posts tagged with 'cooking'

taste the smoke

One of my favorite things about cooking on the fire is the leftovers. A couple years ago when we brought some leftover chili back from a camping trip I was delighted to find that, when reheated, it had a wonderfully smoky flavor that totally complemented the other tastes in the recipe. (I hadn't noticed the day we cooked it; then, everything was smoky.) Now that we have our own backyard fire that we use all the time we get to enjoy that smoky goodness much more often, and on purpose. Like the zucchini I grilled yesterday.

Last night we cooked some chicken and a little steak, and I also through some slices of summer squash on the grill. They were delicious, but since I was the only one who ate any there was lots left over. For breakfast this morning I chopped some up and put them in an omelet that Harvey and I shared; he was suspicious ("what are these green things?!") but when he tried one he agreed that they had practically no vegetable taste at all. Just smoke. Then this evening I made my half of the pizza with mushrooms and more of the zucchini, and feta cheese. So powerful was that quarter cup of chopped squash that Lijah almost keeled over from the smell when he came into the house just after the pizza came out of the oven. He didn't like it; to me it was just perfect. Tasted good too.

Who knows what all those smoke particles are doing to our system—probably cancerous or something. But right now, I'm going to say it's worth it!

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independence from the stove

We celebrated the Fourth of July in our traditional fashion today, with a full day at the fair in Concord. More about that later. But the fun didn't end when we got home—after an hour or so indoors in front of the fan to recover, we cooked hot dogs on the fire, and then smores. It was our second smores evening just in the past week, never mind all the other times we've made them this year, which got me to wondering... how did we become a household where such things are possible?! Clearly, building the fireplace helped.. but even before that we were toasting marshmallows over a wood fire in the kettle grill. Maybe it's just that we like being outside, and there's no finer outdoor dessert than smores?

All round, outdoor cooking is the best. Obviously when it's as hot as this it's great not to have to heat up the house; in weather like this even the vacuum cleaner feels like it's pumping out an unbearable amount of hot air, to say nothing of the stove or the oven. But the food is tastier too over the fire. The other day I made beans and as leftovers their noticeably more delicious than stovetop beans—delightfully smoky. I also made steak and peppers for fajitas, which was fine, and tortillas, which I felt was pretty impressive (they didn't taste particularly smoky, but I still think rolling them and cooking them outside was pretty cool). Today Leah—who doesn't eat hot dogs—grilled tofu and zucchini, stir-fried ground turkey, and made rice all over the fire. I didn't taste any of that, but I guarantee it was all wonderful. And of course fire-cooked marshmallows are infinitely superior to those prepared any other way. I hear some people even eat them raw! Not us, not when there's a fire going!

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I think I can feel a little satisfied with myself

There's so much to do in the summer. With our sort of camp, I find myself with a house full of kids all day Monday and Tuesday, which is lovely—but it doesn't leave much time to take care of the house and yard. Still, I don't think I did too badly yesterday. Besides showing the kids—ours and the two visitors—a good time, I managed a little weeding, baked bread, made pickles, and made a cake. It helps that all five kids are wonderful human beings and interacted peacefully for the seven or eight hours they were together. They also made some money selling candy and cycled around 10 miles round trip, to and from the Farmers Market in Lexington. So they didn't do too badly either!

two quarts of pickles on the porch railing

pickles

The cake came out good too: just the thing to end our long busy day, served on our friends' back porch as it started to get dark (you see why all three boys are still sound asleep well after the sun came up this morning!). I made up the recipe; it's based on this chocolate cake, which I've made a few times and which revealed to me that buttermilk and baking powder are magic for making home-made cakes rise almost like ones from a mix. We have lots of blueberries—four of the five kids here yesterday helped pick them last week—so I decided on a blueberry variant.

blueberry cake in the front yard

the cake, pausing on the way to the car

Here's the recipe.

Blueberry Cake

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a bundt pan with plenty of butter. In a large bowl, combine

2 3/4 c. all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4th tsp. salt
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg

In the stand mixer, mix at medium speed

3/4 c. butter, softened
1 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar

Increase speed to high and beat for five minutes, until pale and fluffy. Add one at a time, beating at medium speed after each one

3 large eggs

At medium speed beat in

2 tsp. vanilla extract
zest of one lemon

Mixing at low speed, add the flour mixture in three parts alternating with two parts of

1 1/2 c. buttermilk

Fold in

1 1/2 c. blueberries

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes.

For the glaze, combine in a medium bowl

1/3 c. melted butter
2 1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Whisk until smooth and pour slowly over the cake, letting a layer dry before adding more on top (I didn't have time to maage that last part between getting back from the farmer's market and leaving for dinner at our friends' house... my one failure in an otherwise pretty successful day!).

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dinner yesterday

We got some mangoes on sale at Whole Foods the other day, and they were so ripe and delicious I couldn't think of anything but mango salsa. So that's what I had to make for our friends when they came over for supper yesterday. Since salsa isn't really a main dish it was lucky we also had some chicken breasts (free range organic chicken from ButcherBox!). I figured maybe I could manage some sort of pulled chicken for tacos, and was disappointed when an internet search turned up lots of recipes that started with, "Take a roast chicken...". Then I got over it and did just that, except I cooked the breasts in the skillet before shredding them and mixing in some adobo sauce and garlic powder.

For the mango salsa I did two mangoes, half a cucumber, cilantro, lime juice, and a big spring onion from the garden. I also made tomato salsa for those with more traditional tastes. And coconut rice—an Indian-y recipe from the Moosewoods cookbook, but one that seemed like it would go with mango—and plain rice. And then some flour tortillas. Oh, and some sour cream mixed with cilantro and lime juice. Rhubarb crisp with whipped cream for desert.

It was actually kind of an ambitious menu, considering I was also in charge of the kids and the cleaning with Leah at work. And Harvey came down with a little fever towards the end of the afternoon so he was in bed rather than helping rally the troops to clean up their toys. So we didn't get quite magazine-clean, and I kind of ignored the boys—fine, two were playing outside and one was dozing in bed—and I still wasn't ready when folks showed up ready to eat. Good thing they're old friends and were willing to make themselves at home while I finished up. I like to think the meal was worth the wait.. I enjoyed it, anyway.

Looking back, I've come a long way from the first time I made mango salsa way back in 2004. What an innocent I was; I didn't even have a clear sense of what a mango looked like back then. And I certainly didn't know how to cook. I'm a little better now. I wonder what I'll be making in 2026?

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not-so-high tea

I made scones yesterday morning with the idea of passing them out at the bus stop and showing the other parents that I cared about them and was glad to have them as neighbors. I don't know how they feel about me as a neighbor, but none of them wanted any scones. Never mind, the boys sure wanted some—though since they'd just been treated to a big breakfast of fried eggs, toast, bacon, and oranges, I told them to hold off. Because it was scones, I told them we could have them for tea later. So we did.

Zion and Nathan sitting at the table for tea, looking serious

tea is serious business

We had friends over by then so they got to join in too. It was lovely, and the boys were totally ready to enter into the spirit of "tea" as a meal: "Take tiny nibbles," Harvey said, recalling instructions from some book or other. Then he kind of spoiled the effect by knocking over his teacup reaching for the tin of scones after the little boys didn't pass them quick enough. Luckily the cup only chipped rather than shattering—I was letting them use our finest Crate-and-Barrel wedding china—but the puddle of milky tea was mess enough. The little boys—Lijah and his friend Liam—didn't spill a drop, and so would have been within their rights to complain that I only trusted them with plastic cups, but they're more polite than that. They weren't huge fans of the tea, either, come to that, and much preferred the sliced mango to the scones.

Which I don't understand, because they were some tasty scones. I brought the rest of them to work this morning, where they were again properly appreciated. This batch was with orange zest and chocolate chips; the original recipe is from Joy of Cooking and is for raisin scones with cinnamon, like this:

raisin scones cooling on a rack

cinnamon raisin version

In a large bowl, whisk together:

2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Cut in:

6 Tbsp butter

Stir in:

1/2 cup raisins (or orange zest and 3/4 cup chocolate chips, or lemon zest and 1/4 cup chopped candied ginger, or...)

Add and mix until combined (you'll have to knead it against the side of the bowl with your hands to get all the flour up):

1/2 cup cream
1 egg, beaten

Shape the dough into a disk maybe 3/4 inch thick, cut it into 12 wedges, and put them on a baking sheet. Brush them with cream or milk and sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar (for the raisin ones; or plain sprinkling sugar for the others).

Bake at 425°F for 12-15 minutes or until they're golden brown.

And if you want to replicate our experience, serve with decaf Earl Gray tea with cream and sugar, milk, and mango slices.

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squash soup

close-up of roasted squash on a baking sheet

squash glamor shot

In the middle of the winter when the green of our garden is just a memory, looking at the pile of winter squashes on the counter makes it real again. Butternut squash is one of just two storage crops I've managed to grow in any worthwhile quantities—the other being the garlic—and we've started the past three winters with a significant number of them taking up space in the dining room. At this point in the season the pile is smaller, but there are still squashes! It feels like a success. It also feels like a success to turn one of them into delicious food.

squash slices on a baking sheet

uncooked squash

One of my favorite ways to do that is by making roasted squash soup. It's pretty easy. Peel a squash, split it in half, and take out the seeds. Then slice it up, splash some olive oil and salt on the slices, and bake them on a cookie sheet until they're soft and browned on the edges. You can do that ahead of time. (You can also eat the delicious squash morsels right off the sheet when they come out, but not too many—or else you'll have to do another one to have enough for your soup.)

roasted squash

roasted

Then it's time to make the soup part. Chop a big onion, a couple carrots, and two-three stalks of celery. Melt a lump of butter in a stock pot and when it's hot toss in the vegetables. Cook them for a while, over not-too-high heat, stirring every once and a while. When they seem ready, toss in the roasted squash and enough chicken or turkey to cover it all up. If you have some delicious roasted-vegetable turkey stock made from the carcass of a pasture-raised bird you're all set for ingredients; if your stock is milder you'll probably want to add some salt, at least. Simmer it all together for a while.

diced onion, carrots, and celery

somewhat diced

If you have a stick blender, now's the time to put it to use. Blend everything up into a beautiful puree. If you don't, all the ingredients should be soft enough to mash with a potato masher. Don't bother with a blender—what a pain. Lumps are fine too. If it's too thick—not everybody wants to be able to stand a spoon up in their soup—add some more stock or water. Taste it. If it isn't wonderfully delicious, you can add a little maple syrup and a little cayenne pepper... but if you started with well-roasted squash and good stock you won't want to.

And that's our squash soup, beloved of adults and small children alike (the bigger children aren't quite so appreciative). There really should be a photo of the finished product, but it didn't last long enough.

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tomato soup

I made tomato soup this afternoon. I never did before. I was intimidated by the concept—like I had no idea how to even begin to turn tomatoes into soup. As it happens, it's not that hard: it's basically just regular soup without carrots or celery and with tomatoes. If it weren't for the existence of Campbells I would have figured it out years ago.

I'm not saying my tomato soup was the best ever—the kids didn't like it (in my defense, they pretty much categorically don't like soup, especially when there's also grilled cheese sandwiches available). I used some of the barbecued turkey stock Leah made from the Bernstein Thanksgiving bird, so there was a distinct smoky flavor to the end product which may be a good thing or bad depending on your tastes. And it ended up kind of thin; Katie tells me I could have thickened it with bread crumbs, which would be fine because we have lots of bread crumbs around here.

Anyway, all that is to say if you've never made tomato soup before and feel like having some, go for it. It's a great way to eat up some of those canned tomatoes you put up in the summer that you don't have any other way to eat. Wait, I'm the only person in the US who cans tomatoes and doesn't know how to make tomato soup? (or tomato sauce, for that matter)? Oh well, never mind. For reference, I based my soup loosely off this recipe, the first non-spammy result for a search for "tomato soup recipe". I might even try it again some day. But not soon; there's still plenty of this batch left.

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dessert buffet

As the weather turns cold again, we have more incentive to turn on the oven. And the bread is never ready to go in first thing, so more often than not we get a dessert out of the deal. Today we had friends over who are experiencing the same thing at their house, so after lunch the kids got to choose between brownies, apple crisp, pound cake, pumpkin spice chocolate cookies, banana chocolate chip muffins, and pumpkin bread. They were so overwhelmed I felt bad and let them have a little bit of their top four choices. Life is good at our house these days!

recent recipes

I had a bad day, so it's a pleasant diversion to look back on some accomplishments from the past couple days—cooking ones. Like this cake.

a pumpkin cake

seasonal

We had folks over yesterday evening and I realized I hadn't thought about a desert. There wasn't time to make a pumpkin pie (or at least not to let one cool enough to eat) but a pumpkin cake seemed reasonable. I searched the internet and printed a likely-looking recipe, but on reflection it wasn't quite likely enough—I wasn't prepared to make a cake entirely with vegetable oil. So I triangulated between that recipe, our family pumpkin bread, and what I know about making cakes. The result came out pretty good, with cream cheese frosting between the layers (sadly not to Harvey's taste) and powdered sugar on top. Here's the recipe, for future reference:

In a large bowl whisk together

2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

In a stand mixer, beat on medium-high for five minutes

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Add one at a time, scraping the bowl and beating between additions

4 eggs

Add the dry ingredients in three even bunches, alternating with two even glops of

1 can canned pumpkin

Divide the batter between two buttered and floured 8-inch cake pans and bake at 350° for... um... until they're done. Maybe it was like 40 minutes? Let them cool.

For the frosting, combine 4 ounces (half a package) cream cheese, 2 tablespoons butter, and 1 cup powdered sugar in the food processor and pulse until combined. Or if you ask Harvey, leave out the cream cheese and make a proper butter frosting. After I had already started making the frosting I realized we were out of powdered sugar. Heading across the street to borrow some I passed the boys playing with the neighborhood kids—it all felt pretty old-fashioned!

The day before I was totally out of ideas for supper—out of ideas and out of ingredients. But even though we're getting into pumpkin season we still have lots of zucchinis. So why not zucchini quesadillas? I grated some zucchini and onion, salted it for a bit to get out some of the water, then cooked it in bacon fat with cumin and garlic powder. Then I made the quesadillas with the cooked zucchini and cheddar. Every new quesadilla I make is my favorite, and this was no exception. Zion wasn't a fan, of course, but you can never please everyone. With cake and quesadillas at least I managed to please myself!

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adequate bread

I'm maybe starting to figure out this sourdough bread business. At least, I've settled on a process that accomplishes three key goals: it keeps the starter alive, doesn't take too much time or effort, and turns out acceptable bread.

a round loaf of sourdough bread

something like that

For me, one key is not keeping the starter in the refrigerator. When I did that I could never manage the long-term scheduling required to get it out, let it warm up, feed it, and then make the bread—with all the steps that requires. It's a two-day process, minimum, and at my current stage in life that is very much beyond me. So my starter lives on the counter, where I feed it every morning with a quarter cup of water and half a cup of all purpose flour (which we buy in bulk).

When I want to make bread, I start the night before by scooping a cup of starter into a separate container and feeding it (as above) before I go to bed. Then in the morning I put all that starter into the stand mixer bowl together with 3/4 cup of water, a half tablespoon of kosher salt, and about two-and-a-half cups of bread flour. I let it mix all up with the dough hook for 20 minutes or so while I do other things (trying to remember to check to make sure it's not too wet, in which case I want to add more flour). If it's dry I knead the dough for a couple minutes by hand—if it's wet enough the machine does fine—and then I form it into a ball and leave it in a glass bowl, covered with a wet cloth.

There it stays until it's doubled in size or I get back from the day's outing or I get bored of looking at the bowl. I "punch it down" and let it rest for ten minutes, then I shape it amateurishly into a ball or, less frequently, a baguette, and leave it to proof on a heavy aluminum baking sheet greased with butter. Usually it can proof uncovered, in this summer weather at least—but if the day seems particularly dry I'll cover it with a wet cloth for at least the beginning of the proofing.

When it seems to be pretty well risen I preheat the over to 500 degrees, with a beat-up old metal 9x13 pan on the bottom rack. After 15 or 20 minutes of preheating I slash the loaf (as seen above), pour a couple cups of boiling water into the hot pan for steam, and bake for 25 minutes to half an hour. When the bread smells like bread and sounds hollow when I tap on the bottom, it's done.

Clearly, this is not the most precise of methods, and I have no doubt it's far from making the perfect loaf. But I don't care about perfect—when I worry about perfect I get paralyzed and don't make anything. Acceptable is better than nothing! There are two more pertinent problems. First, having the over on for close to an hour isn't really ideal in the summer. At least it tends to be in the evening, when it's cooler outside than in the house anyways—with windows open and fans on we don't notice the oven's heat so much.

Second, not refrigerating the starter means I have to make bread an awful lot; sometimes more often than we can manage to eat it. So I'm trying to give it away. Let me know if you'd like to try a loaf, or take some starter so you can try your hand at it yourself! If I can figure out how to make adequate bread in my spare time, I'm sure you can do even better.

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