A stitch in time…

Apologies, loyal blog reader(s?), for the crickets that have been chirping around here lately!  I took a work-induced blog hiatus last week, but I’m (sort of) back now, assuming this week doesn’t have any surprises tucked away that might further derail me!

So, if you live in MN, you will have noticed that it’s now fall.  If you don’t live in MN, now is the time to come visit.  We get approximately 14 days of beautiful weather every year and we are in the thick of it!  (Don’t get me wrong, I do love winter here, too, but if I told you come visit and play in the snow with me, you’d think I was crazy.  Everyone loves crisp fall weather, though!).

And all this fall weather gets me thinking about two things: pumpkins and knitting.  Not at the same time, of course…I’m not making pumpkin cozies or any such nonsense over here, rest assured!

So let’s talk pumpkins for a moment.  Pumpkin bread, to be exact.  It turns out I don’ t have a great recipe for pumpkin bread.  Yeah, I can stir a can of pumpkin puree into some flour and spices as well as the next able-bodied Midwesterner, but I always find pumpkin bread kind of…lacking oomph.  It seems that pumpkin bread too often falls into the trap of being over-moist spice cake with lots of cinnamon and very little pumpkin flavor.  I like spice cake quite a lot, but I love pumpkin, so when I have my taste buds set for pumpkin and I get spice cake, it makes me rather frowny.

I went in search of a different kind of pumpkin bread recipe this weekend.  Partly inspired by the first appearance of the pie pumpkins in the grocery store, I’ll admit!  I searched around and finally settled on a recipe on the Food Network (not my favorite resource for recipes, I’ll admit…some seem very under-tested in my experience).  Anyhow, it was an Alton Brown recipe for pumpkin bread, and it looked very promising.  No massive dose of pumpkin pie spice, a reasonable-ish amount of sugar (a little high, but not obscene by any means), and it called for 3 cups of shredded fresh pumpkin!  How can you not get super pumpkin flavor out of that?!  So I gave it a whirl.

I’ve never before used fresh uncooked pumpkin flesh.  Squash, yes, pumpkin, no.  I first attempted to peel my pumpkin with a veggie peeler.  Ha!  Fat chance that would have ever worked!  I got frustrated and whacked the pumpkins in half with the cleaver and discovered they were encased in at least 1/4″ thick shells.  Holy bananas.  I scooped out the seeds and pondered my predicament.

I decided the only logical way to get at the flesh was to whack the pumpkin into small wedges (like a cantaloupe) and then fillet the flesh off the shell with my boning knife.  Yes, kids, so far we have, in the dramatis personae of this kitchen saga, an 8″ cleaver and a boning knife.  Yes, we are still working with pumpkins.

Once I had the pumpkin into about 2″ wedges, I attempted to neatly fillet the skin off the shell.  I had high hopes for the attack with the boning knife, since it is really really sharp (it’s the sharpest, most prized knife in the kitchen, folks, because a dull boning knife is a one-way ticket to the emergency room*).

* More on that later.

The flesh was waaay too hard to fillet off nicely, it turned out.  (I should mention, these pumpkins were about the size of large grapefruits, so I’m working with very steep curves here).  I was actually afraid of breaking my boning knife (it’s thin, which is grand for flexibility, but that also means it’s not as bomb-proof as my other knives).  So I switched to a much sturdier paring knife and started again.

Remember how I said dull knives are a one-way ticket?  I may or may not be a bit lax on keeping my paring knives razor sharp.  I know that I should hone them before each use and after every wash, but, well, we use them so darned often that I’m usually either in a hurry or too lazy to keep up on them.  This will backfire in 3…2…1…Not four seconds into my first wedge with the paring knife, the pumpkin slipped and all the force I was applying to the paring knife whooshed past the stubborn squash and planted the paring knife firmly in the inner joint of my left thumb.

I kind of stared at it for a moment, not really believing that I’d finally cut myself in a serious fashion (I have either a very good streak of luck or amazing kitchen karma up to this point, as this is my first serious kitchen wound ever).  Then I realized it hurt a lot and was bleeding everywhere, and told John he needed to take me to Urgent Care.  I managed to wrap my thumb in about a million paper towels, had the wherewithal to turn off the oven, and off we went.

Urgent Care (which is thankfully open till 10pm on Saturday nights) was really a pretty pleasant experience once I stopped freaking out because the receptionist didn’t seem to believe I was quite possibly bleeding to death (John talked me down and got me checked in and somehow un-ruffled the receptionist’s feathers).  They got me into triage and a nurse cleaned the cut, and the doctor stitched it up (3 stitches!), and I was home all in under 2 hours.

We stuffed the pumpkin wedges in the fridge (well, the un-bloody ones, anyhow) and gave up for the night.  But I wasn’t done.  I couldn’t let the pumpkin win!

The next day, we tried par-baking the pumpkin wedges for 10 minutes while we toasted the seeds.  Then John attacked the wedges with a spoon (for safety) and scooped out all the flesh, which we then pureed.  It sort of worked, but I would not recommend it.  Actually, I’d recommend baking the pumpkin slightly longer, like maybe 15-20 minutes before scooping.  But the longer you bake it the closer you get to puree instead of using raw flesh, which kind of defeats the point of using this recipe in the first place.

Anyhow.  Pumpkin thusly shredded, we powered on and mixed up the batter.  The roasted seeds went in, too (as per the instructions), and it came together swimmingly.  Tasted good, too!  It filled a 9×5 inch loaf pan (which was slightly larger than what the recipe called for), then disappeared into the oven for an hour, where it proceeded to overflow onto my pizza stone.  Joy.  Nothing like the smell of smouldering burnt sugar to reassure you that all is well with the world despite the fact that your thumb is being held together by nylon thread and bandages.

But I digress.  We took it out when the bread tested done and let it cool.  The verdict: meh.  All that work and woe and agony!  All for meh.  John doesn’t like the seeds in the bread (I agree that unshelled, they’re just weird, but I think if you sprang for shelled pepitas, the seeds would be a nice touch…but also, why would you buy pumpkin seeds when you’re already scooping seeds out of the pumpkins you’ll be shredding!).  It’s also quite sweet, and I really can’t tell what difference the shredded pumpkin made versus a recipe that uses canned.  Which is disappointing.  Not to mention the mess on my pizza stone.  I guess I’m a little disappointed that the recipe turned out so badly when it started off so promising.

Anyhow, the pumpkin bread is edible, and we’ll be having it for breakfast all week, to be sure, but for now, I’m still on the hunt for a stellar Pumpkin Bread recipe.

My stitched-up thumb will be on the mend (ha!  on the mend…) for at least a week, I’m told, so I’m planning a pretty low-key week around these parts.  I have a kid shirt cut out I might try to sew, and I have some knitting I’ve been itching to pick up again, but we’ll have to see how the thumb feels about all this.  I might just end up spending my free time on the couch watching Disney movies and letting John make me brownies.

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On the Sauce

I’ve been working a lot of late hours lately.  (Yay for international business!  Boo for 13 hour time-differences between offices!)  Anyhow, what this intercultural employment melee translates to is a very pooped person who has zero ambition when she gets home.  (Trust me, we’ve measured.  Zero.)  Which means I don’t want to do anything, including cooking dinner.

Normally I scorn “box” dinners.  Actually, I detest “box” dinners.  If you try to feed me Hamburger Helper (or god forbid, Tuna Helper), I’ll politely starve till I can get my hands on some actual food.  I’m quite sure I ate my lifetime quota of that stuff growing up (it’s a small quota, folks…it didn’t happen often, but when it did, well, it was memorable, lets just say).  So I’ve had my fill and don’t need to eat those artificial boxes of junk.  Maybe it’s that I don’t trust them if I can’t see what happens to the constituent ingredients from the get-go, or maybe it’s the ungodly amount of salt they usually contain.  I don’t know for sure, but I do know I dislike them.

But every so often, you just need a convenient meal.  Something that can cook relatively unattended, something you can’t ruin along the way, something that pratically puts itself together.  The secret here, my friends, is the sauce.  You can take endless combinations of simple proteins, basic carbs (rice, grains, etc.) and combine them with a sauce and presto! Dinner is served.  And there are LOTS of sauces available that aren’t full of weird chemicals or dyes or ingredients I can’t pronounce!

Don’t believe me?  What about spaghetti and meatballs?  Anything curried?  Sloppy joes?  All convenient, and if you watch the ingredients lists, none are intrinsically evil (unlike those “helpers” which shall henceforth remain nameless).  I submit that you can have a “convenient” meal on the table in under 30 minutes with just four simple steps.  Just four!!

So I make a point of having a few solid sauces in my pantry for evenings where I can’t be bothered to do much cooking.  Some of my usual suspects are the usual brigade of marinara/alfredo sauces, but I think my favorites are Indian-inspired ones (Korma for non-spicy simmering, Vindaloo when you need some punch).  And salsas.  They make great simmer sauces.  Pick whichever sauce sounds tastiest in the moment.

So once you pick your sauce, then you pick your pan.  It must be big enough to accommodate your protein and veggies in a fairly cozy arrangement, and small enough that it will give you a good half-inch to an inch of liquid to simmer away with.  And it must have a tight-fitting lid.

Then pick your protein.  Eggs, perhaps?  (Excellent either hard-boiled, or crack fresh eggs in and poach them!)  Meat/Fish/Poultry?  (Do go boneless if possible, but don’t pre-cook it, you’ll just poach it in your sauce).  Nuts?  (These can’t simmer long or they go mooshy, so add them at the end just to warm them up).  Beans?  (Straight out of the can and into the sauce!).

Then pick your veggies.  Any small or pre-prepped veggie will do nicely.  I love cherry tomatoes, brussies, florets of cauliflower, romanesco, or broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, etc.  Pick at least two.  If you’re going with root veggies, either go with pre-cooked cubes, or be aware that you’ll need to simmer at least 25 minutes to soften them up.

So those four steps I yammered on about?  Here they are:

Step 1:  Dump 1/2 to 1 cup sauce in pan per person (depends on your preference).  If the sauce is a bit shallow, add 1/2 cup water to pan (remember, you want at least a half an inch to work with).  Stir to combine (and don’t worry, as you simmer, the sauce will evaporate a bit, so you can cook it down to avoid making soup!).

Step 2: Heat sauce up to a low simmer.  As sauce heats, add veggies, spreading them evenly around the pan into the sauce.  Decide if you need to cook your veggies for a bit before adding protein (figure on 15-20 minutes simmer-time for beef, lamb, chicken, or similar; 4-5 minutes for eggs; 1-2 mintues for nuts and beans).  If your veggies will not be cooked to your liking in that amount of time, let them simmer solo for a bit.  Cover tightly with lid.  Make sure the sauce is at a full simmer before proceeding.

Step 3: Add your protein.  Nestle it into the veggies and sauce, spreading it evenly around the pan.  If you’re using fresh eggs, make a “dent” with the back of a ladle and crack the egg into the dent so it doesn’t run all over.  If your sauce is too liquidy for your taste, simmer lid-free.  If it’s about right, loosely cover.

Step 4:  Set a timer for when your protein will be done.  If you want carbs with your dinner, cook or prep them now (i.e. throw a pot of rice on the stove, or whip out some bread).  Then sit back, relax, and ignore your pan.  When you hear beeping or buzzing or whatever your timer sounds like, scoop dinner out of the pan and onto plates.

See?!  Four steps to dinner.  Super convenient.  It’s all in the sauce!

Frittering my time away

I realize this is quickly becoming a food blog, but I promise it’s only because it’s finally cooled off enough that the mere thought of turning on the stove doesn’t make me break out in a cold sweat!  I predict as the novelty of being reunited with my kitchen wears off and the temperature cools, you’ll see an uptick in knitting and sewing and other stuff again!

But, the kitchen honeymoon is still going strong, so today you get to read about my apple fritters.  Toffee apple fritters, to be exact.

The impetus for these fritters took a good long time to come to fruition (ha!).  In early August, John and I discovered that Trader Joe’s sells rather inexpensive and ridiculously smooth caramels.  So we brought a box home with us and have had a dwindling dish of caramels sitting on the table ever since.  Last week, on a whim, I had an apple for a snack, and grabbed a caramel to go with it.  Groundbreaking stuff, I know.  And then a few days later, I was reading my Jacques Pepin cookbook looking for some dinner inspiration, and the page opened to the Apple fritters recipe.  And it all clicked.  Caramel. Apple. Fritters.  (I know, I said Toffee Apple Fitters earlier…I’m getting to that.)

It turned out that we had everything on hand to make the fritters, so I gave them a test whirl.  First I chopped up some of the caramels; each one into eighths.

Then I chopped the apples into roughly 1/2-inch cubes.  The fritters are held together with a thin batter that is basically just flour, egg, and water.  Easy peasy!

Stir the apples and the caramels into the batter and you’re set!  Heat some oil up in a  heavy pan.  I find for shallow-frying like this, your best bet is to use a pan with pretty high sides to contain spatters of oil, so I use my 6 qt. le crueset dutch oven.  I can fit 3 fritters at a time that way.

Once the oil is hot (it should be just smoking), gently drop fritters by 1/3 cups into the hot oil.  Use a couple forks to spread them out so they are an even layer.

Let them sit in the oil for a minute, then poke them around to make sure they aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pan or to each other.  Cook the fritters 3-4 minutes on the first side (till good and browned in spots), then flip them (still using the two forks…it’s just easier).

Let them cook another 3 minutes or so, till the other side is nicely browned.  Lift the cooked fritters out of the oil with a slotted spoon and set them to cool and drain.  (I set a wire rack into a cookie sheet lined with paper towels…easy cleanup).

Repeat until all your batter has been fried up!  You will have a dozen very awesome fritters.  And those caramel bits?  Did you forget about those?  No?  Well, what happens when you cook caramel to a higher temperature than 230-some degrees?  Well, it gets to the hard-ball candy stage and becomes toffee!  Drop it into 350-degree oil and presto!  Toffee!

Once they’re all cooked, give them a little dusting of powdered sugar (if your apples are really sweet, you may not even need this, but it looks nice!).

These are best served warm, but you can also reheat them in a toaster oven if you made them ahead.

I think my favorite thing about these fritters was how very appley they were!  When I get apple fritters in a pastry shop, they’re all fritter and very little apple…these ones are alllllll apple!  I suggest you give them a try!

Toffee Apple Fritters

Makes 12 fritters.

  • 1 lb. apples (about 3), I suggest Granny Smith or similar
  • 4 1-1/2″ caramels
  • 1 c. flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1 c. ice cold water
  • 1 c. canola oil
  1. Dice apples into 1/2″ pieces.  Cut each caramel into 8 pieces.
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine flour and the egg and about a third of the water.  Whisk together till smooth, then add remaining water and whisk again till smooth (this two-step approach will help keep lumps to a minimum).  Gently stir apples and caramels into the batter, making sure to keep the caramels from sticking together.
  3. Heat oil over medium high heat till just smoking.  Drop the batter into the hot oil by the 1/3 cupful.  Spread into an even layer and cook 3-4 minutes, till golden brown on the first side.  Flip and cook another 3 minutes.
  4. Remove from oil and drain on a wire rack.  Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

Lessons learned…or, how to make rockstar pizza

In college, I studied in Malta (the country in the Mediterranean, not the tiny sheep-herding town in the backwilds of Montana!).  I was there for a semester and some change, and I learned a lot of things while I was there (and not necessarily academically-speaking).  For instance, I learned that the Knights Hospitaller and the Ottoman Empire were not on good terms in the 1500s.  And I learned that tequila sunrises and I will never be on good terms the morning after.  And that watching the sunrise over the Mediterranean is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  And that I’d give someone’s left foot to live 4 blocks from the sea again.  And that when a country joins the EU, they put on one hell of a party!  But, I digress.  You see, the thing I want to blog about right now is the local pizza crust that I learned to make.

It’s one of those life lessons that seems inconsequential when you first learn it, but that you use over and over and over and over, like calculus long division how to use a calculator.  It’s fairly simple to make (like all great bread!), but always tastes like there’s a lot more to it than five simple ingredients.  I got the recipe from the woman who ran the tiny grocery store below my flat.  I made it at least a couple times a week when I lived in Malta because it was a) so cheap, and b) so tasty.  I could buy whatever veggies looked awesome, a scoop of goat cheese, whip up a crust, and voila!  Dinner!  And I’ve been making it ever since. I don’t need a recipe, and while my methods have changed a bit with the acquisition of a few American kitchen tool standbys (OK, the stand mixer.  It’s life-changing.), it’s still the same awesome pizza crust it’s always been.

Start by weighing your flour:

Yes, weighing.  If you don’t have a kitchen scale, get one.  Your baking will thank you, because although the volume of flour will change with the fluctuations in humidity, the weight will not.  So you don’t have to futz as much with the liquid to dry ratio!  Win!

Then add your salt, water, yeast, and a bit of honey.  Use your handy dandy stand mixer to knead it into a cohesive ball.  It will start off pretty shaggy.

And then get a bit smoother after a minute or two.

And finally, a smooth, elastic, ball!

I like to put a bit of olive oil in the bowl so the dough doesn’t stick as it rises, and also for the flavor, but that’s optional.  If you do go that route, just a tablespoon or so will do.

Then cover the bowl tightly (see the rubber band!) and let it rise for a bit.

I usually let my dough raise in the oven since that’s relatively draft-free.  Just turn it on for a tiny bit to get a little warmer than room temp, and turn it off so it doesn’t cook your dough yet!  Then pop the dough in, shut the door, and let it go!  (Yes, I also have a loaf of bread also rising in there…it’s the first day under 80 degrees in ages, so I’m baking up a storm!).

When the dough has doubled (about 30-45 minutes), pull it out.  See how bubbly and puffy it gets?!  Don’t punch it down!

Gently take the dough out of the bowl and stretch it out to the size you like and place it on your pan.

I always pre-bake it to make sure the crust gets done all the way through and isn’t soggy, so pop it in the oven un-topped for a few minutes, then pull it out and top it!

And bake it a few more minutes and presto!  Tasty pizza on the best crust ever!

Maltese Pizza Crust

  • 12 oz. (by weight) bread flour
  • 3/4 c. warm water, plus maybe a tablespoon or so if it needs it
  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast
  • drizzle of honey, about 1 teaspoon
  • 1 tsp. salt (less to taste if you like)
  • olive oil (optional)
  1. Measure flour into a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of your stand mixer).  Stir in salt.
  2. Combine water, yeast and honey in a measuring cup; stir to dissolve yeast and let it sit a minute or two till bubbly (so you know your yeast is good!)
  3. If using a stand mixer: turn mixer (fitted with dough hook) on to medium low speed.  Give your water/yeast mixture a stir, then stream into flour.  Continue mixing till the dough comes together into a shaggy mess (if it’s not coming together, add that tablespoon of water).  Once the dough starts coming together, increase speed to medium and let the machine knead the dough for 3-4 minutes.  The dough should be smooth, elastic, and non-sticky when you’re done.
  4. If not using a stand mixer: Give your water/yeast mixture a stir, then make a well in the center of the flour an pour liquid into the well.  Slowly stir the liquid in the well, incorporating a little bit of flour from the edges as you go around (this will keep it from getting lumpy!).  Once the liquid is all stirred in, turn the ball of goo out onto a floured board and knead till the mass is smooth, elastic, and non-sticky.
  5. Pour a tablespoon or so of olive oil (if you want!) into the bowl you mixed the dough up in.  Form the kneaded dough into an even ball and roll around in the oil to coat.  Smear some oil up the sides of the bowl, too.  Cover tightly (airtight!) and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes or so.  (You can use it right away if you need to, but the texture improves with a rise thrown in).  If you want to use it much later, throw it in the fridge to raise, then take it out about 30 minutes before you plan to bake it so it warms up.
  6. To shape the dough, pull gently in a circular motion (so pull dough ball a bit thinner, turn a bit, pull again, turn, pull, etc.) till desired size is reached.  This is enough dough for a stout 16″ pizza or two thin 12-14″ pies.
  7. Pre-heat your oven to 425 degrees F.  Pre-bake the crust on a pizza pan for 3 minutes before topping.
  8. Top as desired, bake an additional 10-15 minutes (depending on thickness of crust and toppings).  Let cool a few minutes before slicing.

Tonight’s pizza ended up being granny smith apple, smoked ham from the Scandinavian store (that deserves its own post sometime!), goat cheese, and mozzarella.

Luxe Lunch!

A few weeks ago, the local grocery-store-that-shall-not-be-named (I’m mad at them and will not be shopping there in the future, but that’s due to an unrelated incident!) had 4-oz. lobster tails on a two-for-one special, so we snapped up two little tails and squirreled them away in the freezer for a sunny day.  Well, last Saturday, being one of the very few Saturdays that John gets off from work every year, seemed like the perfect day for a luxury lunch!  It also seemed like a great morning for fishing, so we plopped the tails in a ziptop bag and then immersed them in a bowl of cold water on the counter (with a plate on top to keep them underwater) so they could thaw while we fished!

Lobster is one of my favorite seafoods, and I think I actually prefer to make it at home versus getting it at a restaurant; partly because it’s so much more affordable to make it at home, but also because it’s so easy to make!  No eternal fussy peeling like shrimp, no prying things open like with clams; the only easier seafood to make is probably mussels, but even those you have to clean, which can be a bit tedious.  With a lobster (or lobster tail), all you do is cut it in half and away you go!

So we came back from our fishing trip empty handed (the fishing was great, the catching, not so much!) and fired up the grill.  While the charcoal did its thing, I made a quick herb butter sauce by melting a generous tablespoon of butter in a small pan (OK, it was the 1-cup dry measuring cup, but it’s all metal and makes a great basting-sauce pan!).  I stirred in a bit of white pepper, some dried thyme, and bit of powdered rosemary for flavor.  I’d have loooooved to add a clove of finely minced garlic, but we were out!  Who runs out of garlic cloves, I ask you!?!?  How does someone let that happen?!

The only other bit of preparation was to cut the tails in half length-wise.  You could grill them whole, but I think it’s far easier to tell when they’re done if I can actually see the flesh.  To cut the tails in half, take a big chef knife (or similar…something hefty enough to get the job done!).  Lay the tails upside down (so you can see all the little “flippers”), carefully line the knife up in the center, lengthwise, and press down till the shell gives way.  Be careful the knife does not skitter around–put a good amount of pressure into it, and bear straight down, and you should get right through it.  If it gives you any trouble, you can also cut the shell with kitchen shears.  Use whatever works best (and keeps all your fingers firmly attached!).

Once the tails are ready, and the grill is ready, and the basting sauce is ready, well, it’s time to get cooking!!  Start the tails on the grill flesh-side down (be sure to oil the grill before you start, or brush a little of the basting sauce on the grate; you don’t want them to stick!).  Cook them flesh side down for the first 3 minutes or so (longer if your tails are bigger than 4-oz. size).

Then flip them over and let them cook for another minute or two, basting every so often with the butter sauce, just until the flesh is opaque and cooked to your liking.

Aaaaaaaand that’s it!  Really!  Dribble the remaining sauce over them and serve!  Now tell me that is not better than going out to some restaurant and waiting for them to do the same easy-peasy business!

We had the lobster with a simple roasted sweet potato, corn, & black bean salad that was kicking around in the fridge (also easy-peasy: roast 2 sweet potatoes and toss with 2 c. corn kernels, 1/2 small diced onion, 1 can black beans, juice & zest of 1 lime, a pinch of cumin, and a tablespoon of olive oil).

So tasty!  And so perfect for a sunny summer Saturday!