Tag Archives: Cooking

A Culinary Goal for 2021

Each new year, January brings with it an inner struggle for me. I appreciate the New Year – fresh start mentality, but I also shudder at the thought of lofty resolutions abandoned and the feeling of failure this engenders. I read about a book called The Power of Ritual which, among other things, discusses the power of everyday practices to increase our wellbeing. Perhaps 2021 will be the year I focus on rituals to improve my life, rather than big goals or resolutions. To that end, cooking and eating can certainly be defined as rituals, so I will start there as I strive to make 2021 better than 2020. How hard can this be, really? The bar is set so low.

Something that I have been wanting to do for a long time is cook out of my cookbooks more. I feel I am often stymied by choice when I sit down to meal-plan on Thursday or Friday. I receive the New York Times Cooking newsletter. I have an ATK subscription. I follow Food 52 and The Kitchn. So. Much. Content. Then I look at my bookshelves and see dozens of cookbooks that I have barely opened or cooked only one recipe out of. Something has got to give! I have tried to stick to cookbooks (rather than finding recipes online) but I come up against two roadblocks again and again.

Roadblock #1: Which cookbook do I choose? What do I feel like cooking? I don’t know what I feel like cooking, which is why I am asking this question. And round and round it goes.

Roadblock #2: I am meal-planning and I need to use up the ingredients I have. I can’t just pull up an index of all the recipes in all my cookbooks and easily find a couple recipes to use up those pork chops in the freezer and the carrots in the crisper that are threatening to go flaccid. That is what the internet is…and I am trying not to do that…

So, how can I slightly alter my cooking ritual to address these roadblocks?

I’m going to focus on one cookbook per month. I’ll cook a selection of recipes primarily from that cookbook. This will take the selection paralysis out of the equation, and encourage me to really dig into a cookbook which I may otherwise just dip into for specific things. I could even discover some new favorites! While I am focusing on that cookbook, I’ll allow myself to use the internet and my own repertoire of favorites, or even other cookbooks to supplement. I’ll sit down on Thursday with that cookbook in front of me and pick 1-2 recipes to make from it (let’s not get too crazy to start). I will strive to select recipes for which I already have 50% of the ingredients. This might be difficult, but it’s something to strive for to keep the grocery bill low, and cut down on food waste. Then at the end of each month, I will write about my experience here on the blog and share my favorite recipe from the month.

Below are some ground rules to keep me honest and sane.

  1. One cookbook focus per month.
  2. 1-2 recipes per week at first, more if it is going well.
  3. 50% of the chosen recipe’s ingredients should be ones I already have on hand.
  4. Don’t make the same thing twice in the month.

For January, I have narrowed down my selection to  3 options. One is a cookbook with recipes from immigrant women who work in a community kitchen in London. Another is a Moosewood cookbook from the iconic restaurant collective in Ithaca New York, which focuses on easy, quick comfort food recipes. Lastly is a cookbook from the famed French-inspired Californian restaurant Chez Panisse. With two of the cookbooks being from famous restaurants, and  all written by women, I am pretty sure I can’t go wrong. I have posted on social media to ask my friends to choose for me and I will make my selection tomorrow.

From the Left: Together: Our Community Cookbook, Moosewood Cooks at Home, and Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook

Here’s to cooking more in 2021, discovering new favorites, and banishing my cookbook hoarder guilt for good!

Induction Cooking in My Half-formed Kitchen

I have cooked on both gas and electric and gotten pretty familiar with the quirks of both. There is always a readjustment period when switching from one to the other, but both are pretty predictable and I can usually hit my stride quickly. Induction cooking, however, is another beast entirely. Rather than relying on indirect radiation, convection, or thermal conduction, induction cooking uses an electrical current to produce a magnetic field that excites iron molecules, heating the pan and its contents very rapidly. It is more efficient because it has good electrical coupling between the pan and the coil, and can be quickly turned on and off. The cook surface both heats the pan quickly and cools off quickly so there are safety benefits as well. 

When we moved in with my mom last May to start seriously saving for a house, we did not have our own kitchen which drove. Me. Crazy. A Hungry Ginger without a kitchen is a Hangry Ginger indeed. To improve our transitory situation, we got a beefy Breville Smart Oven and a two “burner” induction cooktop. Luckily we did not need to get new pans for the cooktop, as our Demeyer cook set is induction compatible. The controls took some getting used to as they measure in temperature rather than heat level. This would seem more precise, but when you are used to things cooking on low, medium or high and all recipes use these metrics as well, choosing a temp between 140 and 460 can be a tad confounding.

Because it is so efficient, the induction cooktop heats very quickly and much less energy is lost in the process of heating. The following is not 100% scientific, but it helps me conceptualize the differences a bit: Think about traditional heating methods as two step systems: Electricity must heat an electric coil and gas creates a flame before heating the pan. With induction cooking, the stove and the pan are, in a sense, one system with the electromagnetic field produced in the stove being carried seamlessly into the metal of the pan.

The first time I made bacon on it, I burnt the shit out of it in the blink of an eye. Eggs seemed to go from runny to seared to the pan in seconds. I solved the bacon issue by using the aforementioned Breville oven to bake it and learned that for eggs, I should heat up the pan at 300 for a min, crack the eggs and then turn the temp down to 210 or 260. Through trial and error, I gradually got used to the induction cooktop.

Bacon a little too dark, nailed the eggs

Here are a couple things I have learned about different types of induction cooking over this past year and a half. Keep in mind that I am working with a portable induction cooktop that cost me all of $200 on amazon. Built-in ranges from the major manufacturers are surely more consistent and less finicky.

Induction is great for:

  • Heating up water quickly for pasta or mac and cheese emergencies. 
  • Related to this, steaming anything.
  • Soups and stews – Basically anything that doesn’t require really precise cooking (there are only 4 temp settings and there is no “in between.”)

Induction works well if close attention is paid for:

  • Eggs – switch between a couple settings to finesse them to your perfect doneness.
  • Sauteed veggies – as with eggs, start on a higher heat and turn down for more long term cooks or else you will get crispy critters or flaccid failures. 

Induction is ok for:

  • Meat – It can be difficult to get an even brown (at least on my portable cooktop) and I found myself having to rotate pieces of meat to ensure an even brown. The brown they did get was always good, but a little too labor intensive and uncertain in my opinion.
  • Anything else that requires a consistent steady heat. I noticed that with this cooktop, once the pan reached the target temp, it would stay there briefly but then cool down and heat up again to get back up to temp. This cycle wreaked havoc on an ill-fated attempt at crepes and more than one chicken thigh.

Overall, the induction cooktop has been great because it has enabled me to cook meals in my own little makeshift kitchen. I’ve needed to get pretty creative at times because of the whole two burner situation (I’ve made good use of trivets and try to do a mix of stovetop cooking and oven cooking for most meals so I wouldn’t need more than two burners). However, as a nice bookend to the whole experience, I am happy to say that I am on the cusp of getting a big girl gas range. I am looking forward to being able to make more than two things at once on the stove (though the hubby is probably not looking forward to more dishes). And I will be doubling my counter space because it will no longer be taken up by the Smart Oven and the induction cooktop. I appreciate this experience though and I think it has helped me to become a more intentional cook who savors the small joys, like four burners and familiar heat settings.  

Old and new: The induction cooktop doing its thing on the new gas stove (which was not yet hooked up)

The Riffing Range

 

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Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

To riff (v) –  to perform, deliver, or make use of a riff.

Riff (n) – an ostinato phrase (as in jazz) typically supporting a solo improvisation. 

You know those recipes that you go to when you can’t even manage an internet search for “Easy dinners” and your cookbooks seem to be judging you? Those dishes that you always seem to have most of the ingredients for, but even if you don’t, there are some easy and accessible substitutions that will bring you close to your target? These recipes exist within what I call the riffing range. Recipes within this range have some common characteristics:

  1. They are relatively simple (usually 5 main ingredients or fewer, not counting seasonings).
  2. They take 30 minutes or less
  3. They don’t require any specialized skills or equipment.

So basically an ideal situation for when you just can’t even.

Riffing Range Recipes:

  • Pasta Puttanesca
  • Burritos as discussed on the blog here
  • Salad (obvious but one that must be mentioned as we are currently in the throws of summer produce season).

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Pasta Puttanesca is one of these recipes because I always have some sort of noodle product and cheese, as well as garlic and  a version of canned tomato (whole peeled, crushed, cubed and even puree will do). From there you just need an herb (parsley is traditional but basil holds its own), an olive (again, kalamata is traditional but green pimento stuffed, oil cured or even black olives are great). Capers provide a nice zing but are not 100% necessary and finally, anchovies or even sardines or tuna in a pinch. Hungry Ginger recipe here and a sardine version here. You could even go crazy if you have some eggplant on hand and ricotta salata and turn it into Pasta alla Norma.

During these strange times when going to the grocery store can feel perilous, it is comforting to have these types of recipes in your culinary tool belt and ready faster than it takes for Uber Eats to deliver a lukewarm burrito. 

I encourage you to try riffing in the kitchen. It is a  great way to practice with flavors and get comfortable cooking without a recipe. Best scenario, you will discover a new go-to recipe, worst scenario you will have used up some ingredients that may have been lingering in your pantry for too long anyway. 

Seasonal Spotlight: Asparagus Part 2

As much as I love Asparagus, it is not something that I have ever really considered growing. This Spring, however, an old acquaintance from college posted some pictures of a few beautiful spears of asparagus that he had grown, mentioning in the post that he had a bumper crop after two years of careful tending. He grew them from seed and watered them persistently at first but, once established, they don’t really need much watering. They require dedicated beds because they develop a pretty extensive root systems and they need well drained soil, so he tilled sand into the beds. The whole process seems pretty intense but it sounds like, if you are willing to put some elbow grease into it, you can get a lot of bang for your buck. With 35 mature plants, he said that he is able to harvest about 14 spears 1-2 times per week. Wow! Having recently spent $23 on asparagus, I found that pretty appealing. 

While I may not be starting asparagus production this year, I can still enjoy the season’s bounty by cooking with it in a variety of ways. So far on the blog I have discussed the salty, saucy way:

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But there are also more subtle treatments that let the asparagus’ sweetness shine through even more. The other weekend, I made an asparagus soup. The recipe is found in Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson and was super simple and quick (30 min or less). It was almost a little too simple in my opinion so I gussied it up with lemon juice, which really complimented the brightness of the asparagus, and some goat cheese which, swirled into the soup to finish, added a nice savory note. It is a great soup for spring/summer because it is amazing both hot and cold and keeps for several days, so you can make it ahead and have a very elegant lunch without trying too hard.

Asparagus Soup, from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories

Serves: 4 

INGREDIENTS:
1/2 cup butter
4 small leeks, white parts only, trimmed and chopped
3 cups water
1 potato, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper
1 lb fresh asparagus, peeled and trimmed
1 cup heavy cream

INSTRUCTIONS:
Melt butter and stew leeks until soft.

Add water and potato and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes.

Chop the asparagus and add to the soup. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes.

Blend Thoroughly and pass through a china cap or medium/fine sieve.

Add cream and check seasoning.

Serve Hot or cold.

Source: Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson, 1994 (p. 13)

To close out my Asparagus triad, I made a lovely almost pasta salad with orzo, just steamed asparagus, olives, sliced bell pepper, Feta, and a lemony dressing. Courtesy of our friends at PCC, this was a perfect accompaniment to our Sunday Roast chicken.

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Burritos – The Ultimate Convenience Food, Infinitely Riff-able

I loooove me a good burrito! Be it all snuggled in its foil wrapper, easily eaten on the go, or slathered in sauce and the size of a small infant, I am there for it, baby! I am a frequent visitor of taco trucks and hole-in-the-wall taco joints. This truck and this taqueria in my home town of West Seattle are two of my favorites. However, there is something to be said for not having to leave your house and having a delicious burrito ready and waiting for you in your freezer, mere minutes away from your mouth after a quick trip through the microwave (or in my counter-space challenged and thus microwave free home, a slightly more lengthy stay in the oven). Regardless of how you heat ’em up though, freezer burritos and breakfast burritos can seem like small miracles when you just can’t even but want something delicious and comforting to fill your belly.

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Zoe can’t even…

Over  the years, I have played around with this convenience food, trying different recipes and filling combinations and have discovered that the beauty of the frozen burrito is that there is no ULTIMATE RECIPE but rather, it is a dish that endlessly customizable and delicious in its many iterations so long as you follow a few basic principles of burrito making and a couple small but important freezer guidelines.

Burrito Principle #1: Have a variety of textures – No one enjoys a burrito that is just all mush. I mean, I love hella cheese and refried beans as much as the next person, but part of the joy of eating is variety – in texture as well as flavor. So, toss some cooked rice into that tortilla along with black or pinto beans that have been cooked and mashed slightly. Or leave your beans whole, but for the love of all that is sacred, make sure that they are cooked fully. No one likes under-cooked beans in their burrito. Then balance out the relatively soft textures of the rice and/or beans with some veggies like bell peppers and onions cooked to the point where they maintain a little crunch. And of course cheese and salsa to your liking!

Corollary of Burrito Principle #1: For breakfast burritos, replace beans and/or rice with hashbrowns and eggs scrambled with a little cheese, salt and pepper. I like to defrost some frozen hashbrowns or even tater tots and toss them with the cooked veggies.

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Hashbrowns and veggies in the background and scrambled eggs with ham and cheese in the foreground destined for Denver Breakfast Burritos.

Burrito Principle #2: Don’t muddy the flavors – It may be tempting to really raid the spice cabinet here. I mean, when else are you going to use that artisanal ancho chili powder that you got at the farmers market last year? Or was it two years ago? First, check the sell by date. Odds are, many of your spices are past their prime and won’t be doing you any favors in whatever dish they land in. Second, be judicious about when and where you spice. For example, I like to use a boxed Mexican or Spanish rice for convenience sake when making my burritos. Near East is a brand that is readily available at grocery stores and makes a flavorful light (read: not gummy) rice for burritos. If I use a boxed rice, I ease off on the spices elsewhere. Maybe just some chili powder added to the veggies along with a splash of lemon juice and a half teaspoon each of cumin and coriander added to the beans. However, sometimes I will do a cilantro lime rice a la Chipotle and in that instance, I may add some more spices to the vegetables like paprika (sweet or smoked) and ancho or chipotle chili powder.

Burrito Principle #3: When it comes to cheese, its all about location, location, location! – Don’t just toss a handful cheese into your burrito and call it a day. You have been so thoughtful up to this point. Don’t leave, what is arguably the most important part of the burrito, to fate or your questionable rolling technique! It is always a little disappointing when we get to the very bottom of our burrito and there sits a large glob of cheese that would have been put to much better use lovingly woven throughout the whole. Slightly better, though not ideal, is when we bite into the burrito and see the clear demarcation if rice and beans and other fillings to cheese. Battle lines were drawn and the cheese stands alone to one side. Yes, it all comes together in your mouth, but perfection it is not. The answer to this, is to lay out your tortilla and then sprinkle shredded cheese all over that bad boy. Then add your other fillings to one side and get rolling. This way, the cheese is distributed throughout. It is cozying up to your other fillings but it is also hanging out between layers of tortilla, a happy cheesy surprise that makes every bite perfectly balanced. And, if you want to get REAL crazy, dollop some cheese sauce on top of your fillings to create a molten cheesy core. Take care: This technique is only for advanced burrito rollers and cheese fiends.

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Ok, so you have got your burrito with all the fixins’. Is it ready to be rolled and frozen? Wait, step away from the burrito and attend to these two freezer guidelines:

Freezer Guideline #1: Don’t go crazy with the dairy – I mean, you went crazy with the cheese and that’s fine, but for these frozen burritos, leave the sour cream in the fridge. The water content in more liquid dairy products does not lend itself to home freezing, which is a slow process, inviting the formation of water crystals. No one wants ice in their burrito, which will melt and, separated from that fat, can turn your tasty creation into a soggy mess. Check out this really interesting article on the science behind freezing ice cream where the same fundamentals apply. You are totally welcome to heap sour cream on your warmed up burrito (or eat it straight out of the carton alongside…). I won’t judge.

Freezer Guideline #2: Keep the avocado on your toast and out of your burrito – Freezers do weird things to our favorite hipster health food.  I am sure there is some science behind the phenomenon, involving enzymes and oxidation. Perhaps, I’ll do a deep dive into this in another post, but for now, trust me, just don’t do it. As with the sour cream, feel free to go crazy with the guac when it is time to eat the burrito. On top, on the side, EVERYWHERE!

Now you have filled your burrito and followed the freezer guidelines like the A+ student that you are, and now it is time to roll those babies up and toss them in the freezer, a down payment on your future happiness. If you plan on baking them in the oven later, roll up in foil and then stack in a gallon freezer bag. If they are destined for the microwave, roll in parchment paper, then foil and the gallon freezer bag.

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That’s it! Happy rolling! Below are a few articles that I found online and used as inspiration for my burrito adventuring.

Tablespoon.com – Freezer Friendly Denver Omelet Breakfast Burritos

Good Cheap Eats Freezer Burritos

The Kitchn How I Make Burritos to Freeze