Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pizza Dough with Semolina Flour

The weekend before last I had the opportunity to take three Master Chef classes at the Foodservice Educators Network International (FENI). It was a heady experience to be around so many people who were at least as enthusiastic about food and cooking as I am, if not more.

One of the classes I took was Regional Italian Pasta Techniques. I was excited to be taking this class because, as I may have mentioned here once or twice, I have been itching to make pasta, so much so that I finally gave in to my impulses and bought a bag of semolina flour.

Only to hear in the master class that semolina flour is used mainly for the dried pastas that come out of Southern Italy, and that you want to use all-purpose flour for fresh pasta.

Bummer. Should have waited. Now what do I do with the semolina flour I just bought?

I thought it might be nice to try in my usual pizza dough recipe. I used my usual cup of white whole wheat flour, but only used 1-1/4 cups of bread flour, and then I added 1/4 cup of the semolina flour.

It wasn't much, but I could clearly discern a difference. The dough was stronger, with a little more chew to the texture. I like it. A lot.

Next time I'm thinking of using 1/2 cup of semolina. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fifty/Fifty Whole Wheat Bread

I have several projects in the works, but none are ready to post yet. In the meantime, I have started making bread again. I want to experiment with some different techniques (yes, the no-knead bread Nicole), but I like my whole wheat standby so much that I just keep making it. I don't have to think about it, although I did leave out the honey and didn't realize it until halfway through the sponge proofing. I just added it in, stirred it up, and let it proof a little longer.

I also used a fifty-fifty ratio of white whole wheat to regular whole wheat instead of my usual three parts regular to one part white. It lightened up the taste and the texture just a little bit, which was nice for a change.

The crumb is a little bigger, and the crust is softer. It's a nice, tasty change from the denser, darker three-quarter loaf.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pot Roast with Celery Root and Fennel

It has been my goal for several years now to continually challenge myself by bringing home some food item with which I am unfamiliar. I regret to say that it has been quite a while since my kitchen has been graced with any unfamiliar comestibles.

So when I saw the knobby rough contours of a celery root at Treasure Island, I knew it had to come home with me pronto. It helped that I had already taken a cut of beef shoulder out of the freezer with the intention of cooking a nice long braise, and I was already thinking carrots, leeks and fennel. The fennel was on the small side and I couldn't decide whether or not I wanted to get two of them or do without, and it was while I was trying to decide whether or not to buy some that my eyes fell on the celery root. I threw it in my cart before I could talk myself out of it.

And two fennel bulbs went into the cart as well, of course.

The skin is thick and woody, so you definitely want to get rid of it. It's much too thick to use a peeler, so your best bet is to slice off the ends, as I did here. Because this is my first celery root, I don't have a good idea of how fresh it was. It was a little rubbery, but I think that might be one of its characteristics. It actually felt very much like the celery heart, to which it is related.

After I cut off the ends, I pared off the skin down the sides, much like peeling the skin off an orange, except that I couldn't angle the knife to follow the curve of the root like I can a piece of fruit. I had to cut down the top half, then turn it over and slice off the bottom half.

But it did not take long, and it was easy peasy to cut it into a nice chop once it was peeled.

I followed my usual procedure for the pot roast. I seasoned the meat well with salt and pepper and set it to sear on a foil-lined baking sheet in a 425 deg. F. oven for 15 minutes. While the meat was searing, I cooked down some leeks, onions, and garlic. When they were nice and translucent, I added carrots, the fennel, and the celery root, adding more salt and pepper. I let the vegetables cook until the meat was browned.

I took the meat out of the oven, turning it down to 325 deg. F., and then I added a generous tablespoon of tomato paste to the sauteeing vegetables. I let the paste cook for a couple of minutes before adding the meat.

I nestled the meat into the vegetables, and then I poured water up until it was just below the top of the meat. I added some bay leaves, more salt and pepper, some dried thyme, and a heaping teaspoon of the poudre forte misreall gave me for the holidays.

I thought about using wine, or broth, or something with more flavor than water to the roast, but I didn't really have anything on hand and I didn't want to use the rest of my chicken stock. I figured the beef, the vegetables, and the spices would bring flavor enough.

I brought the pot to a boil, covered it, and put it into the 325-degree oven. I set the timer for one-and-a-half hours and went about my business. When the timer went off, I checked the pot. It was simmering a little more heartily than I wanted, so I lowered the heat just a little and set the timer again for one-and-a-half hours. When it went off this time, I tested the meat with a fork and when I saw that it was ready to shred off the bone, I took the pot out of the oven.

I love how the meat settles into the braising vegetables when it's done. It smelled heavenly and it was all I could do not to serve myself up a generous helping and wolf it down. But I had not prepared any starchy side dish (a must for pot roast), and I find that slow braised meats almost always taste better the day after they are cooked. So after admiring it for a little while I took the meat out of the pot and put it in a dish, and then I spooned out all of those luscious vegetables and liquid and put it in another dish.

I must confess, I did sneak a taste of the celery root. I was too curious to wait a day to see how it tasted. It is delicious. It has a light, smooth texture and a tastes like a mild, creamy piece of celery. Celery disintegrates when it is cooked; celery root gets soft and smooth, with that lovely root taste.

I covered the beef and the vegetables and put them both in the refrigerator. While pondering what side to use, my thoughts turned toward a pasta class I had just attended. While sorely tempted to try my hand at making my own noodles, I decided to wait until I had more time, and opted for some beautiful egg noodles I found at the store the next evening.

When I got home the next day, I turned on the oven to preheat it to 350 deg. F. I covered the meat with foil, and put the vegetables, which were already in a covered 3-quart casserole dish and the meat in the oven to heat for about half an hour. I brought some water to a boil and about ten minutes before the meat and vegetables were going to be ready I cooked the noodles. The timer for the meat and vegetables went off just as I was draining the noodles, so everything was ready at the same time.

I served up that beautiful plate full of braised goodness you see up at the top of this post. I just happened to have some parsley on hand to make a prettier picture, and it added a little burst of freshness to the flavor. The poudre forte adds a lovely blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and black peppers. Apparently, it was used throughout medieval Europe in much the same way curries are used in India - each household makes their own blend. So if you can't find any, a good substitute would be to start with those four spices I mentioned above and play with them until you get a blend that suits your taste.

This is another one of those dishes that is super easy to make but delivers a huge payoff in flavor. It can help keep you warm on these cold winter nights.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Baba Ghanouj Pizza

I had the most amazing weekend. Once I have had a chance to process it I will tell you all about it.

In the meantime, here is an idea I had for pizza that actually turned out pretty good. I had the pizza dough all ready to make regular pizza, and eggplants were on sale at Treasure Island. I bought two with the thought of making baba ghanouj with it.

I think I must have been preoccupied with something when I roasted the eggplant, though, because it didn't cook quite enough. It was soft enough to scoop out of the skin, but it resisted the masher and didn't come together the way it should. Instead of stopping then and there, when I could still cook it more before adding the rest of the ingredients, I just threw them all in, like I thought the friction of stirring it all together would cook it the rest of the way.

Hah. I didn't really think that. I don't know what I was thinking.

But I had a batch of basically inedible baba ghanouj. (Have you tried eating undercooked eggplant? Not like your usual crudite, I can assure you.)

I also had an as-yet-unused ball of pizza dough in the refrigerator. I had already been playing with the idea of cooking the crust and then adding the baba ghanouj cold, so it actually wasn't that big of a stretch to put the baba ghanouj on the pizza before cooking it, and letting the oven finish the process.

It came out of the oven looking pretty good, I must say. It was a touch bland, however. Not sure why, but it needed something.

I threw together some chopped parsley, lemon zest, garlic and a little olive oil and made a quick batch of gremolata to spread over the top of my pizza. That did the trick.

I have recently been reading about Middle Eastern pizza. I guess I jumped the gun with this, but it was really good. I wish I could say the same of all of my mistakes.

I started to write up the recipe, and then I realized that all of the ingredients in this pizza come premade, and I have already blogged about them. So here's the method:

Mix up a batch of pizza dough. Let it rise, either for a couple of hours or overnight in the refrigerator (my preferred method). Either when you are ready to make the pizza, or up to a day before, make the baba ghanouj.

When you are ready to make the pizza, roll out the dough and bake it for 4 minutes in a 450 deg. F. well pre-heated oven. Remove from the oven and spread the baba ghanouj generously over the dough. Bake for another 15 minutes or so, until the crust is done to your liking. Remove from the oven and sprinkle gremolata over the top. Tabbouleh would probably also be good, if you wanted to stay more true to the ethnicity of the region.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chicken Salad Sandwich

I'm going to be busy for the next few days, through the weekend, so I don't have much time to cook or write. I've been holding on to this post for a while now, so this is a good time to bring it out.

And now I'm going to surprise you. The only thing that I made in the picture up there is the plate on which those open-faced chicken sandwiches sit.

When I first moved to Chicago, I brought very little with me. I did not want to go through the hassle of hiring a rental truck, or paying commercial movers to haul my stuff from Texas to Illinois, so I was determined to only bring what I could fit into my Nissan Sentra hatchback. So most of my kitchenware had to go. The moving sale I held also gave me a tidy little sum of money to help me settle in once I got here.

The plan was not without its drawbacks, however. Like the night I arrived in Chicago, lugged my stuff upstairs and into the apartment, and almost cried because I had nothing on which to sit, and no bed on which to sleep. What was I thinking?

A quick trip to Venture (think K-Mart, only cheaper quality - I couldn't believe there wasn't a Target to be found anywhere in the Chicago area at the time) solved most of my immediate problems. But I did not recognize the gravity of my kitchen situation until I had bought a few pounds worth of incredibly cheap asparagus that was on sale for St. Patrick's Day, brought it home, and realized that I didn't have a pot or pan in which to cook it.

Another quick trip, this time back to the grocery store to buy my first Chicago kitchen product - a Pyrex 3-quart baking dish, and I had my pitiful little start at building back my kitchen. The next item I bought was, of all things, the Great Wok of China. Again, what was I thinking? I blame it on the fact that I didn't know anyone and had no cable for a while and watched a lot of infomercials.

Actually, it was a great wok. It just wasn't very practical for my needs. It rusted out from disuse, though, and now I have a cheap one I picked up at Ikea that suits my needs, but sometimes I miss that hand-hammered carbon steel baby.

So. I didn't have much in the way of kitchen equipment, and it's like I kind of spazzed out and forgot how to cook. I ate frequently at two neighborhood restaurants, both of which are now long gone, and bought prepared foods from the deli, mostly at Treasure Island. That's pretty much how I ate my first couple of years here.

One of my favorite meals to buy was their chicken salad, which I would slather onto slices of Boudin's sourdough long loaves and top with thick slices of red onion. That and the salad bar pretty much kept me going back then.

I hardly ever indulge in it now that I once again have a well-stocked kitchen, but every now and then I get the urge and I will stop by the deli and pick up some chicken salad, a nice crusty loaf of sourdough, and a nice red onion. It works for dinner or lunch, or sometimes both.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Lard and Biscuits

I have been sitting on this container of home-made lard I acquired a couple of weeks ago. I gingerly pried the container open last weekend and scooped out a tablespoon or two for my first foray into its use: refried beans. I don't know if it was because I knew the lard was in there, but they were especially delicious, I have to say. While it was heating in the skillet it gave off a faint hint of bacon or, more appropriately I suppose, pancetta, but I did not detect the slightest trace of it in the beans themselves. But everything about them was better - the texture, the flavor, the consistency - I think that alone was enough to convince me that lard is something I want to have around the house on a regular basis.

And then this weekend I thought I would give it a stronger test. I decided to make my flaky whole wheat biscuits with lard instead of butter. It was another resounding success.

For one thing, the lard was much easier to cut into the dry ingredients than the butter. Because it is solid at room temperature, you don't have to worry about keeping it ice cold the way you do with butter, so it doesn't require as much elbow grease. It rolled out just as easily, and the cutter sliced through the dough "just like buttah," if you will pardon the phrase.

These biscuits may not have risen quite as high as the biscuits made with butter, but they were much, much more tender, and just as flaky. There was no hint of pork or bacon in them, just good solid biscuit flavor.

I highly recommend you find a source for this lovely fat, and get you some post-haste. It keeps for quite a while in the refrigerator, so you don't have to worry about having to use too much of it.

I am 99.9% convinced. The final test is yet to come. Next, I take on pastry dough. I think something savory would be best. Time for more empanadas!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Product of the Week: Arrowhead Mills Organic Creamy Valencia Peanut Butter (R.I.P.)

One of the few items I have neither been able to give up nor compromise on is my Arrowhead Mills Organic Creamy Valencia Peanut Butter. It is smooth, creamy, and sweet, and has the most voluptuous texture I have ever experienced in a peanut butter.

One of my earliest childhood memories is eating a spoonful of peanut butter. I'm not sure exactly how old I was, but based on the house in which we were living at the time I was definitely five or under. I remember the intensity of the flavor, but what I remember more is how it made my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth with a strength that rivaled glue (ok, that's probably a huge hyperbole but you get the idea). I smacked and I slithered and I tried to slide my tongue from side to side, but that peanut butter wasn't going anywhere. It was a long time before I would let anyone fool me enough to put that in my mouth again.

Over the years, however, it seemed that peanut butter lost that intense flavor and stickiness. I assumed it was because I had grown up, and my tastes had changed.

Until I had my first taste of natural peanut butter. BAM! I was right back in that moment of having a mouthful of that intense peanut flavor and a stickiness that I had to work really hard to get off the roof of my mouth. In that moment peanut butter was promoted forever from that place in my cupboard where it would sit forever until that day when I had absolutely nothing else to eat in the house and would live on PB&J sandwiches (or PB&honey, or whatever I had around) until I got paid or could get to the store again. I started with Laura Scudder's natural peanut butter, and then just bought whatever brand was less expensive, because it was all more expensive than the commercial brands.

When I started eating more consciously in 2000, I took an even closer look at the foods I was buying than I had before. Natural peanut butter was no longer enough. I started looking at organic brands. They were much more expensive even than the regular natural peanut butters, but I decided it might be worth it, depending on how much of a difference I could tell.

And Arrowhead Mills Organic Creamy Valencia Peanut Butter stood head and shoulders above all of the other brands. It had to; even back then it was over $5.00 a jar. But it was creamy and smooth and rich, and sweet with the natural sugars of the Valencia peanuts themselves. It was the only peanut butter I would eat. If they were out of it at the store, I wouldn't buy any other brand. I would wait.

Since I have been on a budget, I had a hard decision to make regarding this peanut butter. It is so much more expensive than the other peanut butters, but so much better. I couldn't give it up, so I just decided to use it sparingly. And it has been hard, but I could no longer be lazy and whip up a sandwich for breakfast if I didn't feel like cooking anything else. I doled it out like it was eggs in England during the Blitz. I think I bought 2 jars over the past 6 months. Remarkable restraint, if I do say so myself.

Last week I went to buy jar number 3. I cruised down the peanut butter and jelly aisle, looking for that familiar yellow lid. To my surprise, the lids were no longer yellow, nor were they plastic. They were blue metal. Oh well, not the worst thing in the world. I put the jar in the basket and went merrily on my way.

But something made me stop, pick the jar up out of the basket, and look at the label. Which said:
Arrowhead Mills Organic Peanut Butter
"Huh?," I said to myself, "Where's the Valencia?

"Ah, there it is, over on the right - right here, it says 'Valencia Blend.'

"Blend? What does that mean? That doesn't sound good.

"Look at the ingredient list. What's it say?


"Not Valencia peanuts?


Yes, I really did have that conversation with myself, right there at the grocery store. I only hope it was in my head and not out loud, but anything is possible.

That sucked. I wheeled my cart back to the peanut butter aisle and put the jar back on the shelf. It is worth every extra penny for Valencia peanut butter. For anything else, it's highway robbery. And the price had definitely not gone down. Instead, I grabbed a jar of Koeze's Cream-Nut All Natural Peanut Butter, which is not bad even if it is not Valencia Peanut Butter.

I decided not to panic. When I got home, I went to Arrowhead Mills' website and clicked on the Contact Us button, where I sent a message basically to the effect of "Hey - WTF?" Although I did not use those words. I was polite and just asked what was up.

Here is the response I got:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding our Creamy Peanut Butter. We strive to maintain the highest quality products and appreciate your patronage.

Going forward, our Nut Butters will state that it is a Valencia Blend due to the availability of Valencia Peanuts themselves. If insufficient amounts of Valencia Peanuts are unavailable, we will go with a blend of Valencia and other peanuts.
No sure what that meant. Sometimes it will be all Valencia peanuts, and sometimes a blend, and I have to just buy a jar to see which it will be? At the same price? Again, I say WTF????

So I replied:
Thank you for your reply to my previous email, but I find your response to be vague. Have you replaced your Valencia peanut butter with a blend of Valencia and other peanuts?

I don't want to presume here, but if there's always the chance that it will be a "blend" and no way for me to know, why should I continue to buy this product?
Their response (they were prompt, I must say):
Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding our Creamy Peanut Butter. We strive to maintain the highest quality products and appreciate your patronage.

We no longer have just the Valencia Peanut Butters. They will all now be Valencia Peanut Blend.
Ok, so there it is in black and white. Since they did not give me a reason to continue to buy this product, I will no longer be buying this product.

When I asked what was behind their decision (I will spare you another quote), the response was that there is a shortage of organic Valencia peanuts. Always wanting to give the benefit of the doubt, I did some online searching to see if I could find any references to a shortage of organic Valencia peanuts, but all I found was one vague reference to a future shortage of organic peanuts (from 2005). And, of course, the great peanut shortage of 1913.

I am not the only one bemoaning the loss of this awesome product. Lacosta at Resistance Is Fertile is even more devastated than I am. She called them, and they apparently told her it was "a change the company decided on."

It looks like Heinz owns 20% of Hain Celestial, which owns Arrowhead Mills. Hain Celestial also went into a partnership with Cargill Health & Food Technologies in 2003. So who made the decision, and why? Guess I'll never know.

R.I.P. Organic Valencia Peanut Butter. I will miss you. But I will never buy Arrowhead Mills nut butter of any kind, ever again.

Unless, of course, they bring back the organic Valencia peanut butters. PUHLEEZE!!!!!!

ACK - now I'm begging.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Cream of Mushroom Soup with Barley

Project DIY Condiments #1 is underway. I just whipped up a batch of Worcestershire sauce and my kitchen smells amazing! I don't think I can wait the three weeks until I can try it. I want steak and I want it now!!!!!

I feel much better now. What's on the agenda for today? Oh yes, soup. I talk with my sister, who is in Austin, just about every week. Lately we have been reminiscing a bit about old times. Since we both worked at the library for a good amount of our adult lives in Austin, that comes up a bit. Usually around the context of - you guessed it - food.

I don't remember what got us started, but we were talking about a cream of mushroom soup recipe that I think she discovered in The Settlement Cookbook, and then passed on to me. It's ironic, because when we were little kids and our Mom would plop down the tuna casserole made with cream of mushroom soup in front of us, I would happily slurp it down while both my older brother and sister would gag and moan because they couldn't stand the mushrooms. "They look like snails," my sister cried. "They're too slimy," protested my brother. I paused, fork halfway to my mouth, and really looked at the dish for the first time. Jeez - slimy little snails! I put the fork down and refused to even look at a mushroom for years.

But years did pass, I'm happy to say, and at some point I did look at them again. And when they are beautiful white button mushrooms that you bring home fresh and slice into a salad, they are neither snail-like nor slimy. My sister discovered them a bit before I did; again, ironic to me, since I blamed her for my not liking them in the first place. So I'll just say we both came to an understanding about mushrooms not far apart from each other, and she found this wonderful recipe that was fast, easy, and delicious.

My sister also remembered that every year some of our co-workers would travel around the hill country visiting all of the county libraries that were in our area of the state library system. Each of those little towns was known for something, and one of them (unfortunately, I don't remember which), grew mushrooms that could be bought for a very good price. They would take orders and bring them back. I found myself in possession of a good 5-pound bag of the beauties, but I didn't know a lot of ways to prepare them and I couldn't make enough salads before they would start to go bad.

And I think that is when my sister found the cream of mushroom recipe. It calls for half a pound of mushrooms but was easily doubled. And it was good to double it because it was creamy and earthy and chock full of mushroom goodness.

I have one other fond memory connected with that soup. The night that I made it as part of a dinner for friends was the first time that I timed all of my dishes so that they were all ready at the same time. I had been trying for a few years, and I still remember how good it felt not to have anything sitting out getting cold while waiting for that last dish to be done.

Talking about it with my sister gave me the urge to make it again. I planned to make it the week before last but the mushrooms just didn't look that good to me, so I decided to wait. This week, I found the most beautiful crimini mushrooms that looked like they would do the trick. They are drier and more firm than the button mushrooms I used to use for this soup, and I thought they would be nice and meaty. I took home two half-pound containers, thinking I might make two batches of soup so I could play around with them a little.

For the first batch, I sliced the mushrooms. I also used my trick of using part broth, part water for the liquid. In this case, it was a mistake. The mushrooms, while earthy and flavorful, could not add enough flavor to the watered-down broth. I kept adding salt to give it some flavor, and ended up with a soup that, while still edible, was too salty for my tastes. There also wasn't a good ratio of mushrooms to soup. I wasn't terribly pleased with this first effort, and even wondered what we had liked so much about it before. I'm sorry to say I took some for my friend Jessica to try before I had eaten any of it, outside of the tastings I took when I was making it.

For the next batch, I decided that I would chop the mushrooms, as the recipe instructed. The only reason I didn't chop them for the first batch was that I didn't really read the recipe until after I had already started slicing them and I didn't think it would make that big a difference. (Wrong.) And then I started thinking about other ways to bolster the flavor and the texture of the soup. I thought of all the times I had seen mushroom barley soup at the soup and salad bar at the grocery store. I was sure barley would offer a nice contrast to the mushrooms. They have a mild, nutty flavor and a strong but not overpowering texture.

Because the soup does not take long to make I cooked the barley up beforehand. I added half a cup to 2 cups of boiling water and let it cook for 20 minutes. I stopped when it was still a little more crunchy than I wanted it to be, figuring it would finish cooking up in the broth while I made the soup. I was right. It ended up with the perfect texture.

For the first batch of the soup, I used the butter called for in the recipe. For the second batch, I used the ghee I just made. The ghee is a little more healthy than the butter, but gives the soup that same roasty richness. I think I will probably use the ghee from now on.

Adding barley to this soup takes it from a rich, tasty, starter course to a more hearty, satisfying soup that can be an appetizer or a meal. It's very good with grilled cheese.

And Jessica, I'm sorry you only got to try the first, not-so-good version. I'll make it up to you, I promise!
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes


Makes 4 main or 6 side servings

1/2 cup pearl barley
2 cups water
1/2 lb. crimini mushrooms, chopped
4 Tbsp ghee (or butter), separated
4 cups chicken broth
2 Tbsp flour
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste

In 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add the barley, lower heat, and simmer for 20 minutes. They should still be just a slight bit undercooked. Drain the barley and
set aside.

Put the 4 cups of chicken broth into the saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the ghee (or butter) over medium-low heat in another 3-quart saucepan and add the mushrooms. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and the barley to the chicken broth.

In the same saucepan in which you cooked the mushrooms, melt the other 2 tablespoons of ghee (or butter). Add the flour and cook, stirring, until the flour is bubbling and just starts to emit a toasty aroma.
Add the broth with the mushrooms and barley, then add the cream and the milk.

Season to taste with the salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

adapted from The Settlement Cookbook, Third Edition (Simon and Schuster, 1976)

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (
photo of crimini mushrooms taken from
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