Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Unfood in My Food

I feel ill. Bloated. Loagy. Lethargic.

My spleen is made of gummy bears.
Am I sick? No. Just a little dumb. I was out this weekend with some friends, picking up ingredients for our group sushi night. We get together in a large group and roll sushi together — collaborative cooking is an excellent social experience that I recommend everyone try. The 'Sushi Night' is a bit of a tradition in my peer group, and we were out buying the rice, seaweed, fish, and other miscellanea from which our sushi would be crafted.

After hitting the fish market we decided to grab something to eat, and hit a local burger joint. It wasn't the one represented in the picture — I'm not THAT dumb — but it was still over-processed grease-infused preservative-laden food that I didn't make myself.


While no doubt tasty — hey, grease, cheese, and meat are GOOD, shut up — my body let me know its displeasure shortly afterwards. If you've been following this blog you know that I tend to eat well — healthy and hearty — so the toxic shock to my system was intense.


Note to self. Make sure there is nothing but food in my food.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Spicy Marinated Portabella Mushroom Burger

Portabella mushrooms are an excellent meat-alternative for savory, if you're in the mood for it. They cook and are prepared similarly to hamburger patties, and make excellent mushroom burgers. Adding a spicy yogurt marinade isn't strictly necessary, but bridges the gap between 'tasty' and 'decadent' quite nicely. The burgers don't take that long to make, and the mushrooms, lettuce, and tomato were all sourced from the local farmers' market.

The Buns

We're going all the way with this. The buns are challah bread, made pretty much from scratch using the same techniques and ingredients we used in making our beignets. Each bun is baked as a roll, then cut in half when we're ready to build our burgers.

Spicy Yogurt Marinade

The marinade we used was a modification of a recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook. The base is a half-cup of plain yogurt, to which we add one tablespoon lemon juice, about one and a half teaspoons ground ginger, half a teaspoon each of ground coriander and salt, and a quarter teaspoon each cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Just mix it all together, coat your mushroom caps with it, cover and refrigerate for about an hour.

The Caps

The marinated portabella caps are fried over a medium low flame for about 7 minutes on the first side and 5 on the second, until cooked through. You can, if you choose, grill them instead — it turns out about the same either way. The remaining marinade can be used as a sauce. We've further elected to top our portabella burgers with tomato, lettuce, red onion, avocado, and a slice of smoked gouda.


The Outcome:

The savory flavor of the portabella caps was offset well by the spicy tang of the yogurt marinade. All our ingredients were fresh and locally produced where available. One thing I might try next time is a spicier cheese — perhaps a hearty pepperjack or jalapeno-cheddar.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

JoSnow Italian Soda

Jo Snow Syrups shows up at the Farmers' Market every three weeks, offering a variety of syrup flavors including Cafe de Olla (which as its name suggests, goes quite well into coffee) and Tangerine Lavender Honey. At $10 a bottle we've only been picking up one flavor a visit — Fig Vanilla Black Pepper our first time, and Hibiscus Basil Orange Blossom the second. They're delicious, and we've been taking every opportunity to experiment with using them.

Both flavors we tried are light and delicate, and serve well as ice cream toppings. You can also make a variety of mixed drinks with the syrups. Fig Vanilla Black Pepper mixes in well with rum, but for the relative sweetness of Hibiscus Basil Orange Blossom we chose to mix it with vodka. Jo Snow lists a number of cocktail recipes on their website.

With a little seltzer water and lime, it's easy to make a refreshing soft drink out of the Hibiscus Basil Orange Blossom syrup. We used whatever brand of seltzer water was cheapest — it didn't matter too much, and what you're really drinking it for is the syrup.  The wedge of lime gave the drink that little extra tart it needed to offset the sweet floral Hibiscus.

A caveat: the syrup is heavy, so you'll need to stir it quite well or your first few sips will be almost entirely seltzer. Even so, the drinks came out very visually interesting with a definite layering to them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Farmers' Market

I became a convert to farmers' markets pretty much by accident. I happened to be working downtown at the time, a few years ago, when during my lunch break I saw that there were a bunch of canopies across the street. This was the Prudential Plaza farmers' market, and it took about 20 minutes of wandering through it to get me hooked. I was surprised that the market had everything you could imagine, not just produce, but also cheese, jellies and preserves, salsas, and more.

The Andersonville Farmers' Market is fairly new; this is only its third season. But ever since it started this is where I get most of my produce during the warm months. I love how convenient it is — there are some other markets relatively nearby but they are of the 7am to 2pm variety, and as Michael can attest, I am so not a morning person. Even when working downtown, I could still hit the market after work on my way home. There's an amazing variety of vendors, everything from ice cream to jewelry. Mostly, though, I stick to produce.

I love fresh produce and I love the idea that it's so fresh that it was in the ground 12 hours ago. I sometimes get stuck in a rut and can be pretty lazy about eating enough vegetables, so getting what's in season at the market is a way to remind myself to incorporate more of it into my meals. I went through chemotherapy about five years ago, during which time I was forbidden to eat raw produce of any kind; chemo attacks any fast growing cell, including white blood cells, so bugs that my immune system would normally shrug and yawn at were now something that could potentially land me in the hospital. By the second month I was scouring the internet for a recipe, any recipe to cook bananas that didn't involve setting things on fire. And I still had four months to go! I was going crazy for a salad, and in fact the first thing I did after my doctors cleared me was to go out to eat the biggest raw, cold salad I could find.

I don't take raw produce for granted anymore.

The best part about a farmers' market? If you're not an awesome chef-level cook, as I am not, you can always ask the vendor "what could I do with this" and get a good answer. I get some of my best food ideas that way.

The Man in Charge
We've already mentioned Hillside Orchards. They are who we got our apples and blackberry preserves from. Depending on what's in season, we have also gotten peaches, plums, cherries, berries of all kinds, plus jars of barbecue sauce (apple barbecue, yum!) and all sorts of fruit preserves. Oh, and honey!

So if ever I have a question about the difference between this kind of peach and that kind of peach, or if this variety of apple would be better for cooking or for eating, all I have to do is ask. They know what they sell, they've been doing it their entire lives. They're invested in giving their customers a good experience; all of the fresh fruit is available to sample.

We chat a bit while I'm there. They all know me by face, if not by name. They answer my questions, are patient with me while I dither (I'd buy the entire market if I could, so making choices sometimes takes a while), and always tell me "see you next week!" The vendors and their regular customers form a true community, which you can be a part of if you take your time and get to know them. And I love their fruit.

I really want an apple now.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Filled Beignets

New Orleans's Café du Monde is famous throughout the world for its beignets, a French pastry made from fried bread. The official state doughnut of Louisiana, beignets can be made with a variety of fillings, from the sweet to the savory. We've been using the bread bible recipe based on Café du Monde's to make breakfast beignets with tremendous success.


We make our beignets out of challah bread dough, an egg- and butter-enriched bread whose production we will examine in a future blog entry. You can theoretically make them out of almost any sort of airy dough, but we find that the challah offers a certain decadent richness perfect for a great breakfast. For our fillings we decided to experiment with peanut butter, blackberry preserves, chocolate, and goat cheese. Our four beignets were made with various combinations of these ingredients — two cheese, peanut butter, and chocolate pastries, and two blackberry and cheese beignets.

We prepped the pastries by laying out the dough with the chosen fillings atop them while we put the vegetable oil on the stove to heat up. The oil needs to reach a temperature of 360 to 370 degrees, which we measure with a candy thermometer, so we have plenty of time to get ourselves ready. While the recipe calls for two to be fried at once, we found that with how much each beignet puffs up while being cooked it was easier to just cook them individually, and it didn't take too much longer. Once the fillings were laid out on the dough, we folded the dough over and sealed the edges — wet the edges with a little water to get a good seal, if necessary.

The dough fries up pretty quickly when dropped into the oil, even accounting for the need to flip the pastry over to make sure each side cooks evenly. The recipe as written calls for two minutes per side, but we used significantly less oil and so they heated up much more quickly — we found that if we left them to fry for more than half-a-minute per side, they would start to burn. After each beignet was cooked we set it aside on a paper towel-covered plate to await its kin.

After all four were cooked (a process that took less than ten minutes including the time to let the oil reheat to 360 following each beignet) we sprinkled them with powdered sugar and gave them a short break to cool. As you can see they came out both larger and darker than we had expected, but this wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

The Outcome

The beignets came through the frying process crisp on the outside and airy on the inside. The fried bread was rich and chewy, the fillings were warm but not too hot to eat, and the individual flavors were preserved. In my estimation the blackberry preserves and goat cheese ones were slightly more successful; the chocolate and peanut butter cheese beignets were missing a certain necessary 'something' to make them perfect. All in all a successful culinary experiment that has become a regular part of our breakfast repertoire.

Friday, August 19, 2011

French Press Coffee

Kat introduced me to french press coffee. It takes a little bit longer than just throwing pre-ground stuff into a Mr Coffee, but the results are superior and you're going to find yourself more invested in the process and its outcome.

The Beans

For this pot we used beans from Coffee Chicago on Broadway and Berwyn. It's this great little unpretentious coffee shop that offers free wi-fi. We got there within minutes of closing, and the staff was courteous and helpful. I'll have to go back and check out the ice cream they sell — there were quite a few interesting looking flavors on offer.

We're using Chicago Blend beans, but Kat tells me that their Hawaiian Kona and Mocha Java are great, too.

The Process

Chicago Blend beans from Coffee Chicago
After setting the kettle on to boil (filtered water is best), the first step with french press coffee is grinding the beans up. Kat has a nifty little press-grinder — four small scoops of beans, about four tablespoons, is enough for two big mugs of coffee. You don't want to just press and hold — the friction will burn the beans and ruin their flavor. A series of short quick presses, no longer than a few seconds long, will reduce the beans into the grounds we need. The end result should be medium course grounds, not a fine powder.

Carefully pour the grounds into the bottom of the press. You don't need a paper filter or anything like that — there's very little waste with a French press, a big bonus if you're at all concerned with sustainability.

When the kettle whistles go ahead and let the water cool for fifteen seconds, off the range, before pouring.  This gives the ideal temperature of about 190-200 degrees. Kat revealed to me that she did a crazy amount of testing to try and find the optimal cooling time, and I have no reason to doubt her thoroughness.

French coffee press filled with raw vitae
After it cools, pour the water into the press and give it a bit of a stir to mix the grounds in a bit. Put the lid on and let it sit for four minutes to let the water absorb the grounds — don't skimp or you'll end up with weak coffee, and don't let it steep too long, either. [If you let it steep longer, you end up with pretty strong coffee — which is not bad if you're into that sort of thing. –Kat]

After your four minutes push the plunger down to its base. The coffee is now set and ready to serve.

The Outcome

I like my coffee like I like my women.


Do you like iced coffee in the summer?  You can also use a french press to cold brew coffee, although it takes a bit more planning.  You will need to steep the grounds in cold water for a minimum of 12 hours, or else you get some weak coffee.  So put it together the night before; otherwise the process is exactly the same: grounds, fill with cold water, let it sit overnight, press the next morning.  Great for hot summer days, with the added bonus of not diluting your hot coffee with tons of ice to cool it down.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Apples and Peanut Butter Drizzled with Honey

Apples are pretty great on their own. They're delicious, have a crisp crunchy texture, and are generally considered to be pretty good for you. They're easy to eat in their native form, and can be easily sliced up for convenient sharing.

Adding a few toppings — peanut butter and honey, in this case — is an easy way to promote apples from a good snack to an amazing snack.

It's summer, so we get apples from the Andersonville Farmers' Market. These were on sale as "seconds" so need to be refrigerated to keep them from going soft. But otherwise they're great, and we got a bushel of them for $3. Kat doesn't recall what variety these were, but they are not quite as tart as your standard Granny Smith apple. They were, of course, locally grown by Hillside Orchards in Michigan.

The honey is also local, stocked at Whole Foods: Some Honey buckwheat honey from Wisconsin.  It has a very rich, dark flavor. (Their cranberry honey is also a favorite.)


Take an apple. Slice it up into as many pieces as you feel like you can handle. In the above example we cut it up into smaller slices, but if you're in the mood for it you can get away with just bisecting the apple. Smear the peanut butter liberally over the cut surface, but be aware that it won't stick easily to the wet slickness.

I'd suggest applying the peanut butter to each of the slices first, arranging them together, then drizzling the honey over the assembly — it's easier than trying to daub a bit onto each piece, and really you just need that little taste of honey.


The apples we used in these snacks were rather tart, so their tanginess contrasted well with the sweetness of the honey and the savor of the peanut-butter. The pieces crunch pleasantly, and you just feel like you're eating right. Fruit is one of those things that our mothers were always trying to foist off on us as snacks, and taking a few minutes to dress it up with a bit of peanut butter and honey results in a decadent treat that far outstrips the effort it takes to pull it off.