Tag Archives: kitchen confidence

A case in point

I would put money on Brussels sprouts being the most hated vegetable among my generation. Too many of us were served them steamed to oblivion without an ounce of fat, grain of salt, or drop of acid to help them along. Because of that long history of disappointment, this is a great vegetable to experience after the transforming powers of roasting. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. If bacon is a gateway food for you, start there. There’s a reason it’s a classic pairing. I enjoy them roasted with balsamic, too. And, of course, let’s not forget about them with aged gouda and sriracha.

I’ve written in detail about Brussels sprouts before and this probably won’t be the last time, either. Having an arsenal of ten to twenty great brussel sprout recipes is not unreasonable, right? Maybe this blog should be called Brussels Sprouts and Baking. Anyways, I like them raw, shaved into salads, but I adore them caramelized from roasting so much that I would’ve eaten the entire pan last night if Harry didn’t object. Just don’t give them to me mushy and steamed.

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Our last CSA pick-up was a double. Two weeks of vegetables on our counter!

I didn’t set out to share this recipe here, but once I tasted them and groaned with delight, I snapped a few shots knowing what I needed to do. The one of the stalk was taken for my Instagram friends. I’m weirder and sillier there. (More myself- I’ll get there here, too. Baby steps.) I happen to post shots of vegetables in front of my face somewhat regularly, so this was sent out prior to knowing I’d share the recipe. Now, you too, can see what Brussel sprouts look like before they’re detached! (They have big leaves that stick out all around, too.)

This preparation presents the sprouts a bit brighter, and certainly a tad brinier. It would make an excellent Thanksgiving side, but also can stand alone nicely as a meal by itself. Throw an egg on it, poached or fried, and let that runny yolk add an extra saucy element. (The browned butter mixture can certainly be left off of kids’ portions. My boys aren’t huge fans of capers and although they ate a few bites, I think they would’ve eaten more without the sauce.)

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The recipe comes from the queen of roasting and braising, Molly Stevens. Have you seen her James Beard award-winning books, All About Roasting and All About Braising? I don’t own them, but I check both out at least three to four times a year from the library. When I recommend savory cookbooks to new cooks, these top the list. She is an excellent teacher and clearly shares the rationale behind the techniques, helping novices feel comfortable along the way. Her recipes are tried and true, approachable and delicious. That braised cabbage I can’t get enough of? Hers. Our Thanksgiving roast last year was from her, as well. She’s the first chef I go to when I want to cook a huge, expensive chunk of meat but am scared.

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♬ These are a few of my favorite things! ♫

 

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Capers and Lemony Browned Butter

From Molly Stevens’ All About Roasting. Serves 4 as a side.

  • 1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds, yellow or brown
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, plus more if needed

Preheat the oven to 425℉ with a rack positioned in the center. Line a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (or just scrub later).

Cut the Brussels sprouts into halves or quarters to make for bite-size pieces. Place them in a large bowl to toss with the olive oil, plus a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Arrange the coated sprouts in a single layer on the baking sheet. (You don’t want them crowded because they’ll steam instead of caramelizing.) If some leaves fall off that’s fine; leave them to roast, as well.

Roast the sprouts for 20-25 minutes, turning once or twice to encourage even cooking. They should be tender throughout and nicely browned.

To make the browned butter, melt the butter over medium heat in a small skillet or saucepan (smaller than 6-inches across so that it doesn’t burn). Once it’s melted, add the mustard seeds, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook until the butter foams and turns golden brown. This will only take about 2-minutes, so watch carefully and swirl the pan frequently to prevent it from burning. Next, add the capers and lemon juice, removing the pan from the heat immediately. They’ll sizzle! Season with salt and pepper to taste and keep warm until the sprouts are out of the oven. (The butter process took about five minutes. It could be started towards the end of the roasting period.)

Serve the sprouts after tossing them together with the browned butter mixture. Add more salt, pepper or lemon juice as desired.

 

 

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Banana Coconut Cocoa Nib Bread

If I post yet another bready-cake recipe (which are they, really?), would you believe that I don’t only eat baked goods and brussel sprouts? I admit, though. I have consumed a rather obscene amount of muffins, brownies, bread and cupcakes the past two weeks. There’s been Charlie’s birthday, which necessitated several desserts in the course of a week, a point in my cycle in which chocolate was demanded, and two boys swapping germs like baseball cards. When I’m homebound with the boys, baking is a trusted outlet. A reliable companion to keep my head from banging against the walls. I get fierce cabin fever after a few days. If I can’t get fresh air, I must bake.

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I didn’t bake this yesterday with intentions to share yet another recipe filled with sugar, flour and butter, but then a few things happened. First, I tasted it. Then, I watched the boys gobble up their slices without saying a single word. Lastly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught Harry exiting his office with a huge smile while holding an empty plate, on his way to retrieve a second piece. I knew what I needed to do. You need to try this bread. Cake in a loaf pan. Whatever it is.

Yesterday morning I spied three very sad bananas on our counter. Usually I throw old bananas into the freezer to use in bread or smoothies at a later date, but with a full day at home ahead of me the decision to bake was obvious. For some reason choosing a banana bread recipe isn’t ever easy for me, though. I have a lot of banana bread recipes that I like, but none that are both fairly simple to execute and make me groan with delight. Plenty are fine, but none are swoon-worthy.

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So, I did what I always do when I’m seeking inspiration. I considered my cookbooks and favorite food blogs to decide who was most likely to provide the best hit. After a minute or two of contemplation, Ding! Ding! Ding! Google: Orangette + banana bread. I’m familiar with Molly’s lunacy for banana bread from reading her blog for years (as well as her wonderful first book). Plus, I trust her recipes implicitly. When this recipe popped up including rum and coconut, my decision was made.

I first tasted liquor in banana bread a few years ago. The recipe called for roasting the bananas in rum and sugar before mixing them into the batter. Charlie loved it so much that we joked he would end up at a friend’s house eating banana bread and politely inquire, “Excuse me. May I have some rum in my banana bread?” That bread was delicious, but it’s a relatively time-intensive recipe and I wanted something simpler.

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After consulting my pantry, I knew plenty of changes would need to be made, but I decided to take a chance. Here’s how this bread was born: I didn’t have shredded coconut, but a bag of coconut flakes begged me to be used. I still don’t have rum in the house after mojitos wiped us out, but spotted Marsala and thought it would be a nice pairing with those flavors. I didn’t have any demerara sugar, so I grabbed turbinado because it’s structure is similar. I felt it would yield that same crystalline crunchy crust. I also played a bit with the other sugars, flours and spices because I do things like that. The best moment of inspiration came while fetching my sugars. I happened to spy Theo’s cocoa nibs (purchased for this, also used for this) and emitted a little yelp of glee. I’m never disappointed with chocolate, coconut and banana bonding, but I didn’t want this recipe to fall completely in the cake camp. The fact that the cocoa nibs aren’t sweet was important to me. I figured the sugars and banana would do enough to cover that base. Does using whole wheat pastry flour and making this a little less sweet keep it a bread?

Whatever it is, this recipe jumped to top of my bananas-in-batter list. It’s got the classic banana bread flavor and moistness, but these amazing bonus textures and tastes. A chewy bite from a coconut flake, a deep chocolate punch from a cocoa nib, a quick crunch from the sugary crust. I am so pleased that this bread goodness not despite all the changes I made, but because of them. This bread resulted because of everything I didn’t have on hand and the one thing I did. If all the ingredients had been present, I probably wouldn’t have played around. I always breathe a sigh of relief when my changes turn out, but today’s results called for celebration. An opportunity to post. I am really pleased to have finally found my go-to banana bread. I hope you love it as much as I do.

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Cocoa Nib Coconut Banana Bread

Adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s adaptation of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s recipe in HomeBaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition around the World

1 1/2 cups of banana puree (from approximately three large, overripe bananas)

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

4 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1/8 tsp distilled white vinegar

1 tablespoon Marsala

1/2 cup dried unsweetened coconut flakes

1/3 cup cocoa nibs

1 tablespoon turbinado, demerara or dark brown sugar

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Preheat the oven to 350℉. Butter a standard-size loaf pan.

Puree the bananas (using a blender, food processor, grinder, masher- whatever works to get them smooth!) and measure them out.

Whisk together the flours, baking soda, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt.

Using a hand or standing mixer, beat together the butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the vinegar and Marsala. Starting with the banana puree, alternate adding in the banana and flour mixture (about 1 cup at a time). Beat until it’s mostly incorporated but some flour still shows. Use a spatula to fold in the coconut, cocoa nibs and any remaining flour that is visible just until it’s incorporated. Do not overmix.

(The batter will be DENSE. After I made it I was so concerned about the thickness that I read all of Molly’s blogpost comments to make sure there wasn’t an error. Were there supposed to be eggs? Was this batter really supposed to be this hard to spread into the pan? Should I add milk? Was this going to be a disaster? Turns out her warning that it will be thick, was quite true but perhaps slightly understated. Think playdough thick. It was denser than any batter I’ve ever made. Despite your fears, assure yourself that the bread will not bake into a brick.)

Plop the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Smooth the top, and sprinkle it evenly with the turbinado sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and a tester comes out clean. Run a knife around the edges and let it cool on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes. Turn the loaf out of the pan to allow it to cool completely.

Enjoy this bread within a few days. Keep it tightly covered between servings to keep it moist. (This bread was just as good the next day as the first, so don’t hesitate to make it a day ahead.)

May’s House Salad

My vegetable garden’s kale, chard, mustard greens, broccoli, lettuce and brussel sprouts all survived the winter, providing us with sprouts, raab, and green leaves for weeks. As many shot up in height to flower and (eventually) produce seeds, I let their flowers feed the bees as long as possible. For awhile I had six foot tall kale plants. They were so thick that I used our tree pruning shears to take them out. Almost everything’s been pulled in the past few weeks to make room for my summer vegetable seeds and seedlings.

The timing of this abundance of greens matched the blooming of my chives and calendula. Bursts of color in our yard, burst of flavor in our mouths. I planted the calendula seeds last year primarily for aphid control. The resulting plants survived, so we’re experiencing their flowers much earlier this year and there are many more of them. Additionally, this year we’re eating the petals much more frequently. I think I’m braver. Just like the kids, I have my moments of hesitation when it comes to trying new foods. Especially those from which I have to wash aphids off. Ready for dinner?

Calendula & Chives

This spring salad has been composed in my favorite way, with a walk in my backyard. I might pick a little mint, a little tarragon, a little basil from my itty-bitty babies (to help their production), a few chives and their blossoms, a calendula or two…

Kale

My kale gets very finely chopped because that’s my favorite way to eat it raw. I’m not crazy about gigantic kale leaves. (I usually prefer lettuce finely chopped, too.) I top it with the chopped herbs and scatter the herb and flower blossoms on top. Salad decorating!

I have these gorgeous preserved lemons in my fridge, so I frequently add tiny bits of those to salads. Sometimes finely grated parmensan, always a sprinkle or two of Maldon salt. Freshly ground pepper is nice when I remember it.

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I like a strong dressing for the kale, so I made various versions of a lightly sweetened mustard vinaigrette. I’ve kept the olive oil to acid ratio around 3:1 and used lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and/or red wine vinegar as my acids. I add a splat or two of dijon mustard, either a dab of honey or a splash maple syrup, and a little salt. I make my dressings in washed out glass spice jars, so all I have to do is shake them vigorously and I’m set. Much to my amazement, Miles has been eating this salad right along with Harry and I. Charlie, not so much.

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Nurtured by Food – Fall Favorites, Part II

Joining our fruit CSA was an easy decision for me. I’d tasted enough of the orchard’s fruit to know each piece was the best piece I’d ever experienced in my life. It wasn’t hard envisioning our family noshing our way through it all. Joining a vegetable CSA, though, took some courage. For those of you unfamiliar with why a veggie CSA used to make me shudder, here’s the deal: the farmers decide what goes into your box every week. You are at their mercy. No meal planning, no pre-selecting. I heard the stories of boxes filled with kale week after week for months on end. It grows really well here in the soggy Pacific Northwest. And while my husband and I like kale in certain dishes or as chips, I did not get particularly excited about dealing with it regularly. Besides, I have several varieties growing in my own garden. It grows well here! Also, I was hesitant to join a CSA that didn’t allow substitutions since I grow some of my own vegetables and was hopeful for an abundance of at least some of them. There are a few produce deliveries in Seattle that allow this and using one of them seemed preferable to grocery shopping. I tried one for a month and wasn’t thrilled with the quality of the produce nor the value. It quickly became obvious it wasn’t a true CSA. My garden wasn’t winning me over with its fruits, either. Adequate motivation in hand, I cancelled my account and emailed favorite vegetable farmers  known to me from markets. We snuck in at their halfway point.

This was one of my best food decisions ever.

The world's ugliest root. But quite tasty!

Celeriac: The world’s ugliest root. Don’t judge.

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Romanesco: beautiful fractals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each week we retrieved a huge box filled with incredible variety of produce. One week included a bunch of Chioggia beets, butternut squash, red Russian kale, a head of romaine lettuce, a bunch of bok choi, two heads of broccoli, a head of Romanesco cauliflower, parsnips, and a small head of cabbage. Another week we got a pound of tomatoes, half pound of cucumbers, a bunch of beets, a bunch of Pink Beauty radishes, one bunch of mustard greens, one beautiful red cabbage, five sweet peppers, two pounds Yellow Finn potatoes, a half pound of leeks and one little sprig green coriander. These are not boring boxes.

Now, if you don’t know how to cook or don’t have a juicer, consuming this amount of produce is an enormous challenge. I don’t care how much you like crudite and dip, you’re not going to get through it. This was the first year I was mentally ready. I can cook on the fly or fall back on various tried-and-true methods (like high heat roasting). Plus, the boys are more independent. I can spend a little more time in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, reading recipes and researching techniques. The farm made life easier by providing weekly recipes, too.

I considered us pretty veggie-centric prior, but we definitely amped up our vegetable intake. I often cooked for both lunch and dinner if we didn’t have leftovers on hand. We were exposed to a lot of produce I might not have purchased, like celeriac, parsnips, turnips and Romanesco. I made homemade pickles for the first time, turning me onto pickling for life. (Pickled garlic is amazing; so are grapes and fennel.) I could eat roasted parsnip chips like popcorn. Between this and the fruit, the variety of food in our house was amazing. Abundance.

The world's cutest pepper-eating toddler!

Peppers are hilarious!

Below is a favorite fall recipe recommended by our farmers. They adapted it from The Splendid Table recipe. Their changes, plus mine, make it more vegetable dense and less rich. This version is delicious without the extra added cup of cheese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not fat phobic. I think vegetables should be served with some fat and salt. If a recipe recommends low-fat anything, I stop reading.

I’ve made this three times in the past few weeks. Each time I used different veggies, but from the same families. While they were all delicious, my favorite combination was with butternut squash, onion and red Russian kale.

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Pasta with Roasted Squash and Greens

  • 4-5 cups winter squash (1 medium butternut, 2 delicata or 2 acorn)- peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized chunks. Delicata squash need not be peeled.
  • 1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch chunks (leeks and shallots work well, too)
  • 1 bunch of kale, chopped (~16 leaves, removed from their stems)
  • 1/3 cup tightly packed fresh basil leaves or 1 teaspoon dry basil
  • 16 large fresh sage leaves, torn
  • 3-5 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4+ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar, packed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup whole milk (or half-and-half)
  • 1/2 cup parmesan (Grate fresh, if possible. It tastes better and doesn’t have stabilizers added to it. Microplanes make for quick grating and zesting.)
  • 1 lb short pasta (rotini, penne, shells, orecchiette, bow-tie)

Preheat oven 450℉. Put two rimmed baking sheets or roasting pans in the oven as it heats. Toss together all the roasting ingredients (this includes everything except the milk, cheese and pasta) in a big bowl. Generously season with salt and pepper. (I use 1 tablespoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper prior to roasting. Once it’s assembled, I’ll add more as needed.)

Using potholders, carefully pull out the extremely hot pans. (This can’t be stressed enough. They are screaming hot at this point.) Carefully place the squash mixture on the pans. Spread it out evenly so it has space to caramelize. Bake 20-25 minutes or until the squash is tender. Stir at least once at the ten minute mark and rotate pans if cooking is uneven. Check again at the 20-minute mark. The kale can quickly move from crispy to burnt.

Cook your pasta in salted water. Drain once al dente. If your pasta is done prior to the vegetables, toss it with the milk and cheese while you wait.

Optional: Once the squash is tender, flip on the broiler to further caramelize the squash. Watch closely and turn the pieces often. Do not leave the food under the broiler unattended. My oven only allows for 1-2 minutes of this before the kale screams in fury. After making this multiple times, I skip this step because I am perfectly content with the recipe prior to it, but it does add a little more depth and pizazz if the squash has those beautiful, caramelized, crusty brown edges.

Scrape everything into a serving bowl. Add the hot pasta, milk and parmesan cheese. Toss to blend, tasting for salt and pepper. Serves 4-6 adults.

Nurtured by Food – Fall Favorites, Part 1

In a welcome contrast to how I was feeling, our summer and fall were filled with beauty I couldn’t previously imagine. Beginning in early July, a weekly fruit CSA delivery from my favorite orchard covered our counter with the most gorgeous hues. Lapin cherries. Nectarcots. Donut peaches. Dinosaur egg pluots. Our kitchen frequently smelled like peaches. I made my first jam, first tart and several delicious crisps. I ordered extra cherries thinking I’d dry some for the winter but because I didn’t dry them long enough and they needed to be consumed, I made some uncommon recipes. (The best: cherry ketchup. Unbelievably delicious on a hamburger with roasted red onion and blue cheese.) But most of the fruit was eaten in pure form because it was truly stunning that way. Sometimes I just didn’t want to take the risk that it wouldn’t taste quite as delectable. Several weeks into the deliveries, we were joking that our boys were going to become stonefruit connoisseurs  Miles was saying things like, “No want apricot. Want aprium!”

The rental house we’re in has an unusually large and flat lot for the city. It was part of the original orchard of our neighborhood and we have a very old, stately Italian prune plum tree and two well-established Asian pear trees. We figure they were neglected for a decade or so, given how the overall landscape looked when we moved in. Shortly after moving in, my husband took a tree pruning class and has spent hours since carefully grooming the trees of our yard. This year the plum tree burst at the seams, providing nearly 200lbs of fruit for our family, friends, neighbors and neighborhood food bank. One of my closest friends, who is responsible for at least half of the preferred recipes in my repertoire, made this upside down polenta cake with our plums and insisted that I try it after her husband swore it was the best cake he’d ever had. She makes really delicious cakes, so I knew we needed to try it. Plus, it a Melissa Clark recipe. If you’re a food writer for the New York Times, you’re pretty reliable.

So, I baked it. Twice. The first time I followed Melissa’s recipe apart from decreasing the sugar a bit. (From tasting our plums, I knew they were sweet enough to handle less.) I shared it with my family, a visiting friend and her two year old son. We were very quiet for a few minutes. It’s a smooth, creamy, slightly tangy and just perfectly sweet cake. That night it was paired with a homemade lightly sweetened vanilla whipped cream.

I wanted to make it again when we were already done processing our tree’s plums but newly inundated with Giant Italian prune plums from our CSA. I invited my wonderful group of graduate school SLP friends for an impromptu Wednesday night cake night. What I didn’t do was check my refrigerator for cornmeal. I had made cornbread the week before. Twice. So, left with quite a bit less than a cup of cornmeal and no time for a trip to the store, I contemplated my options. There, alongside my random bags of flours and grains in the fridge, sat millet. (I’ve used it to make muffins from Heidi Swanson’s latest cookbook.) Worth a shot!

You know what? My husband and I both liked it better. The millet added a little bit of texture, a tiny crunch here and there, that made it more interesting. Same incredible flavors, slightly more intriguing experience. It also didn’t hurt that we had some Molly Moon’s salted caramel ice cream in the freezer as an accompaniment.

Here’s my happy surprise version of Melissa Clark’s cake. Her recipe or my adapted version, you can’t go wrong. If you’re still lucky enough to have plums or if you have some stored in the freezer, hop to it! (We’re on our last week with plums from our CSA and I’m guessing our farmer’s markets won’t have them beyond this weekend, if it all. I think I’d be disappointed with a grocery store plum. Better to wait until they’re in season again.) If not, come visit me. We’ll try it out a version using the plums in my freezer. I would love another reason to make the cake.

Upside Down Plum Polenta Cake

20-24 Italian prune plums or 10-12 Giant Italian prune plums, sliced 1/2-inch thick  (If you have another variety of plums, you can estimate the number or go by a weight of ~1 3/4 lbs plums. I don’t think this part of the recipe is so picky that a little variation will hurt.)

1 1/3 cups to 1 1/2 cups sugar

2/3 cup cornmeal (I used Bob’s Red Mill fine grind cornmeal.)

1/3 cup millet (You can find this in the bulk foods aisle of a health(ier) food store or through Bob’s Red Mill. If not, omit the millet and use 1 cup cornmeal.)

1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (or 1/2 cup all-purpose. If you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, don’t use it. A pastry flour’s grind is thinner, making it a suitable substitute up to 50%. Other whole wheat grinds might be too gritty and dense.)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (I prefer Diamond brand.)

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature

4 large eggs

1/4 cup sour cream (Whole fat. Always tastes better.)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Whipped cream or ice cream for serving. Optional, but very nice.

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper and grease the paper and pan well. You can also use a 9-inch round greased cake pan if you don’t care about the presentation- it’s less likely to exit the pan with grace if it’s not springform. But, I wouldn’t go buy a springform just for this occasion unless you’re expecting royalty. Either way, put a raised rim cookie sheet underneath your pan to catch any plum juice that might boil up and drip out while it bakes. This is especially important with the springform pan.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the plums and 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar (depending on your plums’ sweetness) until the plums are tender. Stir occasionally, watching for their liquids to release, reduce, and begin to look syrupy-thick. This takes about 15-20 minutes. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan.

In a bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, millet, flour, baking powder, and salt.

Cream the room temperature butter and remaining cup of sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one a time, letting each one mix in completely before adding the next. Beat to combine. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla.

Remove the bowl from your mixer and gently fold in the dry ingredients with a spatula until just combined. Plop the batter on top of the plums and smooth with a spatula. Bake until the cake is golden and springs back when gently touched, approximately 45 to 50 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes, then unmold the springform side and invert it onto a plate. Or pray and dance and hope that your crazy flipping actions with the cake round will not lead to a sloppy mess on the plate. (This may or may not have happened when I used a round cake pan the second time. The dancing part. No one cared that it wasn’t perfect because it was going into our mouths. And it tasted really, really good. And they’re the type of friends that don’t care about perfection. The best.) Serve warm.

If you choose to serve it with whipped cream or ice cream, good choice. Homemade whipped cream is really easy to make and definitely worth a few extra minutes. You can add vanilla, liquor, or other extracts of choice. The salted caramel ice cream was really nice as a side, but vanilla might be a better choice to highlight the cake. My talented former neighbor just posted a recipe for salted caramel ice cream if you make your own. Make any of these and you’re guaranteed a very good night for you, your friends and family!

Yields one delicious cake. Serves 8 hungry adults or 12-16 well-fed children. Not both.

Julia’s Lesson

This week, and Wednesday in particular, the food blogosphere was filled with posts honoring what would’ve been Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Lots of people cooked her recipes, shared them online and wrote about how she’d inspired them. This short article includes some hilarious clips of her with whole chickens sitting in a row and a burnt souffle. I have enjoyed what I know of this legendary woman. I admire her no nonsense approach and willingness to fight for a woman’s place in many male-dominated scenes, all the while taking herself lightly. But what I like most is that she encouraged more people to enjoy cooking. I am sure that in some tiny, indirect way she is responsible for helping me learn to love making food.

My journey with cooking has been relatively short, with the biggest exploration period occurring after I had children and became a stay at home mom. Feeding kids four to five times a day will lead one to either embrace or disdain cooking. (Or buy a lot of processed food. Lord knows, we’ve bought our share fruit bars, bunny crackers and the booty of pirates.) I don’t recall cooking or baking much of anything while I lived under my parents’ roof. We were never expected to and I don’t think I had much of an interest. I had a few close girlfriends in high school who could bake pretty well and I was intimidated by their skills. My mom faithfully cooked us dinner every night, almost always putting out a “rounded” meal of meat, veggies, starch and fruit. (Bless her. The amount of work and commitment to satisfy three growing children and a tall active husband, all while running her own business, astounds me.) It was very special and unusual for us to go out to eat. We packed sandwiches for every long outing and vacation lunches were almost always pulled out of the packed cooler. I really appreciate that I grew up with this example. While my parents were primarily committed to the budget, they inadvertently spared us a lot of fast food and provided more nutritious meals.

I very clearly remember my trepidation when I was asked to cook dinner during my first months as an exchange student in the Netherlands. I only knew how to cook from recipes and wasn’t even really comfortable with that. So, give me a recipe written in Dutch (which I was still very new to), different standards of measurement , someone else’s kitchen and you get a seriously nervous 18 year old whipping up a barely edible plate of spaghetti for a family used to regularly consuming amazing gourmet meals. (Oh, what I’d give to spend a few months in that home now. Mussels every weekend! Delicious wine! Outstanding company. Aaaahhh. I had no clue how good I had it.) While they ate the meal and were incredibly kind, that family and my future host families never asked me to cook again. Word must’ve traveled through the village pretty quickly.

Harry and I spent the first half of our marriage eating a lot of pasta doused with jarred sauce, frozen gyoza over rice covered with jarred teriyaki sauce, canned soups and other frozen, prepared meals that one could buy in bulk at Costco. We rarely cooked anything of substance from scratch. We made salads, but always bought the dressing. I made occasional cookies or brownies that weren’t from a box, but admittedly even home baking was rare.

The stats on American food consumption let me know that chances are exceptionally high that many reading this eat like that now. Maybe not all of the time, but most of the time. I truly do not judge you. I’ve been there and I understand how high the first few cooking hurdles can feel. And how disappointing it is when you trip over one, ruining an expensive piece of meat or vegetable dish you labored over.  I also know that many people are stretched to the max these days and it’s hard to imagine cooking delicious ingredients as something possible when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. (If this is the case for you, have you seen this? Maybe it provides some encouragement.)

Prior to having Charlie we got a lot of our higher education debt paid off and felt a little more financial freedom, so we went out to eat a little more often and began exploring places with fresh ingredients put together in unique ways. Our friends began to cook better. We began to try more complicated recipes when we had friends over. We were developing our taste for freshness and depth of flavor. (I consider this period the beginning of our “palate cleansing.” I really think we needed to be free of all the additives, obscene amounts of sugar added to food, preservatives and other chemicals to fully appreciate the nuances of fresh food.)

Then, we moved. We left the diverse, delicious beauty of Seattle’s food world and entered suburbia, surrounded by chain restaurants. Time and again we were disappointed by our meals coming from those places. We stopped going, saving our pennies to only eat at more expensive places in Boulder. I also longed for fresher ingredients for cooking. My master gardener father-in-law built me raised beds at our new house and mentored me through my first seasons of vegetable gardening. I had vegetables coming out of my ears, thanks to him. Colorado heat and sunshine were helpful, too. (My cherry tomatoes are still not ripe, folks.)

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Our Colorado home softened with some veggies. The first planting: cool weather crops in front.

Then the economy crashed, Harry had started a business that didn’t provide us any income and I only worked part-time on-call. His job hunt ended up taking months. I worked as much as possible, we depleted our savings and had to borrow money from family. It was a stressful time yet we knew that we were very privileged to have a wide safety net that eased our burden. We had tightened our belts as snug as they could get. Clearly, no more restaurants or outings for entertainment. We stopped buying juice, alcohol, meat, coffee, and lots of other “extras” like chips. I wanted to prioritize healthy food in our budget and not eat Ramen noodles. Plus, we had a child to think of and I wasn’t about to feed Charlie tons of junk. So, I began to cook a lot more. The first year of our vegetable garden yielded enough vegetables for us to not buy any from mid-summer until mid-fall. Additionally, this forced me to expand my zucchini repetoire from sweet bread to actual meals of substance. (Zucchini fritters, zucchini gratin, zucchini fritatta, grilled zucchini…need more ideas?)

This marked the beginning of my journey as a home cook! I am really proud of how far I’ve come and everything I’ve learned. I still get nervous trying new techniques and dishes, but I’m much more willing to try my hand at them. I’m also able to wing quite a few dishes now, building a meal from what we have on hand. Hitting that point has been incredibly satisfying because I waste less food, spend less money and get to experience cooking as more of an art than a science. I really love that creative outlet in the midst of what could otherwise be a monotonous “task.”

Julia's LessonMy first rustic tart: Kim Boyce’s apricot boysenberry galette. I even made the apricot jam for it- my first! I procrastinated starting the dough for days because I was so nervous.Two hurdles jumped! Woo-hoo!

Earlier this week, inspired by that fantastic tomato sauce I’ve mentioned before,  I created my very own stovetop lasagna dish. I realize that this isn’t some amazing invention, but I’m proud that I was willing to attempt something completely new to me without a template. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t  been forced into a corner a bit. I had fresh lasagna noodles on hand but didn’t want to turn the oven on because it was hot in our house. I have no idea what I was thinking buying fresh lasagna noodles in summer. It was a definite impulse buy. Seattle’s having a heat wave. Unlike the rest of the nation, this is our first steady set of days in the high 80s and low 90s. We all get excited, people skip work to soak in the sun. But, after a few days we bitch and moan about how hot it is and long for the cold, gray days of fall so we can drink our delicious hot coffees without sweating. I’m not kidding. I join the chorus now and then.

Anyways, I had everything needed for a roasted vegetable lasagna. My garden is finally starting to donate produce on a regular basis. So, I poured two jars of my favorite strained tomatoes into a big pot, added several large globs of butter, salt, pepper, very finely diced onions, garlic, zucchini and some basil (all from the garden- yay!). I let that simmer while I mixed ricotta with an egg, parmesan, chives and basil from the garden (double yay!), salt and pepper. Then, I rolled each noodle with the cheese filling. Plopped those suckers into the sauce, topped it with some mozzarella and let it gently simmer away until Harry came home. Miles must’ve told me fifty times how yummy dinner was while he covered his face and body with the sauce because his bites were so huge. The whole family loved it. Charlie wanted to know the name, so I called it lasagna roll soup. That needs help, but the dish was a success!

I probably wouldn’t be this adventurous with guests, but I am hoping to get past that. I need to channel Julia’s attitude on a more regular basis. Just why are so many of us fearful to enter the kitchen? I think there are a lot of companies, particularly Big Food, who are heavily invested in making us think cooking is too hard and we “deserve a break.” The advertising messages are sometimes subtle, often not. But they all say essentially the same thing: Cooking is really difficult, not fun, and a burden. Let us make it easier for you. I bought into these lies for a long time. Additionally, I really didn’t believe I had it in me to cook or bake well because I hadn’t practiced in my younger years and had experienced enough flops to feel frustrated by it all.

Below are some cookbooks and websites that I have found helpful during my cooking journey. If you feel bound to the ideas that cooking is too hard, too time consuming or too risky, I hope these help you feel a little more excited and prepared to dive in. Remember Julia. She started without any professional experience, just a love of delicious meals, a desire to learn and a commitment to improve her skills. By the end, she could even handle a burnt souffle with grace. We can see our flops as a failure or choose to be proud of ourselves for trying. The first steps on the journey are the initial reward and the food keeps giving after that. When your kids happily eat vegetables and shout praises about your food, that will be a nice pat on the back, too.

Bon appetit! (Say that like Julia. If you didn’t, try again.)

Resources

Cook’s Illustrated cookbook: The recipes in this cookbook do not concern themselves with nutrition. Not even in the slightest. I like that it shares why certain techniques or recipes were more successful than others during recipe testing. It helps new cooks understand why something works well. There are thousands of recipes, so if you don’t own a cookbook, check this one out from the library and see if it should be your first. It will guide you very gently through all of the basics, like how to grill a burger, make salad dressings, or fry an egg. It also shares a wide range of other interesting dishes, like how to make a simple Indian curry or thai stir-fry. It’s a great launching pad and reference to have on hand. The more comfortable I get in the ktichen, the more likely I am to pull it out for some brief recipe guidelines that I can tweek to my own liking or ingredients on-hand.

In Praise of Leftovers: This food blog launched right when my cooking interest was sparking. Sarah is friends with many of my friends, so I followed along. She first introduced me to the idea of cooking from bits and pieces left on my counter and fridge, helping me move away from recipe dependency. It was her guiding hand that helped me understand I could throw some random raw veggies alongside soba noodles, toss them with a delicious homemade sauce and be thrilled. This was the beginning of my realization that if I had the pantry stocked appropriately, it would always take less time to cook at home than to go to the store, return home and “prepare” a frozen meal or even to buy something already made. She also introduced me to the emergency fritatta. I cook fritattas as a basis for using up aging veggies quite frequently.

Michael Natkin’s Herbivoracious series on making food pop dramatically changed how I approach seasoning. Reading this helped me really begin to understand why certain dishes were so wonderful and others were lacking. I began to use much more salt, including salting my pasta water. (Do it, people! It’s not about keeping pasta from sticking, it’s about taste. Make that water taste like the sea. And buying good pasta will help a lot, too.) I also appreciated his kitchen confidence post.

I love fish but it’s scared me a lot as a home cook because it’s frequently expensive and it’s often delicate. I have found Becky Selengut’s Good Fish book and online videos to be detailed enough to make me feel comfortable. Under her tutelage I’ve successfully shucked oysters, seared scallops (one of my favorite foods), cooked clams, and taken apart squid. Bonus: if you follow her recommendations, you can be sure you’re eating sustainble fish.

Food 52 has a whole series on kitchen confidence and frequently posts interesting recipes and different tricks of the trade. I found today’s post on various pestos an inspiring read. If there’s one thing that grows well in Seattle, it’s kale.

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Cover this with a little bit of fat (oil), vinegar and salt and it will taste divine.