Saturday, January 30, 2010

Baking Powder

I remember back in the very early days I mentioned how I wasn't going to make Baking Powder unless I was given reason to believe that the Apocalypse was immenent... however at that time I didn't know that it was actually the easiest thing I would have to make and not only did it not require a chemistry set and a trip to a mineral mine, it didn't even require a trip to the store. I already had all of the ingredients in my cabinets and I bet you do too.

1 Tablespoon baking soda
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespooncream of tartar

Mix together and store in an airtight container. I put mine in a tiny (clean)  glass jar that had once held plum jam.
Apparently most commercially produced baking powder contains aluminum. I'm not sure what ingesting aluminum will do to you, but my gut says it's probably not great whatever it is, so this is a good way to insure you're keeping that out of your system.

Marinara Sauce

I made a marinara sauce tonight for the second time. I made this same recipe about a week ago and it was so delicious and fresh tasting that I kept eating it by the spoonful when I was trying to put it away. Tonight I just made it after dinner to use up some carrots and celery that were on the verge of going off, so I haven't actually tasted it yet, but I am hopeful that it is just as good. I found the recipe on the food network website. It's a Giada di Laurentis recipe. She's Italian, so I'm thinking it's reasonably authentic and she's very upbeat and smiley, which drives my brother Mike crazy, but I don't mind it.

I have encountered chunky marinara with carrots and celery before, in fact I think I have even improvised sauces in the past with green peppers, carrots, onions and tomatoes when I have not had a jar of sauce on hand, but I have always thought of marinara as a catch all name for tomato-based pasta sauce. I'm still unclear as to whether that is the case, or if "Spaghetti Sauce", the traditional Ragu style tomato puree with garlic, basil and oregano would be considered something different. What I have learned is that marinara sauce originated with sailors in Naples in the 16th century, after the Spaniards introduced them to the tomato. The word marinara is derived from marinaro, which is Italian for “of the sea.” Because of this, many people believe it includes some type of fish or seafood. However, marinara sauce loosely translates as “the sauce of the sailors,” because it was a meatless sauce extensively used on sailing ships before modern refrigeration techniques were invented. Because the high acid content of the tomatoes and the absence of any type of meat fat resulted in a sauce which would not easily spoil, marinara sauces were particularly appealing to the cooks on these ships.

I'm reprinting the recipe just as Giada wrote it, but I think you can take quite a bit of liberty with it. For instance, the first time I made it I had no celery. This time I used three garlic cloves, because I like a lot of garlic and three carrots because I needed to use all of them and they were small. I think next time I will add green peppers. You could also do crushed red-pepper, I might do that with a serving when I reheat it. It's very nice with polenta, as well as pasta and quite good all on it's own.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 (32-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
2 dried bay leaves
In a large casserole pot, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and 1/2 teaspoon of each salt and pepper. Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and bay leaves, and simmer uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 1 hour. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Season the sauce with more salt and pepper, to taste. (The sauce can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, then cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat before using.)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Catch up and DRs Birthday

Oh my, a lot of food has been made since I last wrote. Most of it pretty banal, but all of it from scratch. I have been struggling with motivation on a level that shouldn't already be a problem so early in the year, so close to the making of New Years resolutions, resolutions that haven't even been given enough of a chance to fail. I read somewhere that it takes a month to break or start a habit, and now four months (almost) into this project, the making of the food is the new normal. There are so many things that don't even feel like effort any more, like making bread or granola. Even yogurt is only a mild effort. I finally had to make baking powder, and it really couldn't have been easier. I did have a totally unsuccessful go at making sour cream for DR's birthday chili, which was weird because I made it over the Christmas holiday and it worked out fine. But I guess I'll have to revisit that to see what went wrong. It was probably the fact that we were having guests, DRs friends who already think I am a little nutty came over to play poker, and partake of the weird set of snacks that result from trying to stay within the rules. There was an olive tray (remember the olive amendment), that included pickled okra left over from Thanksgiving, Tex-Mex Chili with tortilla chips which were made by cutting into triangles and frying corn tortillas that have been in our fridge since September (I didn't mention this to the guests), guacamole (this falls under the handmade by someone else rule - they make it fresh at Figueroa Produce), the sour cream that never set, nuts, and yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

I revisited the cake recipe from Baby J's birthday and set out with such high hopes that I was correcting all my previous mistakes. I bought actual pastry flour, assembled it while Baby J was sleeping so that he wouldn't distract me from combining the ingredients in the proper order, carefully sifted the flour, everything was going so well. It all started to fall apart when I tried to use the roasting rack in place of a cooling rack and totally split the first layer all to pieces.

I was devastated, but the second came layer out perfectly,

and DR was able to frost them so you couldn't tell at all, so I was sure that crisis had been averted and it was going to be wonderful, (my sampling of warm, broken piece was wonderful as only warm, broken pieces can be). But when it came to eating it actual slices of cake it was dry as dirt. The frosting was great, but I think the cake was even worse than the first one. I am blaming the flour. I was so excited to find actual Pastry Flour that I didn't take in that it was whole wheat pastry flour. (I'm also easily seduced by promises of making things that are delicious and better for you at the same time.)

It has come to my attention that whole wheat flour sucks moisture out of baked goods at significantly higher rate than white flour. I guess I thought it being pastry flour meant that it self corrected for the whole wheat aspect. I would like to test the theory of making it again with the an additional egg yolk and a little more milk, but I can't bear the possibility of another disappointment just yet. And it is quite a bit of cake for two adults to have around the house... and no matter how dry and awful it is, somehow I still end up eating it. The whole adventure was not lost, however because I got to test a little bit of knowledge passed on to me by my sister KK at Christmastime... Before shopping for the cake and frosting I noted that we had a box of powdered/confectioners sugar left over from the cake I made in December, so I didn't buy anymore. I didn't note that I need 3 cups of it, and that the 4 cup box was 3/4 empty. But in discussing making some dessert for Christmas, KK mentioned that you can make confectioners sugar by putting regular sugar in a coffee grinder.

The name powdered sugar should have tipped me off, that it's just sugar, powdered. Anyway, this was a thrilling discovery that worked out great, though it was pretty time consuming making sure all the grains were ground up. I had to grind it in batches, and run each batch through twice. But the frosting was delicious, so at least something worked out. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Train Adventure Part Two

For my birthday last week we finally went on another train adventure. I just read my posting about our first train adventure back in November and my ambitious plans to go on the second one a week later... well two months later... better than two years I guess.

It was another beautiful day, cool and sunny and bright. This is why we love Los Angeles. Growing up my birthday usually involved ice storms and muddy puddles from snow melting off boots indoors, not than walking around outside in short sleeves and sunglasses.

We started off at the first stop of the extension, Little Tokyo/Arts District. This is the last stop before the train goes over the LA River into East LA. It is also the one neighborhood with which I am already somewhat familiar. As you might guess it is mostly as Japanese area with a great Japanese grocery store, a bunch of noodle shops and sushi joints as well as a Japanese mall. As the stop name also implies, this area also consists of a bunch of converted warehouses that serve as artist studios, performance spaces and trendy restaurants. For this adventure we kept the hipness factor at a minimum and just checked out a French café located in a strip mall on Second Street called Frances Bakery & Coffee.

There's a tiny little dining room, with a sort of Asian-French Colonial/hole in the wall feel to it. We ordered the Napoleon and a piece of cinnamon walnut coffee cake and a cup of coffee. I was worried about the coffee, because you never know in this type of place... but it was sufficiently rich and dark (although the free refill was a bit burnt).

The cakes were delicious. The napoleon was rich and creamy, and the coffee cake had a lovely and surprising hint of coconut. Even DR liked it and he usually hates coconut. I would definitley go back there if I were in the neighborhood. In reading online, it sounds like they are really known for their macaroons. So I'm going to try to keep that in mind.

We decided to walk over the First Street Bridge to the next stop, which was Pico/Aliso. This one only had one restaurant listed in the article, a hipster pizza joint, and as I said we were leaving hipster pursuits to another day, so we just jumped on the train here and road it out to Indiana, which is fourth from the end, and the next one in after we left off on Train Adventure One. Here we walked around El Mercado, which is a three story open market. There is a supermarket, all kinds of food vendors (if by all kinds you mean everything from tacos to tamales) and stalls selling a lot of crap... cheap toys, kitchy mexican clothing and tchotckes, etc. I mostly enjoyed looking at the supermarket. I'm sure some of the food is great, but we had our sites on some other places so we just looked around.

Next we went across the street to Tamales Lilianas where we had two tamales, pork & green chilis and cheese & pepper sticks.  They were both delicious. Baby J enjoyed the pork very much... the cheese and pepper was a little too much for spice for his delicate palate, but we are working on getting him into spicy food, little by little. I forgot to take a picture of the tamales, but here is the place. The guy working behind the counter was wonderfully friendly. I think he might have been the owner. They have a fancier restaurant on Cesar Chavez, I'd like to check that one out sometime.

Then we hopped back on the train heading west to Soto. The train goes underground for two stops here, and this is by far the coolest station on the whole route. It's blue, grey and white with doves flying over maps and a nest with an egg light over the center. I'll try to take some pictures next time I am there. We realized when we came out of this stop, that we should have walked from Tamales Liliana's because all the restaurants listed for Soto where really between the two stops, and about 10 blocks to the East. We decided instead of doubling back we would just walk down First Street toward the next stop and see what we came across. We ended up chatting with aguy who runs an arts community center there for a while. He said we should have walked down Cesar Chavez, parallel to the north, it has a lot more life on it, but we were running out of steam at this point, so we decided to save that for another day. Our last stop was La Placita del D.F., a teeny, tiny hole in the wall restaurant that specializes in cemitas poblanos, which is a Mexican sandwich with meat (we chose milanese - which is pounded steak, breaded and fried), white cheese, avocado, string cheese and cabbage on a buttered sesame bun. This is messy, fatty, deliciousness. We took a picture of it, but somehow it got deleted. I guess I will have to go back...

There are still dozens of places left to try along this route, so I am looking forward to Train Adventure Part Three. Hopefully it won't be months before we get to it.

Sehr gute Kartoffeln

My parents were married in Offenback, Germany and lived there for the first year of their marriage. In the square outside their apartment there was a man who came everyday and sold potatoes out of the back of a van. "Sehr gute Kartoffeln! Ein mark zwanzig!" He would call out. This means "Very good potatoes! One mark, twenty!"

Everyone in my family uses this expression whenever discussing good potatoes. It is the one German phrase we feel confident using. I know a few other niceties, yes, no, please, thank you, some numbers... but none of that is as useful as a phrase for very good potatoes, and today I have for you a recipe for Sehr gute Kartoffeln indeed.

I found this recipe on the blog Chocolate & Zucchini, which is written by Clothide Dusoulier who edited the English version of my current cookbook obsession, I Know How to Cook. She found the recipe on the blog of her friend Pascale, who got the recipe from her British mother-in-law. These potatoes dispute the argument that the Brits don't know good food. Pascale's blog is in French, and while I know a bit more than "trés bonne pommes de terre" in French, I don't quite trust myself to follow French instructions properly. I run into more than my share of recipe misunderstandings in English.

So here it is, a brilliant little secret passed around Western Europe and United States that will make your roasted potatoes crispy on the outside and soft and delicious on the inside.

Preheat the oven to 410º F

You can use any kind of potatoes you choose. I used Yukon Gold. If you use something with a rough skin, like a russet, you will probably want to peel them. If the skin is smooth, you can just scrub all the dirt off and peel alternate stripes, leaving them half-peeled. Then cut the potatoes into bite sized chunks. Place them in a saucepan large enough to accommodate them, cover with cold water, and add a teaspoon coarse salt. Set over high heat, cover, bring to a low boil, then lower the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes.

Once the water is boiling and the oven pre-heated put a baking sheet with about 2 tablespoons of oil, or whatever type of fat you would like to use for roasting in the oven, so the fat and baking sheet will heat up.

After the 5 minutes of boiling, drain the potatoes and return them to the saucepan. Place a lid on the saucepan. Holding the lid firmly shut with both hands (the saucepan will be hot, so wear oven mitts or use dish towels), shake the saucepan vigorously for a few seconds, until the surface of the potato chunks is fuzzy; this will help the formation of a crust.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven, pour the potatoes onto the sheet, sprinkle with sea salt, and stir well to coat with the fat.

Return to the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, flipping the potatoes halfway through, until cooked through, crusty, and golden. If you want a little more color on them, you can switch to grill mode for the final few minutes.

Serve immediately.

Friday, January 15, 2010

White Sauce (Sauce Blanche)

This is also from I Know How to Cook (Je Sais Cuisiner), my new Frenchie cookbook. This is the most basic roux-based sauce, sort of the very base of French cooking.

2 heaping tablespoons butter
1/3 cup flour
Generous 2 cups hot water (I just noticed this says "hot" water, I don't know if it made a big difference, but I used cold)
Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a pan. Stir in flour and cook for 2-3 minutes to form a paste. (I think I had the heat up too high, because once the butter melted it kind of started to boil right away, and when I put the flour in it got lumpy right away.) Gradually add the hot water, stirring all the time to prevent lumps from forming. (I managed to get all the lumps out using a whisk) Simmer for 10 minutes. Since the absorbency of flours can vary, it is difficult to specify the exact quantity of liquid needed, so add just enough water to achieve the required consistency (which is what?). Season with salt and pepper.

It turned out fine, but it was not as if I could close my eyes and feel transported to Burgundy by the taste of it.

Celery Root with Cream (Céleri-Rave a la Creme)

I had never seen and only vaguely heard of celery root before last month. I was in the supermarket in Omaha with my mom and we saw this crazy looking thing on the shelves.

I am always intrigued by new vegetables, but we already had our hands full with the Christmas cooking and everyone having the flu and not eating anyway, so I passed it up for the time being. Then when I returned home I came across it again at my local Figueroa Produce, so I snapped it up and thought I'd figure out what to do with it once I got home. An attack of laziness and outside dining engagements caused the poor root to languish in my fridge for almost a week. Finally last night I found a recipe in my new Frenchie cookbook that called for ingredients that I had on hand (mostly). It was not spectacular, it tasted like a potato that had been doused in celery essence, but the consistency is more like a parsnip. However, I think it would have been crisper and better if it hadn't been left to get rubbery in the refrigerator for so long. Also, there are other recipes that are more ambitious and probably better, but I didn't want to go to the store again... so this is what I got. It went nicely with leftovers of roast chicken and some steamed green beans.

1 pound 10 ounces celery root (again, I don't have a scale. I had one medium sized celery root. I imagine it weighed about a half pound)
1 quantity White Sauce
Generous 1/3 cup creme fraîche (I still don't have this, so I used cream)

Peel and cut the celery root into wedges or thin slices, tossing with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Place in salted water, then bring to a boil and cook for 10-20 minuts or until tender, depending on the size of the pieces. (It took about 10 minutes for chunks of one celery root to achieve tenderness) 

Prepare the White Sauce, add the creme fraîche and coat the cooked celery root with it.

Leek Puree (Purée de Poireaux)

This recipe is from the new cookbook I got for Christmas, I Know How to Cook by Ginette Mathiot. It sounds better in the original French, Je Sais Cuisiner. This is "the Bible of French home cooking since 1932" and it was published in English for the first time this year. Cookbook author Clotilde Dusoulier helmed the effort to bring the French answer to Joy of Cooking to the U.S. after all this time. It's a beautiful book and full of information at 975 pages. So far I have only tried two recipes, this being one of them. Everything is very French, lots of Gruyere cheese and creme fraîche. I have been comparing it alongside my Mastering the Art of French Cooking and it has many of the same recipes, but they are generally more straightforward and updated. Anyway, the Leek Purée was a perfect accompaniment to the Beef Stew and rather simple to make.

12 leeks, sliced (Actually I only had 8 and it worked out fine)
1 pound 2 ounces potatoes chopped (I don't have a food scale, so I guessed... I used two very large Yukon gold potatoes. Everything in this cookbook is in weight, so I guess I need to get one.)
Generous 3/4 cup creme fraîche (I didn't have any, nor did I have 24 hours to make it out of buttermilk and cream, so I just used cream.)

Cut the green upper part of (this can be reserved for use in soups and stews) and keep the white part. Cut off any damaged leaves, then slice and wash very carefully to remove any soil trapped between the layers. (There is always soil between the layers). Place in boiling salted water and boil, uncovered for about 8 minutes. Then add the potatoes, reduce the heat and simmer for another 15-20 minutes. When the potatoes are tender, drain thoroughly and process the leeks and potatoes in a food processor to make a smooth purée. Season with salt , stir in creme fraîche and serve.

Beef Stew

I wrote this entire post yesterday and lost it, so you will have to imagine how clever and witty it was because I don't think I can repeat the magic. I have made this Beef Stew recipe twice since New Years. It is quite delicious and satisfying as a winter meal. The first time I just served it with a salad of mixed baby greens from my garden, avocado, pomegranate seeds and red onion. The second time I served it over Leek and Potato puree. (This was actually DR's brilliant idea. I made the puree and then had no idea what to do with it.) It was perfect! The puree gave the soup some extra body and made it more filling, and the soup gave a savoury-ness to the puree that was much needed... a puree like that is too rich and bland to eat too much on it's own.

I got this recipe from the book Cleaving the second book by Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame.  By virtue of it being her lesser known work the wait for it at the library was shorter than for Julie & Julia, so I read it first. For Ms. Powell's sake I would suggest not doing this. Cleaving is the story of her 6-month apprenticeship at a butcher shop in upstate New York. This part is fairly interesting as she learns how to debone a pig, make sausage, and hack through all manner of meat products. (Reading it did make for some unpleasantly meaty dreams when I was suffering from a brief stint with the flu over Christmas) But by far the more unsavory and nauseous element of this book is her overly detailed descriptions of her extended extra-marital affair, which she blames on the excess of free time and the email and text messaging mobile phone she acquired after the success of her first book and movie. First of all, it's annoying to listen to someone complain about how success has corrupted them, but now that I am reading the first book with the knowledge of the second book, it is pretty clear that the only thing keeping this histrionic narcissist from having an affair sooner was free time and an interested partner. She seems surprised by her behavior in the second book, but the first book is full of complaints about her husband, and jealousy over her single friends romantic conquests. For a book about food, it's an awful lot about sex. So she may be right in that her success gave her the opportunity to engage in behavior that a 40 hour a week job and a time-consuming cooking project didn't. Anyway, despite this being kind of a skeevy and not terribly well-written memoir, it did have some good recipes in it, and I'm not going to let the source taint the food.

I have made some adaptations to this recipe. For instance I am using more vegetables, because I found it to be too meaty the first time (which is really saying something). And I make it in the slow cooker, rather than in the oven. I think it's safer for this kind of thing because when things cook for hours it's easy to forget about them. So here is my version.

3 lbs stew meat cut in chunks (The chunks in the meat from Trader Joes that I get are usually too big, so I cut them in half)
1/2 cup flour in a shallow bowl
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus some more (or however much you think you need)
1 large onion sliced into thin half moons
1 head of garlic, minced
6 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch rounds
6 stalks of celery, finely sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme
2 cups red wine
1 1/4 cups beef stock (Ingredients: Organic Beef Stock (Water, Organic Beef) Organic Beed Flavor Base (Organic Roasted Beef Including Beef Juices, Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Organic Beef Flavor, Organic Onion Powder, Sea Salt, Organic Canola Oil, Organic Caramel Color, Organic Garlic Powder, Organic Black Pepper, Organic Paprika, Natural Flavor), Sea Salt, Organic Garlic Powder) I 've had this beef broth in my cabinet since before the project began. It's amazing that I've still got stuff like this, but it came in handy since Beef Stock is something I am very intimidated about making. There is enough left for one more stew I think...yikes.
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste

Dry the stew meat with paper towels and toss them lightly with the flour until evenly dusted. On the stovetop, brown the meat in batches in the olive oil over high heat.
Once all the meat has been browned remove it to the slow cooker, add the beef broth, wine and tomato paste, cover and turn the cooker to the low setting.
On the stovetop, turn the heat down to medium, add some more oil to the same pan, and throw in the vegetables and thyme. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until vegetables are softened.
Then add the vegetables to the slow cooker and add salt and freshly ground pepper generously. Cover and walk away for as many hours as you can. If you need to eat the stew in the next two hours, I suggest turning the heat up to high, but if you can avoid it, leave it on low. Around here people are used to eating meals very late, and often much later than they were originally told, but your house might run more like a train, I don't know.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Brother's Bacon for Christmas Brunch

This post was posted by my older brother PBC:

For the Do it your self Christmas meal my assignment was bacon for the morning brunch.
Now I had not given a lot of thought to where bacon comes from prior to this project, earlier in my life when I was more curious and slightly more gullible had I asked my Grandpa Barrett, "I get ham and pork come from parts of a pig but where does bacon come from?" and he told me it was from the curly tail of the pig I took that at face value (i mean it is curly after you fry it) so I never really thought of the origin of bacon again, untill now. 
I am not much for the Internet research on activities such as this, I usually like to do things my own way and hope they turn out, however in this case I did need some kind of direction as I did not even know what cut of meat to ask the butcher for.  Luckily my sister colleen provided me with a couple of recipes and the main ingredient called for was pork belly.  I went to the local independent grocery store, they have an excellent butcher shop.  I told them of my plan for making bacon and they were all quite impressed but did not have pork belly so I had to special order it.  The recipe called for 2 1/2 lbs skin on, but i thought I would need more for the large group and left overs (the recipe said the uncooked should keep for two weeks) I ordered 4 lbs at $3.99 a pound it was about 16 dollars however they did not have "skin on"  I dont know if that affected the overall product very much or not.  The butcher said it would be in a few days, so I picked it up and then went to a Creighton Bluejays game with Brother John after the game John and I made a dry rub in the coffee grinder using

5 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons peppercorns
3 bay leaves
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoon fennel seed
2 teaspoon caraway seed
2 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 teaspoon dried thyme

This is used to "brine" the meat.  we cut the pork belly in two and rubbed it down generously with the rub, then put it in the plastic bag to begin the brineing process.  The instructions called for 7 days turning daily but we only had six, I don't think that was a big issue.  Also on the last day I was to wash the meat and cover for 24 more hours however I on cleaned it off the brine with a clean towel and covered it for 12 hours (this may account for the "extra salty" taste).  On Christmas eve morning the plan was to get the smoker going outside and smoke the bellys for 2 to 2 1/2  hours, unfortunately mother nature and my flu symptoms did not allow for that plan so I had to cook in the oven at 200 for 2 hours.  Brother John picked up the cooked meat took it back to the local butcher where it was sliced into "real Bacon"  The family enjoyed it Christmas morning, unfortunatly i was unable to enjoy but there were good reviews from the not sick and not quite so sick.

The bacon did keep for two weeks and I was able to cook up the leftovers this weekend all in all it was a tasty adventure!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Johndor's Snowpocalypse Mashed Potatoes

This post is from my cousin Johndor who braved the elements to bring us these perfectly mashed potatoes:

As the family’s Senior Adjutant for Potato Mashing, I have long been an advocate of food made from scratch, as has always been my approach to potatoes. The extension of this principle meal-wide was, therefore, a welcome one. What follows are my ruminations on family, Christmas Mass, blizzards, and potatoes.

The harrowing ordeal of the Nativity Blizzard of 2009 couldn’t stop us from celebrating the chief tenets of an Irish Christmas: Mass and potatoes.

We departed my mother’s house at approximately a quarter past six in the evening, tasked with collecting Father George and bringing to the house to say Mass and spend Christmas with us. Such are the conveniences of families that befriend their spiritual advisors. The nine-mile journey to pick up Father and get to the party took an hour, most of which was spent listening to the incessant buzzing of a broken open-door alarm.

Needless to say, between the snow and the noise, when I arrived at the house, I was very much in need of some spiritual fortification. And I wanted Mass to start too.

Upon arrival, hurried greetings were exchanged, and a reading from First Timothy was thrust into my hand. “Aha!” I thought. “Lectering and potato mashing! Truly this is a Christmas miracle.”

Mass was beautifully done, and, feeling refreshed and renewed, I turned my attention to the main event. The potatoes had already been peeled and cooked. All that was left was for me to whip them into shape.

At this point, I feel some back story may be appropriate. I don’t really recall when I was placed in charge of mashed potatoes. I think it happened, as many things do in the family, when someone assumed I knew how to do something I didn’t know how to do and made me do it. In that situation, I assume I performed adequately, and was thus deemed an expert by Aunt Kate. I’ve been mashing ever since.

The ingredients for Johndor’ Famous Smashed Potatoes are as follows:

    •    A bunch of big potatoes- Russets work well, get about 10 or 12. Peel them, and if you are in a hurry, chop ‘em into quarters. They are less fun to mash that way though

    •    A stick of butter

    •    Milk- Probably 2 cups, but I usually just eyeball it. My mom claims that you have to warm it up, but she only started insisting that at Thanksgiving, so I don’t know what she’s talking about. I always have used cold milk and it works fine. But in the interest of keeping my mother happy, you should probably warm up the milk

    •    Salt and Pepper- Sea salt and freshly-ground pepper taste better

    •    A healthy knowledge of the history of Irish oppression

Once you get your potatoes peeled, toss them into a pot of boiling water. When they are cooked all the way through, drain them and set to work. First start to break up the potatoes with your masher. Once you’ve got them smooshed a bit, begin to pour in some milk and about a quarter of the stick of butter. Mix the milk and butter around evenly and keep smashing. At this point, begin to season with salt and pepper. Add more milk and butter.

Around here, I change my technique. It becomes less smashing and more like slowly mixing. Use a rocking motion and go in circles. Continue with that, the season and the milk and butter until you get rid of all the big lumps of potato. Whip it around a bit to make them a little fluffier, and you’ve got yourself a big heaping pot of mashed potatoes.

I’ve made myself indispensible to my family by placing myself in charge of lay spiritual affairs and mashed potatoes. That way, no matter how many Christmas or birthdays I ruin with my off-color humor, I keep getting invited back. So remember: for every joke you tell out of your copy of Milton Berle’s Private Collection, you have to deliver one heartfelt grace and make one pot of potatoes. Follow my advice and you too will fast become the most popular member of your family!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Very Some Assembly Required Christmas

Oh my goodness. I hope I haven't lost you all. It's been a shamefully long time since I last wrote. You've probably been imagining me consuming frozen pizza and burritos in a massive post-holiday backslide, unable to right the ship and 'fess up... but no, it's just laziness and lack of will that have kept me from writing. I have been faithful in deed to the project for the most part. We traveled to my homeland (Nebraska) for the Christmas, where my wonderful family gamely participated in a wonderful Some Assembly Required Christmas Eve Dinner and Christmas Day Brunch. (I think the daunting task of getting all of the recipes collected has been part of what has kept me away so long.) It was great fun and very sweet that everyone got on board. It made it seem like a real old-fashioned Christmas. That feeling was largely aided by the Snowpocalypse. A giant blizzard on Christmas Eve that made it impossible to reach my parents house in anything short of a military grade SUV. Our family friends, the Laughlins who always come for a Christmas Eve cocktail party had to abandon their minivan about 3 miles from our house. They shuttled the remaining family back and forth in a Chevy Tahoe, luckily the newborn twins and their five month old cousin were in the first carload. It snowed steadily all night, so everyone was eager to get back to their homes for fear of spending all of Christmas stuck with us. I felt for everyone who had to drive, but since I had no place to go I said "let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

But the food is what we are here to discuss, not the weather. I am going to try to remember everything we had. My sister KK spearheaded the efforts and deserves most of the credit. For the cocktail hour we had, Babaganoush, Hummus, Artichoke Dip (I made the Mayonnaise and Sour Cream), Bruschetta,
Jumbo Shrimp with Creole Cocktail Sauce (I made this). Cranberry Walnut Bread (Which is the simple bread recipe with cranberries and walnuts added for holiday flair). KK made several loaves of French Bread for the bruschetta, the artichoke dip and to serve with dinner. My cousins Erin and Diane made croissants, a yummy yogurt dip and candied nuts. (Am I forgetting something?)

For dinner we had pork tenderloin, prepared by my dad, master chef and overseer. My cousin Johndor took charge of the mashed potatoes, salad was the domain of my sister Maur Maur, but I think she had to slavishly work some OT in Santa's Workshop, so KK ended up handling it. There were also carrots with raisins, focaccia bread and the afore mentioned French Bread.

My brother Chewy made a wonderful Vegetarian Bean Soup, that ended up getting shuttled to Christmas Day eating because of the abundance of other options for this meal.

For dessert my Aunt Cathie made an apple bake, which is like an apple pie, but on a cookie sheet so it could feed more people.

Anyone who attended, feel free to let me know if I forgot anything... I will be coming back to edit this one as I get the rest of the recipes posted.

Chewy's Christmas Vegetarian Black Bean Soup

This Post was contributed by Some Assembly’s brother:
Black Bean Soup, it’s why the Haitians stay in Haiti, didn’t you know?
    For this ambitious “Some Assembly Required” Christmas my contribution was the black bean soup. To understand why I was the perfect man for this job there are two things you need to know about me. The first fact is that I am poor. I realize that this, unfortunately, does not make me unique but what is special about my poverty is that it is new or, my accurately, my being self-sufficient is new. I recently graduated from college and am living in a three bedroom apartment with three other guys. It is crowded, messy and woefully under stocked with food – a result of all four of us being nouveau broke. One way to combat this sustenance shortage is to make soup. Soups can be made cheaply, you can make massive amounts at a time (your pot is the limit!), it saves and reheats easily, and is delicious! Because of these conveniences soups and chili are big at my apartment. The second thing to know is that I work nights at a gourmet soup café.  Now I don’t make the soups but I do serve and eat a lot of them so I am practically an expert. 
    So now that I have proved that I am a soup aficionado (and that I have a very high sodium diet!) I will let you know what makes a quality Christmas black bean soup.
    The first thing you’ve got to do is a lot of chopping. I mean a LOT of chopping. This is my favorite part and since this blog is about the joy of cooking allow me to indulge a bit here. Depending on the amount of soup you have you’re going to have varying amounts of vegetables to dice but for a hefty pot you’re going to want:
2 Green Peppers
2 Red Peppers
2 Yellow Peppers
2 Orange peppers (if you can find them)
1 Large Onion
1 Head of garlic (Don’t have to use the whole head if you don’t want)
 Then you chop the hell out of all of these. This, like I imagine most cooking, is best done while listening to music. Dicing is great because of its therapeutic value. Get a good knife and a good cutting board and you can space out for a good hour slicing, dicing, or julienning some vegetables. Slicing through some crisp vegetables, hearing the blade click against the board, I dare say it is as calming as mowing the lawn. This does take some time so it’s good to work with an assistant (WARNING: Assistants often try to garnish your credit!). At Christmas I had my very capable brother Pete. As I diced and drifted off to Xanadu, Pete prepared the beans. Two pound of black beans had been soaking over night in a pot so Pete rinsed the beans and replaced them to the pot with fresh water. The next step is to bring the beans and fresh water to a rumbling boil for 5 minutes then lower the heat and let them simmer. When all the veggies are chopped to satisfactory, minuscule cubes sauté them all together with a little olive oil in a pan. This softens them up. This only takes a few minutes to transform the segregated vegetable mound into the desired impressionist blur of green, red, and yellow.  Next you add the vegetables to the boiled bean pot and STIR IT UP! Finally add your choice of seasoning. Pete and I abide by the cooking is an art not a science philosophy in which spices are added on instinct and sight not in measured increments. Some good suggestions include:
Salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, a little bit of crushed basil, teaspoon of chili powder.  A nice addition for a kick is some lime juice, too.
    After being properly seasoned the soup should sit on medium to low heat for hours being stirred occasionally. The longer it is on the heat the more thoroughly the flavors integrate. Finally, the last step is to remove approximately a third of the soup and purée it in a cuisinart then return it to the pot and you will have one crowd pleasing black bean soup ready to serve.

Creole Cocktail Sauce

Jumbo Shrimp and Cocktail sauce is a tradition at our Christmas Eve cocktail party. Mostly so my dad can hassle our friend Mark John (too close to the family) about eating it all. (I usually eat quite a bit of it too, but I don't want to steal Mark John's credit.)

Juice of half a lemon
1 cup tomato juice (I used V8 because we had it on hand)
2 Tablespoons Worcesterhire Sauce (I believe we have addressed this one before, it has multiple ingredients... but it was there so I used it.)
1 Table spoon pepper sauce (I used Frank's Red Hot, a favorite among my brothers, and brothers everywhere I think.)
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons grated horseradish

Combine all ingredients and serve with shrimp

Sour Cream

1 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. buttermilk (I made this too, 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice in a cup of milk and let sit for five minutes!)

Put both liquids mixed in a jar cover with lid and leave in a warmish place for 24-48 hours. Then refrigerate. (It is important to refrigerate before using if you want it to thicken up... we didn't have time and it was runny, but still delicious)