Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Winter Doldrums

If not for my many cooking adventures since autumn along with a slew of new cookbooks to read, I would be absolutely stir-crazy right now, not to mention homicidal. I hate winter; it keeps me confined and unable to sit in the lawn and watch my chickens and ducks. I feel caged and frustrated. I channel that energy into the things that interest me at the this case, cooking.

This week I've added to my culinary library by redeeming my credit card points. I very carefully chose two books, "Everyday Pasta" by Giada DeLaurentiis and "The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook" by Beth Hensperger.

When you get a new cookbook, do you sit and read it like a novel or do you browse through it and scan for what interests you? I've never actually sat down and read a cookbook until this year. And you know what? I'm gleaning tons of information.

Now I know what you're thinking. You're probably wondering how it is that I've got that much free time on my hands. I am a wife, mother and I work a full-time job. I'm not one to talk about myself, especially on this blog, but in this case I think I should explain.

I sustained a back injury at work at the end of November last year. This isn't the first one for me either. I have a herniated disc at the L4/5 level, one above the last herniated disc that I had 2 years ago. I had surgery to correct that first one, and now I'm waiting for Worker's Comp paperwork to go through so I can have the second one fixed. In the meantime, I have been placed on restrictions so tight that basically all I can do is sit and read all night at work. It's excruciatingly boring, especially for someone who hates to sit still. All I can do is think about what I could be doing instead of wasting my time at work. But the doctors have refused to give me any time off from work, so I have to play by their rules until the surgery is approved. So, now you understand why I have so much time to read.

At any rate, I'm particularly happy with the bread machine cookbook. It's a paperback two inches thick and just with my initial scanning I can tell it's packed with great information and useful tips. I've mastered my bread machine and I'm really looking forward to testing this book's recipes. I'm less impressed with Giada's book, but I bought it because I want to refine my skills with pasta and sauce making. I want to learn the basic Italian sauces so that I can create them from memory instead of having to refer to a recipe. I also like Giada's method of combing simple, fresh, high-quality ingredients to achieve a flavorful yet simple meal. That's the way it should be in my opinion. This is also the reason I'm such a big fan of Ina Garten. I'm relieved to see snobbish food becoming less popular and replaced by simple ingredients cooked and combined properly.

I've got to sift through the cookbooks and my own personal recipes and start experimenting now. Prepare for an onslaught of food-related entries!


We got a heapin' helpin' of snow last night and the guys spent the day digging us out. I estimate that we got about 6" of snow. School was cancelled and I called in to work last night and said I wasn't coming in. So what to do? Well, you know me! I got busy in the kitchen.

I made two more loaves of delicious oatmeal honey bread and a dozen blueberry-oatmeal muffins. I love it when I can bake two different things side by side in the oven. I found some nice blueberries on sale earlier this week and wanted to use them in a way that would highlight their wonderful flavor, so muffins it is.

When the muffins were ready I took some out to the guys who were busily shoveling snow. The chickens and ducks are once again refusing to leave the coop. It's going to be a big mess in that chicken coop and I'm itching to clean it out. But I have to wait till it warms up a bit first. At least the girls are laying good now. They've laid a dozen eggs so far today!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rice Pudding Haiku

Jim requested rice pudding at dinner last night. Now, I'm not a big fan of rice in sweet dishes. To me, rice is a savory ingredient and should be treated as such. I was never a big fan of rice pudding, but I can eat it if I must.

So I made a big batch of rice pudding today and although I find the flavor appealing, the texture is not my favorite. If I were choosing foods at a buffet, I would pass by the rice pudding and opt for the apple pie instead. However, it was interesting to make and a good lesson in how starches transform the liquids around them when heat is applied at a slow and gentle pace.

And so, without further ado, I give you my Rice Pudding Haiku...

Contradictive dish,
Rice cloaked in sweetness and cream,
My tastebuds protest.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No-Knead Dutch Oven Bread

My friend Jane and I are constantly swapping recipes back and forth. She lives in Illinois where she works as a legal transcriptionist (fastest typist I know). She and I decided to give the New York Times No-Knead bread recipe a try using our Dutch ovens. She went first, starting her bread on Friday. She reported excellent results last night and said she loved the flavor of the bread as well as the crunchy crust. She's going to experiment with the recipe and try adding some dill seed as well as making some onion bread with it.

I got my dough ready and put it in the oven at 10 p.m. last night. It proofed for 14 hours before I got to stage two. I floured the heck out of a flour sack cloth towel, put the dough ball in and, following the instructions, let it rise another 2 hours. It baked for half an hour at 450° with me removing the lid halfway. This was a dangerous endeavor since I had to remove the rubberized handle from my lid before I put it in the oven since it can't handle temperatures over 375°!

I was amazed that the bread released right out of the Dutch oven
at the end of the baking time. It's very shiny and reminds me of French bread. The recipe is very similar, in fact, containing no sugar or oil. It's not a pretty loaf, with lumps and bumps all over it. There are obviously large bubbles on the surface, which is typical for a dough recipe like this one.

Would I do it again? I dunno. The dough stuck mightily to my kitchen towel even though I floured it generously. Taking the handle off the lid meant I had to wrestle with an extremely heavy, hot, handle-less cast iron lid--not for the weak or timid by any means. I have yet to taste this bread but we will give it a thorough taste test tonight at dinner.

The round shape of the loaf is charming and reminds me of the artisan bread that's all the rage these days. So if you like pompous bread, this is the loaf for you! As they say, the proof is in the pudding, so after tonight's taste test I may or may not bake this recipe again. You definitely have to plan for it because it has to rise for a mininum of 12 hours, with 18 hours being recommended. However, if you're stingy with your yeast you'll be happy to know that it takes only 1/4 teaspoon of active dry yeast.

***After Dinner Update***

The bread was delicious! Nice and chewy but not jaw-breaking. The crust doesn't try to tear your gums off and the flavor is very much like French bread. I made garlic bread with it and it was terrific! There were big bubbles in it that held the garlicky butter like little wells.

That said, this bread is a rough one to make. I think I'll stick with my tried and true method of letting the bread maker or stand mixer make the dough and baking the bread in bread pans instead of a 10 pound cast iron Dutch oven! Although, it is very comforting to know that if push comes to shove I can bake some bread in it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cookbooks Galore

It's been so cold and miserable outside this week that I've pretty much gone out only to collect eggs and feed and water my birds. The ducks have spent the past 3 nights in the coop and it looks like they'll spend one more tonight. It's supposed to warm up a bit tomorrow so I'll let them out after it warms up a little more. This morning it was -11° outside with windchills down to -30° below. It's so cold they cancelled school today and yesterday. Brrrr!

So I've been staying inside reading my new cookbooks, including this one from Molly Stevens called "All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking ". It's fascinating because she actually takes time to explain the process and how it works as well as all the types of pans you can use for different ingredients to be braised. I'm looking at the chicken and beef recipes but there are also some cabbage and root vegetable recipes that sound great.

But today I want to focus on my book from Ina Garten's series, Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics: Fabulous Flavor from Simple Ingredients. I love her simple approach to cooking with good quality ingredients. If you start out with crappy ingredients your food is going to be crappy, right?

So anyway I'll be roasting a pork loin and some winter root vegetables from Ina's book tonight. Then I want to try a chicken and mushroom soup in the Dutch oven. It's going to be a flavorful weekend. The weather is doing me a favor by keeping me confined to the house!
If I get real ambitious I just might make that apple galette in Ina's book too. You should see it, it's over the top.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Jim

My hubby, Jim, turns 37 tomorrow. His sister's birthday is today. We are celebrating both at their mom's house tonight.

I made this plain yellow cake for Jim. While the cake is plain, the icing and decorations are not. I like to bake like that: keep the cake/crust or "back bone" simple then embellish it with the finishing touches. It makes you look like a uber chef. The focus of this cake will be the sugary-spicy toasted pecans backed up by the lusciously smooth and sweet icing.

I must add that the cake stand is vintage white glass and I picked it up from my friend Marlene at her store, "Lene's Web Trash & Treasures". I love it. It puts a cake on display without distraction.

The icing is your basic 7 minute icing made with egg whites and sugar, beat over a simmering double boiler. It comes together perfectly and would make even a novice feel like a champ. The pecans were sugared yesterday and applied ever-so-carefully to the icing. The end result is a pretty cake that will make everyone stop and take notice.

Today my Lodge 6 quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven arrived along with Ina Garten's cookbook, "Back to Basics". I have a braising cookbook on the way next week which I plan to put to use with the Dutch oven. I'm going to work on learning good braising technique. If you're a frugal chef like me and you want to be able to use cheap cuts of meat to turn into tender dinners, you master the art of braising! It's going to be a tasty adventure.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Spring Chicks Ordered

I ordered this year's chicks from Ideal Poultry today. I'm adding 7 layers to my flock of 14 to help keep my customers satisfied as well as to keep our egg supply where I need it. Derek wanted to get a Golden Campine, and I thought it would be fun to have one white egg layer. We'll always know when she lays an egg!

I wanted to try a few new breeds and chose those that are reputed to be good winter layers, except for the one Welsummer. I just had to try a dark brown layer even though most of my Australorps lay dark brown eggs. The breeds I chose are also supposed to be friendly and not aggressive toward each other. Let's hope that's the case with my new chicks. Here's the layer breeds I chose:

  • 2 Barred Rocks (to add to the two I already have and love)
  • 2 Speckled Sussex (because my friend Susan loves hers so much)
  • 1 Delaware
  • 1 Golden Campine
  • 1 Welsummer

I also ordered 10 broiler chicks, but not the usual Cornish hybrid that has leg issues. Rather, I chose these black and red broilers that Ideal Poultry offers. They still grow quickly and put on the pounds like a broiler chick should, but without the leg problems that plague the Cornish crosses. They're also supposed to be much better at foraging, something Cornish crosses rarely do.

The chicks are due to arrive the first week of April so we have plenty of time to prepare for their arrival. I plan to keep the broilers separate from the layers so I can feed them a higher protein food. Since I only ordered 17 chicks I'm expecting the hatchery to throw in more than one extra for "warmth and comfort" during shipping. I wonder what freebies I'll get?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Perfect Eggs

What is it about eggs that I find so appealing? When I go out to gather eggs from the nest boxes I am always struck with joy when I see these warm brown orbs safely nestled in the straw. I know where they come from, but I can't escape the childlike feeling of discovering these little treasures left behind by secretive fairies.

I love how a freshly laid egg is still warm from the body heat of the hen that laid it. I roll the eggs around in my hands like big worry beads enjoying the texture of the shells. The smooth, round feel of eggs in my hands is somehow soothing.

I used these lovely eggs to make omelets for dinner tonight. I filled the omelets with finely chopped mushrooms and green onion blended with cream cheese--so satisfying! I made a big skillet-sized hash brown to go with the omelets and we all enjoyed having this breakfast treat for dinner.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

All Is Quiet

Now that the holidays are over, things have slowed down to a calmer pace here at Twelve Acres. No more baking till the wee hours of night, no more wrapping and last minute trips to the store. Now I can slow down and focus on the pleasant activities that make me happy.

I have spent a considerable amount of time organizing and streamlining my kitchen this past week. I've also learned some time-saving tips and techniques by watching most of the cooking shows on the Food Network, which I pre-record and watch at night when everyone else is in bed (fast forwarding through the commercials of course). My favorite chef is Alton Brown, host of Good Eats. He's a talented technician and his multi-purpose gadgets really make me stop and think about the stuff in my kitchen drawers. I've changed my tool layout following his method and it's really made a difference in the way that I cook. What a relief! I am having a lot more fun in my kitchen now. I appreciate Ina Garten's and Tyler Florence's easy-going, practical approach to cooking as well. The best food comes from using simple ingredients cooked properly. No need for all that fuss! Fuggedaboutit!

I have invested in a 14 piece set of stainless steel Emerilware
. Emeril's stainless steel line is made by All Clad, which any cookware devotee will instantly drool over. I can't afford the All-Clad line, but I can afford the Emerilware version! It arrived today and I went through all of my Calphalon pieces and put the ones I've replaced into storage. When Derek moves out he'll inherit them. They're all very functional still and in great shape and he has experience cooking with them, so he knows how to handle them.

I made a turkey pot pie today using my new Taste Of Home cookbook and my brand-spankin'-new 3 quart stainless steel sauce pan. This cookware heats much more quickly than the hard-anodized aluminum I'm used to using, so I had to turn the heat down a bit while cooking the filling. It occurred to me that this new cookware will save me money because I use less propane when cooking! BONUS! My investment is going to save me money! I'm beside myself with glee!

The chooks have picked up egg laying this week. I think the extra hours of light provided by the light on a timer are starting to have an affect on them. Half of my Australorps are once again laying, albeit slower. I've been averaging 5 eggs a day, up from 3! Yay me! Now I can once again cook up some egg dishes for supper. I was really sweating it last month during all my holiday baking. There was more than one day when I used up all the eggs in the fridge. And then there were the customers who wanted eggs that I couldn't supply.

I'm enjoying all the wonderful gifts I received for Christmas. Everyone who knows me and loves me knows that I spend the majority of my day in one of two places: outside with my animals or in my kitchen. Everything I received can be used in either of those two places. Isn't that nice?