Saturday morning found my thumbing through the KAF Whole Grain Baking cookbook, itching to try something new. The “breakfast” section of that book has never disappointed me. I was feeling particularly southern, after spending a few days introducing a friend to the Deep South, so I followed my instincts and started melting butter for the cornmeal waffles. Ultimately, I have to say that for the “breakfast foods that have the delicious essence of cornbread, but in a different form, bewildering the palate and charming the soul” category, the cornmeal pancakes from the same book take the blue ribbon. But that’s a pretty great category, all things considered, and there’s no shame in second place. Also, this recipe is less sweet than the pancakes and the waffle approach gives a nice crisp crust, so some might describe it as the platonic ideal of southern cornbread reworked for breakfast.
On New Year’s Day, I made risotto for my adopted family–several of whom had never had risotto–and I’m proud to say that this is the best I’ve ever done with the dish. (The stakes were high. I had steely-eyed focus.) Normally, I over-stir, or under-water, or both, and the result is a tasty sludge. And I’m okay with that, until the once or twice a year I have risotto milanese made by my stepfather, the North Italian chef. He ladles it onto the plates with the ease of instinct and of many years of practice, golden with saffron and perfectly all’onda. With that memory firmly fixed in my mind’s eye, I stirred less than I normally do, and added one more ladle of liquid than I normally would. The result was not, I admit, that legendary “ripple;” but it was the closest I’ve gotten yet.
And now onto today’s Self-Indulgent Digression (SID?): those pink chunks? Country ham. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe I opened for reference called for “pancetta, proscuitto, or country ham.” The first two were out of the question in a small southern town. However, being in a small southern town after the holidays, there were literally pounds of country ham in the fridge. It tickles me pink when the gourmet and the backwoods cross paths. Like how Paul Bocuse and the bayou-dwelling Cajuns can agree on boudin.
Dear Martha Stewart Baking Handbook gingerbread cookie recipe,
I just wanted to say how sorry I am about last Christmas. I strayed, and it was wrong. I didn’t think I was ready to be tied down to one gingerbread recipe. I let myself get led astray by the description in the ATK book. At the time…I thought a less finicky dough was what I wanted. But now I understand how great we had it. I promise I will never again leave you for another gingerbread contender.
When I flagged this recipe, I was in possession of three Meyer lemons and the remains of a Sam’s Club 3 lb. bag of fresh cranberries. Fast forward through a few busy weeks and I have no Meyer lemons, but I still need to use up the cranberries I bought before Thanksgiving, because I don’t know if they can hang on until after Christmas. (Don’t judge me. I’m frugal.)
As it turned out, I didn’t have any lemons at all, and my heavy cream had turned into malodorous sludge. So I used an orange, and milk, and extra butter, and who’s to say these are bad things? I do continue to have that “things not turning brown enough in the oven” problem, even with a generous egg wash.
This post of the KAF blog came at exactly the right time. Between the holiday parties and the proposal writing pick-me-ups, I have very nearly OD’ed on Christmas sweets. So when I read, “There’s nothing like the savory/smooth flavor of cheese to cut through empty carbs, and soothe the sugar-sated heart,” my mouth started watering and I made it a few hours later.
Verdict: this is exactly what I needed. The flavor was great last night and even better this morning. Mine didn’t get all golden brown on top, though. I seem to have that problem a lot…maybe I need to keep a closer eye on my oven thermometer?
Tonight’s dinner: lentil soup and pork medallions with a pan sauce. And it only took me 2.5 hours!
Before you start to question my cooking skills (or ask me if I had some sort of kitchen-on-fire mishap), allow me to explain. The last few weeks have been a merry-go-round of “work work work,” “sick,” “Christmas party!” and “hungover.” Today I started wrapping up a major project, and to celebrate, I came home early (5!) and took it slow in the kitchen. I did a full mise, right down to measuring out spices–I think I used every prep bowl I own. And by “prep bowls” I mean old Chobani yogurt cups, because I am elegant like that. I did all the dishes before the soup even came to a simmer. And then I sat down and ate it–slowly–by candlelight while reading a Bugialli book I bummed off my stepfather forever ago.
Agh, I almost forgot to tell you about the soup! It’s just that every Cook’s Illustrated soup I’ve made has been so good that I bore myself saying it yet again. Here’s what you need to know: it’s every bit as good as you’d imagine it to be. Maybe even more. And that’s saying a lot. The cooksillustrated.com membership I bought has been one of the best kitchen-related investments I’ve ever made.
I’m including a picture of the pan sauce as well, because pan sauces have been the Road Runner to my Wile E. Cayote for some time. So when I actually pull it off, I feel like dancing around the kitchen. Allow me my small victories, please. This was also a CI recipe, or more accurately, two or three CI recipes spliced together. Just know that there were apples and onions, and they made me remember why a pan sauce is worth the all darn trouble anyway.
First of all: I’m really terrible at this “blogging” business. I don’t actually have any readers at this point, do I?
Okay, thought so. But I have excuses! First, I went to Seattle for the summer. I lived in an efficiency downtown, in the shadow of the Space Needle, with a two-burner hotplate and a couple dozen fantastic restaurants within a fifteen-minute walk. Then I came home; to a new home, in fact–a charming old house downtown that my roommates found while I was gone. I also came home to my lab, which I missed very much after three months of simulations. And I quickly realized that 10-12 hour work days plus race/tri training are incompatible with my hell-for-leather pursuit of domestic self-sufficiency. I had to pick a hobby. I picked cooking.
The long and short of it: I love my job, I haven’t touched my fabric stash in eight months, and this blog will continue will crappy iPhone photos only (because getting pictures off my camera is just not happening).
Now that that’s out of the way, may I wax self-congratulatory for a moment?
Oh, right. I guess that’s a yes. So, that two-burner hotplate? It taught me how to cook without a recipe. Or, more accurately, it showed me that I don’t need them like I used to. I would pick up something beautiful at Pike Place Market or Whole Foods and let it guide me to its best use. At first it was really difficult, until I realized that it wasn’t. I’ve finally cooked enough meals to have an internal database of flavors and methods, of ingredients and ideas, that I can mix and match according to whim or weather. It took me a long time to get to this point; but when you consider I’ve only been cooking for seven years (not twenty-five), and only got serious in the last three, I think I’m making fair progress.
The whole summer was like that. I came back different, but not because I changed. I came back different because I realized I’ve changed. I’ve grown so much since I left college, and I think I’m making fair progress here too–fair progress towards the person I want to be. And I don’t think I would have understood how far I’ve come, in my kitchen or in my life, if I hadn’t skipped out on both of them for a while.