Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Roasted Tomato Soup

It's the end of summer, the weather is starting to cool, and there are tons of tomatoes on the vines right now! Our CSA has been sending us two pounds of heirlooms in every box and our basil plant is overflowing, so I decided to mix up some yummy tomato basil soup. Roasting the tomatoes is optional; you can just cook them in the stock, but roasting gives them a really great flavor if you have the time. Easily doubled, this recipe is for two people:

2 lbs tomatoes (cherry, plum, roma, beefsteak, doesn't matter)
olive oil
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1/2 onion, roughly chopped
2-4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
two large stems fresh basil
Salt and red pepper flakes

Preheat your oven to 250 degrees. Quarter and seed your tomatoes and place in one layer in an ovenproof skillet (if using cherry or plum tomatoes, no need to cut them). Drizzle with 3-4 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast in oven for 4 hours, or until the tomatoes are wrinkly and the skins are slightly charred.

Remove pan from the oven and remove tomatoes with a slotted spoon to a medium saucepan. Place pan with olive oil and tomato drippings over med-low heat and add the garlic, celery and onion. Stir and sweat ingredients until soft. Add one cup of stock, stirring to deglaze pan, then transfer to saucepan with tomatoes. Add enough stock to partially cover the tomatoes, cover and cook over low heat for 30 mins.

Add the whole basil leaves to the soup. Using an immersion blender or transferring to a regular blender, blend soup until smooth, adding more stock if necessary to get the desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and red pepper. Serve with tasty grilled mozzarella cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Responsible Diet Experiment - The Beginning

If you read my last post, you'll know we're trying to eat more responsibly by cutting out some of the meat we consume on a daily basis, and adding in lots more fruits and veggies. After hitting the bookstore (my mecca), I decided on Mark Bittman's The Food Matters Cookbook - 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living.

If you're not familiar with Mark Bittman, here's a synopsis: Food writer extraordinaire and James Beard award winner, he recently was diagnosed with very high cholesterol and was 35 pounds overweight. His doctor instructed him to take drastic measures by becoming vegan, but obviously with his job this was next-to-impossible. So he adopted a "vegan before six pm" attitude and set out to not only eat more healthy foods, but to make sure those foods he did eat actually WERE healthy and responsible for the planet. He wrote a book called Food Matters and then created this companion cookbook.

First up from the book for us: Cold Cucumber and Avocado Chowder with Shrimp and a panzanella salad. After shopping for ingredients, here's what we have:

Certainly looks like we're on the right track! Things I learned from these recipes:

1. The people who print preparation and cook times in cookbooks are sadists. And my knife skills are seriously lacking.

2. Chopping large amounts of vegetables goes best with a glass of wine and the first *NSYNC album.

3. Panzanella is essentially bruchetta in salad form with the bread already in it.

4. Cold soup kinda weirds the husband out.

"Soup" is on the left, and panzenella is on the right. Bittman's comment on the soup that it's "really more like a chopped salad that you eat with a spoon" is an understatement. This was just a chopped salad that you pour an avocado and orange puree over, like a dressing. I thought it was tasty enough, but the husband didn't like it. Said it was missing something and the cold shrimp was off-putting. But he ended up eating both his and my helpings of the panzenella, and that was the dish without any meat! But as he put it, "I could eat bruchetta till I'm sick."

Final verdict:

Panzenella: Making again. Easy ingredients, easy prep, and a great use for stale bread.

Cold Cucumber and Avocado Chowder with Shrimp: Mixed reviews, not worth the time spent.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Journey Towards a Healthier Diet

I've been tossing around the idea of cutting some of the meat from my regularly prepared meals, and, good sport that he is, my husband has given me the go-ahead to try it.

The move away from processed foods was simple, except for the I'm-exhausted-and-refuse-to-chop-or-otherwise-prepare-more-than-three-ingredients meals. Just last night we flew home from a week-long trip halfway across the country and went straight from the airport to a friend's birthday party at a dueling piano bar. Afterwards, the last thing I wanted to do at 10:30 pm was go grocery shopping to restock the house and then cook. Frozen bagged meals are my friends at these times, though they're loaded with sodium. But all in all these minor offenses aren't really a cause for concern.

The move away from red meat wasn't too difficult, either, once I learned how to properly prepare pork. Much more lean, usually cheaper, and more versatile than beef, anyway. Hamburger Helper no longer sits in our cupboard as an evil temptation, and I can whip up an awesome pork tenderloin in no time.

But even though we've cut out many boxed-and-bagged foods, and hardly ever eat red meat (aside from the weakness my husband and I both have for Carl's Jr's western bacon cheeseburgers - don't judge), we still don't need to eat meat at EVERY meal. It's just not necessary. Meat is hard to digest, and it's expensive. Plus nowadays, who knows where it came from, or what other friendly hormones or additives have hitched a ride?

My new goal is to incorporate some non-meat dishes into our diet. I'm not going to call them "vegetarian" because I'm sure there will still be milk, butter, eggs, and other animal-related paraphernalia in the dishes. Our biggest challenges will certainly be:

1. Protein. My husband and I both have very physical jobs. On our feet from 8-12 every shift, sometimes overtime or extra shifts, working with equipment or hazardous materials, we can't exist on vegetables, and we don't get breaks to snack on carrot sticks. Those meals have to stick, and have to last.

2. Tofu and beans. I dislike most beans, and tofu is not allowed. I may be trying to eat healthier, but I don't believe in half-assed substitutions like tofu. If a meal doesn't taste good because you substitute an inferior ingredient, you just ruined your whole meal. There's enough good food out there you shouldn't have to "suffer."

So off I go to the bookstore to find a new cookbook. "Flexitarianism" is the new "it" term for doing a partial-vegetarian diet, and it at least gives me a starting point. Hopefully you'll be able to look forward to great new recipes that will help you incorporate healthier ingredients without even missing the meat!

Wish me luck!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sourdough Pizza Dough

Yay! Now that we've finally woken up our starter (see last post), we can make some tasty breads! Let's start easy. Pizza! I love it. I could have it every day. Once I actually had it for five consecutive meals, and no, that's not an exaggeration!

The reason pizza dough is so easy is because it only has one rise. Most breads go through two rises, or proofs: once after they are just mixed up, and then another after they have been shaped into whatever form you plan to bake them. Pizza dough, however, just has the one initial rise, then is rolled out, topped, and baked. Here's my recipe:

1 1/2 cups starter

3 tablespoons warm water

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 - 1 1/2 cups bread flour

1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Mix your newly fed starter with the warm water, sugar, olive oil, and 1/2 cup of the flour, adding the salt halfway through the mixing process (it creates a "buffer" so the salt doesn't kill the starter). Keep adding flour gradually until the dough comes together and you can work it with your hands.
Turn out onto a well-floured surface.

Knead the dough until it becomes smooth and elastic, adding flour as you go if it becomes too sticky. The length of time to knead the dough will depend on how aggressive you are! What you're doing is building up the gluten strands, making a sort of webbing that creates the structure of the dough. Really work the dough, smooshing it, rolling it around, pressing it with the heels of your palms, etc. It will start to come together and look like this:

Round it out and place it in a bowl that has been oiled with olive oil. Smear a little olive oil over the top of the dough to keep it from drying out.

See the webbing that has formed now?

If you plan to make pizza immediately, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, place it in a warm location, and wait until doubled in size. Then you can roll it out and top it. I like to make the dough on my days off and keep it in my fridge, covered in plastic wrap, and then use it for an easy dinner after work. I've kept pizza dough in my fridge for two weeks before using it, and it's great! Just take it out before work to warm up and proof, and it's ready to use when you get home. Here's the newly made dough sitting next to my leftover starter from the the feeding.

Bake the pizza dough at the highest temperature your oven will go; usually somewhere around 500 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, they're fantastic for getting a great crispy crust. If you have difficulty getting a topped pizza onto your pizza stone, par-bake (partially bake) your crust until it's set, take it out and top it on the back of a cookie sheet, and slide it back onto your stone to fully bake.

Happy baking!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sourdough Part 2: Feeding and caring for your starter

Okay, remember Jack, my starter, from my last post? Let's wake him up.

When feeding your starter you want to add equal parts bread flour and warm water to add up to the total weight of the starter. In my case when I scooped Jack out of his jar into a large bowl, he weighed 11 ounces.

I simply stirred in 5.5 ounces of bread flour and 5.5 ounces of warm water. Be careful the water isn't too warm; it can kill a starter. Remember, it's alive! Be nice to it! I usually use the same wrist test you would use to check a baby bottle or bath. No worries if it's too cool; it may just take longer to activate your starter. That's it! Now I leave him alone to wake up, grow, and begin bubbling. Below is a photo I took after only five minutes:

Looks a bit like pancake batter, smells a little funky, and tiny bubbles have already started to rise to the top. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and left it on my butcher block table in the kitchen. Came back ten hours later and Jack looks like this now:

Lots of new little air bubbles! But he's not quite ready yet. 16 hours later and now Jack looks ready:

Doubled in size, covered in air bubbles, and ready to use! At this point you take out however much starter you need for your recipe and return the rest to a jar for the fridge but DON'T SEAL THE JAR. There are still gases escaping and could blow the lid. Just set the lid on top and screw it down after a day or two. If you don't bake very often but want to make sure your starter stays alive and well, simply throw out the extra starter you won't need; you'll have to feed it again soon anyway!

My starter took 16 hours to reach the ready-to-use point. Yours will be different, depending on the age and activity of the yeast. It also depends on the weather. It was about 65-70 degrees in my house where Jack was sitting, so if it's in the heat of the day in August your starter will obviously move faster. Plan to feed your starter 24 hours before you plan to bake; then you're sure to be ready!

As far as frequency of feeding goes, that will depend on you. Commercial bakeries feed their starters at least once every day and have the strongest ones out there. But I've forgotten about starters in the back of my fridge for up to a month or longer and they have revived just fine, though they took quite a while to wake up and then proof later. Simply put: more feedings make for stronger starters.

Next up: bread baking! Actually we'll start out easy and fun with sourdough pizza dough.

Happy feeding!

NOTES regarding equipment and ingredients:

*I have heard many times that metal bowls will react with your starter if you leave them to ferment. I've even heard it taken so far to say you shouldn't use any metal object to stir the starter with. Now, I've used all kinds of utensils and had no ill effects, but I've never left my starter to ferment in anything other than a glass bowl. I figure I have one; why take the chance?

*Bread flour is different from All Purpose flour in that you will get a much better bread product due to the higher gluten content. It makes for a more structured, chewy bread with a great crust, whereas cake flour, pastry flour, and AP flour (a mixture of pastry and bread) are lower in gluten and provides that necessary softness for cakes and pastries. If you plan on baking bread you really should get bread flour. Most grocery stores carry it now, and it's not any more expensive than AP flour.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sourdough Part 1: a primer, aka, your starter

Everyone? I would like you to meet Jack. This is Jack, in the photo above. He's my sourdough starter. I'll get to why he has a name in a minute; first let's talk about sourdough for a bit.

What makes sourdough so, well, amazing? Why is it sour? And what in the world is a "starter?" I'm sure if you're following a cooking blog you've heard the word "starter" before, even if you don't know what it is. The basic concept is this: all bread products needs a levening agent in order to rise. It can be chemical (baking soda, baking powder, etc.), mechanical (whipping something into a frenzy to incorporate air), or biological. In most cases, biological leveners are yeasts.

Yeast is a naturally occuring organism in the air. When yeast is added to bread it will eat sugars in the dough and release CO2 gases, which makes the dough bubble and rise. The yeast dies during the baking process but leaves its lovely air bubbles throughout our breads, making them light and fluffy.

Most people are familiar with the yeast that comes dry and in little yellow packets from the grocery store. This is dried, dormant yeast, but once you add sugar, moisture, and heat, these little guys come to life and do their CO2 magic. But how does that differ from a starter?

A starter is a LIVE yeast that is cultivated and kept alive through regular feedings. Every couple of weeks or so I pull Jack out of the fridge, feed him some fresh bread flour and warm water, and watch him grow and multiply. Then I take out what I need for a recipe and put the rest back in his jar and put him back in the fridge.

And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what is meant when you hear a starter is 75, 100, or 150 years old. That starter began by catching live yeast cultures from the air and feeding and caring and using it for that many years. That is what makes sourdough sour. The older the starter, the more flavor. You'll also hear a sourdough starter refered to as "the mother" since all bread comes from it. That's also why sourdough breads can taste so different based on where they were created. Different areas have different yeasts.

Jack is a very, very, VERY young starter, but I'm attached to him. When I was in culinary school our chef instructor created Jack especially for us in September 2009 and named him Jack, after his fat cat. Chef said if you name your starter you're more likely to feed it, rather than neglect it in the back of your fridge. Jack isn't very sour yet, or even very strong, but he still makes yummy bread, and has even already "spawned" some offspring when my mom took some of Jack to keep her own starter!

The next entry will be all about how to feed your starter and keep it alive. If you're interested in getting your own sourdough starter there are hundreds of websites available. They'll simply ship you a little packet with a dried out starter (similar to those little packets at the grocery store) with instructions on how to reconstitute it. You can also create your very own personal starter at home with nothing more than a bowl of flour and water, and a little time. There are also lots of instructions online to teach you how to catch native yeasts.

I hope you guys will enjoy this new series of posts! I'm looking forward to sharing my results with you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Join a CSA!

One of the best things my husband and I did for our health and eating habits was to join a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA. The general idea is you pay a farmer (or group of farmers) a set amount every month, and in turn you get a box of fresh produce delivered straight from a local grower. The produce is fresh, in season, often organic and pesticide-free, locally grown, and super tasty! The image above is just a sample of one box we received: fennel, butter lettuce, kale, avocados, oranges, celery, broccoli, strawberries, and Swiss chard.

Not only are you supporting local growers, a CSA forces you to incorporate more veggies into your diet, and more versatile ones at that. We had fallen into a routine of only eating broccoli, carrots, and asparagus, since those are our favorite. Sure, they're good for us, but where are the green leafy veggies? The iron? The vitamin B? And we hardly ever ate a fruit other than a banana.

When we received our first CSA box I remember opening it up and wondering, "what the hell is that?" Some of the veggies I knew, but there were definitely some I didn't. Turns out the mystery veggie was Swiss chard, which has now become one of our new favorites. A month or so later, and we had baby bok choy. Ooookay...guess I'll have to figure out what to do with this, too! A couple minutes on the grill with some olive oil and salt and pepper, and bok choy is very tasty!

I really recommend trying one out. It benefits everyone involved. If you live in Southern California I suggest Farm Fresh To You - they're the CSA we use, and not only can you choose the frequency and size of the box you get, they deliver to your door! Plus their program you can cancel at any time, whereas others you have to sign up for a year. If you are interested, visit their site at www.farmfreshtoyou.com. Otherwise you can Google "Community Supported Agriculture" for your area and get started! Enjoy!