest.  Shuck the corn, place over a hot fire, don’t do anything else to it.  Flip every few minutes until the corn is cooked all around and (if you desire) lightly charred.  Do not overcook or the corn will dry out; in fact, in peak season corn is good enough that you can eat it raw, so err on that side.

Grilled escarole: Maybe even easier than the corn (at least, by design; this might not be the best way to do it, but it worked for us today).  Cut a head of escarole in half, rinse with water, dry, drizzle with olive oil and salt.  Place over hot grill, flip after a few minutes; escarole should be lightly wilted, lightly charred.  You can use any sturdy “green” (radicchio would be great, but it’s more of a “red” than a “green”).  We topped with another drizzle of olive oil and some grated cheese; a light vinaigrette, or an anchovy-infused oil would work delightfully, too.

Grilled bread: 3 cups flour (recommended: 2 whole wheat, 1 all purpose), 1 cup water, 1 T yeast, 1 T sugar, 1 T salt.  Mix, knead, etc., let rise for one hour.  Turn out on a floured surface and cut into 8 pieces.  At this point you can either roll out with a pin or gently stretch with your hands.  Lightly oil each side of the loaves.  Thicker loaves will give you chewier (read: preferred) final product.  Throw over hot grill; they’ll be ready to flip after 2, 3 minutes when they feel ready to flip (try too early and the dough won’t be set yet).

Barbecue chicken: Whatever you do, use low, direct heat, skin side up for the first hour, flip and cook for another 30 minutes, then apply sauce (if you want) at the very end.  Starting with the skin up will allow the fat in the skin to render and to drip through the meat and it will also keep the fire from flaring up.  Keep the fire low by covering and closing all the vents more or less (each grill holds heat differently, so for some grills you can get away with closing everything, while for others you’ll need to keep at least some–top or bottom–open).  A low, smokey grill will do all the work for you.  But if you want to do a little more work you can marinate (see future posts), or rub the chicken before hand.  See previous rib post for an example of sauce and rub.

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Lamb is a really fine meat.  I mean, it’s got a lot of things going in its favor.  It’s a young animal, which means it’s tender and flavorful, and it’s not industrially produced, which means that every lamb is free-range grass-fed blah blah delicious.  And with the exception of rack of lamb, it’s a very affordable quality meat (it is still meat though, so it’s not as cheap as carrots).  Lamb has a lot going for it, and so it would be my go-to meal for special occasions, except that my mom doesn’t like it. 😦

As for this stew–decadent, and probably of French origin.  It’s for sure the tastiest way to make lentils.  Lamb braised in red wine, add tomatoes, carrots, lentils, simmer forever.  The lamb is exceedingly tender, and the delicious lamby flavor infuses the lentils.  Good dinner, and great lunch the next day!  Like braised short ribs, this is a very sensual dish.

Braised lamb and lentil stew

3-4 lamb shanks, each approx 1 pound
12-16 oz dried lentils
aromatic vegetables, such as carrots, onion, garlic, tomatoes
herbs: thyme or rosemary to taste, 2 bay leaves
1 bottle red wine
salt and pepper

Optional first step (worth it): brown lamb on all sides in dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add lamb, vegetables, herbs, and wine, bring to a boil, cover.  Continue simmering either over low heat on the stove top or in the oven at 350F.  After an hour add lentils, salt, and pepper, and cook for about another hour.  Don’t worry about overcooking the lentils, but be sure the pot doesn’t dry out (don’t be afraid to add more liquid–water is fine).

*The ideal cut for this dish is lamb shank, which with more connective tissue is perfect for braising.  Ferraro’s was out of lamb shank when we went, so we got half a leg instead.

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Congratulations, Megan!! This picture above was taken when Megan came to visit for Bulldog Days a few weeks ago, a weekend in which admitted students are invited to visit Yale, attend classes, meet student groups, etc.  She’s since decided to matriculate at Yale, and we are thrilled she’ll be joining us in New Haven! We’re anticipating plenty of culinary adventures with this lovely little sister who runs a baking business to raise money for a school in Nicaragua in her spare time!

But moving on to the food… there are a few foods that Greg just can’t get enough of, and wontons and dumplings are two of them. Whenever we go to Boo-Boo’s, Greg has at least 25 dumplings for lunch, then intermittently snacks on the leftovers throughout the duration of our time there, before we leave with cooler-bags full of more frozen dumplings. In Boo-Boo’s house, there is always a plethora of dumplings and usually a good stock of wontons as well. In our house however, we have to make them ourselves without the speed and skill of an 86-year-old lady, and making them is often an hours-long training in delayed gratification.

I believe these wontons are made in the Szechuan style (but as I’m not Szechuanese, experts in Chinese cuisine should feel free to correct me), with spicy hot chili oil and a pungent potpourri of finely minced garlic, ginger, and scallion. This spicy oil could be good in a number of things — ginger carrot soup, lightly sauteed bok choy, sesame noodles — though should be made fresh each time.

紅油 (Red Oil)

1 T finely minced garlic*
1 T finely minced ginger
1 T crushed red pepper (or other chiles of your choice)
1/4 c neutral oil (peanut, canola)
1/4 c chopped scallions
2 T soy sauce
sesame oil to taste

In a small skillet, heat 1/4 c neutral oil on medium heat. When oil is hot, add in garlic, ginger, and crushed red pepper. Stir occasionally to keep from burning. When the garlic and ginger are fragrant, stir in scallions and soy sauce. Remove from heat and drizzle sesame oil to taste.

Tip: Keep in mind that the sesame oil is primarily for flavor and should be added only at the end. It’s a delicate oil and loses its fragrance if cooked too long.

Note that all measurements are estimates, as we don’t ever actually measure the ingredients used in this.

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Wow, it’s been a long time since we’ve posted.  Not sure how that happened.  I would like to blame it on various health problems (one person sick, then had an accident and needed stitches, then another suffered acute pains for a day landing us in the hospital, then is sick again), and travelling (we spent the early part of this week in DC!).  But that wouldn’t account for the past–was it 3 weeks?

So, to break the spell: we made a lovely spinach dish last night and a delicious mac-and-cheese the week before that.  Extreme irritableness due to illness prohibited us from taking pictures, but they looked like what you think they look like (feel free to use google images if you need help).  Give us some time and we’ll have lovely posts about mussels and fresh cheese and purple soup and extravagant cakes–all with pictures.

For now: both dishes are pretty similar, though they are on opposite sides of the spectrum.  Both are made with a base ingredient (pasta, spinach), a sauce made with a roux and cheese, and topped with bread crumbs and baked at 400F for 20-30 minutes..  However, one is certainly going to kill you in short order, while one is surprisingly healthy.

The mac-and-cheese (okay, it was actually shells not mac’) was to die for (and maybe I will).  We made enough for dinner and lunch the next day (or two?) and we both found ourselves salivating over our meal and emailing the other to say, “My lunch is incredible!!” (maybe it’s true that only one of us has salivation problems).  The spinach, on the other hand–I don’t worry for a second about overeating.  It’s a very light twist on the creamed spinach I grew up eating out of microwaved containers and at fancy New York steakhouses (thanks to the World of Finance for all those free dinners).  Hardly any butter, flour, or cheese, and no cream.

In either case, the bread crumbs really top it off (I swear I no pun intended). The texture is great–especially against the spinach. We made a less than stellar loaf of bread recently, which lives in the freezer and emerges to enter our food processor to make crumbs.  Fresh bread crumbs are pretty awesome.  It might be worth always saving away a slice of whatever bread you are having; the marginal cost (you don’t get to eat that last slice) pales in comparison to the marginal benefit (fresh bread crumbs on demand).

Mac and Cheese

1box pasta (shells, mac’, penne…)
half stick butter
3 T flour
2 cups milk
2 cups grated cheese
spices to taste
>1/2 cup bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 400F, put water to boil, butter baking dish.  Cook pasta until 2 minutes from al dente, strain, run under cold water to stop cooking.  In medium saucepan, melt butter and add flour to form a roux, heat on medium heat until brown.  Stir in milk (which can be heated gently in another pan ahead of time) slowly, 1/2 cup at a time, with whisk.  Stir in cheese.  We used half cheddar, half romano because that’s what we had, but you could easily use gruyere or anything else for that matter.  And it’s possible we used closer to 3 cups.  Oops.

Add pasta to baking dish, stir in sauce.  Spice as desired.  We used paprika, red papper flakes, oregano, black pepper.  Top with bread crumbs and bake for 20 minutes.  Serve immediately.

Spinach Gratin

at least 1 pound of spinach
1T butter
1.5-2 T flour
1/2-3/4 cup grated cheese
1 cup stock
>1/2 cup bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 400F and butter baking dish.  Cook spinach with butter in large pan (maybe a pot is in order)salted and covered until wilted.  It will really cook down.  Add flour and stir.  Add stock.  Add cheese.  Stir stir. Pour into baking dish, cover with bread crumbs, bake for 20-30 minutes.

This is a great simplification of the other recipes we saw.  You could cook the spinach, remove from the heat, shock with cold water, and squeeze out to drain; then make a roux, add stock, replace spinach, etc.  But our way does a good enough job, and came out plenty creamy, so why make things more complicated?

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