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Monthly Archives: January 2012

MRS. SUNDBERG

(Mrs. Sundberg is Garrison Keillor’s female nom de plume, and she writes a column every week for the Prairie Home Companion weekly email.)

There was a light coating of snow outside and more to come, which it did, on Sunday, and I was cooking up my own storm. Bean soup, cornbread, cherry cobbler. It must be something primitive in us to go to town in the kitchen when the weather takes a turn for the colder.

There’s something else, too, about cooking. Other than whatever survival issues we have going deep in our subconscious. Cooking and baking, especially, make me feel both productive and calm at the same time. Not many things are like that in my world. Either it’s productive and a bit stressful, or calm without much getting done. I’m not one of those enviable people who seems to have a steel cable of calm running through the spirit.

I love to cook alone, but I must say I wish Mr. Sundberg were around more because cooking with someone you love is about as good as it gets. There’s the bumping into each other, and one person is making bread and the other is sautéing shrimp and there’s wine and conversation and tasting and nodding. It’s like a dance, cooking together. And then there’s the meal, a table with candlelight and two plates and napkins and delicious food made together and shared. Oh, my.

Cooking with the kids is another story. There’s a patience required, but a tenderness that rises up during the mixing and snitching cookie dough and banter about school. It’s a way of loving, I think, to make food together, different from the solitary art of doing it alone. Get out the cookbook, I say. Call the children and make a feast. A giant salad or roast chicken or soup. And Valentine’s Day is not long off. What better way to spend an evening than searing scallops and shredding lettuce and tasting the pasta dish…together. Dessert is up to you. I say a flourless chocolate cake, perhaps. Or something with cherries and cream cheese. Or a Pink Lady apple, cored and split on a plate, with a truffle from that little place in town. You know the one.

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OATMEAL COOKIES & VARIATIONS

Long, long ago my family bought Buckhorn Oatmeal. I haven’t seen it in years and have no idea whatever happened to that brand. It was probably cheaper than Quaker Oats (a big reason to buy something when you have three kids in the family). I don’t remember it being better or worse than the name brand. Eventually we transitioned to Quaker Oats; I suppose Buckhorn became unavailable.

We made and ate a lot of oatmeal cookies. A few recipes came and went, but we always went back to the real deal, the recipe on the bag of rolled oats. My brother sometimes made oatmeal bars instead of cookies.

Nowadays I buy oatmeal in bulk at the supermarket, or a local brand made in town, Moore’s Flour Mill (which has a popular spinoff, Bob’s Red Mill). I avoid “instant” or “quick” oats, as they don’t have the taste or texture of rolled oats.

The secret to really great oatmeal cookies: remove from the oven before they are done.

This is the recipe I use, slightly adapted from the original:

OATMEAL COOKIES

  • 1 Cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 1 Cup firmly Packed Golden Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
  • 1-1/2 Cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 Tsp Baking Soda
  • 1/2 Tsp Salt (optional)
  • 3 Cups raw rolled oats
  • 1 cup chopped nuts

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

  1. Beat together butter and sugars until creamy.
  2. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well.
  3. Add combined flour, baking soda and salt; mix well.
  4. Stir in oats and nuts; mix well.
  5. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet.
  6. Bake 8-10 minutes or until golden brown. Do not overbake! For the most delicious soft chewy cookies, remove from the oven while tops are still slightly wet-looking. You won’t regret it!
  7. Cool  five minutes on cookie sheet; remove to wire rack.

Bar Cookies: Bake 30-35 minutes in ungreased 13″ X9″ greased metal baking pan.

Of course this recipe lends itself to all kinds of adaptatIons, additions and subtractions.  Dried fruit (raisins, apricots, chopped dates, shredded coconut, figs,  etc.) is a classic variation, as is a teaspoon of cinnamon or other spices. Nuts can be eliminated, or added to, as can chocolate or butterscotch chips.  Other whole-grain cereals similar to oatmeal can be mixed into the oats.

I’ve found that cutting back on the sugar makes a smaller, dryer, harder cookie than I like, so I prefer to use the full 1 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup granulated sugar…  unless an adequate substitute is found. By happy coincidence, I found one.  Last Christmas, I set aside one Saturday to do an enormous baking of cookies and breads to send to my husband’s relatives in Nevada. Among the sweets I made that day was a batch of mincemeat cookies – which took half a jar of prepared mincemeat. I stuck the half-empty jar in the refrigerator and forgot about it.

Last weekend, my husband asked if that mincemeat was still good, and if so, shouldn’t we use it? I thought it could be in incorporated into oatmeal cookie dough. When mixing the cookie dough, I omitted the granulated sugar and added the leftover 1/2 jar of mincemeat along with the oats. We tossed in slivered almonds and walnuts. My husband started spooning the dough onto a cookie sheet, then asked if an ice cream scoop would work. It worked very well, though the cookies were enormous! The cookies spread out the same as if they’d had the granulated sugar added and were tender & soft.

I probably won’t be using mincemeat again until next Christmas, but when I do, I’ll save some to make oatmeal cookies with.

STOCKING SPICES

Back in junior college when I was studying art, I had a painting teacher named Joe Draegert, who has gone on to have his own gallery and enjoy success as an artist. One day instead of us all working on our paintings, Joe said he would demonstrate how he painted a picture.

We sat  in a semi-circle and observed as Joe set up an easel with a canvas.  Before he started, he said, “Now… don’t bug me. When I’m done you can ask questions.” Then he laid out the blank palette – a simple pane of glass – and, one by one, opened up every tube of paint in his paintbox and squirted out a quarter-sized blob of paint on the clean palette. Then he picked up a brush and went to work. Within an hour and a half he had painted a complete picture, about 18″ X 24″, of a small brass mister (which were very popular back then in the 1970s, in the days when people had lots of house plants).

The first question asked went like this: “You put a glob of every color of paint out there. But some of them, you didn’t use at all. Paint is so expensive. Isn’t that wasteful?” Joe said, “If I hadn’t put them all out there, I wouldn’t have used them.  They have to be available. If I had to go open a tube every time I needed a new color…”

I got what he was saying. Joe’s work involved blending every color to his eye. Although he had several brown paints in tubes, he didn’t use that when he needed brown; he blended it with red and blue and green and yellow until the brown was the brown he needed. If all the colors weren’t readily available, he wouldn’t go looking for them; he relied on his own practiced eye to make his own color with what was on the palette. When you’re involved in the process, you can’t take the time to paw through a box looking for the right paint tube.

It’s the same way with herbs and spices.  Most basic cookbooks, when listing staples for the herb & spice shelf, only list a very few, and those mainly associated with European cookery. Thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, sage, marjoram, cinnamon, ginger… When I began living on my own and stocking my  kitchen pantry, I assumed those cookbooks knew what they were talking about, so I only had very basic spices (and kept them so long they were as flavorful as dried-up leaves). But then I would come across appealing recipes that called for 1/2 teaspoon of savory or a teaspoon of garam masala or three star anise. When I went to the store, I’d be shocked at how much a small jar cost… and the recipe would never be made.

It took me a long time to wise up, but eventually I figured it out. Buy herbs and spices in small amounts in bulk, put them in small jars, and use them frequently. The supermarket I shop at has about 25 common herbs and spices in bulk at price so heavily discounted from Spice Islands or Schilling that you can hardly believe your eyes. Both of the local health food stores also stock bulk spices, again far cheaper than buying them already bottled.  I also purchased some small matching plastic bottles with tops that could open up to admit a measuring spoon, or be used as a shaker; printed up some labels, and had my own herb & spice rack.

Over time, I have added spices from Penzeys and The Spice Shop UK.

These are pictures of my own three spice racks. They used to be semi-sorted by frequency of use, but those lines have become so blurred that now I just remember where things are. A more organized person might put them in alphabetical order, but that person isn’t me.

This has immeasurably improved my cooking. I can experiment with spices freely now that they’re at the end of my arm rather than in the supermarket. It’s led to some happy discoveries, i.e. I recently added some Indian spices to the water I was simmering a beef tongue in, and it make an amazingly flavorful broth for soup. I’ve learned how to incorporate spices that were previously unfamiliar to me into everyday cooking.

When stocking herbs and spices, keep them in small amounts in small, tightly-closed containers and label them. If you purchased them in bulk in small plastic bags, transfer them as soon as possible into jars. I promise you, if plastic bags of thyme and basil sit around your pantry, in six months you won’t remember which is which and they’ll be completely tasteless and odorless.  Replace herbs every few months, especially if stored near heat/steam/light. Oily seeds like sesame or poppy may go rancid, so if you aren’t going to use those soon, store them in the freezer. Whole spices like fennel, cloves, fenugreek, and cinnamon sticks will keep upwards of one year, but even they eventually will lose color, taste, and aroma. But if you cook freqently and incorporate herbs and spices, you should run out rather than have to throw them out.

ONION & HERB BREAD

Today was the first really wintery day of 2012. Though the promised snow never materialized, it was cold and rainy. I kept a fire going in the woodstove all day…  A perfect day to make some bread.

The first bread cookbook I bought was Beard on Bread. It’s a great beginner’s book because he explains everything so clearly; once you master the first recipe, Basic White Bread, everything else in the book builds from there. I still use that book for classic recipes like Pullman Loaf. This bread owes a lot to that Basic White Bread.

ONION & HERB BREAD

Dice two or three thin slices of onion and saute them in 1 tablespoon olive oil, just until translucent. When they have lost their raw taste and smell, turn the heat off and let them cool while making the dough.

Proof 2 tablespoons (two packets) yeast in 1 cup warm-but-not-hot water with 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Yeast, when waking up, should look like this – bubbling as it eats the sugar.

Pour the yeasty water into a large bowl containing 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup unbleached white flour, and 2 teaspoons salt, and mix by hand. If the dough looks too wet:

add more flour, a handful at a time, and mix each addition in thoroughly. Keep adding flour until the dough forms a more stable ball, like this:

Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. A breadboard is ideal; I use the countertop. Begin kneading the dough by smearing it out with the heel of your hand, then folding it back on itself.

Add bits of flour as necessary to keep dough from sticking, but do not add large amounts all at once: the bread will be hard with flour pockets.

How much kneading is enough? The dough will be springy; when pressed with a finger, the dimple with spring back; sometimes blisters appear and break on the dough surface. The dough will feel alive. It is virtually impossible to overknead by hand; you’ll be tired long before the dough is overworked.

Add the sauteed onions and herbs of choice. Here I used 1 teaspoon fines herbs and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, but rosemary, thyme, oregano, or any other herb/combination would work. Knead them together. They will resist each other at first, but keep working the dough. The dough may become sticky again; add bits of flour as necessary and incorporate flour thoroughly.

Wash the bowl dough was mixed in and dry it. Pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil and rub it around the interior. Place bread dough in bowl and turn it over so it is coated with oil.

Cover bowl with kitchen towel and place in a warm, draft-free environment, such as in a barely-warm oven. Let dough rise until doubled. This could take up to 2 hours.

When dough has risen, remove bowl from oven. Make a fist and punch dough so it deflates. Knead dough again, adding small amounts of flour as necessary to keep it from sticking. When dough is springy and non-sticky again, set it aside to rest.

Prepare a standard loaf pan by oiling it. Here, I used two small disposable aluminum pans, which I oiled and then floured.

Again cover with kitchen towel and let rise. When dough is nearly doubled, brush with beaten egg and sprinkle on seeds. I used cumin, sesame, and charnushka.

 Preheat oven to 400.

When oven is thoroughly preheated, place pans on rack in lower third of oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Tap on loaf; it should sound hollow. If it doesn’t, bake another 5 to 10 minutes.

Remove bread from oven and turn out of pans. If the bottom seems soft and isn’t crisp, place bread directly on oven racks for a few minutes. Let cool about 15 minutes before slicing.

James Beard suggested a thin slice of raw onion on a slice of homemade bread, and it’s very good indeed with a little olive oil.

FIDEO SOUP

I used to work with a woman called Nora (last name forgotten). She was Mexican, I think, and spoke both English and Spanish. We had a soup kitchen at work as a fundraiser to raise money for our annual Christmas party. Nora brought a soup so delicious I had to ask her for the recipe. This was what she scribbled on a note:

fideo recipe

At first glance this wasn’t much to go on, but it turned out to be exactly the right directions…. if you had tasted the soup, you’d know how it should turn out.

NORA’S FIDEO SOUP

  • 1 tablespoon oil
    1/2 of a 7-ounce packet of fideo (tiny vermicelli noodles, commonly sold in the Hispanic products section of supermarkets)
    1/2 a white or yellow onion, chopped
    5 or 6 cloves garlic, minced
    2 or 3 tomatoes, chopped (canned are ok)
    chicken broth
    cilantro
    salt

Heat the oil in a large pot over low-to-medium heat and add the fideo. Stir the noodles as they will brown quickly. Don’t let them burn or you’ll have to start over. Add the onions and garlic and stir for a few minutes, then add the tomatoes. Pour in 1 quart of chicken broth and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste for salt and add as necessary. Add fresh chopped cilantro to taste.

You will find the fideo expand considerably after the soup cools, so it will probably be necessary to add more broth.

If the soup needs more oomph, add salsa, peeled green chiles, oregano, red pepper flakes, cumin, a can of Rotel, or whatever you think would be delicious. Careful – you can always add more, but you can’t add less, so add a little at a time and taste as you go. Spicy-hot ingredients like chilis tend to get hotter as they marry into the other ingredients.

fideo soup

While this is warming on a cold day, it isn’t so heavy that you couldn’t serve it as the first course of a formal dinner.

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