Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Artisan Baking and why I love it

I love baking. Turning the oven on, warming up the house, the wonderful smells that fill the air. Of course in the autumn that means pumpkin, apple dumplings and apple crisp, pear tarts and lots and lots savory things like stews and roasts and casseroles. I have a giant roasting pan that holds enough lasagna for an army and it takes all day to bake. Don't forget roast turkey and chicken and pheasant- the smells coming from roasting birds are just about the best smells of autumn.

And bread. I love love love baking bread. I love bread pans, I love bread machines, I love clay baking stones. I love all of it! The yeasty smell of bread dough is one of my favorite kitchen smells of all. It really doesn't matter to me if it's a yeast bread or a quick bread, muffins or cheesy biscuits, I love baking it. The approaching holidays usually include banana bread, pumpkin bread. Gardens are giving up the last of the zucchini, many of them too big to use for anything but baking. Let's not forget, the holidays are coming- you're going to need lots of dinner rolls for holiday dinner.

Baking also is a way to express yourself, show off your skills. Hence the term artisan. Now some people say it's thrown around too often, too cliche, used for every recipe that is a little off the beaten path. I think some people just have a real deep passion for the food they produce, whether it's bread, cheese, condiments such as mustards and sauces, or charcuterie, just to name a few. I mean come on-artisan cheese? Sign me up! I recently watched an episode of Real Girl's Kitchen and Haylie visited a farm and creamery that made artisan goat cheese. Yum! That is my idea of artisan, and especially bread. Think of the beautiful loaves you see in the windows of bakeries. Long golden baguettes. Round loves of earthy, crusty whole wheat bread. Seeds sprinkled over. Herbs mixed inside. Cinnamon swirled in layers of tender dough. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it!

So I am going to bake some bread. I always have yeast on hand. Flour- check.Whole wheat flour- check. I even have cracked wheat to sprinkle on top. And I think I am going to go artisan and make a beautiful round loaf of crusty bread. Maybe I will even throw a pot of soup. 

To make a really good loaf of crusty bread, you will need-
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (keep it around 100 degrees so you don't kill the yeast)
  • 1 packet active dry yeast or instant yeast
  • 2 tb honey
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 cups all purpose flour, plus more
  • 1 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1-2 tb crushed wheat for sprinkling

In a large bowl combine the water, yeast, honey and stir until dissolved completely. Add salt. NOTE- I was out of honey, so I used a couple tablespoons of sugar.

If you don't have honey, you can use sugar- I had to today.

Combine the flours in another bowl. I wanted an herby bread to go with my dinner so I stirred a couple tablespoons of Penzey's Parisian Herb mix. 

Add to the yeast mixture a cup at a time, mixing well after each cup. The dough is very soft and not a "kneading" type of dough. 

Form dough into a soft ball in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest in a warm spot for 2 hours, or until doubled in size.

Get the oven ready for baking: place one rack in the lowest position and the other in the upper middle. We want our bread to have a crusty and chewy crust and you need steam to make that happen, so place a metal baking pan on the lower shelf. Choose one that holds at least 2 cups of water. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Get your baking pan ready: all I need to do today for this bread is lightly grease the pan.

Now for the dough.  Flour your hands, sprinkle the dough with a teeny tiny bit of flour (remember, it's sticky) and dump it onto prepared pan. With floured hands again, form the dough into a round loaf, or boule as the French would say.

Using a very sharp knife cut three slits in the top of the loaf. Brush or mist the dough very lightly with water and sprinkle with crushed wheat. Let the dough rest for ten minutes while the oven reaches temp. Go ahead and place the pan on the upper rack in the oven, and add at least 2 cups of warm water to the metal pan on the bottom rack. Don't use glass or you might break it and have a real mess.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until deep golden brown and sounds hollow when you tap it. Remove to a rack and cool. You can serve the bread warm but you should let it cool for 10-15 minutes minimum. 

This is the perfect kind of bread for sopping up rich gravies and soup broth. Round loaves are the perfect bread for a party size muffuletta too. I love round loaves of bread because you get more "bread butt" and THAT is the best part of any crusty bread if you ask me. This one took a little more work than the Dutch oven crusty bread I have made but it was still fun, and I'd definitely make it again this way. I hope you give it a try! Be an artisan baker for a day!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fast Food- Thirty Minute Chicken and Noodles

Let's face it, some days all we want is a fast dinner we don't have to fuss with. For some, that means call the pizza man, for others, drive-thru or a deli meal. When you live in the country you often don't have those options. Fast food becomes junk in a box or junk from the freezer. It doesn't HAVE TO be that though. With a little planning when shopping, and a mindfully stocked pantry you CAN get a home cooked meal on the table in thirty minutes or less.

So what is in a mindfully stocked pantry? The basics. Chicken and beef stock. Noodles, pasta and a grain like rice or quinoa. Vegetables. You all know I'm a home canner so I have loads of veggies in the cupboard as well as homemade stocks, but if you don't can, just stock up on a few things your family likes. Some basic seasonings like garlic, onions, a few spices, chicken and beef soup bases. Every kitchen should have a thickening agent- flour or cornstarch, as well as baking basics like brown and white sugar and yeast. Keep a couple packages of easy to cook meats in the freezer/fridge and you're all set!

Faced with starvation this evening, no desire to cook a big dinner, and the closest pizza man an hour away it was up to me to make magic happen in the kitchen with a package of chicken breasts. So..... here is the result of five minutes of assessing the situation and making sure I had what I needed.

Thirty Minute Chicken and Noodles

You will need-
  • 1 package boneless skinless chicken breasts (mine had 3, I'm guessing roughly a pound)
  • 1 one-pound package wide egg noodles
  • 1/2 cup sliced scallions
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • cooking oil
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 4 tablespoons chicken soup base (or 4 cups chicken stock/broth)
  • 1 teaspoon thyme, chopped
  • salt and pepper

Put a pot of salted water on to boil. Cut the chicken breasts into bite-sized cubes. Season with salt and pepper. In a large measuring cup place the flour. Add about 1/4 of water- just enough to mix it with a fork until smooth. Add the chicken soup base and water to make 4 cups. Set aside.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a skillet. I used my new ceramic skillet and it was awesome!! Add half the chicken and saute until browned nicely and cooked through. Remove to a bowl and keep warm. Repeat with remaining chicken.

Add the noodles to the water when it's come to a full rolling boil. Most noodles take 7-9 minutes. Drain and set aside.

After all chicken is cooked, remove from skillet. Add a tablespoon of oil if needed and add the scallions and garlic; reduce heat and cook several minutes until garlic is softened but not browned. Switch to a whisk, stir the water/flour mixture again and add to skillet all at once. Return to higher heat and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened like a gravy. Return the chicken to the pot. Add the noodles. Sprinkle with thyme, mix and serve!

Wasn't that easy? It was super easy and fast, as delicious as something cooked all day and perfect for a cool autumn night. I recommend keeping low salt soup bases on hand because they CAN be pretty salty sometimes, but this was just right. Some buttered green beans and dinner was on the table in the Little Lake House- I kid you not- 24 minutes. Yes, I timed it!In fact, it all came together so quickly, I didn't have time to take many pictures.  Anyone can have 2 pans going at the same time- so give up the garbage food and make your own fast food!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Lasagna gets a City Girl Makeover

Country folks love home cooking. Simple flavors, belly filling, meat and potatoes traditional dishes are the mainstays on tables in rural and small town kitchens. That includes hearty classics like spaghetti and meatballs and deep, thick, cheesy lasagna. The Little Lake House might be out in the country, but that doesn't mean the City Girl doesn't come out from time to time and mix it up a bit in the kitchen, with trendy foods and  new flavors.

I admit it, I am on a cognac kick. No, I am not hanging out in the local bars getting hammered. In fact I'm not so sure I could even get cognac at the two teeny taverns in the nearby towns. I have to drive back to the city to buy it! I have been cooking with it like crazy. It warms up humble cheese soup, makes caramelized onions so much more special and takes simple mushrooms to a whole new dimension. And that, my friends, is where I am going today. Cognac and mushrooms.

What does this have to do with classic home cooking? Everything. I'm going to take everyday lasagna and turn it into something really special, really delicious and really City Girl style.

Let's talk about mushrooms for a few minutes. Growing up pretty much all my mom ever cooked with was plain canned button mushrooms. In the spring Dad would hunt morels and usually came home with bags full. Of course, Mom was in the Breading and Frying Club when it came to morels, so my experience as a child with wild mushrooms was pretty limited. It wasn't until I became an adult and began exploring unique and unusual foods that I fell deeply in love with wild mushrooms. Cooking with fresh mushrooms is very different than Mom's cooking with canned mushrooms. Today's modern supermarkets have a much larger variety than back then, and if you venture into an Asian grocery store, you will find even more unique varieties.

Even when I am making a wild mushroom dish I like to start with a few white button mushrooms. They are flavor sponges and readily absorb all the delicious flavors they are mingling next too, especially the cognac *wink wink*  Portobella mushrooms are so popular and you can find the big boys or baby bellas- both are delicious. Porcini, Cremini, Oyster and Chanterelle mushrooms show up in the store once in a while and many of them grow wild- if you're an experienced mushroom hunter, go get them! Puffball, chicken of the woods, and pheasant backs are pretty common in Iowa, so I might have them from time to time if I am brave enough to battle ticks in the woods. But for this recipe, I am going to venture back to the city for some mushrooms from the BIG supermarket and avoid the woods for now. It doesn't matter what kind of mushrooms you use, as long as you have around a pound and a half to two pounds. 

NOTE: If you use shiitakes, remember to remove and discard the ENTIRE stem. It's too tough.

So.....City Girl's Wild Mushroom Lasagna is on the menu, and you will need-
  • 1 1/2 to 2 lb assorted mushrooms
  • 3/4 cup butter, divided
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 4 scallions, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup cognac
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1 package lasagna noodles
  • Herb Oil (recipe follows)

Get a large stockpot of water going if you are using the cooked kind of lasagna. Add the noodles when the water comes to full rolling boil and cook according to package directions. Drain into a colander and set aside. I used the no boil lasagna noodles.

While the water is coming to boil, preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Wipe the mushrooms clean and trim off the stem ends. You don't want to WASH the mushrooms because, like I said, they are sponges and will become soggy. Slice some of the mushrooms and cut some into chunks. In a large skillet melt 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add  the mushrooms and saute for 5-10 minutes until mushrooms are nicely browned. Add the scallions and garlic; cook and stir a couple minutes. Sprinkle the cognac over the pan, then cook until evaporated. and remove to large bowl. Set aside.

I wish you could smell these- mushrooms, garlic, cognac....
To make the bechamel sauce, start by heating the milk in a saucepan. In a large saucepan melt 1/2 cup butter. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes to cook out the raw flavor. Add the hot milk all at once and cook, whisking constantly until the sauce is thick and rich. Season with salt, pepper and the nutmeg.

Don't let the roux brown or the bechamel will be dark.
Now we're ready to assemble the lasagna. I like to use a 9x9 stoneware pan. Spread a small amount of the bechamel sauce in the bottom and cover with a layer of noodles. Doesn't have to be picture perfect- no one is going to see it. Spread with more sauce, then add half the mushrooms, sprinkle with 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Keep building: noodle, sauce, mushrooms, Parmesan, noodle, sauce and finish with Parmesan cheese on top. Pop it in the oven and bake about 45 minutes to an hour until hot, bubbly and browned on top. Allow the lasagna to rest about ten minutes before cutting. Serve drizzled with fresh Herb Oil drizzled lightly over each serving.

Herb Oil
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup Italian flat leaf parsley leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
  • a few sprigs thyme, leaves removed
  • pinch of salt

Make sure you have FRESH herbs for this. It is not possible to use dried herbs in this recipe. Blend everything together in a mini food processor. Trust me, you NEED a mini food processor in the kitchen for things like this. Makes such a huge difference in making herb oils and blending together small sauces. If you don't have one, crush or muddle the herbs in a small amount of the oil, and then mix it all together. Extra virgin olive oil is important to use because of it's fruity quality.

And how did it turn out? Awesome!! The bechamel is rich and creamy, the mushrooms are so hearty and delicious I never missed the meat one bit. It looks uber rich but it's really a pretty light dish- no heavy mozzarella and ricotta, just a few tablespoons of Parmesan cheese, and believe me, that is all you need. The drizzle of herb oil is a clean and fresh note but it's just fine without the oil. 

Talking about this lasagna with a friend tonight made us throw around a few other ideas- we're both big squash nuts, so maybe a butternut squash lasagna will be on the menu soon.......perhaps.......

Monday, October 13, 2014

Time for a road trip- Back to the city!

Once in a while...... the city beckons me. On a cold rainy fall day there isn't much to do around here. The garden is done. The leaves are gone. It seems a little desolate at the Little Lake House. What's a former city girl to do? Go on a road trip! Days like this are when the city beckons to me. I have always loved shopping on "crummy weather" days. Everyone else stays home. I don't have to participate in parking lot combat and traffic doesn't seem as bad. Pair that with the middle of the workday, and you have the perfect time to hit the store.

Generally speaking, I hate shopping. I hate the mall. I hate the stores, the pushy salespeople, lugging an arm full of bags around. HATE it. I'm no big fan of grocery shopping either. While it might be fun browsing the produce and different areas of the store, pushing that huge cart, lugging all the bags in the house. Just not fun. Less fun than laundry. Unless........ isn't there always an unless? Unless my grocery shopping trip has taken me to Gateway Market.

If you aren't familiar with Des Moines, Gateway Market is a small, upscale grocery store in the historic Sherman Hill neighborhood. Unlike the big supermarket chains, Gateway features local and organic produce, unique foods, gourmet items, fresh bakery, deli hot case, amazing beer and wine selections and a cafe where you can sit down and enjoy a nice meal and a bottle of wine. In warmer months they have a lovely patio to enjoy. The location is great, Sherman Hill is beautiful and close to downtown. Lots of big beautiful trees line the road and the store is just........heaven.

Walking in the door the first thing you see is the amazing produce. Today they had locally grown hot peppers- Hatch, Scotch Bonnet and ghost chilies (first time I have ever seen ghost peppers in a grocery store), cremini and shiitake mushrooms (score for me on the creminis), several colors of beets, beautiful multi-colored carrots, French fingerling potatoes, Peruvian purple potatoes, many varieties of squash, organic microgreens, and so so so much more. I'm only a few steps in the door! 

Fish tacos are on the menu so the next thing in my cart was a package of gorditas. I thought they would be a nice change of pace from the usual bland tortilla. The gorditas have a heartier texture and are a bit more substantial as well. I think they will be perfect. I have a table filled with garden tomatoes and fresh spinach in the fridge, and jars of salsa so we'll be all set. 

My heart was broken when I saw that the olive bar was disassembled. The olive bar is my sole reason for shopping there! Well, not really, but almost! There are usually about twenty or so different olives on the bar, plus olive combos, salads and Peppadews. Once in a while you will find something really different and exciting like pickled baby pattypan squash. Oh well. Probably just as well. I would have spent a big chunk of cash on tubs of olives.

Craft beers and imports- ice cold and ready to go
Balsamic vinegar has been the topic around here the last couple days, and when it comes to balsamic vinegars, Gateway has a great selection. From the everyday balsamic to the truly special imported bottles, several shelves in the store house several dozen different vinegars. There is an equally, if not more so, impressive selection of olive oils and other unique oils. Looking for truffle oil? You'll find it here. Imported and domestic, you can find an oil in any price range here.

The grocery shelves at Gateway are something to behold. Hot sauces are all the rage right now, and Gateway has a great selection. I was surprised to see pure capsacian extract on the shelf. I've never seen it in a store before. One million Scoville units. Of course, with ghost chilies and Trinidad Scorpion chilies and so on, one million isn't all that impressive ..... with an extract you are adding that to something that's usually already THAT hot...... well, at least that's what ChiliHeads do. Anyway- lots of fun hot and spicy sauces. Lots and lots of interesting Indian foods, most of which were cooking sauces and things like that. A nice selection of Asian ingredients- not as much as an Asian store of course, but enough to make a pretty decent Asian meal. 

Brave enough?
And then........we have the pasta aisle. I didn't get any pictures in the pasta aisle. My hands were restrained by The Chef (just kidding, but you can imagine). I wasn't interested in the dozens of pasta sauces available. Oh no, I was eyeballing the many unique pasta shapes! If you've never heard of it. they have it! I did spy a few familiar faces on the shelf- pappardelle, fusilli, spaghetti, a couple different styles of lasagna and penne rigate. I think I might sneak back there without The Chef and bring a few cool pastas home. I know I can always whip up a fabulous pasta dish no matter what we have in the cupboard.

The Happiest Place on Earth
Just across from the pasta aisle is the Happiest Place on Earth. No, not Disneyland- the wine section! Gateway prides itself on it's amazing wine inventory and knowledgeable staff and rightfully so. Wines are grouped by region and are easy to explore. A tasting bar has something for everyone and will open a bottle you are inquiring about for you to taste. They have a great selection of over 100 imported and craft beers too. Having dinner in the cafe? You can pick a bottle of wine to take over with you- there is never a corkage fee. They will even chill it for you in the express chiller at no extra charge. The cafe is a great spot for a quick lunch or dinner with friends or a casual date.

The wine staff will be happy to open a bottle for you.
Gateway hosts all kinds of fun activities throughout the year as well. Wine tastings and classes, such as Wine 101, provide guests with lots of opportunities to learn and explore new things. Speaking of wine, wine and cheese are a natural pairing and Gateway Market has a full-service cheese department boasting over 200 cheeses. You can have your cheese cut to order, sample different cheeses- both artisan and imported cheeses, and they always make sure to have a great assortment of crackers, and their house-baked South Union baguettes right nearby.  Having the South Union Bakery in the same building is genius. You get the freshest, most incredible breads......just steps from the ovens. I am hopelessly addicted to the bread. The bakery case is also filled with fabulous pastries, cakes, and the most meltingly delicious macarons I have ever had. Today I got Pumpkin Chai Macarons.......ohh my. Heaven!!!

If you ever get a chance, you simply must visit Gateway Market. If you're anything like me, you'll be right at home.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Kitchen Witchcraft- Making my own herb and spice blends

I love having a garden. I love plants of all kinds. Flowers, vegetables, and especially herbs. They are so useful- so much more than just cooking. Beautiful fragrances, healing powers, food for bees and butterflies, herbs are awesome additions to any garden. I have always been an herb gardener, and as much as I love having fresh herbs to cook with all summer long, living in Iowa mean I do have to be practical and dehydrate some for over the cold winter months. Since I had huge herb gardens, I had TUBS of dried herbs to use and share and experiment with.

So I want to talk about herb blends. Too many times we grab a container of an herb bland at the store because it's there, already made, already bottled for us. But is it better? I don't think so. Made in a huge factory with who knows what kind of quality control and mysterious "stuff" in thank you! As a cook, you know which flavors go well together, and it isn't hard to figure out what herbs are in a traditional blend like Fines Herbes, so why not make your own blends? If you are like me and grow your own herbs already, it's basically free!  Another plus- you control exactly what's in it, what isn't and make your own decisions regarding salt, organics, and so on. 

So what is an easy first herb seasoning mix to start with? I love Fines Herbes for so many things. It's a classic French seasoning, and as you know, I am so in love with French flavors- it's a natural place to start. Just five easy-to-grow herbs make up the classic blend and here they are:

1/4 cup parsley
1/4 cup chervil
2 tablespoons thyme leaves
1/4 cup chopped chives
2 tablespoons tarragon

Crumble all the dried herbs together in a bowl. Makes about 1 cup. 

Here at the Little Lake House I make all kinds of blends from meat rubs to my own all-purpose seasoning for veggies and herbs. It's awesome in egg dishes and in a pinch can pass for Italian seasoning.

1/4 cup dried oregano
1/4 cup dried thyme
1/4 cup dried basil
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
1 tablespoon dried sage

Like before, crumble everything into a bowl, jar up and label. 

Spices are a little trickier- not all of them are something you can grow yourself, but many are. Peppers, dried and ground, make paprika and pepper seasonings of all kinds, from mild to roaring hot. Ginger, onion and garlic can also be dried and ground yourself.

Paprika is something I often make myself at home. I never get exactly the same flavor either, which makes it fun! I like to start with a base of red bell pepper or red gypsy pepper, which are mild with zero heat. From there things get really fun. Hatch, Guajillo and Pasilla chilies are great for making your own paprika. Hatch vary greatly in heat too so it's fun to test my finished product. Smoking the peppers beforehand gives you smoked paprika- oh so delicious. When I make my own paprika I don't have to worry about all the chemical anti-caking ingredients and preservatives, or color enhancers. Just peppers. 

Still buying packets of taco seasoning? You don't have to- here is a super quick and delicious taco seasoning you can make yourself, in big batches and store in a jar. Add to taste to meat or seafood for fantastic tacos without all the salt and fillers like cornstarch and flour-

1/4 cup dried minced onion
1/4 cup paprika- mild or hot
3 teaspoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons dried garlic
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper (adjust if you like it mild or hot)
1 teaspoon dried oregano

I dehydrate my own onions and garlic and grind them in a food processor to get garlic powder, and chop onions before drying for onion "flakes"- works great in this recipe. I make multiple batches of this mixture and store in a jar. To use it, I use 3-4 tablespoons and a splash of water when cooking taco meat. 

Italian Seasoning is a classic, and so super easy to mix up. It's pretty universal- parsley, basil, thyme, oregano and marjoram. I grow loads and loads of parsley and, with Mother Nature's cooperation, tons of basil so big batches are the norm around here. 

Chervil, thyme, dill and parsley make a great herb combo for fish and seafood. Thyme has a lemony aroma and bright flavor and we all know dill is made to go with fish! If you have chervil growing, add that as well. You won't be disappointed. This sprinkle is delicious with vegetables too, especially roasted spring asparagus and grilled summer squash. 

What's been missing up to this point? Rosemary. Known for it's piney scent and rich flavor rosemary mixes well with just about any herb but it can overwhelm and over power some of the milder herbs. Pork, lamb and beef take to rosemary beautifully, as does roast poultry. I use my mini food processor to pulverize and break up the dried rosemary- it is VERY difficult to crush with your fingers. Rosemary is one of the herbs in another classic French seasoning- Herbes de Provence. This blend uses a lot of thyme, which is a flavor I just love. I always grow lavender in my herb garden (flowers and leaves are edible) and that is also part of this mixture. You need-

1/4 cup dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
1 tablespoon dried savory
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
2 teaspoons dried lavender flowers
1 teaspoon fennel seed 

I make my own meat rub as well. I keep it in a big jar on the counter and use is all the time. It's easy to make, and different every time. I start with a cup or cup and a half of brown sugar and then.......bring on the herbs and spices. I literally stand in front of my spice bookcase (yes, I have a bookcase filled with jars of herbs, spices, dried peppers, tomatoes, onions, and so on) and whatever sounds good gets dumped in the bowl. Dried minced onion, garlic powder, some crumbled herbs, tomato powder*, paprika, until I like what I see and love what I taste.

*Tomato powder is made from the peels of tomatoes I have canned or sliced tomatoes- dehydrated and then ground in the food processor to a powder. It's a great substitute for tomato paste when you need just a smidge- mix enough powder and water to form a paste. It's a great way to add loads of flavor.

Of course, no story about seasoning would be complete without a great big jar of mulling spices. I like to make BIG batches and use it for spiced cider, mulled wine, and more gifts. Sometimes I just heat a little in a small saucepan with just water to perfume the whole house. This makes a big batch so make sure you have some big jars.

3 cups broken/crushed cinnamon sticks
3 cups dried chopped/broken orange peel
1 cup whole allspice
1 cup whole cloves
1/2 cup star anise, broken if you like

I save orange and citrus peel throughout the year and just add to my big jar of dried peel. Just make sure to get as much of the bitter white pith off before you dehydrate the peel. This blend uses a larger quantity of spices- you can get good deals in the bulk section of grocery or specialty store or online from spice shops such as Penzeys. 

Since I'm saving all this money growing my own herbs and making my own mixes, I don't want to spend a bunch on containers to store them in so I save jars. The Chef used to think I was a jar hoarder until he realized that even those teeny tiny anchovy jars make great jars for little gifts. I'm recycling, keeping plastic and glass out of the landfill and have lots of unique sizes and shapes to decorate for gifts and my spice bookcase looks interesting!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Crusty Dutch Oven Bread

A lot of my friends thought I nuts for splashing out almost $300 for a Le Creuset Dutch Oven. I knew from the start this would be a lifelong investment piece and not a one-use item. I have already gotten more than my money's worth of use out of it just in all the roasting I have done. But the beauty of a piece like this is not just the beautiful seafoam green colored enamel on the outside, it's the versatility you have on the inside!

Now that summer is in the rearview mirror I like to get back to baking, and I have promised The Chef that I will bake more homemade bread, so after digging through loads of cookbooks from my collection (I should write a post just about THAT one of these days) and browsing bread recipes online I have discovered that bread bakers all over are using those Dutch ovens to bake amazing crusty artisan loaves of beautiful bread. I can do this! 

I have lots of options when it comes to utensils for bread baking. Stoneware pans, metal and glass loaf pans, metal and glass bowls, the pizza stone for foccacia and flatbreads, even a cast iron skillet. I guess it's just natural that I should look at the Dutch oven as well. I love the look of round loaves of bread. I've shared bread recipes before that were round loaves. They remind me of old European bakeries, with the neat slashes on the top and dusting of flour that you often see. Instead of a picture-perfect loaf pan-shaped loaf you get a free-form loaf that's one of a kind with those beautiful imperfections and super crunchy crust. 

Today we are going to make a simple white crusty bread. It's a soft no-knead dough made with regular flour, so you don't have to hunt down fancy flours, grains or anything you probably don't already have on hand, except maybe yeast. I have made this using whole wheat flour before and found it just didn't rise well and seemed heavy like a quick bread- not what I wanted at all.  We use a lot of yeast at our house so we always keep some around, and store it in the fridge so it stays fresher. This dough has no sugar or honey either, so it's a slow-riser, which is perfectly fine- mix up your dough in the morning and let it sit and proof for at least 8 hours before you bake it. You don't have to punch it down or do anything to it so you can make it before you go to work, and bake when you get home. No more excuses for not making fresh, homemade bread!

Let's get started on this super easy bread. You will need-

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt- kosher or sea salt is best
  • 1 teaspoon yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water- about 105-115 degrees
In a great big bowl, stir together the flour, salt and yeast. I like to use a whisk instead of sifting- really gets things mixed together and keeps it light and fluffy not packed down.

Make a well in the middle and add all of the water. Mix it with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms, but don't go crazy mixing it. You will have a dense, tough bread if you over-mix the dough.

Cover your bowl tightly with plastic wrap and leave it sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours, and as long as 24. The dough will rise in the bowl and look bubbly and weird like a science project. I like that brand of plastic wrap that is kinda sticky and seals itself to the bowl rim but if I am out of that I'll even put a plastic grocery bag over the top of my bowl- works great! 

When it's time to bake the bread, turn the oven to 450 degrees. Once the oven is at temp. place the Dutch oven in the oven. Don't worry, your Dutch oven can take it- they are meant for this kind of thing. 

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board or table or even the counter top. Flour your hands and form the dough into a ball. I place the inverted bowl over the dough to cover it and let it rest while my Dutch oven preheats.

It doesn't look too impressive when it first goes in the super hot pot.
When the Dutch oven is ready, carefully place the dough in the pot- be careful! It is extremely hot! My Dutch oven is enamel-coated so I don't have to worry about sticking but if you're using some other type of pan or bowl you can place the dough on parchment paper to prevent sticking. Replace the cover and return to the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue baking 10-15 minutes until the loaf is nicely browned and sounds hollow when you tap on it.

After the first 30 minutes. This reminds me of the par-baked
bread you can buy at the grocery store.
Carefully remove from the hot pot and allow to cool on a rack a little bit before slicing. This helps the bread stabilize itself, the steam eases and the bread won't collapse.

Super crispy, super crunchy and perfectly browned!!
If you're like me, you just fell in love with this bread and you'll be playing with flavors and planning to make it again. It works great with things like dried herbs, chopped sun dried tomato bits, garlic, crumbled cooked bacon, even Parmesan cheese. Leftover bread stays fresh for a day or two. Unlike grocery store bread there are no preservatives so it does get moldy around the third or fourth day, if it lasts that long! It also makes excellent croutons the next day- just toss with olive oil or melted butter and toast in a hot skillet until golden brown all over and crispy. I think next time I'll grab some Italian meats, cheeses and tapenade and make my round bread into a muffaletta for football day. Stop back by and share how you enjoyed your round artisan bread! I'd love to hear about it!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Girl Time- Girls Night Out

Many of us have one of those friends- you know the one, they are family, but not technically, but you find a way to make them family, like their niece is married to my son so that makes us- sisters!! For me that friend is Jessica. Over the years we have enjoyed so many good times together. Concerts, road trips, wine tastings, baking days with a stack of CDs of 70s music, epic marathons of making apple butter, dinner in, dinner out, everything a couple of sisters would do. Like it has a way of happening, life sometimes got in the way. Kids, jobs, busy lives and before you know it you don't spend as much time as you once did. We decided to make time for sister time. Do all the things we used to enjoy so much and make it a point to make time to slow down, catch up and enjoy life. 

We picked a popular local restaurant for our inaugural Sister Date. Since we are both wine enthusiasts we wanted a place where we could get a really good steak, and a really good glass of wine. She suggested John and Nick's, a very nice locally owned restaurant in Clive. That's about the midway point for me driving in and her driving west so it worked out great. I had never been here before and was impressed by the dark woods and cozy atmosphere. Candles on the table warmed the feel of the room and we were seated under a picture of the Eiffel Tower- my dream vacation destination. I liked it already!

The wine list was really pretty good. Now, if you're used to Michelin star restaurants with a sommelier and wine attendants on staff you will not be impressed, but if you are looking for good variety and some really good house wine, the wine list is for you. Jessica chose the house Cabernet. It was big and bold and filled the glass with amazing jammy fruity aromas. It was the perfect wine for a cut of beef like prime rib and was one of the better Cabernets I have had in years. We did ask for the name of the wine, but.......I forgot !!!! Anyway, I chose a Riesling. Yes I knew I'd be having steak for dinner but I don't believe in those stuffy old "rules," I believe in drink what you like when you like however you like. So Riesling it is, and I chose the Kung Fu Girl 2013. I might be a little bit biased because Riesling is my favorite wine, but this one was the best ever. Light and fruity, the perfect blend of tart and sweet, I loved it so much I found a store that sells it and bought more for home!

Like all the old family-owned restaurants here, and maybe everywhere, John and Nick's has the old standby- the salad bar. Normally I stay away from salad bars but theirs was very fresh and inviting. Lots and lots of fresh choices, vegetables, salads, and of course the odd fruity fluffy things I've never quite figured out. But besides the fresh salad and great selection of dressings, I added cubes of cheese and some beautiful olives to my plate. Of course, fresh bread arrived at the table. Some of these old traditions I just really enjoy, and the warm loaf of bread is one of them.

Choosing our entrees was not as easy as I thought it would be. They have a great selection of steaks and prime rib. I chose a New York Strip with crab stuffed shrimp and Jessica went with the prime rib. She ordered hers in a way I had never heard of before- seasoned and seared. It was delicious! Apparently, they slice off your prime rib, season it with their house seasoning, I'm guessing salt, pepper and garlic, and sear it on the grill. Now my Chef says he hates it when people order it that way, but I thought it was absolutely fantastic. My steak was perfectly cooked medium rare and was juicy and expertly seasoned. The crab stuffed shrimp were very good, although I thought they could have used a little bit more of the stuffing. And Jessica's prime rib was perfect as well- I was leery of it being overcooked once it's seared but apparently these chefs make this often- it was the perfect doneness.

No girls night, in or out, is ever complete without dessert. I deferred to Jessica to make the choice- we were both so full (Seriously, us girls are meat eaters. We don't "do" doggie bags.) that we decided to share dessert and she chose the chocolate lava cake. It was as lush and delicious as it was beautiful and we devoured it in no time, of course with a second glass of wine. Dessert and wine just go together.

We have a full lineup of Sister Dates to look forward to- days, nights, even a slumber party! We have wines to drink, movies to watch, dinner to cook, pies to bake, Downton Abbey to watch (from the beginning- I have never seen it) and so much more. Brandy, sherry, port. Beautiful teas and froofy coffees. Our favorite wine movies. Laughs, tears, memories and the kind of love only sisters share.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."