Friday, February 27, 2009

Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Posting

I have been cooking a lot lately but nothing really "blog-worthy." Tonight's dinner will remedy that: Chicken "tagine" with lemon and olives, couscous pilaf with dried apricots and toasted almonds, beet salad with lemon vinaigrette, and, according to Cook's Illustrated "The Best Chocolate Bundt Cake."

Of course I didn't take any pictures while I was making the cake but I'll try to take some before we devour it. Ditto on the salad. Although I'm doubtful it will be gobbled up. Beets are an iffy selection for entertaining. People are very black and white about them - you either love them or hate them. But the salad is pretty so I'll snap a few pics.

The "tagine" and couscous are another story. I'll try to take pictures while making them but I'm also multi-tasking and hosting a playdate for the kiddo and a friend today so I'm not making any promises. Once they're cooked it's way easier to photograph them. The dishes that is, not the 5 year olds.

The chocolate cake smells divine as it bakes right now - hopefully it will taste half as good. Recipes and pictures to come, promise.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Musings and Meringues

I am very fortunate to have a child who is not only a great eater and who doesn't have any food allergies. Well, unless you count fish. It's not an allergy per se but a deep and utter HATRED of all things from the sea other than canned tuna (mercury be damned), fried calamari or New England clam chowder. Let's not discuss that she used to gobble up my soy glazed salmon until one day she realized it was salmon and "not chicken!!!!????" and proceeded to spit it out, despite having eaten most of her portion that evening and at countless dinners in the past.

Where was I? Allergies. Right.

Now that I have a school-aged child I have been introduced to the confusing world of childhood food allergies. In 2 1/2 years of school we have encountered allergies to: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs, shellfish, pineapple, strawberries and a few I am probably forgetting. I really feel for parents who have to confront these issues and fear for their child's health on a daily basis. I couldn't imagine...

The reason I bring up the allergies is that I had originally planned on making heart shaped cut outs and icing them in varying shades of red and pink for a kindergarten Valentine's Day party (recipe). But I then discovered a student in our class had both a wheat and dairy allergy. So I decided to come up with a treat he and everyone else could have at the party since someone else was supplying cupcakes (which he wouldn't be able to eat).

Fortunately I was with my friend Sarah (a walking font of culinary knowledge) when I found out about the allergies. What on earth could I make? "Simple," said Sarah. "You can make meringues." Freakin' brilliant. A quick e-mail to the child's mother revealed that eggs were indeed OK and pink meringue cookies were on the agenda.

I usually bake meringues a few times a year. Every time I make them I'm reminded of how unbelievably simple they are to make. Plus, they're fat free. And, they're great for Passover because they contain no dairy (no worries about kosher dietary rules) and no flour. They also pair really well with lemon curd (a great use for the yolks since this recipe calls only for egg whites). That of course negates the whole fat free and kosher thing due to the addition of copious amounts of butter. But that's another blog entry. Why get ahead of myself?

If you can, avoid making meringues on damp and rainy days. The moisture in the air will be absorbed by the sugar and it will effect the consistency of the end result.

Meringue Cookies
Yields approximately 7 dozen 1 1/2 inch kisses

4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
food coloring (optional)

  • Preheat your oven to 200 F.
  • Combine the egg whites and sugar in a glass or metal bowl (the bowl of a standing mixer is preferable).
  • Place the egg and sugar mixture over a lightly simmering pot of water but do not allow the bowl to come in contact with the water or your eggs will cook. Pieces of cooked egg white are not all that tasty in meringues.
  • Whisk the mixture together until the sugar is dissolved; 3-5 minutes. Add in the vanilla.
  • Using either a standing mixer with the whisk attachment or an electric hand beater being whipping the egg whites on low speed. Add in a few drops of food coloring at this point if you want. I prefer the gels to the liquid.
  • Increase the mixer speed to high and beat until the egg whites are shiny and form stiff peaks. Tip: when you stop your mixer and pull up on the top the egg whites that were attached to the attachment should remain standing in the bowl and not flop over.
  • Using a small dollop of the meringue affix sheets of parchment paper or aluminum foil to your baking sheets (you'll need 2). Some recipes call for masking tape here. Use the meringue - I learned the tip working in a bakery.
  • Using either a spoon or a pastry bag drop dollops or pipe kisses onto the sheet leaving about an inch in between each cookie.
  • Bake for about 2 hours in the 200 degree oven. Check periodically to make sure the meringues aren't browning. If they are, lower the temperature to 175 F. You're not baking these as much as allowing them to dry out.
  • After 2 hours turn off the oven and DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR. Allow the meringues to remain in the oven for at least another hour. They will continue to dry out in the residual heat of the oven. I usually leave mine in overnight as I like my meringues to be very light and crispy on the inside.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Confronting Your Fears or Baking with Yeast (a recipe for Jennifer)

I fancy myself a good cook and baker. But for years I was terrified of yeast. I don't know why, really. It's hardly all that frightening. You can get it in teeny envelopes in the grocery store - how scary is that? Yet, for some inexplicable reason, I never baked anything that called for yeast.

Then I went to culinary school.

The first time I made my own brioche was a revelation. Yeast was amazing. Magical. POWERFUL. And, frankly, not all that scary. Melissa: 1, Yeast: 0.

I went on a yeast-fest: homemade cinnamon buns, bagels, pretzels, pizza dough. Then I had a baby.

Fast-forward three years later and I'm up to my eyeballs in dough, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and boiling water with baking soda making bagels with a bunch of pre-schoolers. It was the most fun I'd had in years.

Apparently many people share my former fear. NPR
recently published a piece on it with some interesting recipes - - and an old friend from high school just admitted her fear, too.

Here's an easy recipe that will banish that fear in a few hours. Once you eat homemade pizza made with crust formed by your own hands you'll never go back to Boboli or Pillsbury again.

Simple Pizza Dough

Yields enough for 1 large pie, 2 medium pies or 3 "personal" sized pies

2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast (or one envelope of commercially packaged yeast)
1 cup warm water (between 100-110 degrees F - any hotter and you'll kill your yeast and who wants to do that?)
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour plus a little extra for kneading
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup cornmeal plus a little extra for the pan
1 tsp salt
2 TBS olive oil plus a little extra for oiling the bowl later

  • In a mixing bowl combine yeast and warm water and allow yeast to dissolve and get fizzy.
  • Add in the flour, cornmeal, salt and olive oil and stir to combine into a soft dough.
  • Remove from bowl and knead on a lightly floured surface until the dough is smooth and uniform in texture - should take about 5 minutes. You can also do this in the bowl of a standing mixer with a dough hook. (ed. If you find the dough is too sticky sprinkle on some more flour. This recipe can handle up to another 1/3 cup if necessary).
  • Lightly grease the mixing bowl (no need to clean it) with some olive oil and place the dough in the bowl.
  • Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm and draft-free place until it doubles in size (approximately 30-45 mins).
  • Punch the dough down (kids love this) and divide into portions if you will be making more than one pie. If you want you can divide the dough and freeze it for later use at this point.
  • Cover the dough with a dish towel (not terry-cloth) and allow to rise again for 10 minutes.

Options for the actual pizza:
1. Pat dough into a large lightly oiled pan. Cover with toppings of your choice (see suggestions below). Bake 20-30 minutes until done at 400 F.
2. Stretch the dough and place on an overturned cookie sheet after coating the sheet with a significant amount of corn meal. Slide the crust around. If it doesn't wiggle easily toss some more corn meal under it. Cover with toppings of your choice (see suggestions below). Bake 20-30 minutes until done at 400 F.
3. Pre-heat your oven to 450 F with pizza stone inside. Complete step #2. Once oven is hot, carefully slide the pizza onto the stone. This will yield the crispiest crust hands-down and is the method favored at Chez Marks-Shih. This version bakes up in about 10 minutes.

Toppings we love: thinly sliced fresh vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms), olives, meatballs, ground beef, sausage, pepperoni (cut it into slivers for best results), artichokes, well drained thawed frozen spinach, feta cheese, sauteed garlic and onions

Go lighter on the toppings and cheese than you think you'll need. Too much and the pizza will be weighed down. You'll wind up with soggy pizza that's hard to move. And no one likes a soggy pizza.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On Cold Days, Being Sick and Hot Soup

If you're my friend on Facebook or "follow" me on twitter you'll know I have been sick a lot this winter. Sick more than I care to mention. Really sick. And I have to say, I'm quite sick of being sick.

It has also been damn cold this winter. I know I really shouldn't complain (but if you know me in real life you know I'm a champion complainer). My mystery illness paired with bad weather are hardly great calamities in the grand scheme of things. And, I managed to make lemonade with the lemons I was given. How unlike me.

Cold weather + being sick + not really wanting to cook = a lot of soup

Super Easy Peas Soup with Bacon (sorry Mom!)
Yields approximately 2 quarts of soup (that's 8 cups for those of you not so quick on the cooking math)

4 slices bacon, chopped
2 leeks, mostly whites, cleaned and roughly chopped (you can just double up on the onions if you don't have any leeks - I just had a few in the fridge the first time I made this and now I love them in most vegetable based soups)
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, cleaned and roughly chopped (noticing a trend?)
1 large carrot or 4-5 "baby" carrots, yes, roughly chopped (it's all being pureed later so no need for nice even pieces, approximately the same size is just fine for all the "roughly chopped" items - that's why I love making pureed soups)
1 bay leaf
a few sprigs of fresh dill (tied together with kitchen twine - dental floss will do just make sure it isn't waxed or mint flavored. While mint and fresh peas go very nicely together split peas and fake mint "flavoring" do not. Take my word on this. Ordinarily I wouldn't bother tying it but some people (by some people I mean 5 year old daughters) don't like dill floating around in their soup)
2 cups dried split peas (sort through to remove any small pebbles or other foreign objects)
7 cups water (or unsalted chicken or vegetable stock or a mixture of any of these liquids)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  • Render the bacon in a pot large enough to accommodate the entire recipe (at least 3 1/2 quarts).
  • While the bacon is cooking, roughly chop all your vegetables if you haven't already.
  • Once the bacon is brown and crisp, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  • Add in the leeks and onions to the bacon fat (lower the heat if it's too hot). You want to get a little color on the onions and leeks so they start to release their natural sugars.
  • Add in the garlic and cook until fragrant (about one minute).
  • Add in the carrots and celery and adjust seasoning.
  • Add in the bay leaf and dill.
  • Add in the peas and 7 cups of water/stock/whatever.
  • Bring to a boil, taste and adjust seasoning, cover and reduce to a simmer.
  • Cook, at a simmer, for approximately one hour.
  • Remove the dill and bay leaf.
  • Puree the soup. I like to use an immersion blender directly in the pot - much easier than transferring the whole mess to a blender
  • Garnish with the cooked bacon and some finely chopped fresh dill and some croutons if you'd like. I also like to drizzle on some lemon infused olive oil.
Serve with some crusty bread, good cheese and a mixed green salad. That's optional but it's what I do. And don't you want to do what I do?

You can't mess this soup up. I promise. No celery? Leave it out. Don't like dill? Leave it out. Basically you need some aromatics (onions and garlic are must-haves), salt, pepper, split peas and some sort of liquid. My 5 year old could make this if I let her use the stove by herself. Now - everybody into the kitchen and make some soup.

Excuses, excuses

Hi my pretties, it's been a while.

I could bore you with how sick I've been (cough, cough for emphasis). I could tell you about all of my kitchen failures (Gourmet magazine I'm talking to YOU!). Or I could just fess up and tell the truth - my heart hasn't been in it lately so I haven't been blogging.

But, I have a whole bunch of posts saved up.

Tune in for Staples (no, not office supplies - things you should always have in your pantry), Parmesan Pull-Aparts (a big fat FAIL - imagine me wagging my finger at an issue of Gourmet magazine - but they did smell good), Samoa Cookie Bars (a huge success but with room for improvement), and an afternoon in Chinatown.