On Stress and Cooking

What do you do to get out of a funk?

Exercise, pray, cook, do laundry, meditate, hike, bike, or surf?

I have two go-to activities to get me out of a funk. One involves sneakers. The other involves my kitchen.

After a weeklong staycation with my sister and bro-in-law, ( actually they were only here for three days, but it took me four to get the house ready), I found myself not all that interested to get back to work. Usually I’m more than ready to type, cook, photograph and edit.

Grapes at Eddy Grove Vineyards

Grapes at Eddy Grove Vineyards

But not this week.

This week I’m anxious. Waiting for “the letter” from Storey Publishing about the “Salmon” manuscript. And I have every right to feel this way. In a world fraught with rejection, not matter how excited and interested I thought the agent sounded in her email, I am afraid to hear those dreaded words. It’s good, but not good enough.

I confessed my fears to Elvis, who said the best damn thing a husband could say ever! “You’re going to get the letter and she’ll say yes,” or something along those lines, I felt better. Clear. I knew what would ease my mind.

Homemade chicken stock.

Chicken stock only needs a few ingredients and a bit of time. Making stock is a task that would whisk me from my current state of mind-freaking out and unfocused-to a steady, calm and focused-on-the-day mindset, instead of worrying about the outcome of that book proposal!

A stock is by far, the easiest thing to make. Sure, you can get fancy making stock, but that’s not the point of a making stock. Save your creativity for a roasted eggplant galette. See recipe idea below. Simmered on low for several hours, a well-made stock takes care of itself. And has multiple uses. Like replacing stock for water when cooking vegetables or rice. A cup added to a Bolognese sauce or to your favorite red sauce. Soup obviously. Risotto.

I opened the refrigerator. Two chicken carcasses, a quarter of a candy onion, two carrots, a bunch of celery hearts, three ears of cooked corn on the cob, and a handful of hericot verts would get me started. I used my 9-inch chef’s knife, a vegetable scrubber, a cutting board, an 8-quart stock pot. A few chopped red bliss potatoes, a teaspoon of dried thyme and a shake of dried cayenne pepper later, I filled the stockpot with water and placed it on the stovetop on medium high heat. By the time I filled the stockpot with water, my issues began to circle the drain.

I went back to the cutting board and turned my attention to the yellow watermelon (yes, yellow) and the two lovely Sicilian organic eggplants.

sicilian eggplant

I thought to make a watermelon sorbet or a granita. Since the latter requires a bit more fuss, (all that scraping with the fork every few hours), I opted for the former. I had plenty of simple syrup in the fridge, plus a few lemons and a ruby-red grapefruit.

Have you ever made a melon-related dessert?

Let me tell you, once you commit, you won’t have to worry about thinking about any book proposal or anything else. There is so much prep work involved; you will be thinking how crazy you were to start something like this. First you cut the melon into cubes (about 6 pounds worth). Then you pulse in a blender or food processor. Then puree. Then strain. See where this is going? Then stir in the other ingredients. Then cover and refrigerate for several hours. This all before you put it in the ice cream maker. And of course, just as I pour my Natural Geographic yellow melon liquid into the machine (from a large bowl with a spout mind you), the spill Gods must have taken a smoke break, or an early happy hour. So in addition to this labor-intensive recipe, the sticky cleanup is the insurance that you (read me) will probably never make this dessert again. In retrospect, the granita seems like the easier of the two.

yellow watermelon sorbet

Back to the eggplant. I confess. I am not an eggplant fan. Neither is Elvis. But I couldn’t resist the farmer who was insistent about growing them this year. Their farm didn’t produce them last year and she had an entire crate. Surely I could figure out something?

She offered a simple recipe idea-roasted eggplant-then said “Eggplant is my favorite.” She looked at them like they were her babies.

So of course I wanted to make something fabulous and then tell her about it on the next visit. I adore the organic farmers here. They’re my hero’s. Just as I’m sure you have your favorite farmers too.

Enter Roasted Eggplant & Heirloom Tomato Galette.

Roasted Eggplant & Heirloom Tomato Galette

Roasted Eggplant & Heirloom Tomato Galette baked the second day in the kitchen

While you may use puff pastry for your galettes, I use pie crust. I’m obsessed with making the best damn pie crust ever! Yes, I use this expression often (a cheeseburger story for another post). I whisked flour, sugar and salt. Cubed butter. Dribbled ice water into the dough. Then formed a disk, wrapped it in plastic and placed the dough disk in the refrigerator. Fyi, I found the perfect pie crust recipe in The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook.

I sliced the eggplant (about 3/8 inch), coated it in olive oil, sprinkled the slices with sea salt, garlic powder (don’t judge) and fresh oregano, then roasted on a baking sheet (no parchment paper or foil, just a little spray oil), flipped once, for 25 minutes in a 425 degree oven. The eggplant looked tan to caramel in color and tasted like melt-in-your-mouth heaven. After I put the extra sliced, roasted eggplant in the food processor, I smeared a spoonful on a crusty sourdough bread, added a little diced heirloom tomato. Yup. Delicious.

Roasted Eggplant Bruschetta

Tip: roast eggplant a day ahead. Just cover and refrigerate. Which is what I did because I got it in my mind that if I didn’t like the way the eggplant turned out (which I did) or didn’t want to make hummus (my original thought), then I should have something sweet, salty and crunchy to eat. Because what good is a day in the kitchen without something to nibble on?

Maldon Salted Chocolate Pretzels anyone?

Chocolate covered pretzels with Maldon salt

Yep. While the eggplant roasted, I melted a handful of Ghirardelli chocolate wafers over a double boiler, then plopped in several handfuls of mini pretzels. Within minutes I sprinkled my perfect creation with Maldon salt to make the best damn late afternoon snack ever! See what I mean about that saying?

But by the time I finished the dishes the stock was done six hours later. I was tired. Imagine. I will have an assistant one day!

I strained, portioned and froze the stock. Satisfied with my day in the kitchen, I poured a glass of cab sav then headed to the porch to sip and listen to the tanagers, hummers and robins.

Tanager in Kentucky

The galette could wait. Tomorrow’s fretting would come fast enough.

What’s your favorite go-to stress-buster? Please share your ideas. I suspect there is more waiting-to-hear-from-the-agent stress in my future.

Roasted Garlic

Most mornings I wake up jazzed and ready to write. Whether I rewrite an article on conservation, start a new blog post, create a recipe, or craft a silly day in the life of tale like this one about making lists and roasting garlic, most mornings I have a plan. And a list.
Since I quit my day job (almost a month ago today), I am busy rewriting, editing and compiling a “Chef Inspired” section for my ebook, “Salmon.” These days I feel like I am on an endless zip-line, cascading high above the canopy of trees through the clouds, dizzy with energy, ideas and unlimited potential.
Today, I woke feeling as though I was transported back to the 1950s. A vapid feeling followed me around like Linus and his blanket. Housewife is the term that comes to mind.


Roasted Garlic MCB

5:30 a.m. I wander through the house like a robot to the laundry room. I turn the knob on the dryer to “refresh” and then walk back to the kitchen to unload the dishwasher. I think of the braid of garlic in the pantry to roast later and the fresh fruit I need to buy for the salmon recipes. I place knives in the drawer, lining them up side-by-side. Midway through the unloading, I write a shopping list-dog medicine, bread flour, butter, dried instant potatoes, a birthday card for Sarah. Then I pour a cup of black coffee and saunter to the back patio. The dishes can wait.

I sit still and watch hummingbirds whiz in and out to sip from the feeder. Robins and blue jays swoosh across the manicured lawn low to the ground. I have a brief thought about this, but it amounts to pure conjecture. I chalk up the low-level flying as a territorial thing. A woodpecker, hidden in the dense foliage, pecks on a pine tree. Tap, tap, tap-tap. The air is damp, wet in a pre-dawn spring shower way, just enough to make the seat cushions damp and my hair frizzy.

In a few hours, I will drive forty miles north to shell out over one hundred dollars to have my hair cut and processed. Money I don’t like to spend, but don’t know of any other solution, since I can’t bring myself to buy boxed product from the drugstore and screw up my hair and my only spa-like luxury. It’s enough I do my own manicures and pedicures. I digress.

While I like my hairdresser Emily, I wish I were going to see Michael Jon, my Florida hairdresser of thirteen years. Michael Jon understood me the I don’t want to work but I sure do like the extra money dilemma of my current life. Emily is a pleasantly plump (see, just there I wrote as if this was a 50s script) thirty-something, not prying, but eager to converse, I’m happy to talk about whatever you want and take your money kind of hairdresser. She is also an educator and shareholder of the salon. So while she lifts, brushes and cuts my locks, she instructs other stylists, “Use number 35 on Mrs. Rimmerson,” or “see if you can sell Judy a treatment.” The latter out of the side of her mouth; one eye on my thinning curly blond hair, the other on a hairdresser mixing color to her left, a slender gay dude who wears black on black and a throat beard.

I never feel fully comfortable with what the outlook of my hundred-dollar plus haircut might look like. Emily doesn’t disappoint most times. Although two times ago, she gave me a tad too many low-lights. But I’m willing to stick it out. This will be my sixth time going to her and I’ve been to four hairdressers since I moved here two and a half years ago. My track record sucks.

It’s only as I type this it occurs to me I need clarity. It’s the same feeling I get when I try to tweet something clever, but all that comes out is a Mrs. Middle aged rural voice who used to write for the weekly rag and watches birds in the mornings while she sips coffee.

“How are you handling not working?” asked Emily. She’s parting my hair as if she’s inspecting my skull for bed buds.

“I’m a little anxious,” I say. I hear my voice crack. Then to overcompensate, I launch into my what I did on my California vacation tale. I regal her with snippets of my good fortune and how I’m expecting 60 pounds of salmon in the mail tomorrow to recreate and photograph “celebrity chef” recipes. My voice is smooth and confident. I finish with, “I think I’ll go back to work in the fall at the library.”

“Won’t that be exciting?” she asks. When I look back to see if she meant it, (the voice always betrays) she was watching the other salon partner measure the distance from the wall to a chair with a retractable ruler. Apparently, the salon is expanding.

*

3:30 p.m. Back from the hairdresser and the grocery store, I scrimmage through my purse for the list I made earlier.

I didn’t buy one thing on the list.

I do have a bitching haircut and color I can live with for the next six weeks-a not too warm, not too ashy kind of blond. A bought a new hairbrush, a Mack Daddy can of hairspray, a $7 cotton teal-colored sweater that would be perfect for sailing, except we don’t live anywhere near a large body of water, nor do we own a sailboat. I bought a tube of mascara and a three-pack of a shaping, smoothing buffing manicure tool that for a reason I can’t fathom, I cannot find in Walmart, Walgreens or any other store in my little country town. I bought wine, croissants, sardines, organic chicken, smoked salmon, and a monster bag of produce.

I turn on the oven to 400 degrees to roast the garlic and beets, and to write my second list of the day. One that I will use to develop recipes for “Salmon”, the project that is costing me more in time, money, and mistakes than I’ll ever make on the sale of said book.

Pineapple, pears, peaches, raspberries (sense a theme?) for fresh fruit salsa. Rosemary and basil to season said salsa, champagne and balsamic vinegar to finish. Asparagus, beets and garlic to roast. Spinach to wilt. Green onions for a springy pop of flavor and color. Goat cheese, Parmesan Reggiano and Feta cheese because whoever said seafood and cheese don’t mix has never eaten any of my salmon dishes.

Just as I smell the pungent, sweet, caramel scent of roasted garlic, the kitchen timer chimes.

Thanks for reading.

Roasted Garlic Spread MCB

Roasted garlic recipe ideas: Smear roasted garlic on sourdough bread. Serve with mission figs, cheese, fruit, and a beverage of your choosing. Use roasted garlic in mashed potatoes, cauliflower puree, in scrambled eggs and, what else? Baked salmon of course.

Appetite required.

Are you a list-maker? What’s on your list? If you aren’t, what tactic do you use to remember the this is what I need to do today kind of stuff?

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Mintchocolatology

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream lovers are overly confident and driven. They serve up their sarcasm with a dash of the ridiculous They are realists, overly organized and need a plan to move forward to feel secure. They are full of pride, ambition, and courage. They have few friends, but fierce loyalty to those closest to them. Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream lovers are most compatible with other Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream lovers.


 

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

5,830,000 search results popped up on Google for “mint chocolate chip ice cream.”

How much do you want to bet during summer, the number rises exponentially?

In fact, since July is National Ice Cream Month, I’m betting the chances are good.

This past Memorial Day weekend, I made Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. Not the simmer the milk and mint in the saucepan kind of ice cream like my friend Katie at katiescucina.com makes, but rather the clip some mint from the garden, chop some Ghirardelli melting chocolate from the pantry and whisk up a batch of Williams – Sonoma vanilla ice cream starter mix kind of Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream.

Making ice cream in my home is not common. My last memory of making ice cream was during Thanksgiving 2011. I made butternut squash ice cream. I served said ice cream with a slice of chocolate graham cracker pumpkin cheesecake. Reactions were more of a “Mmm, wow this is different,” instead of “This is the best damn ice cream ever!” which if you didn’t know, is the reaction you should get when you make homemade ice cream.

I digress.

While the ice cream machine whirled for 30 minutes, I thought to Google “ice cream” again for a few fun ice cream facts. ‘Cause I know – you can’t live without this list.

Here are ten fun ice cream facts in no particular order sourced from servingicecream.com, icecream.com and icecreamfreaks.com. (Italics mine):

  1. The average American consumes 48 pints of ice cream per person, per year. How much do you eat?
  2. Sunday is the day most ice cream is bought. Hmm, after all the praying, we take penance in fat and cream?
  3. Kids 2 ̶ 12 and adults over 45 eat the most ice cream. Duh, they’re not looking to get hitched (usually).
  4. It takes about 50 licks to finish off an ice cream cone. You know you want to go buy an ice cream cone and count.
  5. More men (13 percent) admit to licking their ice cream bowl clean than women (8 percent). Do women not want to confess or is there a deeper meaning?
  6. It takes 12 pounds of milk to make 1 gallon of ice cream. Makes me think this is where the campaign “Got milk?” started.
  7. An average dairy cow can produce enough milk in her lifetime to make a little over 9,000 gallons of ice cream. Makes you want to own a cow, doesn’t it? Maybe just a little?
  8. July is National Ice Cream Month! This is where I get to say, “I told you so.”
  9. The third Sunday in July is National Ice Cream Day! Buy stock now!
  10. Vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan, strawberry and mint chocolate chip are the most popular ice cream flavors. Hello!
Beyond the top ten list, all this means is that there are whole lot of people that like to eat ice cream.
What’s your favorite flavor? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook.
Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Lima Beans

This past summer, with a pair of kitchen shears, a bowl, a plastic bag, an ice-cold Corona and several pounds of fresh in shell organic lima beans, I walked on to the back porch.

Sunshine beamed through the forest, casting long shadows on the back lawn. Birds chirped and cooed. I might have had the radio on.

Organic lima beans MCB

Not that I was bird watching that afternoon. I was grumbling actually. Perhaps whining is a better word.

I waited to shell that bag of beans until I couldn’t wait any more. I would pick up another basket of produce from the CSA farmer the next day which would contain, yep, more lima beans.

Those lima beans had to be shelled.

I never shelled lima beans in my fifty-two years and despite the quick tutorial from my CSA farmer, Eloïse, or Ebie, for short, who at eighty-five and as spry as I hope to be at that age, showed me with her tiny, arthritic, hands, and said, “It’s so easy dear.”

Well, I still needed the shears. It was not that easy.

The summer of 2013 was my first summer with a weekly share at the local organic farm seven miles down the road, and I was tired. (I had a share with a different farmer in 2012, and I don’t recall the same amount of work, but I think because the food I received in my 2012 share was more sweet corn and tomatoes.)

I was tired of preserving, blanching, portioning and freezing. The weekly basket of fresh produce, at the time, seemed to be too much for Elvis and me. And during late summer when harvest was at its peak, it was too much.

Twin Maples Farm Spring 2013 042 (528x800) Twin Maples Farm Spring 2013 017 (528x800)

Those weeks I shared with my neighbors, or plowed on with the process, one that takes on a life of its own I discovered.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not whining about the CSA, but the lima beans.

I love the benefits of a local, organic farming community, where I meet great people and volunteer when I can. Basil picking therapy I call it.

After one intensely sweltering hot morning pulling weeds from rows of strawberries and kale, I received my first sourdough bread starter from Ebie. She christened “Oscar” when she passed the bubbling beige mass in the mason jar to me, along with a water stained photocopy, her recipe and instructions.

Ebie at Twin Maples Organic

That morning I felt blessed.

But that late summer afternoon on my back porch, my thumbs were sore and green.

Fast forward to a week ago, a few days after the 2014 winter ice storm, and subzero temperatures for longer than I can remember having endured, I woke craving those baby organic lima beans.

Strange thought I recalled as I threw off the sheet, cotton blanket, down cover and duvet. The coffee pot gurgled and beckoned from the kitchen and the burnt scent of Starbuck’s coffee wafted back to the bedroom, luring me forward.

I poured my coffee then headed to the garage freezer where I stashed my summer harvest.

lima beans buttered mcb

That evening for dinner, I baked a chicken breast, roasted broccoli florets and lastly, simmered my lima beans in a little water for a few minutes, tossed in a pat of butter, and sprinkled them (just an air kiss really) with kosher salt.

I believe either you have vivid dreams or none at all.

Elvis does not remember any of his dreams.

Some of my dreams I’d like to forget, others I consult the dream books, but it’s rare I dream of a specific food, like the lima beans tucked in baggies in the outside freezer.

Maybe I needed those lima beans that frigid winter day.

Maybe my subconscious was telling me what I needed, reminding me of those long, hot summer days when the air is sweet, fresh and clean, like the lima beans.

Vinaigrette

Sunday afternoons during the cold winter Kentucky months are ripe for lazy, day-long activities: I simmer soup, bake bread, read magazines, watch movies and take naps.

That was before I started my current full-time day job away from home.

Now Sunday’s are more about chilling than ever.

And the rest of the week is all about fast, light, easy mid-week meals.

Fast and easy are the operative words here.

Which leads me to this blog, my writing, recipe development and book writing.

There is only so much time in a week. (And I refuse to get out of bed before five am to do anything unless it involves the bathroom. Funny how I don’t mind getting out of bed at five-oh-five though.)

Everyone has his or her limits. Maybe you’ll  share one of yours in the comment section.

But despite my early bird syndrome, I am still working out the kinks in my back-to-work schedule after just a few weeks.

Not to segue too far away from my vinaigrette story, I want to mention how I’d like to get back to this blog, and also want to mention why I haven’t posted on a regular basis.

I read something the other day on a FB friends blog, Laz Cooks, and wondered how in the world he got inside my head.

In Laz’s post, he pondered the whole blogging thing and why he almost stopped blogging.

This is something most bloggers can relate to-this blogger-burn-out thing.

Of course if your blog is your business, then you’re on a different level.

My blog, A Cook Writes, is all about the journey. Yes, it’s about t the business of writing too. But I don’t make money on my blog. I don’t sell ads. Hell, I barely get commenter’s. I don’t know my stats and I don’t really care. I stopped caring what people think about me a long time ago. Unless it has to do with my family-then look out.

A Cook Writes is about just what it says..

I cook and I write.

I don’t write about every meal, although I think I should mention an exceptionally delicious meal I whipped up the other day-seared scallops with steamed broccoli, jasmine rice and honey-chile-ponzu orange sections.

Seafood Lady: your source for sustainable seafood recipes and news

The point is, there are too many meals. I don’t post all on this blog and I don’t write every recipe down.

Who does?

You?

Okay, I let a little jealousy slip in there for a nano second. Bravo for you. I mean that.

Anyway, the other stuff of blogging-the recipe developing, writing, waiting for the perfect light, waiting for the comments (or not), replying to those comments. Following other blogs, crafting clever titles, (although notice I took the kindergarten approach with this blog-ahem-single subject titles). Hee hee.

There’s the maintenance-factor, too. Updating plugins, and widgets. Editing photos-Lord, I spend a lot of time with my photos.

And this is why lately, I spend less time here at A Cook Writes.

Not because I don’t want to.

It’s a combination of things.

I certainly don’t plan to stop cooking or writing.

***

Last night I made a Pear & Lobster Salad with Pear & Tarragon Champagne Vinaigrette.

I committed the cardinal sin of food blogging-I didn’t take a single photo. Not even with my iPhone.

But that’s what I’m talking about. I don’t always remember to photograph the food, or update my blog.

(Is it middle-age, this not remembering? Or is it just me trying to figure out how to manage my time?)

As mid-week meals go these days, this meal was prepared in stages.

I prepped the salad the night before. Tore red leaf lettuce, microwaved broccoli florets for one minute, then blanched them in ice water, cut carrots sticks, de-podded (is that a word?) the steamed edamame I made the day before. Chopped a green onion, covered it all with wet paper towels (to keep it moist), then plastic wrap and put the bowl of salad in the refrigerator.

The next morning I steamed the lobster tails at 5:30 a.m. (yep, it’s true, just after the first sip of hot, steaming black coffee baby.)

Elvis, said, “I’ll have mine with two eggs over medium,” as he walked out the door with Reagan for the morning constitution around the cul-de-sac.

Fat chance that one.

After a seven-minute steam and a five-minute ice bath, my lobster tails were done, wrapped in plastic, and placed in the fridge next to the salad.

That same evening, I wrote the recipe for the Pear & Tarragon Champagne Vinaigrette on my iPad as I whisked the ingredients into a smooth, delightful dressing.

After I poured a glass of Chateau St. Michelle Cab Sav.

Um, yes, red wine and lobster go together.

I removed the lobster meat from their shells (and saved the shells in my zip-lock freezer bag to make fish stock for another day) and then microwaved the meat for a minute (to remove the chill). Then I chopped the meat into chunks. I melted a tablespoon of butter to drizzle on the meat.

Next up, a fresh pear cut into chunks, then tossed on the salad.

I drizzled the Pear & Tarragon Champagne Vinaigrette over the greens.

Chopped lobster plopped on top.

Fast and easy.

Cause Sunday is right around the corner.

Check back for a storyline here and a recipe there.

I’m busy, but not gone.

Psst…if you love to eat seafood and want more easy-to-prepare recipe ideas, head over to Seafood Lady and don’t forget to leave a note to let me know you were there.

Pear & Tarragon Champagne Vinaigrette

Cook notes: To save more time, make the vinaigrette ahead, but don’t add the oil until you’re ready to serve. Dress the salad with the vinaigrette before you top the greens with the lobster meat.

  • 4 tablespoons of pear simple syrup, or juice from a can of pear
  • 1 tablespoon of champagne vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • Dash Kosher salt
  • Dash black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil + or – for taste
  • A handful of chopped toasted pecans (optional)

Whisk all ingredients except the oil and nuts.

Just before serving, drizzle the oil in as you whisk to create a smooth emulsion.

Add the nuts to the vinaigrette and stir to coat.

Spoon nuts and vinaigrette over salad . Top with lobster, (or chicken, salmon or shrimp).

Serve immediately.

Appetite required.

Potatoes

After I wrote my recipe for Potato, White Bean & Rosemary Soup, I thought about writing an enticing, clever lede.

I realized quickly this was not an easy task.

Potato & White Bean SoupI mean, what could I say about potatoes that hasn’t been said before? And what do I really know about potatoes? Other than the fact that I love to eat them, whether French-fried, baked, mashed, roasted, baked in casseroles and simmered in soups, a potato is satisfying and versatile.

One thing I know: eating potatoes equals comfort.

Usually the potato is not the star of the plate, but rather the sideshow. Even in my recipe, I added white beans and rosemary, not content to let the spud shine.

To see if I could uncover a few potato facts worth a lede, I explored the history of the potato. I turned to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food (an encyclopedia of sorts).

The entry for “potato” filled three plus pages.

No worries-I won’t bore you will all the deets, but instead will share a few cool facts.

Like cheese, fats and oils, fish, maize, noodles, onions, pig, and other staples, potatoes are an important core food in most parts of the world. No surprise there, right?

But according the Davidson’s Companion, the wild potato has its roots in Chile around 11,000 BC and the cultivated potato around 5,000 BC, not Ireland.

Um. Insert eye roll and hot, creeping heat to my cheeks and ears. I always associated my relationship to potatoes as somewhat of a romantic notion being of Irish descent and all. Potatoes were like a birthright of sorts. So I thought potatoes originated in Ireland. More eye roll. And I call myself a food writer? Please.

I digress.

  • Ireland established it roots with the potato during the 16th century . Of course who doesn’t know about the Great Potato Famine of 1845 when one-third of Ireland’s population relied exclusively on the potato for its sustenance?
  • The more I uncover, the more I can’t stop digging. Is that geeky or what?
  • The layer under the skin of the potato, only millimeters thick, has the most nutrition and flavor. I knew that.
  • There are  over 4,000 varieties of potatoes, according to Wikipedia, and John Roach in “Saving The Potato in its Andean Roots,” National Geographic, 2002.
  • White, orange, red, yellow, blue, coin-sized, fingerlings, round, gnarly, or smooth, each potato is unique.
  • Digging a little deeper (I couldn’t resist) each variety has its own particular culinary attribute. Now we’re getting somewhere.
  • The most important distinction about a potato for a cook is to know is if the potato is waxy, starchy (floury), or all-purpose.

Here are a few know-your-potato tips (paraphrased from food writer Megan J. Headly):

  • Use waxy types (red-skinned and fingerlings) for soups, salads, roasted, gallates, pizza, or scalloped potatoes.
  • Use floury, or starchy potatoes (russets and sweets) for mashed dishes-but not too much or they’ll turn gluey, baking or frying.
  • Use all-purpose (the work horse and default potato-Yukon Gold, blue and purple,) for all other purposes.

The chemical composition of the potato determines it suitability to certain cooking techniques. But no worries, I won’t get into that here.

Before we explore more, yes, there is more cool potato stuff to discuss! Here is a great one-minute video about buying and storing potatoes from Potatoes…Goodness Unearthed.

M. F. K. Fisher, American writer of food, travel and memoir, wrote about the how, what, and why of the potato.

  • What do you smell for instance when potatoes are baking?
  • What’s happening in the kitchen? Is It chaotic, or do you watch I Love Lucy re-runs while you’re mashing your spuds?
  • Why are you making scalloped potatoes? (a labor of love if I ever knew one) For Easter brunch or your twenty-year wedding anniversary?

Growing up, we ate diced, peeled potatoes boiled with cabbage and a ham bone for flavor. In the 70s-a time of boxed-food and much leaner times for my family, we ate dehydrated potatoes reconstructed with skim milk and water, then topped with spicy chili. And McDonald’s French fries were my absolute favorite teenage snack.

Other things to consider according to Fischer. How are your potatoes grown? Under duress, in organic soil, a vertical cage, in your backyard or a cultivated farm?

Potatoes need room to grow, this much I know. I watched sweet potatoes takeover a  4’ x 12’ garden plot and the surrounding area of a community garden in Orlando, Florida a few years ago. (Not mine, btw.)

You probably have your own memories of potatoes, the how, when and why you eat them.

Maybe you’re vegetarian and the potato gets the leading part on your plate.

Nutritionally speaking, potatoes are high in Vitamins C and B-6, low in fat, cholesterol, and are a good source of protein, potassium, and iron.

What’s not to love?

On another note, we can’t forget Mr. Potato Head, the Hasbro 50s toy, whose official birthday is May 1, 1952 for you toy history geeks. Here’s a site dedicated to Mr. Potato Head history, humor and more.

I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like to eat potatoes. I will go as far to say I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like to eat potato soup. I’m not considering the cold variety-vichyssoise, just the hot, slurp-to-the-last-drop variety. Potato soup is one of those foods that screams comfort, history, memories, family, warmth and every-day-happiness.

In my Potato, White Bean & Rosemary Soup recipe, I added white beans and rosemary to create a I-feel like-I’m-on-vacation potato soup. Cause you know how food always tastes better when you’re on vacation?

That’s how I liken this soup-for those days when you want just a dash more texture, flavor, and pizzazz whether you’re at the beach, skiing the Andes, or hanging with your family and friends in the ‘hood.

Appetite required.

Vacation optional.

Potato & White Bean SoupPotato, White Bean & Rosemary Soup

Ingredients
  • 2 slices bacon, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1 can white northern white beans, rinsed and drained
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 5 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • ½ cup cream, plus several tablespoons
  • 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
  • ½ teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
Directions
  • In a medium pot, add potatoes and fill with water to cover an inch over the top. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium with a vented lid and cook, about ten to twelve minutes, or until for tender.
  • While the potatoes are cooking, in a large stock pot, brown bacon over medium heat, about five minutes.
  • Add olive oil and onion. Stir and cook about five minutes, careful not to brown onion, reduce heat to medium low if necessary.
  • Add chicken stock and white beans. Stir.
  • Remove half of the potatoes with a spider strainer and place in the soup pot. Reduce heat to medium low.
  • Drain the remaining potatoes.
  • In the same pot, add the cream, using an immersion blender, (or transfer to a food processor), whip potatoes and cream on high to purée to a smooth silky texture. (Thank you April Bloomfield for this technique.)
  • Add the creamed potatoes to the soup. Stir.
  • Add chopped rosemary, ¼ teaspoon salt and black pepper.
  • Stir and remove from heat.
  • Taste and adjust with salt if desired.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Cover and refrigerate any unused soup for up to one week.

Thanks for stopping by,

Maureen

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Beef & Fennel Balls

Do you see yourself being the perfect host for your annual Christmas party?

One who offers sumptuous appetizers and decadent desserts, while wearing beautiful clothes and a you-just-came-from-the-salon hairstyle?

Beef & Fennel BallsIf you are already that person, then go ahead, you can click away from this page.

If you’re not, you’re like many people-frazzled with holiday preparations. You’re over-worked, over-committed, and over the-entire-holiday-season-has-to-be-perfect.

You want a festive, holiday party that is fun and doesn’t require a lot of time. Except for your hair-you should never skimp on your hair-it’s what everyone notices first anyway. (This is not a science-based statement, just an I’m over-fifty thought process.)

How would you like one appetizer idea that people will rave over? One that is easy to make and tastes like comfort on the over-sized couch with your best friend?

Since you’re still here, (thanks, btw), I’m going to show you how to make that one appetizer-the one everyone will love appetizer, the one you didn’t make enough of appetizer (well, except your vegan friends-this one is not for them).

Cause you should never have left-over appetizers.

With my Beef & Fennel Balls, you will dazzle your family and friends at your holiday party, or the next football get-together, or it’s mid-week and you don’t feel like making dinner appetizer.

Ready?

Beef & Fennel Balls

Yield 12 balls

This appetizer is a variation on the old sausage ball stand-by, meaning you will need a little dry Biscuit mix (not an endorsement) and cheese. Since you’re still reading, let me just mention, there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with making sausage balls, I just felt the need to step out of my comfort zone. I made Beef & Fennel Balls on a whim, then thought they looked whimsical with the Christmas colors. Enough about me, let’s make some Beef & Fennel Balls, shall we?

Cook’s notes: Make your beef balls small, about the size of a quarter. You’ll want to pop the whole appetizer in your mouth, and once you add the tomato, pickle, and sour dough bread, you’ll have a mouthful.

Beef & Fennel BallsPre heat oven to 350 degrees

Ingredients

  • ½ pound ground beef
  • ¼ cup Biscuit mix, more or less depending how “bready” you like your balls
  • ½ cup shredded cheese (I used a pre-shredded three-blend mix)
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  • ¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • Mayonnaise or mustard
  • Sour dough bread, thinly sliced into (12) 1” x1” squares, or however many balls you make
  • Dill pickles, sliced ¼ thick, sub sweet or butter if you refer, they’re your balls
  • Grape tomatoes, sliced horizontally
  • Frill toothpicks (optional on the frill)

Directions

  • Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place a flat rack on the baking sheet.
  • In a medium bowl, combine beef, Biscuit mix, cheese, fennel, salt, and pepper.
  • Mix with hands to combine.
  • Form mixture into 12 balls, again, about the size of a quarter.
  • Place on rack and bake in the center of the oven for fifteen minutes or until they reach an internal temperature of 155 degrees, more or less depending on the size of your balls.
  • While the balls are in the oven, arrange the bread squares on the tray, smear the top with mayonnaise and or mustard. If you hail from Pittsburgh, I know you want to use ketchup on your balls, so go ahead, smear some Heinz 57 on the bread.
  • When the balls are done, remove them from the oven and place one ball each on the bread squares immediately. Top with pickle slices and tomatoes, alternating the pickles and tomatoes to give a festive holiday look.
  • Slide a frilled toothpick through the center and serve. Watch them disappear.
Appetite required.
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NaNoWriMo (again)

I did it. I’m finished. Done. However you want to say it.

Of course now the hard work begins.

The rewriting.

Not that writing fifty thousand words in thirty days isn’t hard. It is. Especially in November. There’s Thanksgiving, and my anniversary, which this year coincided with the feast of the big bird day.

I’m proud of me. And I’m digging my story. (Spoiler: the love interest in the story is a successful caterer-I couldn’t resist adding the food element.)

But I’m relieved to get back to my regular schedule: cooking, eating, and writing. Also, Center Street Writers’ Guild workshop begins this Tuesday (I registered five writers), and if all goes according to plan, my weekly food column in the local newspaper, Main Street News, will start up again this month.

But first, here’s a little taste of what I’ve been up to…

Thornton Park: A Thriller

Synopsis:

Detective Delgado, a burned-out, widowed, homicide detective, gets the case of his career, a serial killer who is slashing homeless men in a historic neighborhood, three months before his retirement.

When Delgado’s love interest, single, successful catering extraordinaire, Kristina Thomas, is hospitalized from a burglary and attempt on her life, Delgado discovers the killer is his nemesis, Zakhar Wolfthal, Special Ops Army Ranger.

Before Delgado can find and stop Zakhar, bodies pile up and history repeats itself in this harrowing tale of betrayal, lust, and murder.

Excerpt:

It was illegal to be in the city park after dark.

Zakhar Wolfthal ignored the posted signs and entered the park on the North-West side on a well-worn footpath where the grass had been beaten down. There were seven paved entrances into the park, but several ways to come and go without being seen. He stepped on the one-mile pedestrian walkway that circled the lake. He’d been coming here for the last year during the day and at night.

He used this entrance at night.

During the day, he sat on one of the wooden benches after he finished his shift, to read a book, or the weekly rag, while he watched walkers and their dogs, young mothers and their baby-strollers, joggers and tourists who’d bring bread from the nearby restaurants to feed the swans, ducks and pigeons. He watched the homeless men and women with an interest bordered on obsessed-the men and women who wandered aimlessly, mumbling to themselves; some played checkers, or read.

Thanks for stopping by,

M

NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month.

50,000 words. 30 days.

I jumped in this year to rewrite my first draft thriller.

In “Thornton Park,” Delgado, a middle-aged, burned-out homicide detective, three months from retirement to the beach to fish and find love, works to solve a serial slasher, his nemesis, Zakhar, fellow Army sniper from Gulf War I. When Delgado gets close to uncovering the truth, Zakhar pushes back and Delgado battles for his life and love in this fast-paced, harrowing story.

Okay-my blurb needs work, but that’s why I’m working on it. Don’t judge.

This is my work space.

Yup, clutter works for me during this month of wordy madness.

Maureen C. Berry's deskToday marks the day before the NaNo (as its often called-we’re so busy writing we have to shorten things where we can) halfway mark. My word count so far today: 20,718. 

2,620 words behind the 23,338 I need to stay on track.

29, 282 words to go.

NaNoWriMo takes logophiles and prodigitalians to a whole different level (that’s the Neiman-Marcus version for those who love words and numbers.)

With an average of 1,667 words per day, one can write a short novel, or the beginning of a novel in a month. I did my first NaNo challenge in 2011. Same story line. Well, almost. I changed the beginning, added a character, and deleted a few characters. I use song titles from some of my favorite musicians for chapter headings: Cuts Like A Knife Bryan Adams, Diamonds and Pearls Prince, Give Me Shelter Rolling Stones.

While I write my NaNo, cooking and photographing food is on the back burner.

Because I also have distractions.

Not the nine-to-five, Monday through Friday work for the corporate machine variety, or the four days on, three days off twelve-hour shift variety.

I’m talking the four-legged variety.

ReaganReagan, (who is seven going on six months), barks at the wind, the deer, turkeys, and squirrels, the sound of the washing machine and dryer, and (sadly) the birds when they fly into the windows. And he needs walks. Lots of walks.

Wire fox terrier anyone?

***

In between writing and dog walking, I still have to eat.

This is not develop a recipe, take a few photographs, and blog about it eating. NaNo-eating is yogurt and toast for breakfast, followed by copious amounts of coffee. Then cottage cheese or sliced turkey for lunch, or a chocolate coffee and biscotti at the local coffee shop, Big City Market. Mid-afternoon I reach for crunchy foods, like crackers or pretzels, followed by an orange or banana for sugar and more carbs, then more coffee. For dinner, I reheat soup, toss a salad, order cheese pizza or make pesto pasta for a quick, easy meal.

Late in the day when my back and butt can’t take anymore strain, I pour a glass of wine to unwind, nibble of some cheese, a handful of nuts and more wine. Cause at 3 a.m. I’ll wake to plot Delgado’s next move, or Zakhar’s next victim.

I miss cooking and blogging (which is why I had to post-plus I needed a break from my thriller.) Don’t get me wrong, I made chicken vegetable soup this month, roasted a whole chicken a la Julia Child, even made a fancy sit down with halibut and lobster tail.

Today for instance, to keep my knife skills sharp, (or do something other than reach in the fridge for a quick bite), I placed a butternut squash and a pomegranate on my cutting board. Lord knows what I’ll do with them.

I’m thinking about it though.

I’m thinking roasted squash for a purée or maybe squash muffins.

Eventually I’ll pick apart the pomegranate so I can top my yogurt and cereal in the mornings. Maybe I’ll crush a few arils for a pomegranate vinaigrette.

Or maybe I’ll just think about it.

Today I had to feed Oscar, my sour dough bread starter, which will force me into the kitchen later today and then tomorrow. But that’s a good thing.

It’s not all writing, dog walking and eating during NaNoWriMo. I take daily walks and collect leaves, too.

Kentucky Fall leaves 2013I found Elmore Leonard’s The Moonshine Wars, a yellowed 1969 paperback, for $.25 at the public library. I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. Lee Child’s The Affair, and Lisa Unger’s Darkness, My Old Friend.

I’m in the middle of a memoir class with Gotham Writers’ (more reading and writing). In conjunction with the Hopkins County Public Library, I founded Center Street Writers’ Guild, a free ten-week writing/critique workshop (five writers enrolled so far).

While I miss the satisfaction of blogging-working with food and creating pretty photographs-I’m okay, cause like I mentioned earlier, it is almost halfway to NaNo!

In fact, 10 hours and thirty-five minutes to go.

What are your eating habits during NaNo? Are you food blogging while you NaNo? Do tell. And while you’re here, sign up for my weekly posts to be delivered to your inbox.
Thanks for stopping by,
M

Bread

Three days of bread making

Day one

9:00 a.m.

Oscar 8 a.m.Oscar is out of the refrigerator and on the counter.

If I prod him every hour, he should be fully alive and ready by six.

Ready for what?

Kneading, of course.

Yes. Oscar is my sour dough bread starter.

When Ebie gave me my very first bread starter last week, (it might be worth mentioning-I never had a bread starter in my fifty-two years of life), I was afraid. Yes. Afraid. Afraid I fuck it up. “It” being the bread-making process.

Ebie, the eighty-five year old matriarch of the Community Supported Agriculture, Twin Maples Organics-the only organic garden within hundreds of miles of my home-of which I am a basil-picking, weed-pulling, basket-sharing member-bestowed upon me, then named my sour dough bread starter, Oscar.

Recipe for sour dough breadEbie even gave me a photocopy of her recipes.

Disclaimer: I’m a bread-making virgin. And I’m obsessed with making bread. Chalk it up to life in a tiny, rural town without a good bakery around for hundreds of miles and my wish to live a simple, sustainable lifestyle.

I’m out of my comfort zone with Oscar, bread flour, corn oil, measuring spoons and just the right temperature to grow Oscar.

I know. It’s just yeast, air and flour. What could go wrong?

If you’re a bread-making virgin, too, then I strongly suggest you stay off Google and YouTube. There is just way too much information out there.

“Just remember to feed Oscar,” Ebie said as she handed me the mason jar with the gunky-beige-looking sour dough bread starter.

Feed it?

Yup, this is alien territory for me.

11:00 a.m.

Oscar 11 amI have now checked on Oscar’s growth five times in the last two hours.

2:00 p.m.

Oscar 2 pmThere is a slight bubbling on the top of Oscar, as if I placed a straw in the mix and blew air.

It’s then EEK! I remember I’m supposed to stir Oscar, and I fret a bit about my lack of attention. I have four or more hours to go. Small swarms of butterflies have taken up residence in my stomach.

“What are you taking pictures of?” Elvis asks as he wanders through the kitchen.

“Oscar,” I say as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

BeetsI give Oscar a vigorous stir and go back to scrubbing my turnips and beets.
4:00 p.m.

Oscar is looking good, as far as I can tell. But I give him another brisk stir before we leave for the movie theater.

And yes, my internal anxiety has ratcheted-up a few knots because I won’t be here for several hours to check on Oscar. But I will chill and enjoy the movie “Gravity” with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and if Elvis wants to go for a cocktail after (and I don’t mean on our back patio), I will go, sip my wine, and try not to talk about Oscar, but rather the movie.

7:00 p.m.

The movie was good and we opted for cocktails on the back patio.

Whew.

Knead five minutes, or until no longer gummy, I read from my photocopied recipe instructions. I sip my cab sav a little too eagerly, me thinks.

“I’ll bet you didn’t think I had it in me,” I said to Elvis as he walked through the kitchen.

“I’ll bet you didn’t think you had it in you,” he said.

True that.

Of course, I’m only working towards the end of the first day. Oscar must rise overnight and then rise again tomorrow before I bake his fat doughy blob.

7:20 p.m.

Oscar 7 pmOscar is now sitting, basked in oil, in a pink plastic bowl, covered with parchment paper, until morning.

Oscar (insert drum roll) is now in the second stage of the bread-making Gods.

I’m going to sear a few chicken breasts and pour another glass of wine.

Day 2

8:00 a.m.

Oscar has risen 8 amOcsar has risen!

It’s the small stuff, right?

8:30 a.m.

The second step of Bread Making 101 is the easiest. Since Oscar and the chemistry Gods did their thing, I only had to split Oscar in three parts, oil, place in bowls, cover with parchment and let rise again (6 to 9 hours or until more than double) according to my recipe directions.

This would be a great time to mention equipment. I hail from a relatively well-stocked kitchen, but bread making (with my recipe) requires three bowls, three baking pans, a rolling-pin, if you want to make cinnamon rolls with one of the third, (umm, hello), and one of those little flat plastic bread splitters. I’m sure there’s a name for that tool and after I Google it, I’ll have it. But for now, and it seems funny, but years ago when I brokered Pillsbury dry products (yes I did a bit of baking with boxed mixes), I gave away those little flat plastic tools as swag. Funny thing is most people didn’t get too excited about that little white plastic thingy. They wanted other kitchen tools-any other kitchen tool in fact.

Thing is-you can’t have enough bowls.

I digress.

3:00 p.m.

I’m approaching the baking hour. Oscar is rising nicely now in three separate blobs. I’m wondering if I should carve a “B” into the top of the loaf, or will puncturing the unbaked break cause it to fall? That I am thinking this surely is enough reasoning to not so, but I have a little rebel streak in me. It is also at this time I realize I need to bake these three loaves, and they are in nestled in pink plastic bowls, not baking pans!

I also realized if I was going to bake cinnamon buns, I should have rolled out the dough at 8:00 a.m. filled with butter, sugar and cinnamon, then let rise another 6 to 9 hours.

Sigh…

3:15 p.m.

My three Oscars are in cake and pie tins. So I’ll have round artisanal loaves, not regular bread shaped loaves. I think I’ll go for the “B.”

Now I’m wondering where will I get bags to store my round-shaped bread?

I thought this would simplify my life?

5:00 p.m.

Oscar slashed and bakedI slashed the bread tops after all.

I baked all three loaves for thirty-five minutes at 350 degrees, then brushed the tops with butter (as per the directions). I let them rest while I snap a few photos, not terribly happy about the lack of color on the crust, but thrilled with the yeasty smell of fresh-baked bread that takes me back to the little butter cream-colored walls of the kitchen of my youth.

Who needs perfectly browned crust anyway?

5:40 p.m.

I sliced into the smallest loaf. A sensation like the first day of class jitters floods through my body. Then warm, dense and very sour dough-tasting bread pops in my mouth like a little celebration. I wanted to slather my first slice with roasted chestnut butter, but I forgot to remove it from the fridge, so instead I slather my first slice of Oscar with a little soft butter.

I’m happy like a kid on Christmas day.

8:00 pm.

Two loaves are wrapped and in the freezer. That smaller loaf? I’ll toast a thick slice in the morning, spread my homemade roasted chestnut butter on it and then let you know.

Day 3

10:00 a.m.

Roasted chestnut puree butterSo how is my toasted sour dough bread with roasted chestnut butter?

ADDICTING & DANGEROUS!

And best eaten in small quantities (so Elvis gets to try Oscar too).

Lucky for me I split and fed Oscar last week. Tomorrow I’ll feed Oscar again then bake another three loaves next week.

Now I will take a walk. A brisk walk.

Bread making 101 notes and thoughts: Should I rise the bread in the oven, not on the counter? Or maybe in the bedroom where the temperature is ambient and warm? Note to self: remember to make the cinnamon buns before the second rise and place the loaves in the baking pans for the second rise. Add fresh rosemary, honey instead of sugar and kosher or Maldon salt. Knead less, or more. Bake at higher temperature for a browned crust? Oil the crust before baking?

Since I initially wrote this post, I consulted FB for advice (thank you Butter Wilde and Laura Lafata), Ebie, and learned to trust myself, and yes, the simple process of baking bread.

A few things I learned:

  • Blast the bread at 425 until the crust browns (about 12-15 minutes), then reduce the heat to finish baking.
  • Slow and cool is better than fast and warm (regarding the rise of the bread).
  • Rosemary & Maldon salt bread is amazing!
  • Whole wheat cinnamon buns, not so amazing.
  • Practice, practice, practice.
  • Splitting, feeding, and sharing Oscar is the greatest gift.
What about you? Got a bread-making tip or disaster? Don’t hold back, please. I’m still learning. In fact, Oscar did not rise this morning and I have no idea what I did or did not do.
Sigh…
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