cuisine sans cuisine.

mise en place

(that’s “cooking without a kitchen” for you Anglos.)

Even casual readers of this blog probably know I love to cook… and since I don’t think anyone reads this besides my friends and family, hopefully some of you remember a meal I cooked for you, hopefully with fond memories.

When I was accepted into grad school, I knew that a major part of my life was going to change. I’d be moving every six months to various cities around Europe. There would be no more cob ovens in the backyard, no more potluck pizza parties; no more summer nights concocting each new flavor in the hand-cranked ice cream maker; no more spring days sweating over a boiling vat of water as I pressurized cans of newly-cooked-up jams.

I did a farewell tour of my favorite cookbooks, then packed my bags for Europe.

At first it wasn’t so bad. In Sweden I had a great communal kitchen and great hallmates; I’d whip up huge curries and soups that I’d eat for days, and I’d bake strange and adventurous desserts to share with my friends. I’d leave cakes on the counter with a note that said “eat me”; one morning, I found a note back that said, “thanks, mysterious cake baker. you saved my day!” (I still have the note.)

For my friend Katie’s birthday, I made a cake, frosted it, and we had a great time decorating it with pink and purple sprinkles, flower-shaped sugar candies, and Disney princess candles. It was a hit.

Then I moved to France.

Not only do I not have a kitchen in my room – that was fine in Sweden – but the group kitchens are atrocious. There is one kitchen for thirty people; it has no ovens. Just a few stovetops and a few sinks, and one table, and sometimes some chairs. There are no cupboards, so you can’t store anything there; by default that means no communal cooking equipment. You own all your own stuff and store it, with your groceries, in your room. Luckily, we have small refrigerators. But our rooms are tiny enough as it is (mine is just nine square meters). So you don’t keep much.

The one time I have used the kitchen, I made donuts – well, beignets, with a nod to Todd – for my classmates. We drenched them in vanilla sugar. They were delicious. Other than that, the kitchen is just too much of a pain in the ass.

So what’s a gourmet addict to do? Believe it or not, there’s a lot you can cook without a kitchen. Am I happy? No. Am I eating? Yes. Tonight’s dinner:

meal

Pretty romantic. And yes, my whole room, basically, is lime green. It’s not as jarring as you would imagine.

If you are in a similar situation (with the kitchen – not the lime green paint, you’re on your own for that one), the most important thing to do is to buy an electric kettle! You need to be able to boil water. Other appliances are great too, but that’s the bare minimum, and that’s what I did, for not too much money at the Casino Geant. It’s like a Wal-Mart. Yes, first I lost my kitchen privileges, then I started shopping at the French equivalent of Wal-Mart. What is my life coming to!?

So when the shit hits the fan, here’s how to eat. A guide to cuisine, sans cuisine.

Sandwiches

If you’re not American, skip this part. Apparently everyone else thinks sandwiches are stupid. I used to agree with them; I just never liked them that much, and then I went through this summer where I could eat at a dining hall but I was always gone for mealtimes so sometimes I’d eat PB&J three meals a day, and that did not improve the sandwich outlook.

But: sandwiches can be great. If you put no effort into a sandwich, it will suck. But think how much time you put into making a “normal” meal. Now put half that time into a sandwich. It’s going to be great! Even if it’s not even half the time.

In Sweden, I had great combinations of soft cheese, lingonberry jam, chicken, and cucumbers. In France, it’s a paradise with which to make a sandwich. You have great bread. Amazing cheese, of every provenance and type. Mustard? heck yeah! Cured meats sliced thin. Sauces and spreads. Olives and pickles and fresh vegetables. I like to throw in apple slices. You can make a different sandwich every day, practically.

Do not fear the sandwich. Turn it into a meal. The sandwich is your friend.

Cold Things in Bowls

Basically everything else I eat is a pile of food in a bowl. I don’t own a plate; I own two blue ceramic bowls that I bought at IKEA. So, food in a bowl. The first category is cold things in a bowl.

The most obvious answer is salad, but as a single person, I don’t buy greens; they always get slimy before I eat them all. So my cold bowls have other bases, and are usually topped with a homemade two- or three-ingredient vinaigrette that sometimes contains mustard. Some recent ones:

Avocado, pear, hard-boiled eggs (made in your electric kettle!), cheese

Purple cabbage, lentils, apples, nuts

Tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, tuna

Panzanella: bread salad with tomatoes (like this)

Use your imagination and go wild. Vegetables are your friends; so are fruits (fresh or dried); so are canned beans and legumes. Meat and cheese are good additions. I’m inspired  here because soon it will be so damn hot that you won’t want to eat anything cooked anyway; salads are the way to go. If you think at any point, “I’m spending this much effort on a goddamn salad?” think of the Salade Nicoise, which is delicious, famous, filling, and has a ton of stuff in it. Seriously. A meal.

Warm Things in a Bowl (or Cold and Warm Things Mixed in a Bowl)

So let’s go over that electric kettle thing again. There are some obvious things you can make in there, without it even seeming to weird: ramen noodles. Just put ’em in a bowl, pour the boiling water over them, cover, wait. They’ll get cooked. Frozen vegetables, too. Powdered soups.  And more adventurous quick-cooking items like couscous, Chinese egg noodles, dried mushrooms. Pour, cover, come back in five or ten minutes and voila.

But I’ve been working to test the limits of what you can cook in an electric kettle. One thing is for sure: just boil things in water. You don’t want to boil anything else to the bottom of your heating element. Or, who knows, I haven’t tried, but it sounds like a big mess/burn waiting to happen.

So: pasta. Easy. You just have to make sure the water doesn’t boil pasta foam all over your counter, and that you wash the kettle well afterwards so your morning coffee isn’t made out of pasta water. Most even have a sifting spout, making draining super easy.

But also: vegetables. Think of ones that you would usually steam. So far I’ve had great meals with broccoli, green beans, and even asparagus that I cooked in the kettle – yes, asparagus, prepared in the least gourmet way possible. Which leads to lots of options.

Tonight’s dinner: tortellini, tomatoes, and green beans with olive oil

Last night: Chinese egg noodles with peppers (frozen), mushrooms (dried), green beans, and curry sauce (store-bought)

Penne with broccoli, tomatoes, pesto, and chevre

You get the idea.

Breakfast

This is no problem. You can’t fry up any eggs and bacon, but luckily, France has the biggest yogurt selection in the known universe. I could try a different kind every week the whole time I’m here and never get bored. I usually top it with either jam (or marmalade), fresh fruit, and/or museli.

Plus, I can always walk around the corner and get an amazing pastry, because I have the rocking-est local patisserie (bakery) in town. Maybe I’m biased, but I swear La Mie de Pain (get it?) is the best. I don’t even have to tell them what I want, they just give it to me. In other news, I’m probably eating too much pastry…

…. And Junk Food

This makes me sound incredibly healthy. Despite the two-week diet that was pretty successful, I’ve gained all that back… mostly in junk food. Shit. My life is stressful, okay!? You can buy individual-sized tiramisu in the yogurt aisle; that’s a popular dessert, or maybe just a tiny tub of Hagen-Daaz (they sell boxes with one-serving tubs of different flavors… yeah I’m screwed). There are so many kinds of chocolate bars to choose from. I try to snack on fruits and nuts but every time I go to the grocery store, I’m enticed by crap. Delicious, delicious crap. These people take their cookies seriously.

Finally: the two-euro wine in the story is way better than American two-buck-chuck. Heck, it’s often even made right next door. So if you’re food isn’t that great, rinse it down and you’ll be way happier.

Kitchen problem solved.

The End.

easy super supper soup, with a humorous onion incident in the recipe.

I took a GRE practice test this evening. Ew.

Not ew? This soup that I ate for dinner afterwards.

First of all: it’s winter, and it’s finally time to make hearty soups. I loved my summer soups – especially that squash one with the masa dumplings! – but now it’s time for different fare. I saw recipes for bean and grain soups and thought, hold off, hold off. In the winter you will want those soups. And now it’s winter and I can make them.

Because it really is winter. It’s snowing in the mountains; the Mount Batchelor nordic center is opening tomorrow and I’ll be there skiing. In Eugene, it’s actually not incredibly gray, but the pouring rain has turned into a much colder mist occasionally cut with bursts of sunlight. It chills you to the bone even though the temperature is pretty moderate.

And so: this soup. I made it on Tuesday, froze a batch, and finished the original batch of leftovers tonight.

The recipe originally called for white beans, but I knew how long they took to soak and I didn’t plan far enough ahead, so I improvised with black beans. Would it have been better with white? I’m not sure. It was great with black. And almost all of the black bean soups I make are spicy in some way, maybe even with a sweet element; this was a more traditional, herby, refined soup. The way that the carrots and celery softened into silkiness was amazing. All hail winter soup.

As a side, I cooked up some of my grandmother’s Biscuits Supreme and used crème fraiche for most of the liquid; I also added in a bunch of chopped up chives which I had left over in the refrigerator from another project. Those were GOOD biscuits. I think that crème fraiche might go into all of my biscuits from now on.

So: in conclusion: in many parts of the world, there’s no snow despite the fact that winter is supposed to be here. But even if you don’t have snow and are simply cold and miserable from a neverending autumn that you’re totally sick of – cook up some soup. And dip biscuits in it. And smile.

Black Bean Soup With Parsley

adapted from Vegetable Soups by Deborah Madison

2 cups dry black beans

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 very large onion, that has been sitting in the pantry for so long that there are green shoots coming out of it, but it’s still totally fine and you cry like a baby when you slice it

2 carrots

2 celery ribs

2 garlic cloves

six or seven branches of parsley

salt and pepper

Serve with: Biscuits Supreme, adapted – base recipe here; leave out cheeses, substitute 1/4 cup crème fraiche for 1/4 cup milk, and add 1/4 cup chopped chives

Start by pouring boiling water over your black beans in a large bowl. Let them sit for about two hours, then drain out the water and rinse them. Set aside.

In a large pot, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the onion, chopped medium-fine, and the carrots and celery in large chunks. Cook ten or so minutes until they begin to soften. Pour eight to ten cups of water over the whole thing, then add the garlic (finely chopped), parsley, and beans. Cook an hour and a half to two hours, until the beans are soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Wasn’t that simple!? Enjoy!

oh bacon where have you been?

I know, I know. A post with bacon in the title shouldn’t be about soup. It’s kind of a cop-out. You were expecting something way more bacon-y, maybe just whole slabs of bacon on a plate with some eggs, or some dish that really revels in the full wonderfulness of bacon.

But the truth is that I can’t have that relationship with bacon for a number of reasons. Do you know how effing expensive good bacon is? I mean, even not-as-good bacon isn’t cheap these days. Secondly, like the rest of America, I don’t need to be making pork fat a regular component of my diet.

I have missed bacon, though. I’m fairly certain that the last time I ate bacon was in Elinor’s house back in Vermont. Gosh, that feels like a long time ago. I was still ski racing in a black suit with green stripes. I was still training full-time. There was still snow. Oh, snow, how I miss you.

While I can’t do anything about the lack of snow in the Willamette Valley, I can do something about the lack of bacon in my refrigerator.

The funny thing is that I didn’t set out to buy bacon. I was looking for a soup recipe – I hadn’t made any in a while, and soup is a great thing to have as leftovers. So there I was, flipping through The Scandinavian Cookbook and there! A potato soup recipe. With chives and bacon.

Potato soup sounded great… and the bacon… and the chives… and what really got me was the photos in the cookbook. They were of a nice fall day with the fog hanging in the trees and the sun falling through the branches. I could almost feel the crispness – that morning cold that will warm up into an almost-summer by noon. It’s exactly that time of year in Oregon – the rain has stopped after teasing us briefly and it has been a beautiful fall. The grass is turning golden and some of the trees are even turning red.

So it all fell into place. It was a soup for the season, and I was going to eat my first bacon in more than six months.

The soup? Yummy. It’s a simple but elegant take on potatoes – just a leek and some garlic and cream, a bit like mashed potatoes gone soupy. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing.I left mine a bit chunkier than the recipe called for, maybe half-puréed. I don’t like completely mushy soup where you can no longer recognize the ingredients, so I wanted a few potato pieces to be left in my soup.

The first night, I reveled in the wonder of bacon and honestly overlooked the soup. But I brought some to work the next day, without the bacon but with the chives, and it was still great. The takeaway message is that this is a tasty soup, and you don’t even need the bacon to be have a delicious meal – although it won’t hurt!

Potato Soup With Bacon and Chives

Adapted slightly from The Scandinavian Cookbook

3 pounds of red potatoes

2 leeks

4 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 teaspoon ground pepper

4 cups water

1/2 cup heavy cream

chopped fresh chives

1-2 slices bacon per bowl, chopped into bits and cooked in a pan

Start by cutting the potatoes into large chunks. I left the skin on, but if you wanted to remove it, you would have a more technically refined soup. Place the potatoes in a saucepan with the water and bring to a boil. As the water is heating up, slice the leeks (white and light green parts) into small half-rounds and mince the garlic. Add these to the pot along with the salt and pepper. Once the water boils, leave the pot to simmer for 20 minutes. At that point, the potatoes should be soft enough to break apart with a fork. If they aren’t, keep simmering away. When they are ready, purée the soup in a blender until half or 2/3 of it is liquified and the remaining potato chunks have reduced in size. Put everything back in the pan. Stir in the cream and heat until everything is hot; taste and add salt if necessary. Top with chives and bacon.

bread art.

My favorite kind of Daring Bakers Challenge is one where I am not really sure what hit me. I love learning about food that I didn’t even know existed, food that is exotic and exciting, food where I see a picture and think, I couldn’t make that, no way.

October was a bit like that. I didn’t think “no way”, but I did think, wow! That’s amazing!

The Daring Baker’s October 2011 challenge was Povitica, hosted by Jenni of The Gingered Whisk. Povitica is a traditional Eastern European Dessert Bread that is as lovely to look at as it is to eat!

I bake a lot of bread – it’s been months since I bought any from the store – but most of mine is the plain-jane sandwich variety. On special occasions, I used to make fancy bread, but it hadn’t occurred to me in a while. If I make something fancy, it’s usually dessert these days.

But the povitica – man, oh man, did the photos Jenni posted get me psyched. Her bread was beautiful, full of contrasting dark and light swirls. It was like cinnamon bread gone crazy – and I was pretty sure it would taste even better than cinnamon bread, too. She listed several possibly fillings, but I stuck with the most basic, a ground walnut affair with sugar and spices.

So, about those ground walnuts. First of all, they were supposed to be English walnuts. I wasn’t sure what kind of walnuts we usually eat, but it turned out that it’s them, so that was a relief. My next project was to grind them. This is going to be a pain in the butt, I thought; we don’t have a food processor. I looked doubtfully at my housemate’s coffee grinder. I was pretty sure there was a good reason NOT to put the walnuts inside, like that they were too oily and would turn to paste, but it was so tempting…. I poured half a cup in and started grinding.

Guess what. Walnuts are too oily and turn to paste in a coffee grinder. Great!

After painstakingly scraping the quasi-walnut-butter out of the grinder and into a bowl and then washing out the grinder and wiping it clean, I had to move on to Plan B, which was unfortunately chopping the other cup and a half of walnuts with a big kitchen knife. My knife skills are okay, but it took forever. To achieve a texture like ground walnuts, you have to get the pieces really, really, really small. Like powder, basically. So that was fun.

Luckily, everything else went smoothly. I made the filling by adding milk, butter, sugar, vanilla, spices, and an egg to the walnuts, and let it sit while I rolled out the sweet dough very, very thinly. Bread dough is stretchable and the rolling was a lot easier than when I was trying to make baklava! (Also, it probably helped that I only had to make one piece of dough…) It was challenge to get the dough thin enough to see through without ripping it, but by rolling the dough, picking it up to stretch it, and repeating, it actually didn’t take too long before my counter was covered in a huge, translucent sheet of bread dough.

The next part scared me a little. I spread the filling onto the dough, trying not to rip it as I went, and hoped that it wouldn’t be too heavy for the bread dough. I spread and spread, and then tried to roll the dough up, jelly-roll style. There were a few places where the dough was so thin that the filling kind of seeped through and got stuck to the counter, making it harder to roll, and I was really nervous. But nothing ripped and at the end I had a long roll of dough. I actually stretched it to make it longer, and then coiled it up in the pan according to Jenni’s instructions.

After a very brief rise, I brushed the top with a little bit of pumpkin butter dissolved in water – I wanted to give it an orange glow – and put it in the oven.

When it came out, it definitely had a pumkiny tinge to it. Not orange, exactly, but pretty. I was happy with how it turned out, and amazed that the dough had held up so well; I had expected some of the filling to leak out into the sides of the bread pan, but there was no sticky stuff to be found, just a nice-looking loaf of bread that hinted at a surprise inside.

And what a surprise it was. When I sliced the loaf open (it was difficult to wait until it had cooled!) the swirls were there in stunning fashion. I was glad that I had spent so much time chopping those darn nuts, because the filling really had become a paste and showed up in clean, crisp lines against the rolls of the dough.

What about the taste? Even if the bread hadn’t been good, I would have loved it. But it was good. The walnut filling was delicious, which was good since it made up such a high percentage of the bread’s volume! It had a hint of spices, but wasn’t overly cinnamon-flavored, which I thought was really nice; almost all of the breakfast and dessert breads we make seem to be cinnamon-heavy. This was more refined and incredibly tasty. And while it was sweet, sugar wasn’t the dominant flavor, either.

All in all, I was super impressed with povitica. It made me excited about making fancy bread again, and I would really like to try another kind of filling – poppy seed perhaps? This bread is sure to make a reappearance around the holidays. Thanks Jenni for a great challenge, one of my favorites by far!

As always, check out the other beautiful creations over at the Daring Kitchen website.

 

Fried noodles.

This dinner really could be anything. It’s clearly noodles, carrots, and broccoli, but what’s so great about that? It’s impossible to tell, looking at the picture, what kind of a dish this is. What’s it spiced with? Is it just some spaghetti?

Well, my friends, the answer is no. I’m here to tell you that these are fried noodles. It’s a recipe I made up and damn, it is good. Also, there’s a piece of broccoli about to fall out of that bowl. Yeah, I know.

It turns out that there are two ways to approach cooking for one person. There’s the strategy where you make a normal-sized amount of food and then eat it for several meals. Then, there’s the way where you make just enough dinner for one person; needless to say, the one-person dinners usually aren’t too fancy.

I’ve used both strategies, but recently I’ve been even busier than usual and just too disorganized to make a big batch of anything, so I’ve had a lot of spaghetti nights. At some point, you get sick of spaghetti, and I’ve come to learn that it’s really important to have some good base ingredients in the refrigerator. Then, you can grab a vegetable from the store on your way home and have several potential directions for a quick and easy dinner. Tomato sauce? Asian food? Breakfast for dinner? A great sandwich? All of a sudden, you have options for a one-person dinner that doesn’t suck.

A couple of nights ago I decided to end my most recent spaghetti stream and make a different kind of noodles – rice vermicelli. Instead of boiling them, I thought I’d stir-fry them right in the pan with my veggies; but how to flavor everything? I looked on the shelf in the refrigerator and one ingredient jumped out at me. It was some sesame paste which I had bought for a recipe involving homemade ramen noodles. I had not liked the noodles, it turned out, and as a result banished the sesame paste. But as I thought about things more, I was pretty sure that the ramen noodles were what I didn’t like (they were very alkaline). So out came the sesame paste.

It’s important to note: this isn’t tahini we’re talking about. I have that too, and it’s great, but this is completely different. It’s a dark brown paste you can buy at Asian food stores. Don’t try making this recipe with tahini. It, well, it will suck… I don’t actually know that, but I’m pretty sure.

So once I took out the sesame paste, the first thing that happened was that I spilled it all over everything. The paste had separated into a thick, solid lower layer and a lot of oil on top. As I tried to scoop out the paste, my spoon slipped and flung sesame oil everywhere. My nice Salomon jacket now smells like sesame. Eh, well, you win some, you lose some.

The next thing that happened was that I put some of the paste in a pan with my sizzling vegetables. I wanted the sesame paste to sort of coat the veggies. But it was too thick. I tried to stir it in, thinking that the heat would re-liquify it after a long time in the refrigerator, but nothing happened. I still had chunks of sesame paste in my veggies. I poured in some shaoxing wine and some soy sauce, in the hopes that the steam from the boiling sauces would soften the paste and that everything would come together into a uniform sauce. It kind of worked. It took a lot of stirring, but I finally felt like the sesame was coating my veggies. Mission accomplished.

Finally, I threw in the rice noodles, which had been soaking in cold water. They didn’t cook for long, and when the whole mess was done, they were mostly soft with just a few crispy strands from the bottom of the frying pan.

And the mess? It was delicious. Veggies, sesame, a pickled hot pepper, fried noodles. It might not be authentic to any region of the world, but it’s authentic to my kitchen. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters – hot, good food. Dinner. Home. Hooray.

Fried Sesame Noodles With Carrots and Brocolli

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1 clove garlic

1 pickled hot red pepper (or another kind of chile pepper!)

1 large carrot, chopped small

1 small head of broccoli, chopped small

2 tablespoons sesame paste

1 tablespoon shaoxing wine

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 handful rice vermicelli noodles, soaked in cold water for half an hour

In a stainless-steel frying pan or a wok if you’re feeling ambitious, heat the oils together over medium-high heat. Chop the garlic and the pickled pepper into a very fine mince, and toss them in the pan; include the seeds of the pepper. Cook for just a minute to soften before adding the carrot and the pieces of the broccoli stem (save the florets for later). Stir everything for a few minutes until the hard vegetables begin to soften up. Then add the broccoli florets and watch as they turn bright green. Stir in the sesame paste, trying to break it up; pour the wine and soy sauce into the pan and use the steam to help stir in the sesame paste. Once everything is uniform and there are no more big clumps of sesame paste, drain the noodles and add them to the pan. Cook three to four minutes or longer, depending on how crispy you want your fried noodles.

Newtons.

 

I have a fig tree in the backyard. How incredible is that? Like apricots, I didn’t even really know you could just, like, eat a fig. It’s crazy world out here.

I started by making some fig jam. And my housemate made some balsamic-fig sauce. And I made a fig frangipane tart. And we ate figs. That used up the figs for a while… and then the second crop came in. They came in and they were almost rotting on the tree. Ack! All of this while we were inundated with blackberries and in the midst of making blackberry jam and blackberry pear sauce. Figs! So good! But what were we going to do with them?

It happened that we had been hiking, and our friend Autumn had been eating fig newtons. Hmmm. That got me thinking… I bet you could make fig newtons. And I bet they’d be really good.

I got kind of curious about what makes a fig newton a fig newton, so I went Joe Pastry all over it and delved into the interwebs. It turns out that fig rolls have been around for thousands of years, and were eaten by sailors around the Mediterranean and Middle East to stay healthy. There’s one myth that newtons are named after a Syrian Jew named Nuhtan who farmed figs in the 15th century, but I’m not sure if I believe it. What is indisputably true is that fig newtons in the form known by American schoolkids were invented in the early 1890s and named after Newton, Massachussetts. The U.S. went from consuming fairly few figs to being the largest consumer in the world based almost wholly on the popularity of the fig newton.

So I didn’t really get my answer about what defines a fig newton, but I did get some interesting history. I based by recipe on one from food52, a wonderful site, and used entirely whole wheat flour in the cookie part.

In the end, they were pretty much what I was hoping for: fig newtony, with a cakey cookie and a sweet, sticky filling, but more grown-up, and a lot more tasty. The fig filling had orange juice and spices in it; I am not sure what Nabisco puts in their newtons, but citrus and spice is a very nice thing to pair with a fig. It was GOOD.

I’m pretty sure that you could make fig newtons using dried figs and just soak them in boiling water until they plump up, then cook them. No promises, but if you have nostalgia for the snacks you had in your lunchbox in elementary school and don’t live in a figgy locale, I’d say try it!

What a great after-work snack. Yum.

Fig Newtons

Adapted slightly from a recipe by vrunka at food52.

Cookie/Cake Dough

5 tablespoons butter, melted3/4 cups packed brown sugar2 eggs1 teaspoon vanilla extract2 cups whole wheat flour1/4 teaspoon baking soda2 teaspoons baking powder

Stir together the melted butter and brown sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla. Mix in the flour, baking soda, and baking powder, and chill in the refrigerator for about an hour. In the meantime, make the fig filling.

Fig Filling

12 smallish pound figs
1 pear
3/4 cups brown sugarzest from 1 orange
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Cut the figs and pear into very small pieces and place in a saucepan with all the other ingredients. Heat over low heat at first until the sugar dissolves in the juices of the fruit, then heat over medium heat, at a low boil, until the mixture is thick and jam-like. It will gel further as it cools, so you don’t have to wait until it is completely thick; don’t turn it into cement! Let the filling sit and cool for half an hour at least before proceeding.

When you’re ready, divide the dough in half and roll each half into a large square. From here, you have a couple of options. If you want to be fancy, cut each square into thirds, so you have six long rectangles. Put the fig filling down the middle of each rectangle in a strip and then fold the sides up over the top, just overlapping in the middle. Cut into squares and you have your fig newtons – place them on a greased cookie sheet. If you want to be lazier, line the bottom of a greased square or rectangular baking dish with some dough, spread some of the fig filling on top, and then top with another layer of the rolled out dough. You can cut them into squares after they are baked. That’s what I did. The original recipe instructions say to bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 375 degrees; I baked mine in a cob oven, so I can’t comment on baking time and temperature!

umami at home.

Today was supposed to be a really long day of work. One of those days where I wake up, leave the house at 5:45, go to Washington, work all day, and then get home around 9 or 10 at night.

But when Lorien, the PhD student and I, got to the field site, she realized that she had left the chamber of the LI-COR machine in her garage, and couldn’t do any of her respiration measurements, which were supposed to take 5 hours. Instead, we were left with two people to do what would have taken me three hours alone, and with twice the labor went even faster. End result, I was back in Eugene at a normal time and wondering what to do with myself.

I had anticipated being exhausted when I got home, and getting takeout. But with so much time I decided to cook instead, using a recipe from Rasa Malaysia, a blog devoted to not-too-difficult but reasonably authentic (I think) Asian cooking. And I discovered something amazing: you can make Chinese food at home which is twice as good as takeout, not too hard to cook, and not even very expensive. Hallelujah.

This dish has many great components. First of all, fresh egg noodles? Completely amazing! So good even compared to fresh Italian-style pasta. Wow. Secondly, the chicken, holy crap. Sweet and spicy and delicious, sticky in that Chinese-restaurant sort of way, and caked in sesame seeds. Finally, the vegetables are still somewhat crisp, not mushy and gross. I’m a huge fan of this dish and can’t wait to eat the leftovers for dinner tomorrow.

Another great thing about this recipe is that once you get a few ingredients from your Asian market (which is way cheaper than a normal grocery store, I promise you), you’ll have them in your cupboard and it will make it even easier to cook up future feasts. I’d strongly suggest getting an authentic, rich soy sauce instead of the watery, salty, bland kind that is a staple in American cooking. You will discover that soy sauce is unbelievably tasty, and not just a way to salt your food. Ditto on the rest of the ingredients, really.

So I present to you, chicken and noodles for one, in your own wok. Enjoy!

Chicken and Noodles with Carrots, Zucchini, and Green Beans

Adapted from Rasa Malaysia

Note: I made three times the amount of chicken, and saved it in a tupperware. The noodles won’t reheat well, so the idea is that you can make a new batch of noodles and veggies the next night and throw the chicken in on top. Everyone likes having a few days worth of dinners (or lunches!) in the fridge!

Marinade and Chicken

1 boneless chicken thigh

1 teaspoon chili oil

1/2 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon oyster sauce

1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine

1 teaspoon brown sugar

Cut the chicken into small pieces and place in a bowl with all the other ingredients. Stir well so the chicken is coated and then let sit half an hour at least, or basically as long as you want

The Dish

Chicken and marinade, above

4 tablespoons canola oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped thin

1 small handful fresh egg noodles

1 medium-sized carrot

1/3 of one medium-sized zucchini

5 or so green beans

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

sesame seeds

Start by placing a wok over high heat with 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. When it’s good and hot, pour the chicken and the marinade sauce into the oil. Cook over medium high to high heat for ten or so minutes; the chicken will at first cook in the sauce, but then the sauce will begin to evaporate. When there is barely any sauce left, the chicken is turning dark, and the tips are just beginning to blacken, take the wok off the heat. Pour the chicken into a bowl. Let the wok cool slightly and then clean it out; there will be some sauce blackened onto it.

Next, rinse the egg noodles in a bowl of water several times, discarding the water after each rinse. Let the noodles sit in a bowl while you prepare the wok for them. Cut the carrots and zucchini into very thin matchsticks and the greenbeans in half each. Over medium high heat, warm the remaining two tablespoons of oil and then add the garlic, cooking until it is soft. Add the vegetables and stir, cooking for a minute or so. Add the noodles, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and water, and cook until the noodles have changed color and are cooked through. Put the noodle mixture in a bowl, place the chicken on top, and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Channeling Christine Ferber.

When I was growing up, my mom would have dried apricots around the house. Sometimes she put them in “blondies”, the butterscotch brownies we made quite frequently (we did not want for dessert even then!). My take on dried apricots, at that point, was that they were kind of yucky. I would beg her not to put them in the blondies. I just wanted chocolate.

Fast forward to my sophomore year of college, when I was living in Morocco for a term. You would walk down the street on your way home from school and pass so many vendors: the guy selling camel meat, the fresh cheese attracting flies on its little shelf, the hot roasted seeds and nuts, the pastries, the dates, the olives, the fruit. And among those piles of fruit – really, piles – was, nestled in there, fresh apricots.

I was dumbstruck. What? Apricots were actually a fruit? I guess I had known that, if nothing else than from learning how to say them in foreign languages. But as a New England native, it had really never occurred to me that such a thing as a fresh apricot existed. I bought them up and ate them one after another, nom nom nom.

Then I returned to the U.S. and apricots were but a distant, tasty, memory. I kept eating dried ones, of course, but they aren’t the same.

When I moved to Oregon, I was elated that apricots might be part of my future again. We’ve had an awesome summer of fruit so far – strawberries, raspberries, cherries, you name it. I was recently making dinner with a friend who mentioned that he was going to pick blueberries over the weekend. I love picking, but I don’t actually like blueberries – I know, I know, I’m a freak. I told him as much.

“Well, what is your favorite summer fruit?” he asked.

After thinking for a little while – raspberries are so good – I said, with some trepidation, “apricots”.

I’m a lucky girl because Matt called me up from the blueberry farm while he was picking and said that they had flats of fresh Oregon apricots for sale, and did I want one? So he brought 17 pounds of apricots over to our house and my housemate and I split them. She dried some and canned some whole, while I was determined to make jam. Apricot jam is my favorite and I was envisioning needing a hint of sunshine once it gets cold and wet and horrendously depressing here this winter.

So I started looking up jam recipes and came across a foursome of recipes from Christine Ferber, who may or may not be the most famous jam-maker in the world. The recipes looked good so I dove in.

I wanted to make one batch that was just a simple apricot jam. It seems stupid to waste such good jam on sandwiches, but I do eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch pretty much every day and I’ve been stockpiling different flavors to keep my winter interesting. So far I have homemade strawberry, mixed berry-cherry, and this apricot.

The method for Ferber’s apricot jams is interesting – first of all, you don’t have to use pectin, which was nice. But secondly, she says to boil the apricots and sugar and lemon juice very briefly and then put them in the refrigerator overnight.

I was a little nervous about this step, because after all there isn’t much liquid involved: just apricots and sugar. How am I supposed to boil this? But I tried, and as the sugar melted it brought some of the apricot juice with it, and I was indeed able to bring the mixture to a boil. I stuck it in a bowl and forgot about it for the next 24 hours.

When I came back, there was tons of juice – I understood that “macerate” actually is a process which accomplishes something. The next step was to strain out the apricots and boil the juice until it reached 220 degrees. Then, I dumped the apricots back into the mixture and boiled them for five minutes before canning them and going through the whole water-bath process.

I tasted a little bit of the jam while I was canning and it was delicious – not too sweet, and very apricot-y. One thing I’d recommend is perhaps cutting the apricots smaller than half-pieces, depending on what you want to use the jam for! I’m really excited to have this ready for the winter.

Then: a second batch. The thing about Ferber’s jams is that while some are basic and delicious, others are incredibly fancy and gourmet. I was going to try one of the fancy ones, darnit.

I had a hard time picking – I really wanted to try nougabricot, which confusingly enough is a Quebecois jam using apricots, pistachios, and almonds. Where did they get this stuff? It must have really been a delicacy.

But in the end I went for a jam using apricots, orange zest, vanilla bean, and Gewurztraminer, a white wine. I couldn’t quite imagine how to eat nougabricot with its chunks of nuts. This other jam sounded more refined. So I went to the grocery story to pick up ingredients and quickly realized that I was going to spend more on a few jars of jam than I do on most dinners. I hesitated, but I had picked my jam and I was going for it. I sucked it up and spent nine dollars on a vanilla bean, grimacing a bit as I did (I stopped grimacing when I smelled it… holy cow, those things are amazing).

So: the basic jam recipe was the same, but with some added steps. It actually used a cup or so of dried apricots, which I cut up very finely and left to soak overnight in the Gewurztraminer. I ate one the next morning. Yum. The orange zest and vanilla bean went in with the fresh apricots, and the dried apricots were added in along with the fruit after the syrup had been heated to that 220 degree mark.

The jam smelled divine the whole time it was cooking. Our kitchen became a whole new place.

And as I was canning, I decided to leave out a little bit of jam for my housemate Laura and I to eat. I was dying to try this fancy invention. We scooped ourselves tiny bowls of vanilla ice cream and drizzled the jam, still hot, on top.

WOW.

I am not going to be able to put this on toast; it’s too good. It’s rich and it’s… BAM! It’s both strong and delicate, and kind of indescribable. I have never had jam like this before…. and okay, I am going to put it on toast, but it’s so good that it feels like a travesty. Ice cream was a perfect vehicle for the jam, which was completely worth the silly amount of money I spent making it.

The verdict here is that I am so excited to have two kinds of delicious apricot jam in my cupboard – and I still had enough apricots left over to munch on this week. I put them in oatmeal for breakfast and eat them for snacks… and for lunch… and for dessert. I’m a lucky girl, and I owe Matt big time for picking me up some of my favorite fruit.

I’m not going to post recipes since I didn’t adapt them at all – but you can find four amazing apricot jam recipes over at Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s blog, which is amazing, as a side note.

 

sunny pie for a rainy day.

Let me sum this pie up for you: it’s a stew, wrapped in a croissant. How could you possibly go wrong with that?

I must admit that I have been eating abysmally. First we were camping, and then I was tired. I’ve had too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, too many bowls of oatmeal, and I am ashamed to say that I may have even eaten a can of tuna for dinner one night. It’s been grim.

On an entertaining note, I just got enrolled in state health insurance here in Oregon, and I was urged to take this online health assessment. So I did. It told me that my health score was 63 out of 100, which seemed terrible until I saw that the average score was 54. Really, America? Okay, I guess I’m not that surprised. But it turned out that my diet was one of the main reasons I scored so poorly. I had filled out that I ate 2 servings of fruits and veggies per day, 3 of whole grains, and 1 of nuts and seeds. That was all. I guess that looks really bad, but they only asked about low fat dairy, and I drink raw milk, which is whole! They only asked about lean red meat; I don’t cook red meat for myself very often, more often choosing pork or chicken. And they didn’t ask about eggs. Or beans and legumes. Or all sorts of other things. Anyway, they told me that my diet was very unbalanced and I needed to meet with a nutritionist. I laughed a little.

Perhaps part of the reason that my eating habits have been so bad recently is that it has been raining. Nobody wants to ride their bike to the grocery store in the rain, much less ride to the farmer’s market and walk around in the rain. But today I decided that this monkey business had to stop – I swear that this was not related to the health assessment – so I sucked it up and drove my car over to the grocery store.

Yesterday, I had been looking for recipes for dulce de leche or confiture de lait (I later realized that I didn’t have as much milk as I would need, so abandoned the idea). On my way I came across a wonderful Australian food blog which had this recipe for chicken, leek, and fennel pie with cream cheese pastry. I love pies. I love fennel. I was hooked, and the ingredients in the recipe became my shopping list for today’s venture to the store.

For some reason I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough filling in the pie, so, never one to leave well enough alone, I added one more ingredient: a giant golden beet. I like purple beets, but golden ones add an extra bit of sweetness which I thought would compliment the fennel well. An unusual combination, for sure, but I was ready to try it.

To make the pie filling, I sautéed up the chicken, then the fennel, leek, beet, and garlic. I added some white wine, chicken broth, and flour to thicken it up, plus thyme and rosemary. It took a long time to reduce the liquid, but in that time, my kitchen began to smell amazing. Fennel isn’t something that everyone likes, but I like it. And you can’t deny that it smells divine.

The crust…. how to describe the crust. Butter, flour, salt, and I made a substitution of crème fraiche for the cream cheese. It required a little bit of water to come together, but turned out fine. I knew as soon as I added the crème fraiche that this crust was going to be unusual. It gave the dough a different texture, very flexible, very light, very stretchy. It was a breeze to roll out, although I had to generously flour my countertop to keep it from sticking.

And when it came out of the oven. Wow.

When I cut into the pie, the crust crinkled and crunched. It was airy and didn’t feel like a pie crust. I slopped some out onto a plate and steam poured out with the filling, which was golden like the beets and the sunshine I was so dearly missing.

The pie was phenomenal. The crust, as I said, was like a croissant in texture, but a little tangy because of the crème fraiche. The filling was lovely – the dark meat from the chicken thighs I used was so much more pleasing than the white meat you find in a traditional chicken pot pie, and the taste was more spicy, more complex, more warming. It had never really occurred to me that you could make a chicken pot pie that was different than the yummy, comforting kind you are served at New England church suppers. But this pie was just as comforting in a more interesting way. It’s good to try change every once in a while.

Unless you’re one of those anti-fennel folks, make this pie! Thanks to Citrus and Candy for a great recipe. The crust will definitely stay in my repertoire!

Sunshine Chicken Pie with a Crème Fraiche Crust

Adapted from Citrus and Candy

3 boneless chicken thighs
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 leek
1 fennel bulb
1 golden beet
1 cup white wine
3/8 cup white flour
1 cup chicken stock
a couple each of thyme and rosemary leaves, finely chopped

1 ½ cups plain flour
pinch of salt
11 tablespoons cold butter
½ cup crème fraiche
a couple tablespoons cold water

Start by making the filling. In a large pot or pan over medium heat, melt the butter until it just starts to turn brown. While it is heating up, cut the chicken thighs into half-inch cubes (or a little bigger if you want). Toss them in the olive oil and salt, and then add them to the butter in the pan, cooking until done. Place the chicken in a bowl, leaving as much of the butter in the pan as possible. While the chicken was cooking, you could chop up the vegetables: garlic into a small mince, the leek in half lengthwise and then the white parts only into 1/4-inch semicircles, the fennel and beet into half-inch cubes. When the chicken is out of the pan, toss the veggies in and cook five to ten minutes, depending on the size of your pan, or until they have softened in the chicken-butter. Then add the white wine and crank the heat up. Cook until the volume of wine is decreased by half. Add the flour, stir quickly, and then pour in the chicken stock. As the mixture starts to thicken, throw the chicken and herbs in as well and continue cooking, stirring often, until the filling is as thick as you want it for your pie. Put it in a bowl in the refrigerator to cool as much as possible before using in the pie.

For the crust, when you are ready, put the flour and salt in a bowl and then chop the butter into the bowl as well. Use your fingers to mix the two together, breaking the butter into smaller and smaller pieces and incorporating it with the flour. When the butter is in pea-sized pieces, add the crème fraiche and stir with a fork until the dough is as well-mixed as possible. Is it still too dry? Add some water, but be careful not to make it too wet. When you can mush it into a ball, stop and let it rest in the refrigerator for ten minutes.

To assemble the pie, take the dough out of the refrigerator and divide it into two slightly differently-sized pieces. Flour your counter well, and your rolling pin, and roll the larger piece into your bottom crust, stopping frequently to reflour and make sure that it does not get stuck to your rolling surface! Place it in a greased pie pan, the bigger the better – there’s a lot of filling! Next, roll out the top crust. Pour the filling into the pan, place the top crust on top, pinch the edges, and put the whole thing in a 450 degree oven. Bake for five minutes before turning the oven down to 425 and baking for another 20 to 25 minutes, or until the top is golden.

maiden voyage of the ice cream maker.

For months now I have been saying that I was going to buy an ice cream maker. It started in Florida, for obvious reasons – it was hot and I wanted ice cream, dammit. But there was always an excuse not to get one. In Florida, I didn’t want to have one more thing to pack in the car when I moved. Once I got to Oregon, it was oh, I’ll wait until my next paycheck. I had my eye on a model which wasn’t my ideal, but was affordable.

About two days before my birthday, two boxes arrived at my house. Boxes! Presents! On Tuesday morning when I finally allowed myself to open them, what did I find but a Donvier ice cream maker and a cookbook of ice cream recipes. My parents really do know me pretty well. The Donvier was the ice cream maker of my dreams: no fussing around with ice because you just freeze the canister, but still the charm of hand-cranking. Plus, it was the ice cream maker of my childhood and all of those happy ice cream memories. I was ecstatic. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

I began planning my first batch of ice cream pretty much immediately, but I was too busy to actually make it. The flavor was obvious though. My yard is overflowing with berries so it had to be a berry ice cream. I settled on loganberries, a giant hybrid of blackberries and black raspberries. The bush in the backyard has just started producing and the berries are gorgeous.

I used a recipe from the birthday cookbook – Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home – as the inspiration for my ice cream, even though I didn’t really follow a recipe. After all, you don’t find too many loganberry recipes. I had to adapt. Instead, I based my ice cream off of a roasted-strawberry buttermilk recipe. I also changed things up by using a custard base.

To start with, I roasted the berries in the oven with some lemon juice and sugar. Interestingly, as they cooked they lost a lot of their dark blackish color and became red again, like their unripe brothers and sisters. After ten minutes or so in the oven they were nice and soft and juicy, and I tossed them in the blender to make a purée.

Next I tackled the custard. Not to brag or anything, but custard is pretty straightforward for me at this point. If you’re in the habit of making it, it’s easy. I recently made a cake for the fourth of July, a layered Scandinavian berry affair with custard in between the cake layers. The recipe came from The Scandinavian Cookbook and it taught me a trick about custards – when you heat up the milk (or cream) the first time, without the egg in it, don’t let it boil! You don’t have to get it fully up to temperature – just pretty hot, so you can temper the eggs. For some reason, thinking about it like this made custards seem even simpler.

Finally, I had to put everything together. The recipe from Jeni’s suggested straining the berry mixture, but I didn’t have a strainer, so I just poured it in with the custard (I didn’t use it all, but the rest will go on top of my oatmeal for the next few days – so no complaints there!). Also in there: some crème fraiche and buttermilk for tang and lot of heavy cream. Mmm, cream.

After sticking the base in the fridge for a few hours, I poured it into the Donvier canister, which I had kept in the freezer for about 24 hours. It was all clean and tidy and ready for its maiden voyage.

Then I kept working away at my computer, taking a break every five minutes or so to churn the ice cream. The key with a setup like this is to not let it get totally frozen around the edges, where the cream actually touches the canister. If you let it get too hard, it will be very difficult to turn the hand crank, and you’ll have frozen ice cream on the outside and merely chilled cream in the center. You have to mix the ice cream so that it ends up a fairly homogeneous texture.

Like this:

The beauty of making your ice cream is that you can choose whether you want soft-serve or hard-serve. I prefer something in between, and that’s what I got. Another score for making things yourself!

When I took the top off of the Donvier, it just smelled like ice cream. You think of ice cream having a taste, but you don’t realize that it also has a smell. It does. It smells like yum, summer.

So it smelled good. Visually, it was a beautiful purple. The texture had a few seeds from the berries but not in an annoying way. What sense is left? Oh yes, it tasted delicious. Sweet, tangy from the buttermilk and crème fraiche, and a little bit sharp from the berries and their lemon juice. Not overpowering in any one direction, but just an overall lovely ice cream.

I hope some of you have ice cream makers and can churn up your own concoctions. I think that the technique on this one would work with any berries, and probably some other fruit as well.

With the maiden voyage successful, I’m looking forward to many more tasty ice creams in the future.

Pretty Purple Loganberry Buttermilk Ice Cream

1 1/2 cups loganberries

3/4 cup sugar

juice from 1/2 lemon

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 1/4 cup milk (I used raw milk)

2 teaspoons honey

2 eggs

2 tablespoons crème fraiche

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup buttermilk

Start by placing the berries in a shallow pan or baking dish. Preheat the oven to 375 and while it’s warming up, squeeze the juice of the half lemon over the berries. Sprinkle on 1/4 cup of sugar and stir the mixture so that the berries are coated in both lemon juice and sugar. Bake them in the oven for ten or so minutes. You don’t want them to dry up, so don’t overcook them, but you want them to be soft and the juice should begin to run out of the berries and accumulate in the pan. When you think they’re done, pour the whole thing into the blender and purée them for a couple of seconds – it won’t take much because they’re already pretty mushy.

Next, in a saucepan, whisk together the rest of the sugar and the cornstarch. Add in the milk, whisk well, and place over medium heat. Add the honey and stir periodically to make sure that nothing is burning to the bottom of the pan. In a small bowl, beat the two eggs. When the milk mixture is very hot but not yet boiling, slowly pour half of it into the egg bowl, whisking as you pour. Then pour the egg mixture into the saucepan again and keep whisking. Keep a close eye on the custard and whisk frequently; you will be able to tell that the mixture is thickening. Don’t overthicken because you don’t want the custard to become grainy; just let it get to the point where it is a loose pudding consistency. Remove from heat.

In a bowl, stir the crème fraiche and salt together. Add the still-warm custard mixture, then 3/4 cup of the berry purée. Finally, stir in the cream and buttermilk. Put the ice cream base – because that’s what you have now – in the refrigerator for a few hours until it is uniformly cool. Then follow the instructions for your ice cream maker and enjoy your icy treat!