Category Archives: Food

Bread and wine

Or, more accurately, bread and pickles.

I love to bake just as much as I love to cook. Some people may think the two are the same thing – after all, you throw some ingredients together, heat it or cool it, and then you eat it, right?

Wrong.

There’s a saying that will tell discerning readers (or eaters, for that matter) a thing or two about the difference: cooking is an art. Baking is a science.

There’s a reason for this. Baking in general requires fairly exact proportions in order to come to an end result that is actually edible. Anyone who has accidentally dumped too much salt into a cookie recipe will know how things can go terribly awry in baking. With cooking, most mistakes are recoverable – that is, mistakes can often be worked around or dealt with in a way that still leaves you with something to eat.

Where is this all leading? Bread, of course. My favorite thing to bake and my favorite baked good to eat. In the past, I’ve generally done what most people would recognize as loaf-type breads: cinnamon-raisin, with or without the raisins, whole wheat or honey wheat, and so on. The doughs for these breads are firm and easy to work with. Having made all sorts of loaves before I went in for surgery last year, I wanted to try something different this time around. Something I’d never done before, with a dough type that I’d never handled. I chose ciabatta: a wet, sticky dough that requires some care in handling in order to get a good crumb (the inside of the bread, where all the holes are). Anyone who has eaten a sandwich on loaf bread knows that the holes are very small and very consistent. Not so on wet dough breads like ciabatta. The holes vary wildly throughout, and the bread itself feels airy when held: light in the hand, with a nice crust.

Since I am the adventurous type, I dove right in. After all, flour is cheap, and if the end result is awful, it goes into the trash and a new batch is made with an eye toward improving whatever went wrong the first (or second or third) time.

The bread begins with a starter dough. The first dough is made and then left to ferment anywhere from several hours to overnight. There are two options: a biga and a poolish. The latter is looser than the first, more liquid. Since my goal was experimenting with very loose, wet dough, I went with a poolish to begin. The poolish is mixed and then left at room temperature for 3-4 hours. Once it is bubbly, it goes to the refrigerator for anywhere from several hours to three days, to be pulled out about an hour before use. This is my poolish after about 12 hours in the refrigerator:

It is very wet, loose, and sticky, and goes into the second dough mixture. Working with the finished dough was quite interesting, and difficult. The idea behind this type of bread is not to “degas” the bread. The bubbles in the dough are what will form the crumb and give the holes discussed up above. After a couple of folds and resting periods, the dough was split into three loaves, stretched a bit, and folded again, then allowed to proof again. Once that’s completed, it’s baking time. The bread was baked directly on a stone, and cooks very quickly. The loaves took about 12 minutes each. You’re supposed to allow the bread to cool for 45 minutes before cutting, but there had to be a sacrificial loaf. This was the first cut – well, technically, it was the second, as my mom scooped up the first cut, slathered some butter on it, and ate it.

While I am not displeased with my first effort – the bread smells terrific and, according to the first taste tester, is delicious – I can see some room for improvement. The crumb is nicely developed, but could go a step or two further.

The irregular holes can be seen, but I’d like them to be larger and would like there to be more of them. I believe this is either the result of insufficient kneading or of losing too much gas during the folding processes. The dough is rustic, but I’m not thrilled with the folds I got, as there is a pronounced seam as well. Next time, I think I’ll do two slightly larger loaves rather than three smaller loaves. On the plus side, the dough is airy and the loaves are light. The crust is nicely formed and browned, courtesy of the steaming in the first few minutes of baking. So I’m going to tag this one as a partial success and continue to experiment with this dough. This first round will go well with Wednesday night’s dinner: filet mignon with lump crab and a bernaise, roasted asparagus with balsamic vinegar and parmigiano-reggiano, and spinach au gratin. I know, two greens in one dinner, but they were requests, and who am I to turn those down?

Aside from the baking experiment, I also made some pickles.

From left to right, those will be: sour garlic pickles, “firecrackers” (courtesy of Alton Brown), and bread and butter chips. The firecrackers just call for baby carrots, but I found some sweet peppers at the store, so I tossed a few in with the carrots after cutting a slit in the side of each one. I made the pickling mixture for each one, and poured it over the goodies in the jars.

Clockwise from the top, those are the firecrackers, with a few dried chiles added after the jar is filled, the bread and butter chips, and the sour garlic pickles. I would have liked to have done spears for the last, but was unable to find some decent sized cukes that would have been suitable, so chips again. Maybe as we get into the season we’ll have better luck with that. The pickles were all cooled to room temperature, then lidded and refrigerated. As with most pickled items, these will no doubt get better as they age, but I’m going to have my tasters sample them Wed. night. There will be plenty of pickles around here down the road – I’m a huge pickle fan, and not just pickled cukes – so I’ll be able to do my own tasting 24 hours into a pickle at some point. I’d like to do a pickle of other veggies, like a cauliflower and red pepper pickle, maybe with some red onion. I think that would be rather tasty.

Tonight: a fabulous dinner. I’ll definitely take a couple of pictures of this one for your viewing pleasure.

Ribs, redux

Since my dear friend missed the first round of ribs – through no fault of her own, I might add, as outside influences conspired to keep her away – and since they were such a hit the last time around, I decided that Saturday would be a good day to go another round with the smoker, and see if the previous success could be recreated.

As faithful readers would know, in our last rib episode, we had ribs and zucchini gratin. Those menu items were repeated today. I made a few tweaks to the rib rub to incorporate slightly less of the chili powder and add some ginger and allspice instead. Llikewise, I made a couple of tweaks to the gratin to make the sauce a bit thicker and experimented with a larger grating of the gruyere – the sauce was a winner, but I liked the look of the microplane grated cheese versus the box grater, so the next time I’ll return to that.

In the meantime, one sister, who has been dictating the menus, is going to be wrapped up in her two jobs and church (Catholic, you know) until after Easter, so I am taking requests from others within the fam and the immediate circle for items to include on the menu. Filet mignon came up while we were sitting around the table talking in the after-eating portion of the dinner program. That will probably make an appearance on the next cooking day, once I decide what to serve with it. Heck, it might even be nice to have some lump crab in a beurre blanc with the steak itself. You never know. But what sides? Main dishes are so much easier to come up with that suitable sides for them, for some reason. Why is that?

What’s on your plate?

On mine, of course, there is nothing. On others’, though…

Tonight’s menu: shrimp scampi with angel hair pasta, bruschetta with mozarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, and garlic, and sauteed zucchini, squash, and mushrooms.

Good food, good friends, good conversation. What else could someone ask for, really? Exept a maid to clean up the kitchen afterwards?

Very little in the way of leftovers, although there was enough that one sister took a bit over to her boyfriend. No pictures, either, sad to say, because it looked (and smelled) great.

I do believe it will be time for another rib run soon. And my sister came up with the next menu:

Blackened mahi
Salad
Stuffed tomatoes
Brown rice

I’m wondering if I could get away with subbing pilaf for the rice. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind as long as it tasted good.

Casing the joint

Not for nefarious purposes. For food purposes, naturally, as if thought of anything else manages to penetrate this thick skull.

For awhile now – probably from just before I had to stop eating solid food – I’ve wanted to make my own sausage. Commercial sausage isn’t horrible in most cases, and the store-made sausage from Publix is generally better, but there’s just something special about making something from scratch on your own. It’s the same reason I bake and the same reason I have a (vegetable) garden when I have the chance: it’s about having something grow under your ministrations, as careful with your new creation, as tender (or firm) with it as you would be with a child. The goal is the same: to raise something – or someone – of which you can be justifiably proud, that will serve to nourish others in a variety of ways, both bodily and mentally.

But back to the sausage. Really, it isn’t difficult to do this on your own. A bit time-consuming, to be sure, and temperature control of the meat is important so as not to have the finished product separate into grainy bits when cooked. Casings aren’t even strictly necessary, since the meat can be formed into patties instead. Since we want to have the full experience, however, and since we do have a grinder/stuffer attachment for the trusty KitchenAid, we’ll be giving it a go and stuffing casings with whatever mixture appears on our radar. My mom loves sweet Italian sausage, so I’ve put that first on my list. Other variations will no doubt follow, and I have a sense that I’ll be foisting sausages off on random strangers just to get them out of the house.

If you’ve any interest in sausage, curing, or smoking, I’d highly recommend the book Charcuterie, published late last year. I ran across a mention of it on the eGullet forums about two weeks ago and finally broke down and ordered it last week. It’s a cookbook, how could I resist? An excellent addition to the library.

Now batting: S. Scampi

I decided to deviate from my sister’s request list for Thursday night. Not out of disagreement with anything she would like to see on her plate, of course. Only because while I was picking up a prescription at Publix, I decided to wander past the seafood case. Shrimp scampi with angel hair pasta and bruschetta popped into my mind while I was looking, and since I’m easily swayed by menu suggestions at the moment, I got a couple pounds of shrimp. When I told my sister – the same one tossing out the “can you make that”, the same one who refuses to eat any sort of meat on the bone – she informed me that she doesn’t eat shrimp with pasta. No problem, says I, ever amenable and flexible, we’ll just serve them separately, and you can have the shrimp by itself. Can’t eat it, she says. Too much butter. She also won’t eat bread because she’s trying to watch her carbs for the upcoming swimuit season. This from a girl who has an athlete’s body and weighs maybe 117 soaking wet.

So it will be something else for her. I just need to figure it out. In the meantime, my mom and my other sister will happily share the main dish, and if my brother wasn’t such a rube, he’d be here to enjoy it as well.

The finished products

The problem with not being able to eat is not being able to taste this stuff. When no one is around or immediately available, it’s impossible to get a victim to taste test it before anyone else eats it.

The ribs came off the smoker after about 4.5 hours.

The meat has pulled away from the bone.

I pulled a portion to look at before everyone was home/awake, to see how the first time rib smoking worked out for me. It worked: nice smoke ring.

More cuts, as the fam began arriving.

Nice and juicy.

And did I mention the zucchini gratin? Still bubbling, right out of the oven.

Dinner, anyone?

Smokin’

Pulled the slabs from the brine and gave them a quick shower.

The rub.

The rub has: salt, brown sugar, paprika, onion powder, cayenne, garlic powder, cumin, chipotle chili powder, black pepper, mustard powder.

The first slab received a massage of coarse-ground prepared mustard.

And then a generous dose of the rub.

The other two slabs received rub only, and all three are ready to go.

A couple of water pans under the grates, some nicely burning charcoal and some hickory on the fire, and the slabs go on the smoker.

Now, it’s just a matter of minding the temperature and being patient. The first will probably be much easier than the second.

Slabby

There’s nothing like a nice slab of pork.

Three slabs of ribs.

Membrane? Gone.

Into the brine for about an hour. Once done with this step, I’ll pull them out, give them a rinse, then sprinkle them with rub and let them sit for about another hour. And then? Smokin’ time.

Saucy

Today is smoking day. While the ribs will have a rub, there’s always the issue of sauces. For this, sauces go on the side, and whoever wants some can pour their own. For some people, that means out of a bottle from the store. For us, that means some homemade sauce. I had intended to make several different kinds, but the cupboard conspired against me. The sweet/smoky sauce is the winner in this race.

Some ingredients, but not all.

The beginning, before the ketchup goes in.

After the ketchup, and a few minutes simmering:

The sauce is sweet to start, and then finishes with a bite. I actually tasted it – the first tomato-based anything I’ve tasted in more than six months. No tongue burn (hooray) and I got exactly the sensation my mother did when she tasted it (hooray again). Progress.

Menus, dictated

I tend to work with FoodTV on in the background. For awhile, when it was rerun after rerun, I had switched over to watching all the Law & Orders that were on various channels throughout the day. Now that I’ve caught up on those, it’s back to FTV.

The other day, Everyday Italian is on when one of my sisters breezes through. She stops for a moment, points to the tv, and says, “Can you make that? Let’s have that for dinner.”

“That” happened to be chicken cacciatore.

“Surely, ” says I. “When?”

We all compare schedules and decide that Thursday is best. Since my little brother has forgotten the cardinal rule – sponge off your family as long as you possibly can before moving out – and is leaving for Orlando on Friday, we’ll consider it a going-away dinner for him. Piece of cake, I think, and start putting together my recipe and my grocery list.

So I invite a dear friend over, and that makes five total for whom I’m cooking. That turns into six when one of the girls invites her boyfriend, then seven when the other invites hers, then eight when my mom informs me she’s invited a friend of the family.

No problem.

The boyfriends also brought along their respective dogs – three, total.

Have I mentioned yet what a madhouse it is when the family starts getting together?

So, Thursday’s menu was: chicken cacciatore, risotto with parmigiano-reggiano, steamed broccoli, and salad (which my sister made).

No photos of this one because I was running out of gas by the end and they were all hungry. The reviews were excellent, and one day I’ll be able to actually eat the food I’m cooking. One of my sisters took some of the chicken to work, where her boss termed it (and I quote) “Fucking kick-ass chicken”. I’ll put that one in the plus column. She also received a request from one of her coworkers to bring some in. At least the letovers won’t go to waste.

For tomorrow: barbeque sauces, the rub for the ribs, and some fresh foccacia. Sunday: an hour or so in the brine for the ribs, and then we be smokin’!