January 29, 2012

some housekeeping

I've had a bad day: I slept funny and my neck is sore, I spilled a cup of coffee in an unfortunate location, and I accidentally deleted our recipe index.

Don't panic, though, because everything is fine and the recipe index is back online. It's here.

I also created a travel page, mostly for our benefit, so we can access our travel recaps more easily.

Finally, we updated the cinnamon brioche recipe, with additional photos and a better icing. (Read: Mark decided that the icing would be superior with a little butter and cream.) Have I ever mentioned that the cinnamon brioche recipe is by far the most popular page on this blog? We get tons of hits from a Swedish baking message board. Thank you, Swedish bakers. You are awesome.

January 26, 2012

beef and root vegetable stew for a cold night

In the end, the centerpiece of our Burns night party was not haggis, but steak pie: rich beef and vegetable stew baked in a pastry crust. I'm not a big pot pie person, but Mark has fond memories of steak pie and chips at the neighborhood pub in when his family lived in Scotland. Who am I to argue with nostalgia, on a night dedicated to indulging in nostalgia?

This was a good one, as far as pot pies go. The stew was hearty and rich, with earthy vegetables and tender beef bobbing in an onion-and-ale-infused gravy. The crust was flaky and shot through with the unmistakable flavor of butter and lard. All good things. But for me? Maybe too much of a good thing. The pastry was so rich and distracting, it kind of overpowered the subtle flavors in the stew itself. We all enjoyed it (that pie was demolished, lest you think we all pushed it around with our forks or something) but as Mark and I agreed the next morning, we've probably filled our pot pie quota for, oh, 3 years at least.

However, as you can tell from my description above, I really liked the stew and would totally make it again. Sometimes beef stew can be stodgy, but this one -- with the sweet, golden rutabaga and carrot slipping into every other bite-- felt lighter than most. A long cooking in a low oven left the beef tender and the onion-and-ale infused gravy was at once sweet, savory and pleasantly bitter. (Not too bitter, just enough that you know the ale is there.) To serve, I'd swap pastry for crusty bread or a bed of mashed rutabaga. Or maybe egg noodles. If you are a pastry lover, I recommend just a top crust. Or, follow Mark's mom's lead; she tops steak pie with a small round of puff pastry.

Beef and root vegetable stew

This stew isn't at all hard to make, though it does take some time to build all the flavors. The most important thing here is to use well-marbled stew beef, like chuck. It's up to you whether you brown the beef: it's not entirely necessary, but I did it here because I like the deep brown color that the fond adds to the braising liquid. Feel free to think of this recipe as a rough guide: I used rutabaga, carrots, and chicken broth because that's what I had on hand. Beef broth would be fine, some other combination of root vegetables, different aromatics. The only caution I have is to watch the amount of ale you use; too much and the stew will taste bitter.

Finally, I'm not sure why, but stews taste significantly better after resting in the fridge, so make this a day or two ahead if you can. I noticed that the stew had much more gravy on day 1 than on day 2, so perhaps the meat and vegetables absorbed more liquid/flavor overnight.

2 tablespoons oil or lard
1 large onion, halved and roughly chopped (1/2 inch cubes)
1 1/2 pounds well-marbled stew beef, like chuck, patted dry, trimmed of excess fat and chopped into 1 inch chunks
3 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 cup ale (I used a Scottish ale called Belhaven)
1 1/2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of thyme
2-3 big carrots, peeled and chopped into 2 inch chunks
1 rutabaga (tennis ball sized), peeled and chopped into 1 inch chunks
salt, pepper, a dash of soy sauce

Heat a large enameled cast iron French oven with lid over medium heat. When hot, add the oil and heat until hot and shimmering. Add half the meat to the casserole, without crowding, and brown both sides well. This creates lots of flavor (you'll see a fond begin to build up on the bottom of the pan) so don't rush the process, and don't crowd the meat or it will begin to steam instead of brown. When nicely browned, transfer meat to a bowl (leaving as much oil as possible) and repeat with the remaining meat.

Preheat the oven to 275F. Now, add the chopped onion to the French oven and cook over medium-high heat. Use a wooden spoon to scrape the fond on the bottom of the pan and continue cooking until onion is nicely browned. Lower the heat to medium and sprinkle the flour into the pan and cook. Stir continuously for 2 minutes to remove any flour taste. Stir in the ale, chicken stock, bay leaves, thyme and beef and bring everything to a simmer. Season the gravy to taste. I added 1 teaspoon salt and a dash of soy sauce at this point, though the amount you need will depend on whether you used a salted chicken stock or not.

Cover and set in the oven to cook. Check after 1 1/2 hours. My beef wasn't quite tender at this point, and I had to let it cook for another hour to get to the texture I wanted. I like the beef to be very tender, but it should keep its shape instead of completely collapsing or becoming stringy. When the beef is tender, adjust the seasoning with extra salt, if needed, and add the chunks of root vegetable. Return to the oven for 45-60 minutes, until tender but not mushy.

Note: if you want to bake this in pie form, I recommend just a top crust. Cool the stew (as in, put in the refrigerator). Roll out a savory crust recipe (we used this one, minus the sugar; it is delicious and flaky, but hard to work with). Add stew to a pie dish, without overfilling, and press the top crust on. Brush the top crust with an egg wash and bake in an oven at 425F for 45 minutes, until crust is nicely browned and filling is 180F or so.

January 23, 2012

on a totally different note

I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention that my inestimable dad's birthday is this week. Happy birthday, Dad! Among other things, he taught me to ride a bike, drive a car, make smart financial decisions, and to value learning for the fun of it. He pushed me harder in school than any Tiger Mom but also impressed upon me an appreciation for travel, adventure, and some of the finer things in life. I love you, Dad. We will definitely have a belated birthday celebration when you come to visit in a few weeks.

In other news, we are planning a little Burns supper celebration on Wednesday. Sadly, I've been forced to conclude that making our own haggis is not a food project we can pull off on short notice. I'm bummed; it was going to be so weird and fun! So, there will be no simmering of lungs, heart, or kidney. We won't be stuffing anything into an "ox bung." And there will be no sheep's windpipe trailing over the side of our stockpot so the impurities can drain out (!!!). I did investigate canned haggis, but that seemed grossly (literally) undeserving of Robert Burns' majestic Address to a Haggis. So, that's that. I know people are all inconsolably sad that I don't have a haggis recipe but, please, try to get over it. If nothing else, our Burns supper will have good whisky. Don't you worry about that.   

And now I'd like to abruptly segue to the recipe I actually want to talk about today, which is kung pao chicken. I am a total fool for kung pao/gong bao chicken, my favorite weeknight stirfry. The combination of succulent chicken and crunchy peanuts? The complex, flavorful sauce that tastes salty, sweet, spicy, tangy all at once? Oh man, it is good. When I mentioned that I want our recipe index to better reflect what we actually cook, this is one of the dishes I was thinking about. We make this at least twice a month, sometimes more. It is relatively quick -- the ingredient list and directions look long, but this takes no time at all -- and delicious. Forget take-out, seriously. And don't be afraid to try it even if you don't have all the ingredients. No Chinkiang vinegar? Try balsamic or regular distilled vinegar. No rice wine? Use dry vermouth, leftover white wine, or just omit it. No light or dark soy? Substitute regular soy. Can't find Sichuan peppercorns? Forget it. The more substitutions you make, the more of a departure it will be from the original dish, but you might like it.

Kung Pao Chicken

Fuchsia Dunlop's authentic recipe from her Sichuan cookbook/memoir was my starting point. A few changes: I prefer the juiciness of dark meat chicken to white meat, so I substitute thigh meat. I've reduced the amount of vinegar she calls for because I find it overpowering. I toast and grind my Sichuan peppercorns so their tingly flavor is evenly incorporated into the sauce. Finally, I decrease the corn starch just a bit. You need a relatively subtle-flavored vegetable dish or two to accompany: steamed gai lan is a favorite, as are wok-fried green beans with ginger. And, as I mentioned, this dish comes together quickly, so start a pot of rice before anything else.

3 chicken thighs, skinned, deboned, and trimmed of excess fat
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch section of ginger, minced
5 scallions, chopped into 1/2-inch lengths
10 dried red chiles (preferably Sichuanese)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1-2 teaspoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 cup dry roasted peanuts

For marinade:
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

For sauce:
3 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon dark rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chicken stock or water

Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. In a bowl large enough to hold all the chicken, add chicken and marinade ingredients. Stir and set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

If you haven't already, prep your garlic/ginger/scallions. Heat a wok over high heat. Before adding any oil, add the peanuts and toast until warm and fragrant. Remove to a bowl. Next, add the Sichuan peppercorns and toast 10-15 seconds, stirring and tossing so they don't burn. Remove peppercorns and grind to a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle. Set aside.

Add oil to the wok. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the dried red chiles and stir-fry briefly until slightly browned and oil is fragrant. Take care not to burn the chiles; remove the wok from heat source if necessary. (Note: at this point, spice compounds in the air always make me cough. It's okay, just be mindful.) 

Quickly add the chicken with its marinade and wok-fry over high heat, stirring constantly. When the chicken is 70% done (the exterior will be brown but the inside may not be totally cooked through), add the ginger/garlic/scallions and continue to stir fry for a few minutes until they are fragrant. Stir the sauce and then add to the wok. Continue stirring and tossing until the sauce has become thick and glossy and the chicken is fully cooked. Transfer contents of the wok to a serving bowl. Mix in peanuts and the ground Sichuan peppercorns.

January 20, 2012

let's get slightly virtuous

Our garden has been mostly a bust this year. Thank goodness for the citrus trees we planted. When I look outside -- past all the runty lacinato kale  and rows of seeds that failed to sprout-- and see my dozen bright yellow lemons, I feel pretty happy. Not to say that skill had much to do with it. I get the idea it's next to impossible to kill a citrus tree in this climate.

Since we moved to California, we've done a lot of cooking/baking with lemons and Meyer lemons and have decided that we almost always prefer using regular lemons in desserts. Meyers are nice in savory dishes -- their aroma and sweetness plays well with salty/bitter flavors -- but they lack the tartness to stand out in a sweet dessert.

Take these split-level lemon pudding cakes. (I call them split-level because, in the oven, the batter separates and you get one layer of creamy pudding and one layer of airy sponge cake. It's neat.)

meyer lemon pudding cake

We don't make these pudding cakes more than once or twice a year, but they do occupy an important place in our repertoire: filling the "Mark wants a dessert with lemon, but nothing rich" void. (Anything calling for skim milk is basically health food, in Mark's world.) Anyway, when you make them with regular lemons, you get this feisty, tart, puckery, refreshing lemon flavor. When you make them with Meyers, the fragrance is wonderful but the taste falls flat due to the relative lack of acidity. Some might like it, but I don't want subtlety in my lemon desserts! If I'm eating lemon, I want it to shock my taste buds a little bit.

Let's Downton Abbey-ify this thing (since I can finally refer to season 2 plot points now that it's airing here!). Lavinia Swire is a lovely lady who knows how to rock green with her auburn hair. I get why Matthew is drawn to her soft-spoken ways and the way she quietly rearranged her life to be a part of his, especially after Lady Mary toyed with his heart in season 1. But she's also a bit of a wallflower, no? (Marconi scandal notwithstanding.) Lavinia is a Meyer lemon, very nice in her own right, but a bit meek. Lady Mary, with her bluntness and her desire to be the center of attention and her messy life choices that upend Matthew's emotional well-being, well, she's a lemon. An uncommonly upper-class lemon who inherits furniture instead of buying it.

Unlike me, however, Cousin Matthew just can't choose his favorite.


Lemon pudding cakes
via Food & Wine magazine

All right, these are a bit homely. They are good, but not fancy. A downstairs dessert, not an upstairs dessert, is what I'm saying. But since we don't dress for dinner, it works anytime for us. They take a bit of doing -- I say any recipe where you have to whip egg whites takes a bit of doing -- but I like the split-level result. As I mention above, use regular lemons if you like bright, tangy flavor and Meyers if you prefer sweet, muted, wallflower-y flavors (I won't judge). You could also use Meyer lemon zest for fragrance and regular lemon juice for tartness.

3/4 cup granulated sugar (you can try 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar if you are using Meyer lemon juice)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus a bit extra for the ramekins
1 cup skim milk
5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (if your lemons yield exactly 6 TB like mine did, no problem) 
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (I've used up to 3 tsp here)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly butter six 6-ounce ramekins. In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar with the flour. In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the butter until well blended. Whisk in the milk, lemon juice and lemon zest. Pour the lemon mixture into the sugar mixture and whisk until smooth.
  2. In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt until firm peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the lemon mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared ramekins and transfer them to a small roasting pan. Place the pan in the oven and pour in enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
  3. Bake the pudding cakes for 35 minutes or until puffed and golden. Using tongs, transfer the ramekins to a rack to cool for 20 minutes. You can serve them from the ramekin or unmolded on the plate. And while you can serve them warm, I prefer them chilled.   

January 19, 2012

crisp oven-fried chicken

I really like fried chicken. I really don't like deep frying. How to reconcile the two? A recipe for oven-fried chicken by Amanda Hesser caught my eye a few months ago, and I must have read her recipe 5 or 6 times, trying to figure out how baking chicken could possibly result in the crispy skin and juicy flesh of my Alabama dreams. But that's the thing about trying new recipes -- you never know.

The recipe is simple, but some advance planning is required. Hesser directs you to buy "good" chicken thighs and to soak them in a salt water solution for 8 hours, to season and tighten the flesh. I did have a good chicken on hand, but it was a whole chicken. After cutting up my chicken, I ended up brining 2 whole legs and 2 wings, while the breasts and the back both went straight into the freezer.

After 8 hours in the brine, you pat the chicken dry and dredge it in a flour mixture. Amanda Hesser's recipe calls for flour, salt and pepper, which I supplemented with lemon zest, chopped rosemary and cayenne pepper. After a vigorous shake, you pop the chicken in a buttered roasting pan, skin side down, and set it in the oven. Easy, right? Then I made Mark a Boulevardier, stole a few sips, and put on some music. At this point, I felt glad that I wasn't attempting real fried chicken. 

However, after an hour, I inspected my chicken to see that the skin wasn't crispy, or chestnut brown, or anything that she said it was supposed to be. I was getting hungry, so I decided it was shortcut time: the chicken got a nice sprinkling of panko flakes and a drizzling with some of the buttery chicken juices on the bottom of the pan. 20 minutes later, it looked like this:

It wasn't quite fried chicken, the recipe took some significant hacking, and the lemon zest/rosemary/cayenne I added to the flour imparted no perceptible flavor. However -- it was much more low-fuss than real fried chicken and it resulted in deeply flavored flesh and crisp chicken skin. I've made it again and again, without brining, without panko, with other seasonings. It turns out different and good each time, but this is the basic technique for the chicken as pictured. 

Oven fried chicken legs
adapted from Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
2 chicken legs (drumstick + thigh), or 4 thighs, or 4 legs
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or olive oil
1/3 cup all purpose flour
black pepper
panko flakes, about 1/4 cup

6-8 hours before cooking, combine 1 tablespoon of salt and about 1/2 cup of warm water in a large container. Stir to dissolve the salt and add the chicken to the bowl. Cover with very cold water and chill in the refrigerator until ready to cook.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the chicken from the water and pat dry with paper towels. Add the butter to a roasting pan large enough to fit the chicken in one layer and place the pan in the oven to heat. Add the flour, remaining teaspoon of salt and a generous grinding of black pepper to a bag (freezer bag or paper sack) and give it a good shake. Add the chicken pieces and shake until thoroughly coated. As you lift them out of the bag, shake them well so the coating isn't gummy or clumpy.

Lay the chicken pieces in the roasting pan, skin side up (this is a departure from her recipe, but I don't want the skin to stick), and oven-fry for 40 minutes. The skin should be crisp and glistening, though not entirely brown. Sprinkle panko flakes on the skin and spoon some of the drippings from the bottom of the pan over the entire leg, including the portion covered by panko flakes. Continue baking another 20-40 minutes, until the chicken is done and juices run clear. Just before serving, grind fresh pepper over top and sprinkle lightly with sea salt.

January 18, 2012


Can I talk about the State of the Blog for a sec? Ugh. I was scrolling through the recipe index the other day and felt pretty discouraged. My original goal for this blog was to assemble a collection of favorite recipes that we make all the time. It hasn't happened, at least on the "she cooks" side. Mark's recipes are pretty spot on: tortillas, flax seed loaf, yep; we make those all the time. But on my side, the cooking side? When I looked at the index, all I could think was bleh. It doesn't reflect the kinds of things I cook on a normal basis at all. (Note: I've since updated it a bit, cutting the chaff so it's a bit closer to reality, but it's not quite there yet.)

Instead of turning to my recipe index for meal ideas and recipes, I turn to my very well-organized Google document keeping track of recipes I love, with my notes on what worked and what didn't work, and an ongoing list of foods I've cooked every week. So, to recap: Google document has hundreds of recipes/links and notes. Blog has a long list but, of those, we might cook less than a dozen of those recipes on a normal basis. What happened to my goal??

Here's the thing -- writing recipes is incredibly time consuming for me, because I am not a recipe person. I am a wing-it type cook. I follow recipes as written 10% of the time, maybe closer to 5%. That means that 90-95% of the time, I use recipes for inspiration and then cook things the way I think it should be cooked. Or I "follow" recipes based on the state of my pantry/refrigerator/spice rack. I love cooking this way; it keeps meals interesting, it minimizes waste, and most importantly it works for me.

So why does this conflict with blogging? I'm not organized enough to weigh/measure ingredients as I tip them in a pan. I cook the same dish differently every single time. And I don't want to be an unreliable blogger. How many times have I scanned someone else's slipshod recipe and been like, dude, you can't be vague about xyz! It is frustrating to follow a recipe that turns out badly. I don't want people to have recipes turn out badly on my account.

But lately, I'm coming to terms with the fact that I need to prioritize my goals. To be totally selfish, I should be blogging for myself, not an imaginary audience who might try to make my ma po tofu recipe and fail because I added a splash of soy sauce and am not sure whether it was 2 teaspoons or 3. And who's my audience here, anyway? Tell me if this is isn't the case, but I don't think I have many beginner cooks here. It seems like most of y'all are, like me, fairly experienced home cooks looking for inspiration. And if you're going to riff on my recipes anyway, why am I freaking out so much about infallible recipes?

So, this is me, re-focusing my goal for the cooking side of our blog. Blog more recipes that we make on a daily/weekly/bi-weekly basis. Worry less about writing fail-proof, perfect recipes. Find a balance. Mark will continue to blog here and there, but as the baker, his recipes will continue to be precise and detailed. It's just my recipe style that will change.

Hold me to this, you guys. (And I must include a special shout out to Julia, who talked through all this with me on her last visit. Thanks J!)

January 11, 2012

Tahoe + mujadara

skiing at Heavenly

I'm writing this at my desk, looking at pictures from our ski trip with Jyoti last weekend and wishing that we were driving to the mountains again soon. It's so beautiful up there, and skiing is one of those activities I find so enjoyable that I forget I'm actually exercising. Of course, skiing, if you didn't know, is not cheap. There are the lift tickets, and the condo rental, and the ski rental, and all the time you spend driving to and from Tahoe. And then there are the things you consume, because your appetite goes nuts after skiing all day. There were beers, many. And chicken wings. And really good French fries at a dive bar near the condo we rented. And In-N-Out on the way home. And spicy lamb hotpot, to cap off our weekend. It was heavy on our wallets and on our health, because we normally don't eat quite so badly. And definitely not in a span of 3 days.

I had a point here, and it's this: in an attempt to make up for the excess of last weekend, I made mujadara for dinner. Mujadara is one of the simplest, most wholesome foods I know how to make. I make it when I've been living excessively, or when the pantry is bare, or when I'm craving it, which is often. If you're not familiar with it, mujadara is a Lebanese rice pilaf with lentils and caramelized onions. It has a lot going for it -- we always have the ingredients on hand, and it's filling, healthful, and inexpensive to boot. Earthy lentils, sweet rice, tangy yogurt, and caramelized onions. Don't be stingy with the onions, or the yogurt for that matter.

You can eat it alone, but I think it needs a big salad and a generous drizzle of spiced Greek yogurt on the side. I've often thought it would be great alongside that salad and that yogurt, plus crisp falafel. Or juicy lamb-mint meatballs. Or spicy roasted chicken thighs. Or roasted eggplant.You get the idea.

My last point is that leftover mujadara in the fridge is a very good thing, because it tastes better the next day. Even Mark looks forward to leftover mujadara for lunch. Maybe, in the end, that's all you need to know. He's not a big lentil fan, I'm a lentil super fan, and this dish brings us together.

Mujadara, adapted from Mark Bittman with a hat tip to Serious Eats Food Lab and their excellent method for caramelizing onions quickly
A few notes: This isn't a quick dinner; caramelizing onions takes awhile. Don't be stingy with the onions or the salt. Do not leave out the side of yogurt; it makes this dish. And finally, this dish gets better, that is more flavorful, the longer it sits.
serves 2 as a main, plus leftovers; or 4-6 if you also serve a salad and other sides

For the rice, lentils, caramelized onions:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 or 2 (or 3! you can't have too many onions) large yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 cup water
3/4 cups lentils (Puy lentils are great, but can also use normal green lentils)
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 cup white rice (I like Jasmine or Basmati)
garnish: chopped parsley or mint, something spicy like harissa, or a spiced Greek yogurt (see below)

For the Greek yogurt garnish:
1/2 cup plain, full-fat yogurt
lemon juice from 1/4 of a lemon
a few tablespoons chopped parsley/mint/cilantro
a few shakes of cayenne pepper or1-2 teaspoons of harissa

1. Begin by caramelizing the onions: in a large heavy bottomed pan (enameled French oven is best here), heat the oil to medium-high and add onions. Cook 6-8 minutes, stirring to incorporate onions with fat, until onions have exuded most of their liquid. A brown residue should appear on the bottom of the pan. Add 2 tablespoons of water and deglaze the brown bits from the bottom of the pan by scraping the end of a flat wooden spoon through the onion residue. Continue cooking, stirring every so often, until brown residue builds up again. Repeat deglazing process and cooking steps at least 3 more times, until all the water is used up and the onions are a deep brown color. Note: the onions will taste great like this. However, if you like crisp-textured onions, scrape the onions to one side of the pot and cover the bottom of the pan with a thin coating of oil. When the oil is hot, spread the onions evenly over the bottom of the pan and let them fry, without stirring, 2-3 minutes, or until the edges are crisp. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.

2. Next, make the rice: pour 1 cup rice into whatever vessel you will cook your rice (rice cooker, pot, etc.) Rinse rice with water several times, swishing the rice around and draining, until the water rinses clear. Drain rice well. Now, add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 cups of water to the vessel and cook. I use a rice cooker, but an easy way is to cook rice is to bring rice/water to a boil on the stove and then oven bake at 350 for 25 minutes. Taste to make sure it is cooked through; if not, add 2 tablespoons hot water and return to oven for 5 minutes.

3. While rice is cooking, boil the lentils: in the empty onion pot, add lentils, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer the lentils until tender, about 20 minutes. They should be tender, but not mushy. Drain lentils and return to empty pot. Add cooked rice and 3/4 of the caramelized onions and mix well. Season generously with salt, as necessary.

4. Combine all of the spiced yogurt ingredients in a small bowl. Plate mujadara, top with additional caramelized onions and add a healthy dollop of spiced/herbed yogurt on the side. 

January 10, 2012

no recipe, but a book review

One of my Christmas presents from my family was Tender: A cook and his vegetable patch, by Nigel Slater, which I'm really enjoying. Slater, a food writer for the Guardian London Observer, writes about turning the back lawn of his London townhouse into a garden and the joy the process has brought him. Each chapter highlights a different vegetable, with his notes on varieties, tips on harvesting from the garden or selecting from the market, preferred cooking techniques, seasonings, accompaniments, and of course recipes. As far as the writing goes, I think I've mentioned before that Slater is one of my favorite food writers (his Kitchen Diaries lives on my nightstand for bedtime reading). But everything else about the book is inspiring, as well -- the philosophy, the photography, the layout, the food styling that makes food look beautiful while still looking something I could turn out in my own kitchen.


So far, I've mostly enjoyed thumbing through and reading his words. On turnips: "The soil-encrusted root, gnarled like the bark of an old tree, hides a creamy flesh that is both earthy and sweet. Snapped in half, it smells of freshly dug ground. Roasted in butter, it smells of warm heather honey. I value the parsnip for its gentle sweetness, its happy marriage with the crusted edges of a piece of roast beef, and the velvety soup you can make even from its woody core."

For those of you whose stomachs turn at this kind of descriptive prose, I should also point out that Slater has a droll streak too (he's British, of course he does): "Not for me the pile of buttered carrots on the plate. Too sweet, too orange, (too bloody cheerful more like it)." He also refers to the common eggplant as "that big purple shlong we know so well."

Though I haven't followed any recipes yet, I have already found his tips handy. A handful of baby turnips, freshly dug from our garden, were as good as they could be when glazed with butter, a big pinch of sugar, and a sprinkling of dill. (I say "as good as they could be" because these particular turnips were probably in the ground too long.) Oyster sauce, soy sauce, chicken broth, masses of chopped cilantro, and a hot wok transformed a hunk of rapidly browning cabbage into a super pleasing lunch.  I'm looking forward to cooking the crap out of this book in 2012.

January trip to Yosemite + pimento cheese


After Christmas, we decided to plan a last minute Yosemite trip, just because, why not? It's 4 hours away. We visited two summers ago, and though it was beautiful and warm that time of year, it was also overrun with people and cars. If you have misanthropic tendencies (like, uh, we do I guess), visiting Yosemite in winter is totally the way to go. The park and most hikes were empty, a reservation was easy to get with two days' notice, the air was cold and crisp, fireplaces at Ahwahnee Lodge were crackling, and Curry camp was quiet. We enjoyed it a lot this time around.

On the first day, we had a picnic lunch in a deserted meadow and then drove along Glacier Road towards the Sentinel Dome trailhead. This is not a difficult hike, but the views from the top of the dome were insanely good. It felt so dang good to be up there -- the air smelled and felt wonderful, the clouds were swirling, and the view of the valley was overwhelmingly beautiful. We stayed here for awhile.


We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring that side of the park before heading back down around sunset. More beautiful views via the Panorama trail, near Glacier point. Oh hi, Half Dome!

We made our way back to the valley just before sunset, and we stopped several times to take pictures of the high country at dusk.

Our final stop was just outside the tunnel right as the sun was setting. Within a span of 10 minutes, the sunlight on El Capitan turned rose to deep coral to neon orange. I wouldn't have believed how bright it was it if I hadn't seen it myself.

We spent the rest of the evening parked in front of the fire at the Ahwahnee Lodge, with spicy vegetable fried rice (made the night before and stored in our cooler) and hot drinks. Our attempt at star gazing was foiled by cloudy skies, so we went to sleep after an intense card tournament (Mark lost baaaadly). More on our accommodations later.

The next morning, we awoke early and hiked to the trailhead for the Mist trail. Our favorite hike, this takes you from the valley floor to Vernal footbridge to the top of Vernal Falls.


The forest smells like pine needles, very clean and crisp. And the view as you make your way up gets better and better. Like I said, we loved this hike! After climbing about 600 stone steps carved into the cliffs, we made it to the top of the falls. It was cold and windy, so we decided this was an ideal time to stop to contemplate the view and drink the hot cocoa we packed, topped with a few marshmallows we made the week before. (Good call, Mark.)


We explored the area at the top and saw a frozen lake, more partially frozen waterfalls, another foot bridge, and a curious animal or two. We debated but decided not to press on to the top of the Nevada falls (at the time, we were excited about seeing the Mariposa grove) and began to make our way down.


Mark gingerly made his way off-trail to be closer to the falls, something you can't do when the falls are more powerful (i.e. in springtime). I'm definitely not one to stray off the path in dangerous areas, so this made me nervous. Mark cased it and decided it was safe, and I trust his judgment, but yikes. Be careful, y'all.

After our hike, we drove to the Mariposa grove, 30 miles from the valley. The drive was beautiful and we got to eat our sandwiches beneath a grove of giant Sequoias. However, I wouldn't do this again just to see the trees. The trees were indeed huge, but the surrounding forest was somehow less peaceful and less enjoyable than nearby Muir Woods. 


We stayed at Curry camp and sprung for a a signature tent with a heater (really, a 1-room cabin with walls and a canvas exterior, no bathroom). Not fancy, but it was in the valley, had a heater and fairly comfortable full-sized bed, and the shared bathroom was clean. If we were ever to stay longer, or during a warmer time, we would definitely bring our own tent and reserve a campsite. But given our constraints, Curry was great.

The thing about camping in bear country is that you have to pack all food/drinks/toiletries/anything with a scent in a locker, because a bear's sense of smell is finer than a bloodhound's (I heard this fact at least 10 times in 2 days). Fine. But, question -- if bears will break into your cabin because you left toothpaste in there, what's to stop them from breaking in while you sleep because they smell toothpaste on your breath?? I kept hearing noises in the night (it sounded an awful lot like bears lumbering about, whipped into a frenzy by the delicious smell of toothpaste), so this stressed me out a little. However, Mark was not worried about bears, like at all, so my grabbing his shoulder every few hours probably got on his nerves that night. Anyway, my top 3 tips about staying in Curry in winter (and Yosemite in general) are: 1) Bring your own sleeping bag. I love our double sleeping bag; it is extremely cozy. 2) Bring flashlights. 3) Bring your own food.

This pimento cheese sandwich tasted mighty good. And it didn't cost $18.

Pimento cheese
I haven't made pimento cheese in, oh, ever. But when I was trying to clear out our fridge before our trip, my eye landed on an almost-done hunk of Jasper Hill aged cheddar. It had been hanging out in our fridge for a long time and needed to be used. Preferably, in sandwiches. And so I made pimento cheese. Maybe a slightly trashy (I mean that in the best possible way) end for spectacular cheese, but we were glad to eat it, I promise you. I'm not a fan of mayonnaise, but I can deal with it if it is folded into something really good. Deviled eggs are one such thing, pimento cheese is another, and their love child (pimento cheese deviled eggs) is definitely more than okay in my book. Is there any doubt I spent my formative years in Alabama? 

1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated on the large holes of a box cutter (I prefer white, but you could use yellow, or a mix)
1 heaping tablespoon chopped pimientos, plus more to taste
3 tablespoons good mayonnaise, plus 1-2 more tablespoons as needed, to moisten, like Duke's

optional ingredients, for kick: 
grated horseradish (1/4 teaspoon at a time)
pickle juice (a few drops)
hot sauce, like Crystal (a few dashes)
finely chopped sweet onion (1 tablespoon or so)
finely chopped jalapeno (1-2 teaspoons, depending on your tolerance and the heat of your chile)
garlic powder, which is not the same thing as garlic salt (1/8 teaspoon)
salt, to taste

Combine the first set of ingredients. I like mine to be creamy and a bit fluffy, so I stir fairly vigorously. Add salt and your optional ingredients as desired; I like jalapenos and hot sauce myself. Refrigerate, tightly covered, a few hours. 

To use: spread on soft sandwich bread (Southerners prefer white Wonder-like bread, but I'm partial to Mark's flax seed loaf) or set out as a dip with celery. If you have leftovers, try folding a few tablespoons into deviled egg filling or spreading on top of a burger. Grilled pimento cheese doesn't sound half bad either.