Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Because You Don't Know Until You Do

 It's been a busy couple of weeks in our house.  In Homestead news, one of our chickens developed a prolapsed cloaca.  Don't google images of that, it's disgusting.  I think it was because she was low on calcium, which can cause a chicken's muscles to lose tension and things that ought to be on the inside of them start hanging out on the outside.  Then these things need to be cleaned and swabbed with a mixture of honey, preparation H, and Neosporin, before being tucked back on the inside of the chicken(a lot of research went into this, I didn't just jam preparation H in there mindlessly).  I've never been so grateful for gloves.  We had to isolate the chicken during her treatment because if other chickens see anything that looks like blood or innards, they will go crazy and peck at the affected chicken until they have cannibalized her.  We told the other chickens she was at the spa.  For the past week she's been in a cozy little house of her own in the garage, and during the first few days of this the other two white chickens would stay outside the chicken coop long after dark, looking for her.  At least that's what I told Aaron I thought they were doing.  Yesterday everything stayed inside that ought to, and then she laid an egg and everything still stayed inside.  Today I let her outside(outside of the chicken run) and she kept pacing along the fence line of the chicken run like she wanted to get back in there real bad, and since her bum was back to normal I decided to let her get reacquainted with her sister chickens.  I was worried they might peck at her after all that time away, but no one really seemed to notice and then Pluck(that's what we've decided to name her after witnessing her heroism throughout her ordeal) went straight into the chicken coop and hopped into the nesting box.  I know because I followed her. 

What's interesting is that before, I could only tell one of our white chickens apart because she has a spikey comb while the other two have soft, floppy combs, but I couldn't tell the difference between the soft floppy two.  After a week of close contact with one of the chickens, she now looks as indivudual to me as if she were painted bright purple.  When you've shared certain intimacies with a chicken, you can pick her out of a crowd.  That sort of thing creates a bond, you know?

All of this was not very picturesque, so I decided to post some pictures of a table Aaron built for a breakfast nook.  Not our breakfast nook.  We don't have one of those.  I told him I might not be okay with him building furniture for other women, because when I saw this table I thought "Damn, no wonder I've had that man's babies." 
Here's the sexiest part: there is no metal hardware in the table.  Aaron made the whole thing from hand-chosen pieces of walnut, and no screws or nails.  Just his bare man hands.  It is satiny smooth, sanded down layer by layer using the entire range of sandpaper grit.  Also: this was Aaron's very first table.  So we are both doing things we never have before, and I like when life's challenges teach you new skills because you don't know how to treat a prolapsed cloaca until you do, and then it's knowledge in your back pocket for the next time you find a bulging mass of inside stuff on the outside of a chicken. 

We also got our carpet cleaned a few days before Thanksgiving, and all this new and improved grooming is putting a little extra spring in everyones' step.

I have some thoughts about Thanksgiving which I will share a little later because I'm making more turkey.  This year I used a dry brine, and even though I only had 24 hours instead of the prescribed 72 AND I overcooked the turkey, it was still the best turkey I've ever had.  So I'm doing it again for the proper three days and hopefully not overcooking it, and I'll report back here.  For now I have to go obsessively vacuum my carpet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Trying to Hold Out

 This year I broke out the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack far earlier than I intended.  My only defense is that it was a stormy, cold day, Aaron worked from home that morning and built a fire and it just felt kind of right.  The other day though, Aaron gently suggested to me that I should give it a rest so we're not tired of it by Christmas.  My cousin Kayleigh is flying out to spend Thanksgiving with me(commence squealing and rolling around on the floor, which is what I do when overwhelmed by unspeakable joy) so I have resolved not to play any more Charlie Brown Christmas until she's here and we're making pumpkin pie. 
 As you can see, we have plenty of Fall decorations up: our leaf garland and lights on the fireplace, some leaf prints the boys and I made on fabric on the dining room wall, candles and pumpkins on the dining room table and a Platter of Nature with a candle on the coffee table.  The other thing you can see is that I don't dust.  Ssh.
Despite my resolve, I couldn't resist these beautiful sprigs of holly.  They were just right there in my back yard, beckoning, and they look so pretty against my white curtains and gray walls.  I have all kinds of plans to do a proper Advent this year, starting with actually completing a set of Jesse Tree ornaments.  The boys have been super into painting lately, so I want to get a bunch of tiny square canvases and have them paint all the symbols for our Jesse Tree. 

Other things that have happened: Matteas got some really terrible blisters after he got water in his boots at the beach the other day.  The blisters became swollen, bulging orbs of puss surrounded by angry red halos of infection.  I lanced them and soaked his feet in warm salt water with tea tree oil several times a day, with bandaids and Neosporin in between soaks and the angry red halos have receded, the puss is no more.  I feel like a shaman.  Or just a really bad-ass mama. 

I finally caught one of the colds that the boys have been circulating for the past six weeks.  No joke, someone has had some kind of cold symptom for the entire month of October through the present day.  Aaron still has a cough, the boys both have runny noses and for the past two days I've had a nasty sore throat.  Aaron brought me pho for dinner last night and I've been drinking gallons of tea, as well as mugs of hot water with fresh ginger, lemon, honey and cayenne.  It's actually quite tasty and I'm feeling a little better today despite waking up at 7:30.  I got in bed with some tea and the laptop last night and watched an episode of Desperate Housewives, but since I never watch the show I had no idea what was going on.  It seemed a lot like the only other episode of that show I've ever seen, only this time someone else was dead and someone else has an alcohol problem.  I think that show's motto is "What goes around comes around."  It was less than compelling, but I kind of enjoyed the voyeurism. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shrimp and Sugar Snap Peas with Peanut Sauce

Aaron and I had separate errands to run this morning, so I took Jack and he took Matteas, and afterwards we met up at Costco.  When the shopping was all done and we brought our haul home, we were both starving and Aaron had someplace to be in 45 minutes.  This lunch was the perfect solution, and I will definitely be making it again even if I have all the time in the world.  I didn't actually time myself, but if I had to guess I'd say the elapsed time from defrosting the shrimp to plating was a maximum of 20 minutes.  If you avoid peanuts and wheat, substitute tamari sauce for the soy and cashew butter for the peanut butter. 

I made my rice in a rice cooker while I prepared the shrimp, but brought the water to a boil in a kettle first.  I find this cuts the cooking time in half and my rice was perfectly cooked by the time I'd finished the shrimp.  I made one cup of dry rice for two people, and the serving above was the portion leftover.  If you don't have sugar snap peas on hand, substitute with any quick-cooking vegetable or combination of vegetables, such as snow peas, thinly sliced bell pepper, or bok choy.  This sauce would be phenomenal with asparagus come spring time, but if you went ahead and bought asparagus out of season I would totally not judge you.  If you want a visually stunning garnish, sprinkle each serving with black sesame seeds.

Shrimp and Sugar Snap Peas with Peanut Sauce
Serves two for dinner or three for lunch

30 shrimp, raw, tail-on(about a pound, depending on the size of your shrimp)
1 cup fresh sugar snap peas
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 scallions, chopped

For the Sauce
1/3 cup creamy natural peanut butter(no Skippy or sugar added brands)
1 TB soy sauce
1 inch grated fresh ginger root
1/2 tsp. Chinese hot mustard
2 TB water
A few dashes sesame oil

If your shrimp are frozen like mine were, defrost them in a colandar under cold running water.

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small mixing bowl and set aside.

Heat a little oil(olive, vegetable, coconut) in a saute pan over medium-high heat.  When it's hot, add the sugar snap peas and saute for about a minute.  Remove the peas into a bowl.

Return the pan to the heat, making sure there is still enough oil in the pan to just coat the bottom.  When the oil is hot, add the shrimp in a single layer.  After about 30 seconds, add the garlic and toss the shrimp around to flip them.  Immediately add the peanut sauce(the shrimp won't be completely pink), add the peanut sauce and the sauteed sugar snap peas and toss to coat.  Let everything cook together for 30-60 seconds, just until the sauce is heated through and the shrimp are finished cooking  Remove from the heat and sprinkle with the chopped scallions.  Serve over brown rice.  This is delicious with sriracha.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Caramelized Leeks

 As an eater, one of my pet peeves is to see food used in a way that fails to utilize its full flavor potential.  One of the ways in which I see this happen most often is the under-cooking of onions and leeks: too pale, too raw, too crunchy, too sad.  A lot of people I know think they either don't like cooking or aren't good at it, but most of the time I think the real problem is that they lack the right information, and maybe proper confidence and time.
 I'm not going to lie: properly caramelized leeks take time.  An astonishing amount, actually.  Like forty minutes.  For one leek.  It is, however, one of those time-consuming things that is really worth the effort and can change the way you feel about your while life, at least during breakfast. 

The first thing to do with a leek is clean it, as they are grown in very sandy soil that can get into their crevices.  Slice the leek in half from top to bottom, then gently rinse each half under cold running water.  Usually the outer layers will be the dirtiest, so pay careful attention to those.  Do your best to dry them, because water is the enemy of caramelization.  Slice them into uniform crescents, and put them in a pan drizzled with olive oil and a little butter over low heat.  Don't touch them for ten whole minutes.  TEN WHOLE MINUTES.  If you have a husband who suffers from the compulsion to stir any cooking thing he walks by without regard to the delicate and vital process that is happening, keep him out of the kitchen. 
 After ten minutes, the leeks should look like this: beginning to soften and picking up some nice(but not too much) color.  If the leeks are looking dry or like they're becoming crispy, add a little more oil or butter.  You don't want them too dry or they'll fry crisp, but neither do you want them swimming in fat because that will just steam them.  While we're on the subject of steam, don't crowd the pan.  You will never be able to caramelize anything properly if the pan is too full.

Continue the process of stirring only once every ten minutes, adding more oil/butter when necessary, until the leeks are golden and soft, about forty minutes.
A pan full of pleasure.
 See now, wasn't that worth the wait? 
And if you've got some ham, zucchini, oven-roasted grape tomatoes and a fried egg, go right ahead and introduce them to your beautifully caramelized leeks.  Other good places for them would be an omelet or frittata, a potato gratin(or anything made of potatoes), in soup, spooned over roasted chicken, or anyplace you need something earthy, sweet and satisfying. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Aaron's Birthday Torte

I didn't mean to become a once-a-month blogger, but a lot has been going on lately.  September came and life got crazy busy, and it doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon although we're in more of a groove now than we were at first.  I do not excel at being super scheduled, but I've been enjoying the rhythm and structure that standing commitments provide.  In addition to soccer, the boys have started swim lessons and somehow working around those two commitments(which fall on three of our weekdays) seems to fill up all our days.  I like having things divided up into Days We Have to be Someplace and Days When Our Time is Our Own; it's not like we stayed home all the time before, but somehow having to be in a specific place at a specific time makes everything that happens before and after it feel more structured.

Speaking of specific times, Aaron turned 33 on Monday.  We are still keeping up our Monday Night Football soup tradition, which involves anywhere from 1-10 people(though usually just 1-2) coming over to watch football and me making a giant pot of soup.  Since Aaron's birthday fell on a Monday this year, I told him we could have Monday Night Football: Birthday Edition, or he could just choose whatever day or meal he wanted and I would make it for him.  Given free reign over my culinary arsenal, Aaron chose beef stew and flourless chocolate cake.  I tell you, it doesn't take much to make that man happy. 

I knew exactly who I wanted to consult about the flourless chocolate cake.  A few years ago, Anna gave me a copy of Fran Bigelow's Pure Chocolate.  It's one of those really beautiful cookbooks that is both well-written and well-photographed, so much so that you can curl up on the couch with it and read it from cover to cover.  What is even more remarkable about my love for this book is that I don't really care for chocolate or dessert in general, but I still think Fran's recipes are amazing.  As I was working on this torte, I realized that it's largely due to the color and texture of chocolate; it doesn't just feel like cooking, it feels like making art.  Thick, dark, velvety and lustrous, melted chocolate brings me all the satisfaction of really luxurious fingerpaint.  Add in the fact that often there is a lot of science involved, and you have my full attention.  I ate fully three bites of this torte, so I know it tastes good.  If you're into that kind of thing.

Flourless Chocolate Torte with Cayenne Pepper
Adapted from Fran Bigelow

1 1/4 pounds good quality semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 pound(2 sticks) salted butter
6 eggs
2 TB sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Butter a 9 inch round cake pan.  Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and butter the parchment.

Melt the chocolate over low heat in a double boiler(to make one, place  stainless steel bowl over a saucepan of simmer water, making sure the water doesn't touch the bowl).  When the chocolate is nearly melted and only a few lumps remain, remove it from the heat and add the sugar, vanilla and cayenne.  Stir until smooth. 

Whip the eggs until fluffy and tripled in volume, about five minutes(if you have a free-standing mixer, whip them on high and set a timer for five minutes while you're melting the chocolate). 

When the eggs are whipped and the chocolate has cooled slightly(it should be warm but not hot to the touch), fold in the eggs gently until the eggs are well incorporated.  You'll lose a lot of the volume at this stage, but that's okay.  Pour the batter into your prepared pan. 

Place your 9 inch cake pan inside a larger, flat-bottomed pan(a rimmed cookie sheet or larger round cake pan works well) and pour simmering water into the larger pan, enough to come halfway up the side of the 9 inch cake pan.  Bake at 300 degrees for 30-35 minutes.  When the torte is finished the top should look dull, but the cake will jiggle slightly when you give the pan a gentle shimmy.  If you pull the torte out too soon the center will fall as it cools, but if you leave it in too long it will dry out. 

Cool the torte in the pan on  a rack for at least an hour.  When the torte has cooled, run a thin bladed knife around the edge.  Place a round of parchment cut to the same size as the cake on top of the cake, then place a cooling rack on top of the torte, press the cake pan and rack together firmly and invert.  If the torte seems a little stuck, gently tap the bottom of the pan until it comes loose.  Chill in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.

This torte is so rich in can be served as-is, but if you're into gilding the lily you can cover it in:

Chocolate Ganache

4 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream

Place the cream in a double boiler over simmering water and stir until melted.  Let cool slightly before using. 

To prepare your work space, place a sheet of foil on a counter.  Put the rack with the cooled torte over the foil so the foil catches any drips of ganache.  Working quickly, pour the ganache over the center of the torte.  Using an offset spatula, gently push the ganache over the edges of the torte so it drips down the sides.  If you have any gaps, use a small spatula to cover the them. 

ganache in a ziploc bag and cut a very tiny hole in one corner of the bag.  Carefully pipe three circles of white ganache around the outside edge of the torte, leaving about 1/4 inch between circles.  Don't worry if the circles aren't perfectly straight, you're going to mess them up anyway.  Starting at the top line of ganache, use a toothpick to draw figure 8's continuously making sure to come all the way down through the bottom line.  Without picking up your toothpick, gently drag your toothpick out to the side and back up to the top, leaving enough room to write enough figure eight directly to the right of the one you just made.  It sounds confusing, but your hand will find a rhythm.  I recommend practicing on a piece of paper with a pen.  Don't worry if your lines are wobbly, it's not an exact science and it will still come out looking really pretty. 

Note: Make sure to do the figure 8 work while the ganache is still warm.  If your base layer of ganache sets too quickly or doesn't spread evenly, you can soften it up very carefully by running a hairdryer over it briefly.  Make sure not to have the hairdryer too close or the ganache will splatter as it warms.