Interested in fresh, local, sustainable food, and simple preparations
Like my feelings about minestrone soup, I think ratatouille is another one of those perfect all-in-one dishes to me: Great vegetable combination, hearty enough for a meal and a myriad different preparations.
My introduction came by way of a Cooking Light recipe that caught my fancy called Ratatouille Bake. It’s ratatouille plus chick peas in a rice and feta cheese casserole. I had no idea what ratatouille was (even the movie was still years away); the ingredients just appealed to me. It’s not the simplest of creations, and my attempts had mixed success. (It’s fairly easy to end up with undercooked rice, which gives the dish an unpleasant crunch.) But when it did come out right, it was very tasty and fit my bill of a complete meal.
Later, I took the time to do some research online and found out what ratatouille actually was. I gathered a few recipes to try that had the traditional mix: eggplant, red bell pepper, zucchini, onion and tomato. The winner was an Epicurious version that makes a lot and is good warm or cold. The vegetables are cut into cubes and simply sauteed; aside from all the chopping, it is very easy to make. I presented it with success at a work potluck, a graduation buffet, and a family picnic. When I make it at home, it feeds us for a week.
But my research wasn’t complete until I attempted the recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” This was a challenge, especially since I didn’t have quite the right dish to make it in. Julia’s instructions call for cooking thick slices of each vegetable separately in a shallow dutch oven, then layering the ingredients and baking to finish. Of course, it took a fair amount of time to prepare, so it won’t become part of the regular rotation. But it had a good texture and excellent flavor.
You wouldn’t think working through tried-and-true recipes from the experts would be considered “experiments,” but I never know what will result from my efforts in the kitchen. So, experiments it is. My bug for making homemade whole-wheat bread is focusing on two main types: oatmeal and cracked wheat.
Experiment #1: Oatmeal Wheat Bread from Epicurious.com
Loved the flavor, but the bread was too crumbly - slices tended to fall apart.
Experiment #2: Cracked-Wheat Bread from Beard on Bread
Calls for “fine” cracked wheat, but I had coarse. Oven temperature a question. Loaves came out very moist. Good texture and flavor.
Experiment #3: Cracked-Wheat Bread from Joy of Cooking
Very similar to Beard’s recipe, but calls for twice the cracked-wheat, double the yeast, and a cup more flour. The dough was massive, but after the second rising, it didn’t keep it’s loft. The loaves came out flat. Adjusted oven to agree with thermometer, so bread cooked at a higher temperature that the Beard loaves. Result: no extra moisture this time, but the loaf I didn’t freeze started to get hard long before the Beard experiment (about 4 days for this loaf). Good texture and flavor, but at this point I think the Beard recipe is better.
Funny how I barely notice the produce at the farmer’s market that I’m not familiar with - I only have eyes for the fruits and veggies that have become part of our repertoire. But I managed to break out of my rut a bit recently by trying a couple new (to me) types of beans.
First, it was shelling beans, and my first purchase of cranberry beans. Between tips from the farmer at the market and googling for further ideas on how to cook them, I was all set. The farmer had suggested that the beans make a great soup, but in our 90+ degree kitchen that didn’t seem feasible. So I just cooked them in water for 20 minutes or so and ate them cold, dressed them simply in olive oil and lemon juice. I was disappointed that they lost their bright variegation in the cooking process and turned out a pinkish-gray, but I liked the texture and flavor. They really did have a nice fresh taste compared to dried beans. And shelling the beans was actually kinda fun.
Next, it was pole beans - I bought a sampling of “Marvel of Venice” beans, which are an Italian heirloom (pictured). I was surprised to hear that you are supposed to eat the flat yellow pod. Not much came up on the Internet on these, aside from seed catalogs. But I sauteed them in olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper, as the market stand worker suggested. They were just OK - I’m afraid that getting the full enjoyment out of these tender-crunchy pods is still in the future for me.
When I tried out Carrie Floyd’s Easy Polenta, it was easy and turned out well, but left a coating on the bottom of my pot. I assume this doesn’t happen with the recipes that call for constant stirring, but since the pot cleaned up fine I was happy.
Now, Mark Bittman weighs in with his suggestion for the “definitive” polenta-making process sans hassle. It calls for mixing 1 cup of water with 1 cup of cornmeal first, then heating, then stirring in the rest of the water as needed as it cooks. More work, yes, but might warrant a try.
Since making a big pot of Minestrone Soup the other night, I’ve been ruminating about what it is that draws me to this dish and reflecting on all the versions of it I’ve tried over the years. From various cooking Web sites & magazines, plus my own small library of cookbooks, I’ve amassed a hodgepodge of these soup recipes. Some call for white beans, some kidney beans, others lentils. The greens run the gamut from spinach and kale to cabbage and Swiss chard. The liquids can include water, broth, tomato juice or a combination. For pasta, I’ve used orzo, tiny shells, and mini macaroni. I’ve experimented with barley minestrones and autumn minestrones with butternut squash.
Why the fascination with minestrone soup? I’m a sucker for a one-pot dish with a variety of healthy ingredients that can serve as a meal, and minestrone perfectly fits that bill. I’ve taken to cooking my own beans on a regular basis instead of relying on canned, and I think it makes a difference. I’ve become a big fan of greens and love any dish that lets me sneak them in. And the capper: Minestones are very quick and easy to make.
But many of my minestrones haven’t turned out great - I have a tendency to scrap crucial flavor-imparting ingredients at a whim. The recipe calls for pancetta? I’ve never bought it; why deal with the extra work just to up the fat content? The result: a great-looking but bland end product. Some minestrones are designed to be made with water; others demand chicken broth. When I don’t have the broth on hand and have to substitute water, it’s always apparent in the tasting.
But I’m learning. And I think this recent version may become a favorite. It calls for adding a Parmesan rind to the soup as it cooks. For me, it added just that little oomph that my minestrone needs. My other favorite is an Autumn Minestrone I found on Epicurious.com that is from the Moosewood Restaurant’s collection. It features cannellini beans, kale and winter squash - a combination that can’t be beat in my book!
Well, for starters, I haven’t made up many recipes. This is only the second time I’ve tried to set down quantities and steps for a dish I’ve invented.
Secondly, I’m relying on memory - I created this dish at a family gathering this summer and pretty much made it up then as I went along. I brought the quinoa and fresh basil with me, but the rest of the ingredients evolved from what I picked up at a farmer’s market we toured that morning and what my sister-in-law had in her cupboard (a well-stocked pantry, I must say).
Third, I used double the amount of quinoa and eye-balled the amount of vegetables, so I’m trying to envision the quantities I’d use today if I were making this for my husband and me at home.
Let’s see...fourth, I’m an editor by trade. This compels me to labor over every word and check it all multiple times. Heaven forbid there’s a typo or something doesn’t look right.
Finally? As will be painfully obvious to anyone who glances at my entry, it’s a very basic recipe. OK, it’s lame. But, heck, what have I got to lose?
And I’m not saying all this to get pity votes. Really, I’m not. There was encouragement to blog about my recipe and lucky for you I found the time.
That familiar rite of spring is back: Standing over the sink washing fresh greens. It’s like bringing out the Christmas piano music for the first time after a year’s break - strange and new, yet happily familiar at the same time. You haven’t forgotten the skill, just need to tap into the memory stored in your fingertips. A little practice, and the rustiness is gone. Of course, washing greens takes no great skill, only time and visual attention. More than with most kitchen tasks, the mind is pretty much free to wander or focus on something else.
Which brings me to my kitchen companions. Tonight, it was “This American Life” on WBEZ, a perfect radio show for washing greens, with its compelling stories spooled out over a leisurely hour. This time it was a touching story of a Samoan adoption gone awry. Many times, Terry Gross will join us during dinner prep or clean up - calling up “Fresh Air” on NPR.org is sure to score an entertaining interview of just the right length.
But the day I discovered that the Chicago Public Library offered downloadable media really changed things in the kitchen. Books to me are like chocolate to others - I can never get enough. I scroll through the lists of available titles on-line and try to choose ones that will make good listening while chopping onions or scrubbing pans. I’ve journeyed through the lives of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Sidney Poitier and solved a Margaret Truman mystery. Together, my husband and I have joined Barbara Kingsolver on her year of living local and Michael Pollan on his quest to understand a plant’s point of view. It may take a while to finish a book this way, but there’s no rush. The books expire and we renew them, as with any library system.
My kitchen companions don’t get offended when I must tune them out or turn them off to check my recipe, measure ingredients or finish a dish. They will still be there when I’m freed up to give my attention to them once more. They are the perfect cooking complement.
Expanding on Lara Adler's post here on what’s in her freezer, Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist column yesterday has more good suggestions for items that freeze well - I wouldn’t have thought to freeze egg whites, wine, or parmesan rinds - and tips for keeping track of it all. He emphasizes the importance of labeling and dating, which I don’t always do. I’d like to try freezing more fruits and vegetables - tomatoes and lemons caught my eye in the article. He also gives tips for avoiding freezer burn and reminds us that, while the freezer can extend life, the aging process is merely slowed down - food won’t last forever in there!
We’ve been talking about going to the Prairie Grass Cafe ever since we chatted with one of the chef/owners, Sarah Stegner, at a Green City Market event last summer. The restaurant specializes in using fresh, seasonal ingredients and they support local sustainable farmers. Once we made note of the restaurant’s name, we kept hearing good things about it; the clincher was praise from our favorite Chicago Sun-Times columnist, Neil Steinberg (not a food critic, but we credit him with having good taste). A recent special occasion prompted us to finally make the trek to Northbrook. Of course, since it’s taken me a few weeks to get around to writing about it, I won’t be able to properly recall the details. And they’ve changed their menu to the April spring-type selections (it was featuring March comfort food when we went), so I can’t cheat by looking on-line.
But by lucky coincidence, the Winter issue of Edible Chicago features an article about the main dish I choose on our visit, their signature Untraditional Shepherd’s Pie. It was a wonderful casserole of braised Tallgrass Beef chunks, Swiss chard, tomatoes, carrots & onions topped with a mash of potatoes, parsnips & butternut squash. Excellent, and more than I could eat in one sitting. My husband ordered the homemade Italian sausages, which were served with baked polenta, rainbow chard and some kind of light red sauce (lost to our memories). He had no trouble finishing his dish, even though the two sausages were larger than you’d usually see at a restaurant of this caliber. We started with a nice tomato basil soup and a beet salad, which I believe came with sliced pear, walnuts and a citrus dressing - I just remember that it was very tasty.
The restaurant has a comfortable feel. It’s a rather large room with high ceilings, but the atmosphere created by the decor is one of warmth. After waiting so long to make our first visit, the restaurant and food met my every expectation. I look forward to going back during the other seasons and encourage any Chicagoland residents to give it a try.
I recently read The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones. It’s a wonderful memoir by an editor who befriended many great chefs and shepherded them into print, allowing generations of home cooks to benefit from their expertise. Although you don’t really feel like you know Judith herself very intimately by the end, you come pretty early to conclude she is well-connected and very good at her job, and that she has impeccable taste and instincts. Judith is a non-chef who simply loves food and experimenting in the kitchen, and her clean, direct writing style makes you think you can easily tackle the recipes she includes at the end.
Judith Jones is famously the editor who brought Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” into print. My interest in Julia was first piqued when I read her posthumous memoir My Life in France (written with Alex Prud’Homme) a few years ago.
The book was a revelation. Young Julia fairly jumped out of the page in a new and fresh way that dispelled images of the caricature older Julia. In her completely open style, she draws you in so that from page one you are right there with her, walking the streets, smelling the air, tasting the food, and meeting the people of Julia’s France. She and her co-author neither overdramatize nor pull punches in describing her experiences at the Cordon Bleu, her first successes and failures with preparing French cuisine, and her extraordinary relationship with her husband. The book is funny, sad, loving, and (sometimes brutally) honest. Julia’s amazing combination of determinedness, aplomb, and old-fashioned hard work ensured her success in every ground-breaking endeavor she attempted – whether it was learning to cook traditional French food, opening a cooking school, compiling and editing a definitive French cookbook for Americans, or demonstrating how to cook on TV for the first time. It’s one of the most inspirational memoirs I’ve ever read.
Although becoming a “master” of French cuisine is not even something I aspire to, Julia’s memoir awakened in me a desire to experience that joy that can come from attention to the preparation and eating of good food, and Judith Jones reminded me of the pleasures that can result.
Most of the time with cooking and eating, the rules are clear.
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
Good on everything