Sunday, January 28, 2007

There's nothing to make tonight

Oh, but there is.

Here's a website that uses what you have in your pantry and sends you recipes.
It's a cool idea. But it has flaws.
For example: I have lemons. And I have rice (among other items, but work with me here). It offered up a recipe for lemon rice, that sounded very tasty and actually like something my kids might eat. Except that I never learned that pesky metric system.
What's 500 ml of water? I'm sure there's a way to Google it and find out (what did we do before Google, anyway?) but my Google is upstairs and my kitchen is downstairs, and you know, that's just too much effort for the Bad Home Cook to expend.
I apparently have all the necessary ingredients to make French onion soup as well. But a quick read of the recipe on offer suggests maybe I don't want to attempt this particular French onion soup. Besides being ignorant of all the pertinent metric measurements, it says I should use a stock cube (red flag!!) and throw in a cup of wine. What kind of wine? Doesn't say. Hmmm.
Maybe I should just try it and see what happens. Could be a giggle.
I still have no idea what to make the nits tonight. Maybe I'll just take them for fast food. I can have a glass of wine and call that dinner. Grapes, yes?
I always loved the idea of the liquid meal. Holly Golightly did it in front of Tiffany's. Why can't I carry on the tradition?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Yogurt and Rice...and all that is nice

I read cookbooks for fun. A good cookbook comes with recipes wrapped in the adventures of the person who wrote them. I get to read all about their travels and their memories; how their Italian grandmothers used to make this or that, or that back when they lived in Morocco with their first husband and his extended family, this was on the weekday menu. When I peruse the list of ingredients I can often imagine what the dish would taste like. Never mind whether I could recreate it myself -- usually I know better than to even try. My inexperience in the kitchen doesn't prevent me from daydreaming, however. Indeed, this is one of my favorite pastimes. I had a Persian cookbook once filled with beautiful photographs of dishes made with ingredients like rice and saffron and pistachio nuts and rose water. The recipes were completely beyond my ability. And yet I spent a lot of time hunched over this cookbook, staring at the pictures like it was a Victoria's Secret Catalog. But I never tried even one of the recipes myself. Finally I gave it to a woman whose husband was Persian. May she please him with secrets I myself was too timid to try.

I'm just really into Mediterranean food. The graphic you see here has something to do with food and a certain Middle Eastern Religion. Check out the link. Strangely appropriate, don't you think?

But I can always be tempted with less exotic fare. Last week I took my kids to the local library and pulled the Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special cookbook off the shelf. I like the Moosewood stuff. Several talented cooks I know think highly of the collective's series of cookbooks, but more importantly, the recipes are generally simple enough for the likes of me. I flipped through its pages one evening as the dinner chaos was erupting around me. And I found the soup of my dreams.

Persian Yogurt Rice Soup. Page 129.

Can you imagine how creamy and delicious this soup must be? When later that night I learned about National Soup Swap Day, I knew right then that this soup would be my offering to the cause.

And OK. I'll just admit it. This soup calls for a blending of egg and yogurt, which I felt was beyond my abilities and frankly promised a terrific screw-up which I would then be able to blog about.

But that didn't happen, damn it.

Instead, the soup, which I made in the half an hour before my soup swap party began, actually turned out deliciously: Creamy and flavorful. Even my Kitchen Goddess friend Audrey uttered a little gasp and rolled her eyes back when she tried a spoonful. I was elated. Her only criticism: Just a little more salt.

Here's the recipe.
1 tablespoon olive oil. (just one? That's what I thought...but it did work out, so...)
1 cup finely chopped onions (I actually used pre-chopped from Trader Joe's to save time)
3 or 4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed (I minced)
1/2 teaspoon salt (or a little more, if you want to listen to Audrey, which you should)
1/2 cup peeled and diced carrots (I chopped up baby carrots)
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste (this was the one spice I didn't have, so I forwent it)
1/4 cup raw white basmati rice (rinsed and drained)
3 cups water or vegetable stock (I used veggie stock from Trader Joe's)
4 cups stemmed chopped spinach, loosely packed (one bunch)
1 egg
2/3 cup plain nonfat yogurt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
salt and ground black pepper to taste

Warm the oil in a non-reactive (what does that mean, anyway?) soup pot. (I used my beautiful new Le Creuset soup pot, thank you.)
Add the onions, garlic and salt and saute on medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until the onions are translucent, stirring frequently. Add the carrots and saute for about 5 minutes. Then stir in the spices, and keep stirring.
Add the rice and the veggie stock or water. Cover and bring to a boil; then reduce the heat and simmer until the rice is tender, between 15-20 minutes. When the rice is tender, add the chopped spinach to the soup a bit at a time and stir well.
In a bowl, beat the egg into the yogurt with a wire whisk.
Add this mixture SLOWLY to the soup, stirring all the while. Stir in the cilantro and slowly reheat, taking care not to let the soup boil.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

The result was better than I could ever have hoped for. Six friends showed up with soup for National Soup Swap Day last night (Jan. 23), which also happened to be my daughter's 10th birthday. This soup was gobbled down and enjoyed by all.

PersiansoupI made it in my magic new Le Creuset soup pot. And the ingredients for this soup were lovingly brought to me by the Flamenco guitarist. He couldn't be at the Soup Swap because he had a student that night. But he is to be rewarded for his ongoing generosity with a new batch of this very soup tonight. And crusty bread.

I still have the Moosewood cookbook. It's overdue, but I'm not done with it yet. I need to please someone with its secrets.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

National Soup Swap Day - Jan. 23, 2007

I love soup. Any kind of soup. Chicken soup, rice soup, mushroom soup, beet soup, lentil soup, black bean soup, minestrone soup, bird's nest soup, egg drop soup, heartbreak soup and sopa Azteca. Soup makes me shiver with happiness and satisfaction. Soup is easy to make. It's economical. It's tasty and usually good for you. When somebody opts to make you a soup versus heating you up the contents of a can, it's because they love you and want only the best. Soup will heal you. And soup is hard to mess up, although I've been known to do so.

The soup pictured here involves parsnips and almonds. I didn't make it myself, in case you're wondering. But it sure looks dang good, don't it?

So it was with no small excitement that I read about National Soup Swap Day. Since soup is also about friendship and community, I wasted no time in alerting six friends, kitchen goddesses all, to the mission.

Next Tuesday, Jan. 23, we meet at my house to drink red wine and swap soup. I'm going to make Persian Yogurt and Rice Soup. You're right if you think it's unlikely to turn out as good as it sounds. It involves ingredients like lemon and dairy, which tend to curdle if not handled right...and I don't have any idea how to handle it right. Stay tuned.

However, for this event I have a plan B. If I ruin the Persian soup, I'll bang out my signature lentil soup instead. Always a crowd pleaser.

Thanks to Margaret and her blog devoted only to soup: The Gracious Bowl.

Friday, January 12, 2007

How to make your house smell good

There they were. Two black bananas curling like shrimp in my fruit bowl. Nobody was going to touch them. So I did. I moved them from the bowl, where they threatened to spore up my apples, and onto my counter top, where I let them sit another day. I had a plan. But I didn't know if I could pull it off.

Then on Wednesday night I was struck with a fit of ambition. This happens from time to time. I am truly fearsome to behold when I'm on one of these streaks: I mop the kitchen floor. I finish all my assignments. I write a chapter of my novel. I clean my kids' room. I am organized and clear-headed, capable and up for anything. In these rare moods, nothing is beyond my ability!

Not even banana bread.

And so it was that I brought the kids home from school with a playmate in tow. "Hey kids!" I chirped as they threw their backpacks and sweaters on the living room floor. "Let's make banana bread!"

The two girls didn't say anything, only cast me grave looks that suggested the middle-school years were coming to get me soon.

From my son: Euuuuuwuwwwwww!! Gross! Blechhhh!!!

My children are miserable cretins who don't understand about life-affirming experiences like warm, fragrant banana bread. They don't know from the joys of the thing toasted, and then smeared with peanut butter. They most certainly don't grasp the greatness that is something wonderful made from something horrible and wretched, like two blackened bananas drawing fruit flies in mid-winter.

There is no consensus on what makes the perfect banana. Some like them unblemished, green-tinged, and pulled from the refrigerator. I like them moderately speckled, like this. These are some perfect, fleshy, flavorful specimens. Of course, Deb at Smitten Kitchen writes that these bananas were long gone and so perfect for her banana bread. Hmmm. She does know what she's doing, so who am I to question? (warning: Don't go near her blog if you're at all hungry. The photos alone will do you in) The bananas I used were, um, further along than these. And as has already been well-established here, I don't know what I'm doing. Nevertheless, I had it in my mind that I was not going to waste two perfectly good, nearly rotten bananas.

So out came my How to Cook Everything.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees
grease a bread tin with butter - not too big. What, you think I have measurements on hand?

One stick butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 very ripe bananas, smashed with a fork until smooth
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup grated dried unsweetened coconut

Amazingly, I had most of this stuff on hand. But only two bananas. And no coconut.

Mix the dry ingredients together
Cream the butter and beat in the eggs and banana. There were no instructions on which order this action should take, so I, being stupid, creamed the butter in one bowl and mashed the bananas in another, added the butter to the banana and then added the eggs...
The eggs were cold, so the butter clumped, so I had to get out the mixer.....
Anyway...dump this into the dry ingredients and don't mix more than necessary. Add the vanilla and walnuts.

Plop all of this into the bread pan and put it into the oven.
Bake for between 45 and 50 minutes. A toothpick or a knife inserted into the middle will tell you if

it's done or not. Mine wasn't, so back in it went. It ultimately took about an hour and five minutes. But my stove probably sucks.

But half an hour before this my kids started lifting their little noses to the air. "What's the delicious smell, mommy?" And then they started to get excited. The playdate was upset that she had to leave before the bread was done. But I promised I'd bring the loaf to my daughter's Girl Scout meeting the next day. Mostly to get rid of it. It wasn't going to be any good anyway, I reasoned. Might as well fob it off on a bunch of other people's kids. I'm such a bad mom.

I let the bread cool for 15 minutes before turning it out onto a plate. I cut two small slices and offered them up to the fruit of my loins, with milk. They fell on it. They begged for more. I had a piece. Not bad. Functional banana bread. I wondered how it would taste toasted.

The next day I brought the bread to the Girl Scout meeting as promised. There was only enough for a half slice for everyone, and several sniffed dismissively when they heard what it was. "I don't like banana bread," said one girl.

She changed her mind later on, however. In fact, this was the highlight of the year thus far: fourteen 9 and 10-year-old girls loved my banana bread. MY banana bread! And they thanked me. And they asked me to make some more next week. Wow. It filled me with hope. Maybe this will be a breakthrough cooking year after all.

Or not. I'm eyeballing a celery-root puree. Sounds fancy. And where the hell does one buy a celery root, anyway? Stay tuned.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Cook it once, cook it twice: Chicken, chicken soup with rice

It got cold suddenly. About bloody time. Cold in Southern California means two things:

Put on your Uggs. Make soup.

Chicken soup with rice. Hmmm. The very thought of it hit the spot. I fancied a nice, clear broth, ever so slightly salted. Nothing more than diced carrots and some leeks or zucchini slices. And just enough rice to make it satisfying.

I didn't have a recipe for that, though. So I ventured out on my own. It was a haphazard journey. Ill-thought out. With many detours. And yet I eventually got to where I was going, with results not nearly as disastrous as I'd planned for. My kids even ate a bowl, which continues to be my definition of success, although I don't suppose it should be.

Here's more or less what I put in the soup:

two cloves garlic
Two stalks celery, chopped three green onions, chopped six cups chicken stock
two frozen chicken breast tenders
1/2 teaspoon cumin, and turmeric
1/2 cup of rice.

I couldn't find zucchini. The summer stores must be depleted. Couldn't find leeks, either, since the only place to find those here are in the "better" farmer's markets or a higher end store than the one I patronize. So I went with celery. I don't even like celery. But there had to be a green in there. I know from experience broccoli would make things go from bad to worse and smell up my kitchen in the bargain. So I went with nice, clean celery.

I like garlic. It's tasty and it's good for you. That was the thinking behind two whole cloves of garlic, which I then sauteed in, I don't know, probably three tablespoons of olive oil. That's probably way too much, but that's what happens when you daydream while you pour. Note to self: Use measuring devices; they're made for people like you. Can you saute celery? Maybe you can. Maybe I read that somewhere. So in they went, too.

Keep the heat low so you don't burn the garlic. It burns quickly, just so you know. And it will change the whole flavor on you. Add the spices after a few minutes. Stir them in and let them mingle with the vegetables.

For some reason I did all this in a separate pan than my soup pot. Why? Dunno. I wasn't thinking that far ahead.

In my actual soup pot I used "Better than bullion" soup stock mix from Trader Joe's. It comes in a jar. You use a teaspoon of paste per 8 ounces of boiling water. I used six cups of water and so sparingly used 5 teaspoons of chicken stock paste. Heaping teaspoons, too, not rounded.

Too much. The stock was much too salty. I should have used four teaspoons of stock plus two cups of water. Better yet, I should have just used pre-made chicken stock.

In this salty broth I placed two frozen chicken breast tenders. They cooked through nicely, at which point I removed them, chopped them up, and returned them to the pot.

I dumped the contents of the pan into the broth. Stupid, really, because everything, the burnt garlic and the excess olive oil included, floated on the top of the broth. I had to start chuckling at myself by that point. I really have a rare gift for crap cooking.

I almost forgot to put the rice in, too. At least I had the sense to add only half a cup. I cooked all of this for about 20 minutes, or until the rice cooked through.

I ladled two bowls of this stuff out for my kids, realizing at the last minute that I'd forgotten all about the carrots. I tucked three small, uncooked carrots into each bowl and hoped the heat would soften them up a little before my kids found them.

As an added incentive, I had a nice baguette to offer them. The kids sat down. Inspected the soup closely. Then Annie ventured in and gave her little brother the secret kid nod and the apparent thumbs up. They ate most of their bowls.


Maybe I'll get around to making those latkes on New Year's Day - when I have all the kids and no plans.