11 December 2011

Beans! Getcher Beans Here!

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

Well, here I am again, talking about food. I cook a lot, but I'm no chef.  I just like cooking. There's almost nothing I like more than to feed people. I let The Boy take care of the wine, but the dinner ends up being my job. And I love it. I'm doing a small dinner party next week, and I'm pondering the menu for that. I'm thinking a roasted pork rack or maybe some braised pork chops. Both are easy so I can concentrate on the sides.

Feel free to make suggestions, but be warned - I'm going grocery shopping for this on Thursday so I have to decide by then.

That's not what I'm writing about today, though. The day before yesterday, I remembered a magazine article that I saw years ago. It described in detail how to make non-gassy beans. Seriously - fart free beans? Who could resist, right?

I planned this, but I don't have a recipe. There were a couple of nice smoked pork hocks in the freezer, which to my mind is the only kind of meat I'd put in that dish. They taste amazing with the side benefit that they're cheap, too. I also added some double-smoked pork belly that I got a Gene's Meat Market in Lincoln Square. Love that place. When you need pork, that's the ne plus ultra in this town.

Other than that, it's pretty standard. I use canned whole tomatoes, a couple of chopped onions, three or four smashed cloves of garlic, pepper, some Worcestershire Sauce, maple syrup (instead of brown sugar, it tastes a little lighter), stock, and dry mustard. Everyone has their own variations and they all taste good. One large and crucial thing is to NEVER add salt until you're about half an hour or so away from serving. If there's a chance that the liquid will reduce when you're cooking, leave the salt until the end.

The magazine article didn't focus on the exact recipe, though. The key is in the way the beans are prepared long before they go in the oven. Here we go:

1. Soak the beans overnight in water twice as deep as the beans.

2. In the morning, drain and rinse the soaked beans, fill a pot with the beans and water and boil them hard for one full hour. Whatever you do, do NOT boil the beans in the water you used for soaking them. There's nothing in that pot except beans and water. NO salt. No nothing. At this point, salt will only make the beans tough.

3. After boiling, drain the beans and rinse them again. You must not skip this step. The water that the beans have been boiled in will be nasty-looking and brown and there will be a sort of foamy scurf on the top. You have to get rid of ALL of this, and you have to rinse your beans.

4. Now at this point, you get things together. My favorite way to do this is to put all of the ingredients into either a heavy pot or the slow cooker, then dump the beans on top, mix and cook for six to eight hours. In a slow cooker, the setting should be on "simmer", in the oven set the temperature to 225 or so.

5. You can't just ignore them. Every couple of hours or so, check on them, give them a stir and add liquid. Remember that the beans haven't expanded completely at the beginning, so you have to make sure they don't get dry while they're cooking.

That's all there is. Of course, the de-farting happens in steps 1 to 3. Those steps break down the cellulose in the beans so that they're more digestible. You will rinse away some of the starches and so on, but that's what you want.

I promise you that if you follow the first three steps EXACTLY you shouldn't have a problem after dinner. If you're concerned that it won't work, take a couple of Beano tablets before you eat as a kind of insurance. You shouldn't need to, though.

09 April 2011

Dinner Cancelled? Whatever Shall I Do?

(Photograph copyright 2011, all rights reserved.)

Spring has arrived in the City of Wind! Hooray!

How can we tell? Well, the insane temperature fluctuations have begun - low 40s yesterday, mid 60s today and into the 80s or even 90s tomorrow! Naturally, this will lead to some pretty ghastly thunderstorms and the temperature will then plummet on Monday to the low 50s where apparently it belongs. So there. It's not like there are a lot of leaves out or anything, although the daffodils are trying hard. 

So... those who read this know that The Boy doesn't work in the city we live in. In fact, he travels every week, which means he generally leaves on Sunday night or Monday morning and comes home on Thursdays. It varies a bit, and sometimes he works in the city for a week, but he's pretty much away every work week. 

Yesterday, he was going to be home around the dinner hour. I cheered and declared that I was going to provide one of his favorite winter dishes - nice friendly little braised lamb shanks. He adores this meal. I was planning to serve them with some brussels sprouts and maybe celeriac puree and it was going to be wonderful......

And then he phoned. His flight was cancelled and he was trapped for the night. He's coming home today. Sigh. At least he leaves later in the week this time...

However. I started this lamb shanks in the morning for a nice 8 hour braise. What to do???? Easy, I thought. I'll make:

Yummy Lamb Ragu(ish)

This is not difficult. I use my trusty slow cooker - a Kitchenaid because it has a rubbery silicone gasket thingie around the glass lid that prevents it from rattling while it works (a flaw in Lesser Machines, including a Very Expensive brand) and seals the pot fairly efficiently, so not a lot of liquid gets lost to evaporation. 

You needn't spend a ton of money on a slow cooker. Your mother's Crock Pot is fine, and they're still sold in a bunch of different sizes at places like Target. All the thing needs to do is keep food at a specific low temperature for hours on end. My preference is to avoid complicated digital controls - if they crap out, your machine is dead, given that there's no on/off switch. Hence the Kitchenaid, which has a big black dial that says "high, low, buffet, simmer, auto" and that's all. It's my kind of twit-proof. 

You also don't need to do this with lamb. Or shanks. You can use a nice, tough old shoulder of lamb, or pork, or beef....or whatever. It all works and it will all come out beautifully. 


1. Make a mirepoix. 

This only sounds impressive. Seriously. It's easy. All you have to do is chop up a big onion, a couple of carrots, and a couple of stalks of celery. It doesn't have to be glamorous or even symmetrical, because you will never see it on the plate. 

The ingredients can vary. Some people think celery is too bitter, so they skip it. Others just add more carrot to make it sweeter. The onion is not optional. I add two or three cloves of garlic, too, just because I like garlic. 

So put the mirepoix aside. 

2. Brown the meat. 

Use a tall pot for this to keep the kitchen clean and spatter off your glasses. Also wear an apron and use tongs so you don't have to put your hands anywhere NEAR that hot fat. 

Crank up the heat to high, add some olive oil to the pan and put in the meat, turning it until it's browned on all sides. It's all right if some of it sticks to the bottom - don't scrape it off, you want it.  

Once that's done, either put the meat directly in the slow cooker or, if you're using your pot in the oven, put the meat aside. 

3. Cook the mirepoix. 

This is where you start building flavor. Put the veg you've chopped into the pot the meat was browned in. Add a little more oil if you need to, but not much. Cook at medium heat until the onion starts to go transparent. 

4. Add tomato paste.

The amount is up to you. If you like tomato - use a little can. If you want to go classic, use a couple of tablespoons. 

Whatever amount you use, this is where you add the tomato paste to the veggies, turn up the heat and brown it. 

You want to see the color of the tomato get darker, you WANT it to start sticking to the pot - just be careful not to burn it. This step is meant to cook the sugars in the tomato, marry it to the bits of meat you've left in the pot, and make the veggies absorb and add to the whole thing.  

This is the most important step in the whole process. It's where all of your flavor starts.

5. Deglaze the pan.

I use a bottle of red wine for this, and NOT the expensive stuff. It's a myth that you should only cook with wine you're willing to drink. Cook's Illustrated tested this a year or so ago and concluded that cheap or expensive, it all tastes good when the cooking's done. A cheap and cheerful red will do nicely. Save the good stuff for drinking with dinner. 

Some people use stock for this (I use chicken stock), some use half wine, half stock.... I just toss in a whole bottle of wine. It tastes better and who wants to be stuck with half a bottle of Two Buck Chuck? 

At this point, what's in your pot is not looking exactly beautiful. Don't worry. If it's a brown scruffy messy thing, it's perfect. Deglazing is to add liquid to the pan and use it to pick up all of that lovely brown stuff on the bottom. Just add the liquid, scrape the pot to get all the good stuff into the mix, and you're done.

6. Add the meat.

That's it. Either you put the meat back into the pot or dump the pot into your slow cooker, depending on how you're cooking this. I like the slow cooker because it evenly heats the pot to 185 degrees and will hold it there for 8 hours. It's tough to do that with an oven and some ovens won't let you set the temperature to anything less than 200 degrees, which is too hot.

Look at the amount of liquid. For ragu purposes, the liquid should cover 3/4 of the meat in the pot. The bottle of wine should do it, but if you're short, add a little stock to make up the difference. 

7. Seasonings.

How you season your food is as personal as your choice of underwear. It's so much a matter of personal preference that what I say probably won't matter to you. 

I use a couple of bay leaves, more garlic and salt and pepper in everything I braise. For lamb, I add a couple of sprigs of rosemary, some thyme and a marjoram if there's some in the window box. Some recipes call for pepper flakes. 

As a general rule, don't salt your food until the cooking is almost done. If you lose some of the liquid during cooking (and you will), what makes sense at the start will end up being too salty. Herbs tend to vanish in long cooking, too. Add your thyme and marjoram in the last half hour to an hour before serving. 

(NOTE: If you're serving your shanks the same night you cook them, add the salt at the end. If you're making ragu for the next day - don't add the salt until you're just a few minutes away from serving.)

8. Now cook it.

That's it. The hard part is over. It took up a lot of space to describe it, but it only takes half an hour to actually DO it. I set up the pot with the wine and tomato paste beside it at the beginning and after that, it's just a matter of putting things in the pot and taking them out. 

 All you have to do now is set the temperature and LEAVE THE HOUSE. I'm serious. I know it's tempting to pop that lid and have a look. I know you're going to be dying to taste it. It won't do you any good. Open it in the last hour or so to adjust the seasoning or open it early if you need to add more liquid, but otherwise just let the whole mess burble quietly away.

I do this for eight hours. You don't have to. You can cook it for six, or even four hours if you want. It will still taste just fine. For ragu purposes though, you want that meat falling apart and as tender as you can possibly manage. Generally speaking, the tougher the cut of meat you use, the longer you want to cook it.

9. Ragu....

When you do a braise like this and you're serving it immediately, all you have to do is remove the meat, strain the liquid (reduce it on the stove if you need to) and serve it with whatever vegetables strike your fancy and use the liquid as a sauce. It's delicious. I particularly like the roasted cauliflower I posted before or brussels sprouts as side dishes, but it's up to you. 

HOWEVER..... if you get a phone call like I did yesterday and you can't serve it immediately.... 

10. The final step.

Turn off the heat and let things cool for a few minutes. Take the meat out of the pot and pull out the bones, as well as any fat that didn't dissolve and whatever skin or connective tissue is left. This is easy - I just pick up the bits with a fork and pull out anything I don't want. 

Put the meat in the fridge. 

Now strain the liquid into a bowl and use a spatula to push through as much of the solids as will go easily through the strainer. Toss the solids, refrigerate the liquid. 

To serve this the next day, skim the fat off the top of the liquid, add the meat and and heat it, reducing the liquid until there's virtually none left. This is why you didn't add salt during the cooking phase. Once you've concentrated the liquid, you'd be tasting nothing but salt. Add it just before serving. 

11. Dinner!

Yay! You finally get to eat! 

I looked at a lot of recipes for this wonderful stuff. Many call for serving it with a nice potato and celeriac puree. Many more ask you to serve it over pasta - something like rigatoni or orchiette works best. It doesn't matter what the recipes say, because you have your favorite way of doing things and whatever you choose is going to be wonderful.

Note: This cooking method is easy and VERY good for cheap cuts of meat. You can use the truly tough stuff, the cuts that others sneer at and that you'll never see in restaurants, because when you cook it at low heat for a long time, it's going to be tender and perfect. 

This is poor people's food, really. You can feed a family at least one meal based on this, and if you have a big enough pot, you'll get leftovers, too. Onions, carrots, celery.... all are super cheap. Pasta? Potatoes? Not expensive. 

I LOVE things like this. 

01 April 2011

Dessert! My Favorite!

(Photograph copyright 2011, all rights reserved.)

First, I included a picture of flowers because I'm told it's spring in the rest of the world. We just aren't seeing it here. The temperatures are in the 40s instead of the mid-50s where they belong and it's gloomy and threatening rain for tonight. Hence, a picture of flowers is just going to have to do it for awhile since the real thing just isn't happening yet. 

(Grumble. Stupid groundhog. Big fat liar. I wonder what groundhog tastes like?)

Sigh. Now. On to the dessert. 

The Boy loves his desserts. It's his "thing", if you will. A meal just isn't complete for him unless there's something sweet at the end and no matter how much I try and convince him that a smooch should do, it's not the same. He's disciplined about it, though. Only on weekends. We're getting to the age where we have to earn our desserts, so we can't eat sweets every day. 

I just got one of his favorites into the oven, so I thought I'd spread the joy.

The Boy's Chocolate Cake

I have to comment before I start with the recipe. I have a kazillion chocolate cake recipes, and they're all pretty much the same. I've looked online at chocolate cake recipes, and they're all pretty much the same as well. I wanted to tweak it, though. Most chocolate cakes are too heavy and too sugary-tasting for me. I wanted something light and happy, with none of that slap-in-the-face sweetness and thud-in-the-stomach weight that plagues almost everything chocolate. So this is what I've come up with. 

Whisk together in a medium bowl:

2 cups flour.  I like cake flour, but you don't have to use it if you don't want to. Cake flour just makes it lighter, but almost all the recipes I've seen call for all-purpose flour. Don't be put off making cake just because you don't have the fancy flour on hand.

2/3 cup cocoa.  Use the darkest you can find. I like Hershey's Special Dark, which I buy by the six-pack from Amazon. I've heard all of the yapping about dutched vs. non-dutched cocoa, but the result is always the same. Dutch processed cocoa tastes better. No, I'm not going to debate that. That said, it's not mandatory, either. Use what you have.

2 tsp. baking soda. 

1 tsp. baking powder.

1/2 tsp. salt

Cream together (I use a food processor. Your goal here is to make this mixture seriously creamy. Liquid, even. The individual sugar grains should be invisible. No stand mixer can do this quite as effectively. A hand mixer would work well if you have the patience to stand there for awhile.)

1 cup room temperature butter.

4 large eggs.

1 cup brown sugar.

1 cup white sugar.

2 tsp. vanilla. (Or go crazy. Use bourbon. Or a liqueur. The recipe doesn't care.)

In a two cup measure, mix 1 cup milk (I used skim) and 1 cup buttermilk.


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If you have the option to use convection, DON'T. This works better in a conventional oven. I guess convection isn't fatal, though.

2. Prepare two standard 8" or 9" layer cake pans. I use greased parchment on the bottom because it's generally tidier to get the cakes out.

3. Transfer creamed ingredients to a larger bowl. Using a hand mixer... or a stand mixer if you must, but I don't think they're fast enough... add wet and dry ingredients alternately, starting and ending with dry.

Now, the batter you have should be fluffy. Mix the heck out of it between additions. The texture you're aiming for is mousse-like. You should have to spoon it into the pans because it won't pour. 

4. Transfer the batter to pans, bake until a skewer comes out clean. About 1/2 an hour to 40 minutes. Don't overbake if you can help it - chocolate cakes can dry out. But you knew that. 

5. Cool at room temperature on racks. Make sure they're completely cooled before you take them out of the pans. 

And that, as they say, is that. Now some recipes call for ganache as an icing - melt 6 or 7 oz. of dark chocolate in 1/2 cup of heavy cream in a double boiler, cool a bit and spread. Some recipes add corn syrup or sugar, but I prefer 65 or 70% chocolate that speaks for itself. I've also used a buttercream icing on this which can make things too sweet, but it works on this cake. 

This recipe is pretty bullet-proof. You can mess with it if you like and have different results. For example, I saw one recipe that called for half whole milk, half heavy cream. That's part of what makes a cake land in my stomach like an anvil - it's too much for me after a meal. I use half skim milk and half buttermilk because the buttermilk does it's lovely chemical thing and makes the batter fluffier and the cake higher. 

Some recipes call for all brown sugar, which lends a sort of caramel flavor that I like on occasion. Go ahead and do that, if you like. Use all white, if you want - the recipe won't fail if you do that - but you'll lose some of the richness that makes chocolate cake so good.

What makes this cake fluffy and nice is the fact that it has four eggs - adds volume, buttermilk, which helps things rise, and beating the crap out of it at both the creaming stage and the mixing stage. This is not conventional wisdom. I was taught to gently fold the flour into the creamed ingredients with a spatula  and make sure that bubbles were kept to a minimum. 

Screw that. Use a good, fast hand mixer and go for it. The first time you make a liquid addition to this batter, you're going to see bubbles. Bubbles are all right at that stage. By the time you're done, this is going to be one thick, but light and fluffy batter and that's what you want. The bubbles will be teeny-tiny invisible little things that won't leave tunnels in your cake.

Trust me. 

That's it. It takes about half an hour to mix, another half an hour or so in the oven and you have cake. The Boy loves it and I think he has pretty good taste.

01 February 2011

Ah, Paradise! (And a Picture of Aunt Messy in a Bikini!)

Winter is not my favorite time of the year. You may have noticed this already. But it's all a matter of location. See, Chicago winters can be pretty dreary, and to avoid discrimination, just about every city that has regular snow can be pretty dreary in winter.

This year, though, the stars aligned! There were air miles, in-laws with an empty bedroom in a condo that they rented on Kauai and all of a sudden, I got a phone call from The Boy asking if I wouldn't mind going there for a visit.... I pretended to think about it for a grand total of a second before I yodeled, "Yes! Not just yes, hell yes! When do I leave!"

In the fullness of time, I left. And it is paradise. Make no mistake. 

Sunrise over Bali Hai. It was a little cloudy that day, but not for long.

The rocks at the beach at Lumahai. Even if you've never been there, you've seen this beach. The movie "South Pacific" was filmed there. It's considered one of the most beautiful beaches on Kauai, but it's also called "Lumadie" because it's very dangerous. No non-tourist would ever try and go in the water there and they particularly won't get up on the rocks.

See, there is no reef at Lumahai. Nor is there any form of shallow water or shelf going out off the beach. The waves break on shore and are incredibly powerful and violent. One writer pointed out that Kauai is nothing more than a mountain-top in the middle of the ocean, and Lumahai is proof of that.

There are warning signs all over the place. The Boy (a lifeguard in a former life) says that he would NEVER jump in and try and save someone because once you go it, that's it for you. The maytag catches you and your next stop is Japan.

It's my favorite place in the world. I think I caught some of the wave action in the next couple of pictures. It's mesmerizing to watch.

Remember the warning signs I told you about? Didja see the way the waves hit those rocks? Well, stupid is universal apparently, because the couple in the photo appear to have a death wish. As they were getting off the rocks, a massive wave hit and almost had them in the water. They were laughing, too dim to see just how lucky they got.

This intellectual bright light took his two small children to a space between one set of rocks and the next and stood in the water....

...where this happens... and thought it was grand fun. At this point it was about 3:00 p.m. we declared cocktail hour and left the beach. None of us said it, but the real reason we left is that we couldn't watch the dumb any more. This potential train wreck was too much.

Oh, and when this wave broke, the guy AND the two kids were in the water with it. See what I mean?

This will never put me off Lumahai, though. It's still my favorite place. My mother-in-law loves it so much that we've all been instructed to scatter her ashes there when the time comes.

I decided to head to another beach one day. This is a very small beach below the condos at Pali Ke Kua. There is a sandy beach, but the rocks are right off shore. Surfers and swimmers can only get into the water at one end, but the snorkelling is gorgeous and the waves are always good.

I decided to take my camera at low tide and (very, very carefully) explore the tidal pools. I say carefully because those rocks are a combination of lava and old coral. You can't be barefoot on them. Even the sand is very coarse, so surf socks are a must. It's so much fun that I went for a few minutes and stayed for two hours.

And here it is, kids, the photo you've all been waiting for... me in a bikini! And that's as much as you get to see, too.

The first time I went to Kauai the spiders creeped me out in a big way. They still do if they're big and in my face, but the webs are something else again. This is about the best photo I've taken of an orb web. It's a relatively small one, only a foot across.

Another perfect sunset over Bali Hai. Looking at postcards of this particular view (and there are a lot of them), you'd swear they were touched up because the whole thing looks sort of unreal, an idealization of what sunset should be. They aren't. This is it.

It was not easy to board that plane home, I can tell you. Now I'm planning the next trip out there.

(All photographs copyright 2011, all rights reserved.)