Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Regaining Strength

Folks, it is spring. Yes. It. Is. Spring!

And holy crab cakes, is that a good thing. This last two week stretch has been a doozy. A blast of serious winter chilliness, Russ with a case of bronchitis, and then a streak of plain, gray, rainy days.

For awhile our kitchen was still as we looked to really spicy pad thai from down the street and grilled cheese dipped in creamy soup. Then, a stirring. Cauliflower the color of movie theater popcorn.

And sweet, heart shaped beets.

On the last of the rainy days, when you could almost believe the suns efforts above the drizzle, matters called for a big batch of chocolate chip cookies. I put in two times as many chips just because it felt right.

Finally, last night over big bowls of chicken and wild rice soup, pink radishes and brilliant, soft carrots, it was clear that we were coming out of the snowy woods. We crunched on toasty, olive-oiled and salted bread and with every crusty chomp, every soupy slurp, I could feel myself finding that long longed for, spring strength.

Today it is sunny and cool. The Mister Softee truck just drove by clinking out it's tune. And while, as I'm just out of the end-of-winter-push and not quite ready with a recipe for you (though if that soup just looks too tasty email me and i'll happily scratch down a rough draft of the one-pot-make-it-up-as-you-go healing wonder!) I do have something I wanted to share.

With thoughts of picnics to come and ice cream truck jingles, I think it is the perfect time to turn a dreaming mind towards Share Our Strength's Great American Bake Sale. Share Our Strength is a wonderfully good hearted national organization whose goal is to fight childhood hunger in America. In their annual Bake Sale fundraiser, you can host as a baker, or support, as a snacker, and all the proceeds of your bake sale efforts go to after-school or summer eating programs in your area. OR...as a reader...you can look to this year's new virtual bake sale where you will find a recipe by yours truly! On April 13th, a post will be published on stolenmomentscooking.blogspot.com, with links to contributing bloggers and their favorite recipes for sweets. An e-cookbook will be available there too (as well as here), with all the recipes compiled for your use, at a price of whatever you'd like to donate to Share Our Strength.

Please do get in touch with me if you have questions. And if you're a blogger to whom this all sounds scrumptious, email virtualbakesale@gmail.com to get involved.

For it is spring my friends. It is time for pretty produce and cookies for kiddos. Stop back again soon for both.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Challah That Lived

Once upon a time...

There were eggs and there was flour. There were little packets of yeast and a sticky lidded jar of honey. There was also me, excited, clueless, venturing for the first time down the path of bread baking, a recipe for challah in hand, no idea what was ahead. I still remember that summer night in college when I opened the oven to see my first loaves of bread, enormous, melded into one insanely oversized version of challah wedged in between the baking racks. That night I sat with great friends on our old house's wooden porch, listening to bluegrass and pulling off big chunks of sweet bread long into the summer night.

I've learned a thing or two about bread since then. Most importantly, I think, that it is one of the best things to make for company. That first challah recipe made an appearance more than once in my college kitchen, provided familiar Sunday snacking during a year I spent with friends in France, and most recently, showed itself dressed up as french toast for breakfast hosted in my little corner of Brooklyn for neighbors, old and new.

While I will scream for any kind of loaf (save rye...I'm still working on that one), challah is where it's at in my heart. Streams of honey? Yes, yes please.

With more than one bread catastrophe under my belt, I will be one of the first to say, making bread is not easy. It doesn't fit neatly into the pages of a cookbook, isn't really composed of precise measurements or times or degrees. Bread has a life of its own. Like a person, you've got to pay it some attention, but also know when it needs some time alone. You can't control it, you can only work with it. But if you care for it, it will never disappoint.

So who has time to take care of a ball of flour?? Not many. There are some corners that just can't be cut, but to avoid leaving your bread out to grow angry and wild while you sun at the beach eating croissants and drinking petite bottles of pulpy orange soda...

...you may find it helpful to mix your dough, then refrigerate it overnight, letting it sit out to come back to room temperature the next day. Just the same, waking up early on a bright springy Saturday, mixing together your dough and pulling sheets back over your head to take a morning nap isn't a bad option either.

Yet another tricky element of challah specifically, is the braiding. Before I owned a chef's jacket and clunky black kitchen clogs, I just rolled three snakes and braided my bread like a pony tail. It works just fine. Braiding challah can be easy as pie or really quite difficult. If you are feeling adventurous, I think rather than reading the short, confusing, lemon of a novella that would be my explanation of the processes, go here instead to learn a 4-strand braid.

The recipe I still use is one that I found while searching online years ago. The title, "Mega Challah," caught my eye. It's author is Bob Evans, working from Ella Russell, working from Edward Epse Brown. I don't know Bob or Ella or Edward, but I imagine them to be jolly souls with good taste in the kitchen and quite the knack for kneading.

This time around I made one small change, adding about 1 cup of buckwheat in place of whole wheat flour, using white for the rest. As we milled around the kitchen, drinking coffee, finishing off bacon in it's pan of greasy glory, I grew a little nervous about the results...I have a bad habit of experimenting for company. Most of the time they come back. But when its the promise of homemade bread on the line, the stakes rise higher.

After the first few bites, the answer was great. Buckwheat + challah = yes, yes please. Topped with spiced stewed apples, bacon and freshly squeezed oj, the challah wins again.

And once again, in great company. Over juice and syrupy toast, we happily downed brunch, talking about paint colors for new walls, wisdom teeth, dogs, the crazy things we do for love, and Santa Clause.

Soon the last earthy buckwheat challah bites turned syrup mops, wiping plates clean. With one, truly mega challah remaining we wrapped up chunks of the second loaf for our friends as they headed out to finish the courses of their almost-spring-warm Sundays.

The end of the story is: you feed bread its flour and yeast, it feeds you soft, crust-enevloped delicious loaves of sliceable happiness. It may rise out of control. It may not rise enough. You may have a hot spot in your oven, say, and burn the bottom of one loaf. It's all part of the fun. It's a truly alive experience, something that starts with you and your dough, maybe ends with friends and a feast, and does usually, overall, end quite happily indeed.

Buckwheat Challah
adapted from this seriously Mega Challah recipe

WARNING! This is one of those just-hardly-a-recipe recipes. No, I didn't forget the measurement for flour...you've got to work with the dough in this one till it's just right (can you hear pastry chefs cursing and throwing pans!). I think it's fun to abandon scales every now and then. True bread lovers, you can do it! And I'm here for you if you have questions!!

1 T white sugar
1 T yeast (active yeast from those little packets in your grocery store!)
1 C water, warm, but not hot
1.5 oz butter, melted
3/4 C honey
5 eggs, plus a yolk for eggwash
1 C buckwheat flour
White flour

1. In a large bowl, mix together sugar, yeast and water.
2. Stir in white flour, enough to make mixture too stiff to stir with a spoon.
3. Meanwhile, whisk together eggs, honey and melted butter.
4. Add egg mixture to the flour and yeast, stirring and folding just until dough is broken up in the liquid (do not panic, it will look soupy and strange at this point!)
5. Stir in buckwheat flour.
6. Gradually add white flour until mixture can not be stirred any more.
7. On a well floured surface, with a bowl of a few cups of flour on hand, begin kneading the sticky dough, incorporating more flour in as needed.
8. Knead for awhile!!! In the end dough should be just slightly tacky, and smooth.
9. Turn dough into an oiled bowl, cover and let double in size. Or, if you'd prefer, stick it in the fridge, take it out the next morning and leave it in a warm spot until room temperature again (depending on where you live anywhere from 1 to 5 hours...or more!)
10. Divide the bread as needed to braid it as you'd like.
11. Egg wash the loaf.
12. Let sit for about 30 minutes.
13. Egg was the loaf again.
14. Bake for about 50 minutes at 350 degrees. Bread is done when the internal temperature reached 195 degrees.

1 really large loaf

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One Fish, Ooo...Fish

I've been sitting here at my little white screen now for many a minute, trying to think of an eloquent, perhaps even witty way to say what needs to be said. Now, I've decided it may just be one of those things best simply blurted out. *(uncomfortable throat clear)* Before I became the food-loving, feasting omnivore that I am today, I'd have been described by some as...irrational. Ok, neurotic. I hinted at it in early entries here, but the truth is I haven't been completely honest with you about my past in the kitchen.

I wish I had tallied the number of peanut butter and honey sandwiches that saw me through elementary school. Or cereal bowls that served as breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner through all the numbered grades, splashing over into my college years. For the larger part of my life I was the pickiest of eaters. But it wasn't just that. My finicky attitude ran so rampant that there were certain foods that rather than a hand wave and a shake of the head, elicited a full body cringe at the thought of bringing them into my house. The list included (though was not limited to) cheese, dill pickles, and fish. Silver sided, slimy, fish with their eyeballs staring me down... Fishsticks, sure. But real, head-to-tail fish. Never.

I have come very far from those pickle-fear-filled days. And while I welcome a delicious, roasted fillet of fish, seeing the animal, whole and slick in my house, it is still something I haven't dared to stomach. That is until this fated Wednesday past.

Russ comes home bright eyed and excited. He is holding a bag.

"Just wait until I cook you dinner tonight," he promises. He reaches into the bag, revealing his grand plans.

Rainbow. Trout. I feel an immediate, involuntary compulsion to grab a box of cereal and run to the farthest corner of the apartment. Russ is confused. I fess up my fear of floppy, fin-on, fresh fish. He makes promises of butter and garlic, sea salt and rosemary, sage and white wine.

I say first things first.

Sipping my drink, blushing a hint, I make a firm commitment to squelch the outward display of food phobia. Inside, I allow myself to silently freak out, still wobbly in the gut.

But, as the herbs come out, and the fish heads comes off, I find myself growing increasingly able, and interested, in the show before me. Watching the process of that slithery animal becoming what I recognize as "food fish", I'm aware of my lack of connectedness to what I've consumed so readily in breaded sticks and sesame-crusted fillets on lunch salads. The knife gracefully splits the suddenly sweetly-shiny, silvery skin. Soft pats of butter sink down into the light pink sides. Sage and rosemary is ticker-tape on this seafood surprise party.

By the time the fish is slid into the oven I'm watching the clock, asking how long until we eat. Eyeing Russ saute maple syrup and thyme glazed butternut squash doesn't hurt the situation one bit.

Smelling the rich, sweet and wine-bathed fish roasting, my safety cereal box is long packed away into the pantry.

With some greens, syrup-sweetened squash and that surprising little fish on the plate, I think I may have just gotten past the breakers.

The fish, my friends, was awesome. Oh my gosh was it tasty. I ate a whole side and then went back for the other. I couldn't believe it. I ate a fish. A whole fish. I'm only writing in repetition because part of me still can't believe it. Pulling at little pin bones, in the end I found myself loving the dish and leaving only a pile of peeled skin to prove it was there at all.

So now you know. I feel good to have gotten that bit of my past aired out and off my chest. I feel even better about passing this recipe on to you. Stare that fish down and make this for dinner (ok, ok, if you're like me, have a glass of wine and have someone make it for you. Small steps.) Pull a surprise out of your shopping bag and let it surprise you. Let there be a place for peanut butter and cereal. But make room for a little fish too.

Herb Poached Rainbow Trout

2 whole, medium large rainbow trout, boned
2 cloves of finely chopped garlic
3 large sprigs of rosemary
1/2 t ground, dried sage
1 T butter
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
1 1/2 T live oil
approx 1/2 C white wine

1. Remove heads and tails from fish, as well as any other non-fleshy material on the animal. Russ suggests cutting a little off the belly; because fatty-fish can store heavy metals in their bellies, and since you lose little from cutting there, it's a not-bad, healthy idea.
2. Open fish so skin is down, and flesh of both sides faces up.
2. Season the meat with sea salt and black pepper.
3. Sprinkle one side with garlic.
4. Add rosemary needles to one side of each fish.
5. Sprinkle sage evenly over opened fillets.
6. Distribute small pats of butter over one side of each fish.
7. Close the fish like a book.
8. In the bottom of a medium sized baking dish, drizzle oil to coat and place fish in pan.
9. Pour in white wine until it comes about half-way up the side of the fish (but not high enough to spill into the cut fillet! You may have to add more or less than the recipe suggests, depending on your dish and the size of your fish).
10. Bake at 375 degrees F for 15 min.
11. Test fish for doneness; you don't want to see any pink in the middle! However, note that it is ok to eat fish like this a little rare, and overcooked the fish will turn to mush. The cooked flesh of the fish will be creamy white rather than light pink.