Sunday, January 31, 2010

Easy Brunch Baked Eggs

A few years ago, when my kids were pre-schoolers, I hosted a music class at our apartment featuring the now famous singer-songwriter Randy Kaplan.

"Did you go to Blind Brook High School?" Erica Morris, one of the mom's asked me.

Why yes, as a matter of fact I did.

We compared notes and realized that Erica and I grew up in the same small town in Westchester, where I had been friendly with her older sister. Now Erica and her family lived around the corner. More evidence to back my theory that everyone eventually ends up in Park Slope.

There's no huge dramatic pay-off for this story (no long-lost separated twins, for instance), but I still think it's pretty cool.

Basically, after graduating from college and taking a few months to travel and figure out what she wanted to do, Erica worked a number of jobs in the food industry and attended to the Culinary Institute of America. After completing an internship with The Union Square Cafe, she became dining room manager and handled catering sales at the defunct Manhattan restaurant The Tonic.

Eventually, she landed a gig as special events supervisor at People Magazine. A plum position at New York Magazine followed and then her dream job, Director of Events and strategic partnerships at the late great Gourmet Magazine.

With a culinary expert around the corner from me, it seemed only natural I would ask for some advice regarding my upcoming dinner party.

"The truth is that with kids, I don't have many dinner parties. Brunch is really ideal for entertaining," said Erica, mom to two girls. "It's easy and the kids can run around while the adults talk. It doesn't have to be fancy."

Here are Erica's two "go to" brunch recipes (I haven't tried either yet, but maybe next weekend...)

Easy Brunch Baked Eggs
1 loaf white/wheat sandwich bread
10 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard (I can give you some so you don't have to buy a whole container since you'll likely never use it for anything else!)
2 teaspoons salt, pepper to taste
1 yellow onion, sliced thin and sauteed til clear and soft - you can do this in a little butter or a little olive oil, up to you
1/2 -3/4 lb sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup melted butter

Butter a 9 x 12 glass casserole dish
Remove bread crusts, cube bread and line bottom of casserole dish
Grate cheese if you bought it whole
Mix milk, eggs, spices, cheese and onion in bowl
Pour over bread and cover
Refrigerate overnight
Pre-heat over to 325
Melt butter and pour over top of eggs
Bake for 1 hour

You can add cooked, crumbled bacon too, this makes it super tasty. You can add it when you mix the milk, eggs, spices and cheese together.

Serves about 8-10 people depending on size of slices

Chocolate Chip Pancakes

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (I like to use King Arthur Flour - good quality product)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup milk (if you can, use buttermilk, creates a better flavor)
1/4 cup unsalted butter (melted)
2 large eggs - separate the whites from the yolks
1 cup chocolate chips (I like to use mini chips) - or 1 cup of any desired fruit (banana, berries, peaches, etc)

Combine the dry ingredients (first 5 items) in one bowl.
Combine the wet ingredients (milk, butter and yolks) in another bowl.
Combine dry and wet, stir until mixed together (large wooden spoon is best).
Beat the whites with a whisk until foamy and stiff - when you pull up on the whites, they should form a stiff peak.
Fold the whites into the rest of the batter - do this gently and try not to stir too much as you want to keep the air in the whites because this is what makes the pancake fluffy.
Add the chocolate chips.

Add approx 1 tablespoon butter to a sautee pan over medium high heat - once butter is melted and spread on bottom of pan, drop individual pancakes into pan, a large tablespoon works best. Wait until batter is set and bubbly - approx 2 minutes (go by look rather than time) before flipping. Flip pancake and let cook on other side for another 2 minutes or so.

The first batch of pancakes almost always comes out the worst so if you over/under cook them or they just don't come out great, don't worry - it gets better.

I like to preheat my oven to about 250 degrees and put the finished pancakes in the oven on a sheet tray. Then, when my last pancakes are done - all my pancakes are hot and ready to go!

Here are Erica's other cooking tips:

• Have fun! Cooking shouldn't be a grueling task, even if you aren't a "natural".

• Don't be afraid to try new things - so many people follow recipes to a t. I think you can experiment a little based on your own likes/dislikes. For example: if a quiche recipe calls for asparagus and you don't like asparagus, swap it out with something else - like broccoli or spinach.

• Clean as you go - one of the basics taught in culinary school and if you watch any cooking show, you'll see that chefs keep their work space very clean, always wiping counters and cutting boards down, getting garbage out of the way. If you start off this way, it will become second nature and you'll form a good habit that really will make you a better cook

• Cardinal rule of cooking when using a recipe - always read the recipe all the way through first!! You'd be surprised how many people don't do this.

• Lastly - don't fear the fat - fat is flavor. Butter, oil, they are your friends. But of course, everything in moderation.

All great advice, especially that final tip. DON'T FEAR THE FAT! That's my new motto.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lentil and Rice Mush

I'm sure by now you've become accustomed to reading about my culinary successes. After all, it's been quite a while since I burned anything (unless you count the Brussels Sprouts). Just when I begin to think I'm getting the knack of this cooking thing, I make a rookie mistake.

Last night, I returned to my naturally undomesticated ways.

Avo had bought me super-fancy Sabarot French Green Lentils in hopes that I would use them to concoct something truly wonderful. Sadly, I failed him.

The evening started auspiciously enough. I turned to Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything and followed his recipe for

Lentils and Rice with Caramelized Onions

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 medium onion, chopped, plus 1 large or 2 medium onions, halved and sliced

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups lentils, washed and picked over

About 6 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock, or water, warmed

1 cup long- or short-grain rice

Minced fresh parsley leaves for garnish

Place 1 tablespoon oil in a large, deep saucepan, and turn the heat to medium. A minute later, add chopped onion, and cook until it begins to become tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, salt and pepper, and cook 3 minutes more. Add lentils, stir, and add about 4 cups of the stock.

Luckily, Avo made stock from my roast chicken, so I used that. But since I only had about 3 cups, I cut the recipe in half.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils begin to soften, about 20 minutes. Add enough of the remaining stock or water so the lentils are covered by about an inch of liquid. Stir in rice. Cover, and turn the heat to low.

Meanwhile, place the remaining oil in a medium skillet, and turn the heat to medium-high. Cook the onion slices, stirring frequently, until they are dark brown but not burned, about 15 minutes.

At this point, the girls ran from the room complaining that they couldn't stand the smell of the onions. I can't blame them. I remember doing the same thing when I was a kid.

Scoop out the onions, and let them drain on paper towels while you finish cooking the lentils and rice.

Oops. I forgot to let the onions drain. I just left them in the pan to wait their turn.

Check the rice and lentils after 20 minutes. When both are tender and the liquid is absorbed, the dish is ready. If the lentils and rice are not tender, add more liquid, cover, and cook for a few more minutes. If, on the contrary, the rice and lentils are soft and there is much liquid remaining, raise the heat a bit and cook, uncovered, stirring, until it evaporates.

Here's where things went bad. The lentils were done, but the rice took about another 20 minutes to cook. Apparently, I used 40 minute rice in a recipe for 20 minute rice. How should I know what sort of rice to use? By the time the rice was cooked, the lentils had pretty much lost all shape and dissolved.

"The lentils are basically mush," I warned Avo.

He took a bite.

"But good mush!" he said.

Once I topped them with caramelized onions, the lentils and rice were slightly more edible.

"The parsley is a nice addition," said Avo. "But it needs pork!"

This morning, when I opened the microwave to re-heat my tea, I found a bowl of green beans in the microwave that I forgot to serve last night with the rice and lentils. It just wasn't my night.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Undomesticated Brooklyn

In case you haven't heard the news, I'm repeating it here. Undomesticated Me is going to have a weekly column on Only The Blog Knows Brooklyn, a must-read Brooklyn blog created by Louise Crawford. Look for my Undomesticated Brooklyn column on Louise's site on Tuesdays.

This week I'm going to make it easy for you lazy readers by duplicating the column here (but don't let this become a habit):

I haven’t yet set a date for my first-ever dinner party, but I’ve already enlisted a distinguished list of guinea pigs to get me ready for the big event. My new game plan is to invite one guest over for dinner each week to help me hone my skills. I’ve also begun soliciting advice from Brooklyn-based culinary mavens. First up is Giulia Melucci, author of the fabulous foodie memoir, “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.”

After reading her book, which chronicles her romantic and culinary adventures, I felt as if I already knew Giulia. So I did what any reasonable person would do. I stalked her on Facebook. Giulia was nice enough to reply to my message and to accept my dinner invitation. We had a wonderful meal at Fonda, the upscale Mexican place on 7th Avenue (between 14th and 15th).

Since our first date was a success (the delicious margaritas didn’t hurt), I was so bold as to suggest a 2nd rendezvous. Last Thursday night, we had dinner at Provini, the newish Northern Italian Trattoria on 13th Street and 8th Avenue.

It felt a bit like a private party since I knew almost everyone in the cozy restaurant. In addition to the fellow P.S. 107 parents who congregated by the bar after the PTA meeting, one of my neighbors was celebrating her 40th birthday with a group of friends in the corner booth.

I introduced Giulia to everyone as “my new author friend who I met on Facebook.” As I gushed about her terrific book, Giulia kindly offered to go to her car and get some copies. The birthday girl was thrilled when Giulia returned and signed a copy of the book for her. Giulia and I enjoyed our prosecco and drooled over a selection of appetizers, including grilled calamari and Malfatti. A perfect Brooklyn evening.

As someone who has thrown countless dinner parties, Giulia is just the person to give me advice. So I grilled her with questions:

Undomesticated Brooklyn: What makes a dinner party?

Giulia Melucci: Good and abundant food, of course. But what’s most important is appreciative guests who are open to talking to everyone and keeping up a lively spirit.

UB: Describe the best dinner party you ever hosted.

GM: I had a lot of great ones when I was testing recipes for “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.” In fact, I had a dinner party every night with just about every friend I ever had.

I remember enjoying the September “seder” I made for a bunch of my old Harper’s Magazine colleagues. I paired brisket and matzoh ball soup with teriyaki pork roast and Bok Choy. A strange Asiatic-Semitic amalgam, but all of it was delicious and the table was alive with office gossip and political discussion that I could drop in and out of while I ran from table to kitchen.

As hostess, you can pick up the vibe, but you’re only feeding it, not creating it. I like that.

UB: What is the most important piece of advice to keep in mind when prepping for a dinner party?

GM: If you show generosity in what you serve, you’ve done all you need to do. The food need not be perfect, but it should show a spirit of giving that will set the tone for your guests. You can’t make people have a good time—that they have to do on their own, you’ll be busy—but you can facilitate good feelings by offering the abundance of your own heart in the food and drink you put out.

UB: Any warnings I should heed?

GM: Try not to do anything that will take extensive work in the kitchen while the guests are there. No risottos, etc. I like roast meats and vegetables that you can just chuck in the oven, then you’ll have a few minutes to visit with your guests. Or stews that cook in a pot for hours and are ready to go whenever you feel like ringing the dinner bell. There is no peril inherent in entertaining, so I will give no warnings.

Julia Child said “make no apologies,” if you think something isn’t quite right, no need to talk about it, your guests will probably not notice. That’s probably good advice, but I don’t heed it.

UB: Any recommendations about what I should serve?

GM: I believe in making it easy on yourself and keeping it simple. I love roast pork, or roast fish, with sautéed vegetables or roasted vegetables. The dinner party menus in my book are great, easy, and ready to go. Nigella Lawson’s cod wrapped in prosciutto can be prepped earlier in the day and popped into the oven twenty minutes before you want to serve it. That on a bed of lentils with some chopped parsley adorning it looks so professional and is so tasty. Follow that with a salad and bread (Have lots of bread so people can stuff themselves if you somehow didn’t make enough, which would never happen, of course) a lovely dessert (bought from a bakery is perfectly acceptable) and you have all the elements of a great meal.

UB: Will you come to my dinner party?

GM: I never thought you’d ask!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lemon Chicken and Old Friends

In preparation for my dinner party (date yet to be determined), I've enlisted a distinguished list of guinea pigs to get me ready for the big event.

On Saturday night, Becky, my old housemate, schlepped from the East Village all the way out to Brooklyn to try my cooking. Becky and I lived together for seven years during our 20s and during that whole time, I never once cooked for her -- or for myself, for that matter. Mostly, we subsisted on chicken with broccoli that we ordered from Mee Noodle Shop.

"Don't worry about impressing me," Becky said before she made the trip to our apartment. "I'll be impressed even if you just serve me some cheese and crackers."

Becky had no idea what I had planned for her. I had spent the bulk of the day cooking in preparation for her arrival.

"How are you going to roast the chicken?" Avo asked earlier in the day.

"In the oven."

"Very funny."

"I wasn't trying to be funny. I wasn't sure what you were asking."

"Are you going to rub it with salt and butter or put a sprig of Rosemary in it or stuff it?"

"Um, I haven't gotten that far."

After consulting The Bible a.k.a. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, I settled on Lemon Chicken, which is pretty easy to prepare. I just rubbed the chicken with olive oil and squeezed the juice of half a lemon on it. The other half a lemon, I put inside the chicken. Then I cooked at 450 degrees for about 45 minutes.

I decided to roast the Brussels Sprouts in the same pan as the chicken and roast the potatoes in a separate pan. This was all fine and dandy until I burned my arm on the oven door trying to remove the potatoes. Things went from bad to worse when I realized I had neglected to flip the Brussels Sprouts.

"How do I flip the Brussels Sprouts when they're under the chicken?" I asked Avo.

"Figure it out yourself," he said.

I took this to mean that he didn't know how to do it. Later, I realized he was presenting a challenge -- one which I failed to acknowledge.

Instead of heeding his advice, I put the Brussels Sprouts of my mind until the chicken was ready to come out of the oven.

Oops. The Brussels Sprouts were more burned than my arm. They were so gloriously blackened, I should have saved them to display in The Burnt Food Museum (see photo above).

"You mean you didn't flip them at all?" Avo asked.

"You didn't tell me how," I said, accusingly.

"I didn't tell you not to flip them. I said figure it out yourself."

It's true -- I shouldn't blame him for my failure. Sweetheart that he is, Avo ran out to buy more Brussels Sprouts. The second batch came out perfect.

Here is the full of menu:

- crackers and a baguette served with a nice selection of cheeses
- a green salad with cherry tomatoes and sprouts
- roasted Brussels Sprouts
- Rosemary potatoes
- roasted Lemon Chicken
- Brownies (homemade) and mint chip ice cream (Alden's)

Aside from my burnt arm and the burnt Brussels Sprouts, dinner was a complete success. The chicken was cooked just right -- nice and tender. After it was done, I realized I had no idea how to carve it, so I begged Avo for help. I'll put "Learn how to Carve a Chicken" on my To-Do List.

The Rosemary potatoes were crisp and flavorful and the dessert was a big hit.

"These Brownies are so good, I would have thought they were from a mix!" said Avo.

"I'm impressed!" said Becky.

It was a helpful trial run since I realized I need to work on my choreography and timing. The potatoes were finished way too soon. Also, I need more serving utensils ASAP.

My new plan is to have one guest over for dinner each week to help me hone my skills.

Who's my next guinea pig?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dinner Party Plans

And the winner is...dinner party. The people have voted (19 for Dinner Party; 6 for Housewarming Party; 6 for Learn to Knit; 2 for Learn to Sew). Who am I to refuse? I'm flattered that you have faith in me. Or maybe you just want to see if I can survive the challenge.

The first thing I need to do is set a date -- not too soon because I won't be prepared and not too far off because then I'll have too much time to fret about the daunting task ahead.

Second, I must draw up a guest list. It's going to be challenging finding an interesting and compatible group who is free on the same night.

Third, I will draft a menu. My mom suggested that I keep the dinner party simple, including several dishes I can make in advance.

Avo will be in charge of pre-dinner cocktails and I can certainly pick up some tasty cheese and crackers from the co-op. But what then?

I have so many questions to answer: How many courses will there be? Will I prepare dishes I've made before or something entirely new? Most importantly, do we have enough chairs to seat everyone?

In the coming weeks, I plan to work out these and other details. I'm also excited to survey some local dinner party experts and solicit their advice. First up is Giulia Melucci, the Brooklyn-based author of the appetizing memoir "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," which was published to much acclaim last year. Look for Giulia's dinner party tips next week.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brussels Sprouts Breakthrough

Part of the reason it took me so long to learn how to cook is that I was such a picky eater. Why bother cooking when I didn't like the finished result?

As a kid, I somehow managed to survive on plain pasta, candy, and the occasional fried chicken. I don't think I ate a vegetable until I was in my 20s (don't tell my kids).

It wasn't until fairly recently that I began to notice that my taste buds had changed. I am still mad for chocolate (although now I prefer dark over milk), but in general, I favor savory over sweet.

Some credit for my expanding diet goes to Avo, who managed to cook vegetables in ways that made them taste delicious. Sorry, mom, but the canned peas you served me as a kid were pretty nasty (ditto to the packaged mashed potatoes).

My parents are getting a real kick out of the fact that not only am I now eating vegetables, but I'm cooking them as well. Until recently, I never would have tried Brussels Sprouts, but last night, I whipped up a batch of roasted Brussels Sprouts without relying on a recipe.

Here's what I did:

1. Cut off the brown ends of about 1 lb. of Brussels Sprouts.
2. Chop Brussels Sprouts in half and toss them in a roasting pan
3. Pour in a few teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil
4. Sprinkle on a bit of freshly ground pepper and salt
5. Shake the pan to make sure the Sprouts were doused in oil
6. Roasted at 400 degrees (pre-heated, of course) for about 35-40 minutes or 'til they're nice and crispy.
7. Put them in a bowl and toss on some Balsamic Vinegar.

"These are better than my Brussels Sprouts!" Avo said after trying them. Now that's the ultimate compliment since I know how highly Avo thinks of his Brussels Sprouts.

I still need to work on meal planning. As good as the Brussels Sprouts were, roasted Brussels Sprouts alone do not make a meal.

If "Throw a Dinner Party" wins in the Undomesticated Me poll, I might serve Brussels Sprouts. But what else should I cook?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Decide My Fate

I feel so vulnerable. My future is in your hands (or rather, keyboards). You have three more days to vote in the Undomesticated Me poll.

Right now, "Throw a Dinner Party" holds a strong lead ahead of "Housewarming Party" in the poll, with "Learn to Knit" coming in a distant third and "Learn to Sew" garnering no votes. But I know how these things can suddenly change at the last minute, so I won't send out dinner invitations just yet.

Still, I am beginning to brainstorm about this theoretical dinner party. I've never actually entertained before. Sure, I've thrown my share of kids' parties before and in my 20s, my housemate and I threw lots of rockin' bashes. But I have never invited adults who are not related to me over to eat good food and engage in grown up conversation.

Before I learned to cook, the question of a dinner party was moot. It seemed awfully gauche to invite people over just to order in pizza.

Now that I've got dinner parties on my brain, I'm wondering who I would actually invite to this thing. Our dining table seats 8, so not including me and Avo, that leaves room for six guests. I've been told that a successful dinner party depends nearly as much on the mix of people as the quality of the food.

Doing research online, I found a guide to dinner party etiquette which suggests:

When selecting guests for your event, you’ll want to choose an interesting mix of characters, but make sure they will all get along. It wouldn’t do to invite people who are known to clash with other dinner guests or cause heated debates. No one wants tension at a dinner party. Your party should be a lively, stress-free event. Invite guests who are good conversationalists, especially those who are known to bring along their sense of humor.

Do you know any charming, sophisticated guests who are good conversationalists with a sense of humor? Maybe I could even write a script beforehand for them to read so I can be sure it all goes smoothly.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Learn to Knit still has a shot. The poll's not over 'til it's over.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Undomesticated Goals

When I started this blog eight months ago, I had only a vague goal in mind. Unlike Julie Powell, I didn't set out to do anything particularly ambitious or to achieve anything specific. I just wanted to learn how to cook, clean, and entertain.

I dove into the project without knowing where it would lead. In fact, I'm still not sure where my quest for domesticity is headed, but I'm sure enjoying learning how to bake, cook and blog (not so much cleaning or entertaining so far).

Now that I've gained a wee bit of confidence in domestic matters, I'm wondering if it's time I set some goals for myself -- something along the lines of cooking dinner every night for a week, planning a dinner party, or even learning how to sew!

My mom has been trying to teach me to knit for years, so that's an idea. And then there's the fact that we've been in our apartment for six years and still never got around to throwing a housewarming party. I checked and Miss Manners says it's never too late.

What do you think? Perhaps it's time for an Undomesticated Me poll (vote above).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Worst Cook in Brooklyn?

It was my big shot at television stardom -- and I blew it.

About a year and a half ago, I got a call from a talent scout at Food Network who had heard through the grapevine that I was a notoriously terrible cook. She told me that the cable network was developing a show called "America's Worst Cooks" and she thought I might qualify.

"That sounds perfect for me!" I said.

They were looking for home cooks who were unable to produce an edible meal. At the time, I could barely prepare toast without putting the fire company down the block on alert.

"I'm your gal!"

But I quickly realized that I was not up for the challenge. While my culinary failures are legendary, I was not prepared to abandon my family and hole up for the long-term with a bunch of other bad cooks.

Last night I tuned in to a repeat of the show. Watching the contestants stumble through the kitchen, I realized that I've come a long way since that phone call. Not only can I now prepare toast (without setting off any alarms), but I can also whip up any number of other more complicated dishes.

Still, I could relate to so many of the contestants -- the young college grad who feared people's disgusted reaction to her cooking, the housewife who felt like a failure because she couldn't prepare a meal for her family, the woman who was afraid she'd cut or burn herself in the kitchen.

I'm not sure I would fare well in the competition since I don't cook well under pressure. But at least now I know how to properly hold a knife. I definitely don't regret my decision not to abandon my family for a shot at TV fame, but I wouldn't mind a Culinary Boot Camp for myself.

I definitely benefited from the quick knife skills lesson on last night's program. Here's a brief recap:

Chop - The most basic knife skill, which is used for foods that don't need to be cut in uniform shapes and sizes. To hold the knife properly, put your middle, ring and pinky fingers around the handle, and grip the blade with your index finger and thumb.

Julienne- To julienne, cut food into rectangular one-eighth-inch planks. Then stack the planks on top of each other and slice lengthwise into one-eighth-inch strips.

Chiffonade- A technique which is used to cut herbs and other leafy green vegetables into long, thin strips. Stack the leaves, roll them tightly, then cut across the rolled leaves with a sharp knife, producing fine ribbons.

Slice- You can make slices as thin or as thick as you want. Slice vegetables on the diagonal at 1/2-inch intervals with knife held at a 45 degree angle during slicing.

In all of these cases, make sure that your knife is sharp and watch out for those fingers!

You can bet I'll be tuning into "America's Worst Chef" next week to get some more pointers.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Kitchen Gadgets

Now that I'm turning into a foodie (well, a newbie foodie), I've been thinking it's time to invest in some helpful tools of the trade. In other words, I've decided I need more unnecessary crap in my kitchen.

"Honey, do you think I should get an immersion blender?" I asked Avo yesterday.

"Why in the world would you need an immersion blender?" asked Avo. "What the Hell is an immersion blender anyway?"

"It's a hand blender. And remember back in October when I was trying to make broccoli soup and I made a mess by trying to puree it in the blender? It would have been a lot easier with an immersion blender."

Given the limited space in our kitchen and the fact that Avo still hasn't forgiven me for devoting an entire shelf to the rarely used crock pot, he quickly nixed the idea of an immersion blender.

"How often do you make soup anyway?"

This is coming from the same guy who asked for an electric pepper grinder for his birthday! You would think he would understand my need for an immersion blender. Well, maybe for my next birthday.

Nearly 10 years ago when Avo and I got married, we registered for six brandy snifters and a dozen champagne flutes! What were we thinking? Were we stocking up a bar or a household? If only I could register now when I actually know a thing or two about what sort of pots and pans and cooking utensils we need. You could be certain that an immersion blender would be on the list.

What kitchen gadgets could you not live without? And which ones sit unused in your kitchen cabinets?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cooking and Exercise

The title of this post is misleading -- I am not going to give you tips on how to do leg lifts while roasting a chicken.

Rather, my point is that cooking -- for me at least -- is a lot like exercise. It's an effort for me to actually do it, but when I do it, I always feel better. I never regret having exercised and I rarely regret having cooked. If I slack off and stop exercising for a week, it's always a huge struggle to get start again. The same goes for cooking.

After my "time off" during the holidays, it's been a challenge to get back into the routine of cooking dinner every night. So last night, even though the kids and I had pizza with friends, I decided to cook something small just to work out my cooking muscles. Also, I didn't want Avo to fear that I had returned to my old undomesticated ways.

I was so out of practice that I actually fouled up the rice -- and I was using a rice cooker! I made my old mistake of using one cup of water to one cup of rice, instead of two cups of water. Not surprisingly, the rice turned out dry and pretty much inedible, so I had to dump it and start all over again (thankfully, I got it right on the 2nd try).

I was also determined to use the broccoli that was withering in the fridge. If broccoli had eyes, it would be looking at me accusingly, imploring to be used. The same was true for the packaged tempeh that was nearing its expiration date.

In my old undomesticated days, I would have stared at the ingredients without a clue as to how to proceed. But last night, I knew enough to stir fry up the coconut curry marinated tempeh strips with the broccoli and serve it with rice. Simple, healthy and delicious.

Avo was relieved to see that I haven't abandoned my quest to cook and pleased that I wasn't letting the ingredients in the fridge go to waste. Of course, now I need to go food shopping and figure out what to cook next.

Cooking really is a lot like exercise -- no matter how much you time and energy you devote to it one day, you've got to start all over again the next day. Hopefully, I'm gaining some momentum.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Baking Tips for Beginners

I know I keep promising to give up baking and get back to cooking dinner, but it's so satisfying -- and people seem to enjoy the treats of my labor.

From an informal poll of friends and family members, it seems that people tend to fall in two categories: those who love following recipes and enjoy the straightforward nature of baking and those who like the improvisational nature of cooking.

It's true that you can't be creative with the basics of baking -- if you decide to skimp on flour or baking soda, those cookies don't stand a chance.

As a kitchen newbie, I'm finding baking to be easier than cooking. With cooking, there are so many options -- do you saute, grill, boil, or broil? With baking, there's just...baking. But I've still got a lot to learn about baking. In addition to the baking tips for dummies I posted about last month, keep these "rules" in mind:

1. Rotate your pans from top to bottom, back to front, halfway through the cooking time (per my friend Katherine). But don't do this when you're baking cakes though since opening the oven door too often can spell disaster for a cake.

2. Preheating the oven really makes a different. It is key for good color and texture. Keep in mind that it generally takes around 20 minutes for an oven to hit its stride, so plan ahead.

3. Certain ingredients fare better at certain temperatures: Room-temperature eggs beat up fluffier; cream whips best ice-cold, and, though cold butter makes the flakiest pie crust, room-temp butter makes the lightest cakes. Got that?

4. Most baking recipes call for all-purpose flour, but cake flour really does help cakes get a lighter, softer texture.

Anything I'm forgetting?

Oh yeah, don't forget to set a timer so you don't burn those cookies!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Happy Undomesticated New Year!

It's a back-to-school, back-to-work, back-to-blogging sort of day. I think I'll ease back into this place slowly. In other words, I'll keep this post short and sweet. Very sweet.

I didn't do much cooking over the holidays. Instead, I grazed on appetizers and finger food at various holiday parties and satiated myself with festive cookies and cakes. On vacation in the Berkshires, we mostly ate out.

Brownies were the one exception. They became my my standard party gift -- cheaper and more satisfying than bringing booze. From Hanukkah to New Year's, I was the brownie lady. I found an effortless recipe from Food Network's "How to Boil Water: Life Beyond Takeout" that I can just about whip up from memory by now. But I'll jot it down here for you:



1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large cold eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour

Note: If you don't have enough light brown sugar, you can compensate with white sugar and vice versa.

Note #2: Splurge and buy genuine vanilla extract

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat oven to 325 degrees. Line an 8x8 -inch square metal or glass baking pan with foil so it hangs over the edges by about an inch. Butter the bottom and sides of the pan.

2. In a microwave-safe bowl, melt chocolate and butter in the microwave on 75% power for 2 minutes. Stir, and microwave until both are completely melted, about 2 minutes. You can do it the old fashioned way by heating in a saucepan on the stove, by why bother?

3. Stir the sugars, salt, adn vanilla into the chocolate mixture. Add the eggs and beat vigorously until fully incorporated (the batter should be thick and glossy). Add the flour and stir gently just until it disappears.

4. Pour batter into the pan and bake until the top is crispy -- about 40 to 50 minutes.

5. Cool brownies in the pan on the counter or a rack. Try not to nibble at them until they're fully cool. It won't be easy. Lift the brownies out of the pan, using the foil as handles. Peel off the foil and cut brownies into squares.

Note: Feel free to add 1 cup of chopped nuts just as the flour gets mixed in.

There are so many different varieties of brownies. These fall into the classic, rich, gooey variety. They were a bit too dark (e.g. "grownup") in flavor for Jesse, but that meant more for the rest of the family.

I know everyone is griping about the pounds they packed on during the holidays, but do yourself a favor and try out these brownies. It will help get you through the mid-winter blahs.