Love food? Live in DC? Want to help a great nonprofit help others in need? Chef’s Best Dinner & Auction is happening in DC at the brand new Marriott on Monday evening, June 15th, to benefit Food & Friends. Food & Friends is an incredible nonprofit that delivers free nutritious meals to people with life-threatening illnesses right to their door in DC and the surrounding areas. We’re still looking for people to help volunteer at the 1300+ attendee event, and it’s going to be a spectacular evening. Plus, we’ll get to hang out and have fun.
If you’re interested in volunteering, call Food & Friends at 202-269-2277. And tell ’em I sent you! See you there!
Bread making and sleep are magical processes. I put flour, salt, yeast, and water into a bowl in specific proportions, mix them up, cover the dough, and let it sit for 20 hours. When I wake up the next morning, it’s transformed into the perfect sticky consistency because I left it alone. When I need a booster shot of inspiration for my writing, I stuff my brain full of information that relates to what I’m trying to write and then I let my brain work it out while I sleep. Just as the light of day starts to filter into my apartment, the words I need start to filter right into my mind as I’m half-awake. I grab my pen and paper to get it all down.
The trick is to give your work what it needs and then walk away. Get the right ingredients into the right environment to work together. Arm yourself with data and information that your brain can sift and mesh together. The process is about you, and it’s also about you getting out-of-the-way. There’s a little mystery in creativity, a little magic inside each of us. There’s a time to work and a time to give up, and we need to do both to come up with something that’s inspired and inspiring.
I’m going to toot my own horn for a moment and say that lately my little cocina has been buzzing as if it were competing for a chance to be Good Housekeeping’s satellite test kitchen. I’m a bread-baking, pasta-shaping, vegetable-roasting, salad-tossing, body scrub-making, and now ice cream-blending machine.
My love of ice cream and Mister Softee is well documented on this blog: here, here, and here. Regular readers also know that I am making more of an effort to eat fewer animal products in my quest for a cleaner planet. Ice cream is one of my weaknesses. I’ve never met a cone I didn’t like. Lately, I’ve been a little horrified by the price of ice cream at the store so I’ve been depriving myself a bit.
A few months ago, I saw on Pinterest that people were whipping up homemade “ice cream” from frozen bananas. Even though this activity reared its head on Arrested Development years ago, I naturally assumed that the making of ice cream had fallen under a spell of “Hollywoodification” and that everyone was lying to me. How could bananas, with no other additives, be blended into soft serve ice cream? Rubbish.
This week, a carton of very generic ice cream at my local Whole Foods topped $6.00. Same thing at my other less-than-clean neighborhood grocery stores. I can afford a $6 carton of ice cream but it’s the principle. I think stores are gauging us due to the heat wave and I’m not about to succumb to that kind of pressure, no matter how much money I have in my wallet. That old Pinterest post popped into my head so I went over to my local fruit cart vendor on the corner near my apartment. 4 bananas for $1. I was skeptical but desperate for a frozen treat fix and determined to hang onto my dignity by avoiding the ice cream gauging grocery stores so I gave it a whirl, literally and figuratively.
I chopped up the bananas and put them in my freezer overnight. The next day, I fixed by Ninja blender on my kitchen counter, piled in the frozen bananas, and hit “blend” with a healthy dose of doubt. For the first minute, my simple concoction looked like nothing more than finely diced banana. I knew it. Bananas turned into custard is total BS and the very idea is used to make fools of ice cream junkies like me. There goes my dignity… and my $6 that I’ll be paying at Whole Foods for ice cream.
Once it looked sufficiently blended, I brought my Ninja to a halt, popped off the blender top, and what to my wondering eyes did appear but delicious, creamy, vegan banana custard! I was overjoyed. Phineas even tried some and gave his “woof” of approval. I’m already planning add-ins for future batches. This is going to be one sweet summer – surely this skill is going to help me make friends in California, right? If you read about a girl and her adorable dachshund setting up an “ice cream” stand at the Santa Monica pier, you’ll know we found a reliable banana supplier in our new neighborhood.
I’ve been in my kitchen exploring the recipes of Jim Lahey, Founder of the famous Sullivan Street Bakery. His no-knead bread recipes have turned many non-bakers into flour tossing evangelists of the hearth, this girl included. About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post titled I Don’t Bake after making a disaster of a pumpkin pie and quickly began to assemble a collection of essays on other things I don’t do that are commonly considered to be in the wheelhouse of American women. Jim Lahey made a liar out of me and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’m now churning out bakery-quality breads from my tiny little hovel of a kitchen.
In the midst of my bread-baking frenzy, I started to reflect on what I’ve learned in this 18-month journey from non-baker to baker. There are a lot of lessons in the process, and most of them have nothing to do with the task at hand.
It is something I used to have in short supply. By nature I am one of those people who wants everything yesterday. In the process of baking bread the Lahey way, it takes roughly 24 hours and most of that time I’m not doing a damn thing except giving the concoction of flour, water, yeast, and salt a chance to meet, mingle, and coalesce under the proper circumstances. The bread requires more patience than skill to bake up to its potential.
Adding on to the bit about patience, Lahey’s recipes require restraint. I am someone who likes to do things, but with bread baking I have to let go of that impulse. The more you do with this dough, the harder it is to create a crusty, delicious loaf. The trick is to do less, far less, than you think you need to.
Have the right tools
This is one piece of Lahey’s method that requires focus. You need a very hot, reliably calibrated oven and a hefty cast iron dutch oven with a lid that can withstand the heat. There are no compromises here. You can’t make do with a faulty oven and a different kind of pan. The right tools make everything easier.
Try, try, and try again
Your first loaf might not come out perfectly. Your 10th loaf might not come out perfectly either. Lahey is very honest about his bread brick road, and there were many bricks along the way. He’s not shy about dumping bread that isn’t up to his standards but he never lets that deter him on his journey.
Spend your life doing what you love
In Lahey’s book, My Bread, I found his personal story to be even more riveting than his recipes. He put in countless hours of training and experimenting to get where he is, many of them in Rome as an apprentice baker. At the center of all of his efforts is his great love of bread. His motivation is pure and his passion unabiding. These two ingredient are essential to good bread and a good life. Find what you love and keep doing it.
Have you learned lessons in the kitchen that have pervaded other areas of your life? If so, I’d love to hear them!
I could read cooking memoirs all day, every day. There is something so human, so sensual about food and its preparation. There passion in it and it’s relatable. Everyone eats, and therefore at some point every one learns to cooking something. Ultimately cooking and eating are about transformation.
At 38, Jonathan Dixon left behind his work as a writer to enroll at the CIA to become a cook. He gave up all his earthly possessions, moved from Brooklyn to Hyde Park, NY (across the Hudson River from my own hometown), and threw himself into his new vocation. He wasn’t a cook when he started, but he made it his goal to become one. And so he did.
We can do the same. We can reinvent who we are. We can grow our current skill sets and create new ones. We can take up new hobbies, interests, projects, and careers. We can make a new home in a new city. Newness is never beyond us.
“On days when warmth is the most important need of the human heart, the kitchen is the place you can find it.” ~ E.B. White
Cold enough for ya? In New York City, we are braving some serious cold and wind. It’s that biting kind of cold where you’re quite sure that if you smile too wide, your face will crack. I’ve found myself eying my new Ninja crock pot and cracking open my cookbooks to create a shopping list of ingredients to create warm, comforting meals.
This weekend, I have brunch plans on Saturday and Sunday and otherwise will be inside working away. I find that I do my best work when I nourish my mind and body with nutritious, delicious food. Additionally, I also love that cooking helps me to quiet my mind and reduce stress. When I hit a road block in my writing, I back away from my desk and head for my stove where I’m sure to get my creative juices flowing again (cooking pun intended!)
Like a good story, a good meal is cobbled together by the hands, inspired by the spirit, and nurtured with love from the heart. This weekend may you find refuge in the kitchen despite the frightful weather outside.
Baking and making bread is one of the simplest, most satisfying pleasures in the world.
Last year I began to challenge my long-held belief that I cannot bake. I made a personal vow to teach myself some very simple baking recipes. True to form that was not enough. Given my frugal ways, I began to take a long hard look at grocery store prices. “Why does fresh pasta and bread cost so much?” I wondered. “And if it costs so much, why is it so often not that tasty?” I decided to try my hand at making my own, and made the resolution that this year I wouldn’t buy any bread or pasta.
My pasta adventures are coming along. With proficiency in basic egg pasta dough, I’ve moved on to incorporating ingredients like spinach, beets, and carrots to create healthier options. (More on that in a future post.) It was easier for me to start with pasta because it’s so logical: mound the flour and add the eggs, salt, olive oil, milk, and a dash of cinnamon (yes, cinnamon!) to a well in the center of the flour. Knead, roll, cut, shape, boil, eat. There’s a lot of tinkering in pasta making and I love to tinker.
Bread baking? That’s a different story because the baker has so little control. The ingredients must be measured precisely and then the baker has to walk away, exhibiting extreme patience. 18 hours of patience, to be precise. The flour, yeast, warm water, and salt do some type of magic rising dance and voila – dough, ready for the super hot oven! Baking is an act of trust and faith in something that we cannot manipulate. The yeast and heat from the oven must be allowed to do what it does best all on its own, without our assistance.
But oh, the final result is well worth it. I used this bread recipe, followed it to the letter, and literally ooo’ed and ahh’ed over the result. Thick, golden crust and a moist, chewy interior. Slathered with butter and 3 berry jam, along with a mug of green peppermint tea, it was the perfect way to begin my Sunday morning.
The presents I love the most are ones that are old, passed down through loving hands, and put to good use immediately.
Over the past few months, I’ve been working on the skill of making homemade pasta. I’ve tried a few different recipes, purchased a couple of books, and signed myself up for a class here in NYC (more on that once I complete the class.) There’s something very satisfying about crafting food with my hands that gives me a happy glow. I love the feeling of kneading the dough, forming the pasta with my hands, and then watching it float to the top of a pot of salty water to meet its destiny on a plate covered with homemade sauce and freshly grated cheese.
Hearing about my new-found pasta creation hobby, my mom boxed up the pasta machine pictured here out of her own kitchen. It’s older than I am, simple to use, and gets the job done when it comes to noodle making. I’m not sure where this new hobby is leading me – perhaps in the direction of another entrepreneurial venture? – but I’m planning to cook and eat my way wherever it goes. (Thanks, Mom!)
If you’re up for enjoying a plate of homemade pasta with me and giving me feedback on the recipes, come on over for dinner!
On Friday, I gave my homemade pasta making another try. I made a triple batch a couple of weeks ago and pasta dough holds up well in the freezer when stored properly. For a moment, I thought about making a different shaped pasta. Then I considered that my last attempt at forming the orecchiette (little ear shaped pasta) needed improvement.
So I rolled out the dough and took my own feedback on how to improve my pasta shaping. The result of the second trial – vastly improved! There is so much to learn during the second turn at bat.
I have a bit of an addiction to the new. My greatest fear is being bored so I often charge off in the direction of the unknown. However, there is so much to be learned by trying something, considering how to do it better next time around, and then actually having a next time around.
I started to think about how this may apply to other areas of my life. I am often guilty of filing an activity under “been there, done that” if I have an experience that is less than stellar. Maybe all this time I’ve been missing an opportunity for incredible learning. It’s wonderful to acquire new skills and experiences – it’s my favorite way to pass the time. But there is also real value in trying something and trying it again to compare the results.
Slowly, I am beginning to see that there may be more second chances in my future.
Encouraged by my baked brie and apples in homemade pastry dough, I set out on the journey to make homemade pasta and homemade sauce. All of my ancestors are Italian so this seems like something I should be genetically capable of doing. (Yes, I’m one of that breed that has not yet mixed into America which I always think is especially odd because I adore cultures that are radically different from my own.)
A few times in my life I’ve made sauce from scratch, though not in several years. I’ve never made homemade pasta before except for one attempt to make gnocchi in graduate school, which went fairly well. Armed with only an exceedingly simple recipe, a bag of all-purpose flour, and eggs I decided to dive in to see what these two hands could make.
I started with the sauce. I used this recipe from allrecipes.com as a base but left out the fennel seeds (couldn’t find any at my local grocery stores) and substituted cubes of beef for the sausage. I also added paprika, chili powder, red pepper, rosemary, sage, and thyme. (Simon & Garfunkel would be proud.) I should have stuck with the sausage for its flavor and fat content though I love the kick of the added heat from the extra spices. I only had about two hours to let it simmer. Next time, I’ll let it cook all day.
Once the sauce was on its way, I turned my attention to making the pasta. I used this recipe though it proved to be a bit too simplistic. (More details on that in a moment.) Similar to my experience with pastry dough, I seemed doomed for failure at the start. The eggs broke through the flour well I made and went running for dear life for the edge of the counter. I was too quick for them and caught them in time but they wrecked my plan to gradually add flour from the sides of the well. I kept breathing and kneading until I ended up with two perfect looking balls of pasta dough.
I tucked the dough away in the fridge for about 30 minutes because I saw some advice online that this would make the dough easier to work with. I think it would have been a better idea to let the dough rest covered right on the counter. The dough was a tad bit tough when I retrieved it from the fridge. I pressed on.
While the dough was in the fridge, I turned my attention to the architecture of the pasta. Yep, I said architecture. In the land of pasta, form begets function just like it does for so many other products, edible or not. Last week, I saw a piece on CBS Sunday about George L. Legendre, a principal of IJP Architects in London and a leading specialist in complex surfaces, who has spent years collecting samples of every conceivable shape of pasta ever made. He captured his findings in the stunning volume Pasta by Design, which is exquisitely photographed by Stefano Grazini.
Legendre’s work and my own career as a product developer made me carefully consider the shape of my pasta. Knowing that my sauce was hearty and needed to be scooped up, I settled on orecchiette, a tiny ear-shaped pasta which gives it its name. “Orecchio” is Italian for “ear” and the addition of “-ette” at the end of an Italian word means “little”.
To make orecchiette, I rolled the dough out into a long tube, sliced it thinly and then used my thumb and a knife to roll the pasta into the ear shapes. Forming pasta felt like a very natural action for me – genetics at work combined with an intense desire to figure this out.
After shaping the pasta, I placed it on a floured cookie sheet and then brought a pot of very salty water to a rolling boil. In went the raw orecchiette and out came the al dente ears about 5 minutes later. Slathered in sauce, I grated some fresh romano and parmesan cheese (we might as well go all the way here, folks!) and sat down to my very first entirely homemade pasta meal. And I was proud. Very proud. It was a solid first attempt with an endless amount of runway for improvement.
Next time, I’ll use a more complex recipe for the pasta dough to improve both the taste and texture. I recently found this one that suggests a combination of semolina and all-purpose flour as well as a bit of salt and olive oil. Here’s an excellent resource that explains the differences between different types of flour. I found my pasta to be a bit too plain and a bit too tough. Also, I need to make the individual pieces of pasta MUCH smaller and thinner. My ears were giants in length and thickness which affected their texture and consistency. Luckily, I’ve got another 3 portions of pasta in my freezer just waiting to be used for another meal in the not-too-distant future.
After my meal, I sat down to my computer to write this post with the almost-winter sunshine of late afternoon streaming through my window. In the glow, I felt all of my dearly departed Italian ancestors sending good wishes for joyfully attempting to make something new to nourish my body, mind, and heart. There is something so special about crafting sustenance with our own two hands.
With all of the dishes washed and put away, I settled in with a mug of cocoa and a handful of gingerbread cookies for dessert. Sipping and nibbling away, I realized there’s no reason why I couldn’t make these treats during my next set of kitchen tricks. A homemade life is rather addictive, isn’t it?