Sunday, September 28, 2008

Oh Baby...

Cooking lately has been uninspired and lackluster, more going-through-the-motions than going through pages of inspiring cookbooks. I've made a lot of sauteed zucchini and shallots, mixed with leftover rice in the pan, and then pushed to the sides to scramble up a couple of eggs and then mix the whole thing together. It's tasty, don't get me wrong, but not that exciting in the grand culinary scheme of things. 

So, here's something exciting:

There's always something I come home to, a dish that is always delicious, always reliable and always welcome on a plate before me, not to mention a good bit of fun to make:


They are something like a German oven pancake or a Yorkshire pudding or something else that is Czech, but growing up, all I knew these as were Dutch babies and that I wanted to slather maple syrup all over them and start eating as soon as possible. 

My mom would make these as a major treat for us for breakfast... sometimes on the weekend, or if we were really lucky, before we left for school. She got the recipe from James Beard's cookbook, "The New James Beard," a book she bought 3 months after I was born. I know this because I just found the invoice for it used as a bookmark for Bechamel Sauce on page 531.  

Dutch Baby for 1 Person (plus a little leftover to pick at later in the afternoon):

3 tablespoons salted butter
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup flour

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Whisk together eggs, milk and flour in a bowl til combined and slightly frothy.

Melt butter in a small skillet in the oven. Remove skillet and pour in batter. Bake for 15-20 minutes until it looks as it does in the picture, puffed and browned. 

It will collapse a good bit when you take it out of the oven. Take a spatula, loosen it off the bottom of the skillet and slide it onto a plate. Put on some REAL maple syrup, get a fork and knife and go to town. 

Multiply the recipe accordingly and switch to a big skillet  if you are cooking for more people. It's the best breakfast I know. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Zucchini Avgolemono Soup

I love it when I come across a recipe and realize that I have exactly the ingredients necessary to get cooking right away. It's like destiny. This was just such a recipe, Mark Bittman's Zucchini Egg-Lemon Soup... known in Greek circles as Avgolemono soup. My mom used to make this for us in place of Chicken Noodle Soup, and as a kid, of course I would have preferred eating the latter. Happily, my taste buds have evolved and I can appreciate the silky, tangy, tasty, soothing soup that my people have been cooking since forever. Fittingly, my mom emailed me this recipe yesterday. Mark Bittman's version uses zucchini and I added leeks to the mix because I quite simply LOVE the two vegetables together. I threw the leeks in with the onions at the beginning. After ladling the soup into the bowl, I finished it with a little chopped parsley, freshly grated parmesan cheese, a crack of black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Good times, good soup. 

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sunday Lunch for One

I was pretty psyched when I scored a pristine red cabbage and apple from this week's farm share, because I knew that Deborah Madison's warm red cabbage salad with feta, pecans, olives, apple, garlic, onion, parsley and marjoram was on the way.

I had all the ingredients and made it for lunch today to share the plate with some roasted salt & peppered chicken thighs and a slice of some tasty ciabatta that I made yesterday (click the image to get a close view).

It was good, and I knew I was supposed to sit and savor and enjoy all the flavor nuances that make the salad one of my all time favorites... but today a restlessness came over me, and i just got up and left the table in the middle of the meal to go and do something else. Perhaps it was the visual of that huge bowl of leftovers that hit me, because I just couldn't wait for the meal to be over. Sometimes eating alone sucks. 

Friday, September 5, 2008

Adventures in Breadmaking

I took some flour, yeast, water, honey, and salt and followed the basic bread recipe of my culinary love, Jamie Oliver. I made three mistakes along the way, but was determined that the recipe would be good enough to withstand my errors and still come out perfect. At least, this is what I willed it to do.

I left the dough in a pan for its first rise, sat on the couch and caught up on some e-mails. After the timer went off, imagine my shock when I walked into the kitchen to find this:

Clearly the yeast was working. I sucker-punched the dough right in the center and it collapsed and deflated around my fist. I fussed with it for a minute, cut it in half and shaped it on two separate pans for its second rise. 

Once it doubled in size again, I put the two massively humungous blobs of dough gently in the oven, and let it bake for 27 minutes. The smell was intoxicating. I found myself mentally melting butter to add to the scent of the warm country bread baking in the oven. 

The torture that followed was something no breadbaker should suffer: I couldn't get the bread off the pan. I forgot to flour the bottom of it, or put down some semolina or something - anything! - to prevent it from sticking. To test doneness, I was supposed to knock the bottom of the bread, and if it sounded hollow, it was done, but what's a girl to do if she can't get the bread free from the pan it was baked on? I waited, put it aside to cool, hoping for some condensation to form, hoping that I could pry the dough off the pan with a system of forks, spatulas and gravity. I had come too far for this whole thing to be a failure!

With determination and desperation, I freed one loaf, and then the other. They were big, ugly, huge loaves of bread. And you know what? They were delicious. That night I stuffed an end of one of them with meat from a barbecued pork rib and zucchini pickles. Phenomenal. 

The next night I brought it to a dinner party of 8 people and saw one loaf of it just disappear with the Greek/Italian dinner with homemade red wine that it was paired with. The following morning, with the second loaf, I made the best french toast I've ever made.

It reminded me of my grandmother's bread, a taste I haven't enjoyed for over a decade. I really liked the reminder.    

Diana's French Toast (adapted from a recipe by - guess who? - Jamie Oliver)

Whole Milk
Vanilla Extract

Put a stick of butter on the counter to get it to easily-spreadable temperature. 
Slice some bread.
CRITICAL STEP: Butter both sides of the bread. 

Whisk some eggs and milk together in a bowl. The ratio is entirely fudge-able. You want a nice pale yellow custard, so just trust your instinct and go for it. Add a capful of vanilla extract, a healthy couple of pinches of ground cinnamon, a pinch of ground nutmeg and a pinch of salt. 

Lay the bread out on a jelly roll pan, or in a big pyrex and pour the custard over the bread, turning over occasionally. The most critical thing is that the bread is not dry in the center. You want the custard to be absorbed to the point that the bread is almost falling apart. If you need more custard, just make some more. Always err on the side of too much custard. 

Heat up your griddle (or frying pan or whatever you have) over medium high heat, add some butter. Once melted and the bubbles have subsided, lay your french toast in with the help of a spatula. They should sizzle right away. Check after a couple of minutes and when seriously golden brown and gorgeous, flip them over.

Serve with real maple syrup, fresh fruit, preserves, blueberry sauce, whatever you want!