December 18, 2011 Comments Off on fish’n’chips


Holiday break!  The kids piled home Friday all ready for a few weeks off.  And proceeded to spend most of the weekend doing absolutely nothing, which I heartily endorsed.  It was nice enough that they could get outside–not too many more of those without the full winter gear on, I’m sure–and O’s riding lesson was chilly but not completely frozen.

L and I made them posole last night, which was amazing.  Bon Appetit had a recipe this month and it seemed readily achievable–roast a pork shoulder basically all day, shred it and add hominy, tomatoes, chicken broth, and a truckload of spices.  I made some tortillas, and the kids were impressed–O went back for seconds, and thirds.  Fortunately it made a ton, so the freezer is alive with southwestern goodness.

O announced that she’d nommed her friends’ fish sandwich Friday at lunch and really liked it.  I was not aware that the girl had ever eaten seafood before, so this was kind of a stunning revelation.  She asked whether we could have fish and chips for dinner tonight, and she appealed to her brother’s sense of adventure.  He was in, but skeptical.

We came home from Thanksgiving with a good segment of Mom’s cookbook library, including a Cook’s collection of international meals.  Sure enough, the British Isles section had fish’n’chips (what else would it have?)  When we lived in London, greasy fish’n’chips were one of my favorite guilty pleasures.  Whenever K would leave town for business I’d make my first dinner out of a dripping mass of fried cod and potatoes, usually with a pickle or two, all wrapped up in a genuine newspaper.  And, without fail, K would come home a few days later and say “ugh, you went to the chippy, didn’t you?”  Not a fan.  So it had never really been on my radar, but with my newfound love of the dutch oven and its ability to hold gallons of boiling oil, we figured this was a winner.

The Cook’s recipe was complicated, but it made sense.  The choreography went something like this: cut the potatoes into 1/2″ batons, dry out the fish in the fridge, boil the oil, drop in the fries for 6 minutes at 350°.  Take the fries out, get the oil hotter, dredge the fish in flour, a beer batter, and flour again, and fry it for 8 minutes.  Then do the fries again at 375° for another five minutes, and serve it all with peas.

It was a dance, for sure, but it worked really well.  The potatoes were crispy on the outside, and “cloud-like” (their words, not mine) on the inside.  And the fish?  Even better.  I used a nice lager for the batter–Bell’s–and the result was super-light but crunchy.  The fish was moist, tender, totally made of yum, in O’s words.  I got a high-five from her.  C ate about half of his, which is about his usual, and they said we should do it again.  I didn’t have the heart to make it an official British chippy meal, though–I left the peas unmushed, and no pickle.

It brought back London, for sure.  And the house smells like a chippy, probably for the next few days…


bagels and pie

August 6, 2011 Comments Off on bagels and pie

We all knew this would be the toughest week.  K moved in to her apartment Thursday, and while the paperwork will take a few more weeks to make things official, we’re now two households instead of one, with all the emotional and logistical baggage that entails.  Her parents came out to help her move, and everyone handled things incredibly well.  But it was still a sad moment, and past experience has shown me that I deal with these best when I can a) run a ton in the mornings, and b) have a ridiculous project or two to focus on.

The running part happened mostly last weekend.  But with K’s parents in town I thought I’d try something else in the baking department.  O had mentioned pretzels, and she’d mentioned raisin bread, and together we triangulated those and decided on raisin bagels.  Same dough as pretzel dough (who knew?) but somehow these seemed more wholesome and breakfast-y.  She helped me make the dough, I figured out how to roll them into passable bagel shapes.  Wednesday morning I took them out before an early run and let them rise for six miles, then I plopped them in some simmering water laced with baking soda and tossed them in the oven.  Amazingly easy, and really good with some cinnamon sugar and a session in the toaster.  The baking soda in the water made a chewy crust, but the interiors were nice and light.  There is, of course, a gigantic rift in the world between steamed bagel lovers and boiled bagel lovers.  I think I’m in the latter camp.

So we’re now on a schedule.  I got first dibs on the kids, to give her time to unpack the apartment.  The two of them have been really good about things, probably better than their parents deserve.  C said the other night “eh, you two made the decision, we’ll all just make the best of it,” and we kind of are.  Our first stint is a short one–a long weekend, really, and so we sat down and figured out what we wanted to do.  Nothing big–the local dirt track tonight, if the weather holds, and then two dinners of whatever they want.  O’s night was last night.  Roasted chicken, double-fried french fries.  Really?  Roasted chicken in the middle of August?  I surfed through my recipe clippings, not wanting to blast the oven for two hours to roast a whole bird.  How about pan-roasted chicken thighs, I asked her.  Crispy skin like fried, juicy meat like roasted?  Winner.  And the fries were good, too.  I gave up on Yukon Golds finally and hacked up two Russets, taking a tip and soaking them in ice water for a couple of hours before dropping them in the dutch oven (which nearly bubbled over this time–that would have been a fine start).

O said that the chicken was now officially her favorite Dad Dinner.  And it was pretty amazing.  But the real adventure came when, in the midst of chopping potatoes, O casually mentioned that she’d like pie, too.  Peanut butter honeycomb, if possible.  Not possible, I told her.  And besides, your brother hates peanut butter.  I have never made a pie before, I told her.  Can we please start with something simple, like blueberry?  She licked her chops.  Of course.

So I ran out to the store and bought shortening, flour, and a metric ton of blueberries.  I hesitated at the frozen pie crusts.  First attempt at a crust, do I trust myself?  And then I thought Ruth Leslie’s grandson should not–ever–buy a frozen pie crust.  Not even as a backup plan.  She made serious pies, and when arthritis and years finally forced her into the occasional frozen crust she apologized profusely.  Homemade crust it is, whatever the outcome.  This one’s for you, Grandma.

It came out pretty much as you’d expect a first pie to come out.  Soupy, and ugly, but not un-tasty.  I guessed on the tapioca/corn starch conversion in the recipe I was using, and guessed wrong (though four tablespoons of corn starch seemed like a lot).  Didn’t matter.  It tasted fine, and the crust was surprisingly good.  Not quite grandma-worthy, but better than expected.  Again, you can divide the world into butter crust people and shortening crust people.  I split the difference, with good results–flaky but also just dense enough to hold up against the onslaught of purple goo.  Lime meringue is next.

C gets to decide what we have Sunday, when K comes to pick them up.  He’s got a pretty stiff menu to compete with here, though I imagine he’ll find some combination that’s similarly challenging.  I’ve already laid some ground rules–like only one starch.  I can totally see mac’n’cheese with a side of fries being his ultimate meal.  But I think we’re off to a decent start here.  We’ve certainly set the bar high.  L, despite being in the midst of an 80+ hour week, drove up to have dinner (and, I think, to check up on us) and approved.  The chicken and fries all disappeared, but there’s still (thank goodness) half a pie left in the fridge.

UPDATE:  Mom sent along my grandmother’s actual pie crust recipe.  She was a shortening woman.  And egg, too.  So now I have a dilemma–go with all shortening and stay true to family tradition?  Or forge a new path by hedging my bets with butter?  Any and all advice appreciated…

maryland fried chicken

June 24, 2011 Comments Off on maryland fried chicken

Here’s another entry in the “yeah, no more than a quarter-plate” sweepstakes.  Cook’s put out a great compilation a year or so ago called “American Classics,” and it’s basically a tour of the reasons for this great nation’s obesity epidemic.  But, in moderation, every single recipe in there has proven to be a kid-favorite, and Maryland fried chicken appealed in a sort of “really?” kind of a way.  And it was a good excuse to continue my sordid love affair with the cast-iron dutch oven.

This is a pretty simple recipe–it does away with egg and bread crumb coatings and instead just marinates the chicken in a dry rub of mustard.  The dredge is just flour and baking powder, which once it’s dunked into oil at 350° forms a thin but nicely crispy outer skin.  I used drummies instead of bigger chicken parts since the kids like these better (easier to handle) and since they cook fast.  Since there are no bread crumbs, the crust is pretty bland, but the recipe solves this with a healthy dose of Old Bay.  This is a condiment that hardly exists in the midwest (I finally found it next to the desultory seafood counter in our local grocery), but that tastes like every east coast clambake or crab boil you’ve ever been to–just a mix of celery salt, paprika, and regular salt, but in magic proportions.  The other key component is an absolutely wicked cream gravy that absorbs the sludge at the bottom of the dutch oven once you pour most of the oil out–the kids passed entirely on that, and I tried to limit mine to medicinal proportions, but damn, it was pretty good.  (I’ve got a 12-miler scheduled for Sunday morning, so there will be biscuits and gravy for breakfast upon my return.)

We’ve traditionally paired fried and roasted, so the chicken this time came with some roasted fingerling potatoes that were on sale at the organic food place–nice colors, including some blues that scared the crap out of C.  I’ve figured out that the trick to these is to toss them in oil and then roast them right on the baking sheet–messy, since the oil inevitably bakes onto the steel pan, but the direct heat browns them a lot better than if they’re sitting on a mildly insulating layer of aluminum foil.  I tossed the finished potatoes with rosemary (shh, don’t tell the kids) and some sea salt, and they disappeared almost as quickly as the chicken.

Dessert?  Raspberry popsicles, from this month’s Cooking Light.  The kids found a $2.99 popsicle mold at Target, which was pretty tough to resist, and we pureed some fresh raspberries (2 cups) with a half cup of sugar.  Pretty good stuff, though C thought I’d erred by blowing off the straining step–the seeds were distracting, though the pulp added some texture.  I made another batch with some whole-fat yogurt left over from an earlier grilling experiment, and those were good, too.  The article also has recipes for peaches and cream, which is probably next, and Campari and orange, which will be a grownup treat.  A good excuse to buy a bottle of my favorite aperitif, anyway.  I hear tell it also goes well with soda…

baking day

March 1, 2011 Comments Off on baking day

So first things first.  The girl is in good shape.  Achey, and definitely up for the ibuprofen this afternoon when she got home from school, but fine.  The orthopedist’s office hadn’t called by the end of the day, so I phoned them and they basically said yup, we know about it, and we’ll get her in sometime this week, but it’s not falling off so it’s really not all that interesting to us.

So I sent both kids outside when they got home today, because it was spectacular out.  Temps up in the 50s, bright sun, etc.  It really felt like spring, enough that I cracked open the front and back doors and let a little fresh air in.  That’s always a big moment, because it starts to feel like we’ve been breathing the same air since November.

Anyway, the house also smelled fantastic, because I did this thing I’ve been doing where I get overly ambitious and plan too much with no backup.  So I have to follow through,  and I end up with the oven going pretty much all day.  Last night I realized we were almost out of 1) bread, and 2) cookies.  Neither of these represented an acceptable situation.

In addition, the boy wanted sloppy joes tonight, and I wanted sweet potato fries.  So I broke out my calendar and figured out how to get two sets of bread baking (since there’s no way I’m buying hamburger rolls at this point), a batch of vegan chocolate chip cookies (by request, I swear!), a 40-minute sweet potato roast and a trip to the store in.  It was complicated, but as you can see it came together in the end.  And I got in a run, two full chapters edited, and a bunch of appointments for electricians, etc., made.

The ciabatta kicked butt, the sloppy joes were awesome on the sandwich rolls (I left them in an extra couple of minutes so they’d stand up to the extreme sauciness), the sweet potatoes were a little underdone but nommed, and the cookies are awaiting judgment by the panel.

I am having a glass of wine tonight.

iowa skinny–homemade

February 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

Yeah, baby.  That’s a genuine Iowa Skinny, made with love.

After the sojourn to the Suburban this week, I was determined to repeat the experience for the kids.  They’re Iowans, for crying out loud.  They must eat–and love–the official state sandwich, right?  OK, ok, they must try the official state sandwich.

Cook’s Illustrated included the pork tenderloin sandwich in its American Classics issue a couple of months ago, and after figuring out fried chicken, I thought this would be pretty simple.  The only catch was that we didn’t have a meat hammer, which we solved this weekend at the mall.  The kids and I tested out every meat hammer Williams-Sonoma carries (OK, both of them), and agreed on the cheaper, heavier, far more intimidating one.  (Who buys an aluminum meat hammer?)

The recipe was pretty simple–slice a tenderloin into quarter pound chunks, beat the bejeezus out of the chunks until they’re flat, then dredge them in the now tried-and-true flour/egg/Panko assembly line.  The only difference is that Cook’s suggested that in this case the egg dip be about half mayonnaise.  I hate mayonnaise.  Freaking hate it.  But we had half a jar left over from the cole slaw experiment a couple of weeks ago, and I was tired of seeing its grotesque, pale creamy self in the fridge door.  So I chunked the rest of it in, beat it with the egg, and got dippin’.

Cook’s typically replaces a soak in the deep fry with a shallower pan, so what comes out is more like a scallopine than a real fried anything.  That usually works fine, but I screwed up slightly and didn’t pound the cutlets as thin as the recipe assumed they would be.  So they didn’t totally fry on the sides, and I had to stand them on their ends with the tongs to get them crispy all the way around.  They were also just a bit underdone in the middle, so next time I’ll beat them even more senseless.

Verdict?  The kids ate them, but they fell into the “if I was on a desert island…” category.  So they’re really Californians (seriously–they were alarmed when I told them we were out of tofu tonight).  Still, O said she wants to have skinnies again soon.  Not because she was a huge fan, but because next time I told her she could swing the meat hammer.

Oh, and yes, the buns were homemade.  You had to ask?

dinner–the full roma

February 3, 2011 Comments Off on dinner–the full roma

So with a full snow day today, I figured we could experiment a bit in the kitchen.  The kids were totally up for it, but they suggested we work around the concept of pizza for dinner.  I said sure, but we didn’t have any of the really good Peter Reinhart dough left.  It needs to sit in the fridge overnight, so I figured we’d try one of the same-day dough recipes and see how it stacked up.  The boy and I (as you may have seen) threw down after lunch, putting together a mean ball of yeast and bread flour, and I started hacking away at it an hour or so before dinner.

I made one tried and true marinara–actually the overly spicy amatriciana sauce from the other night minus the bacon–and told the girl we were going to try the potato pizza again.  I found a country-simple recipe that basically said slice the potatoes thin (ahoy, mandoline!), douse them in oil and rosemary, throw them on the crust, and bake the hell out of them.  My kind of recipe, really.  Our lazy crust worked fine–less yeasty than the Reinhart version, but easy to work with and serviceable, at any rate.  The amatrciana worked out well, and the boy recognized the heat and said he really liked it on the crust.  He also went through two glasses of milk, so this seems a worthy strategy to keep in mind going forward.  O and I discussed the potato pizza at length.  It was closer, we agreed, to the most awesomest pizza ever in Rome, but it was still missing something.  She correctly identified the rosemary as the key missing ingredient from last time, and thought the potatoes should be thicker.  “It was really like french fries–actual french fries–on the pizza, Dad,” she told me.  “But it’s still missing something tasty.”  I know exactly what that is, actually.  Salt.  A. Ton. Of. Salt.  I went and got the little jar of sea salt that was a complimentary welcome gift for signing up at the food co-op, and told her to sprinkle away.  “Closer,” she said.

What the meal was really missing, though, was the crucial second half.  We made it a point to go out for a meal once a week or so in Rome, and we usually went cheap and cheerful.  Trastevere, the neighborhood we lived in, was full of good neighborhood pizza joints that catered to natives and to tourists who had ventured one ring out from the centro.  These trattoria were one step up from the sidewalk pizza storefronts, so you got bread, K and I could get wine, and we could sit for a while and watch the street go by.  And, crucially, we could go on a walk through the neighborhood afterward, ending up at one of our three favorite gelato stands, grabbing cones full of silky, custardy goodness, and sitting in the main piazza to eat them.

And those gelati looked and tasted just about like this.  Oh, heck yes, we made gelato today.  It took most of the morning to get the custard put together, and some serious hawk-like monitoring to make sure we didn’t overcook it.  But we did it, and it was superb.

Gelato is at the high end of the ice cream decadence spectrum.  Where sorbet is basically fruit and sugar, and ice cream is basically cream and flavor, gelato is custard and flavor.  So the prep involved four egg yolks, whipping cream, and pounds of sugar–I used the organic cane stuff we bought the other day, and it made a difference.  Cooking that is a bit of a challenge, because you have to basically pasteurize the egg without boiling it.  Fortunately, my CIA deep fry thermometer was up to the challenge, and I was able to keep the mixture right at 170° until it thickened up.  It sat in the fridge all afternoon, and then we broke out the ice cream maker (a perverse thing to do on a day with 7″ of snow on the ground and the thermometer stuck at 2°…) and whipped it into shape.  It needed a good freeze after that, but we all agreed the effort had been well worth it.  It was silky smooth, just eggy enough, and full of vanilla flava.  And it didn’t hurt that we splurged and bought Ghirardelli semi-sweet chips–a touch of San Francisco in our Italian.  Fortunately it made a bunch, so we’ll be eating this through the weekend.  (For those keeping score, I ran five hard miles this morning, knowing full well that this might be coming).

And the punch line?  When I went out to do some late shopping after dinner, the co-op had a huge barrel of blood oranges on sale.  We had these for lunch all the time in Rome–they were a staple at the neighborhood market and both kids loved their super-sweet juice.  I brought them home and said “look what I bought,” and O knew instantly.

“This,” she said, “is the Romiest day yet!”  And she nommed one of these in about thirty seconds flat.

More snow days, please.  This was awesome…

hammagas, french fwies, slaw…

January 14, 2011 Comments Off on hammagas, french fwies, slaw…

American night, baby.  Hammagas still aren’t the kids favorite, but they’re Iowans, and by God, they’re going to learn to eat like it.

O has wanted cole slaw ever since a fateful late evening dinner at a Bob’s Big Boy in Michigan when–a bit tired–she took a giant bite of slaw thinking it was vanilla ice cream.  After the initial shock wore off (and brother, it was a shock), she decided that she quite liked the stuff.  So I had promised her we’d do it, but that we needed mayonnaise.  Her response?  “Didn’t you and Mom make mayonnaise a while back?”

And therein lay a dilemma.  Yes, we had, in fact, made mayonnaise from scratch.  I have always detested the stuff from the jar, but fresh mayonnaise was outstanding. We had it on oven fries (Belgian night, long story), and thought it was a perfect match.  Partly, of course, because one of the ingredients is a raw egg yolk.

I have no problem giving myself salmonella.  I’ve come pretty close before.  But poisoning my daughter seemed tailor-made for a visit from a social worker once word got out in school.  I agonized over this–because fresh mayonnaise would be awesome on cole slaw–but finally bailed and bought a jar of Hellman’s.  Ecch.  I made a thick vinaigrette and tossed some store-bought slaw veggies with it, then I dumped in what I thought was the least feasible amount from the jar.  O tasted it and decreed it neither creamy nor sweet enough.  So I saved a batch of that for myself and proceeded to Bob’s Big Boy up the rest.  She was OK with the results, but would have preferred it swimming in white glop.  I’ll comply next time but I’ll definitely save a subtler version for myself again.  I saved a batch of plain slaw mix for the boy, who wanted absolutely nothing to do with either the vinaigrette or the mayonnaise.

And the fries?  Cold-oil fried, as recommended by Cook’s. Really simple–dump 3 cups of oil and a pound of 1/4″ Yukon Golds in the dutch oven, turn it on and wait 25 minutes.  No double frying, just stirring.  They came out fantastically well–and totally nommed even without any salt.  O and I tried Sriracha on them, which made them compellingly angry.  C tried it and sucked down a whole glass of milk afterwards.

And the burgers?  I bought the store patties, and the kids hated them.  Too tough, they said, and they were absolutely right.  Last time I just threw some ground beef loosely together and hit the patties with a quick rolling pin.  These were smashed together tight, so there was no air in them, just solid beef.  “We liked the handmade ones better,” they said, and I coulda kissed both of them right there.

And the best part?  The slaw mix was “Broccoli Slaw.”  That’s right.  Even C ate a ton of broccoli.  And loved it.  They will never find this out, but we will have slaw again, regularly…

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