Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bread tribulations

In previous posts, I have described the no-knead bread. ( We have had our share of hockey pucks and loaves that were too moist. I think we may have finally got to the root of the problem. The standard quantity of dough makes a batch that is really too small for the dutch oven that we use. So it has an irritating tendency to spread sideways until it reaches the edge of the oven while rising. This leaves a strangely domed loaf that looks more like a viking burial mound than a loaf of bread.

Trying an experiment using miniature dutch ovens (actually soup bowls with lids) and small quantities of dough, we were able to get loaves that were more evenly formed and had better texture. So for the most recent normal loaf, we made a double batch of dough and baked it all at once in the standard dutch oven. This loaf rose beautifully, had a nice loose crumb, a delicious crust and will be responsible for us both gaining weight at an alarming rate. It was made, as usual, using a starter, there hasn't been an addition of yeast now for 6 weeks. The flavors are developing to be deeper. All in all this experiment has been worth it.

Carved olive garnish

I thought it would be fun to lay out some leaves (basil and cilantro) and then have some carved olives formed into the shape of rabbits.

The end result was much admired.

The best olives to use are kalamatas - you want to choose a kind of olive that has plenty of flesh and a pit that doesn't go all the way to the end. To make a rabbit, slice a sliver off the edge of the olive, leaving a flat surface for it to rest on, Cut a v-shaped notch at one end of the sliver. This will leave the piece that will become the ears. At the non-stem end of the olive, cut a slit across the olive, all the way through to the pit. Place the cut sliver into this slit so that the points of the ears are sticking up.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Valentine's Day 2008

Madame has decided that winter is too long and that she is tired of winter vegetables and hearty dishes. So she muttered something about a sald with oranges and fresh flavors. That wasn't a lot to go on, but I can take a hint with the best of them! I was also thwarted because the gelato store - Paciugos on MacArthur/114 seems to have closed down. I had planned to have some nice gelato to finish our dinner - instead I went to marble slab and got some white chocolate/raspberry swirl with nuts and caramel. The main course had better be light.

As those who know me will testify, I will not generally order a salad but since it was V-Day and Madame had made a specific request, I thought I had better honor it. So some thinking, a trip to Tom Thumb, and an inspection of the wine stocks gave me the following idea:

A salad with chicken strips, avocado, orange, toasted almonds, baby spinach and tomato with an orange, lime dressing served with a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet. Usual goal was for it to be made in less than 45 minutes.

The key to this sald is for the various ingredients (except for the spinach leaves) to be the same general shape as each other, and to keep the size appropriate. The only ingredient whose shape I couldn't really control was the slivered almonds, so they defined the ingredient shape.

The list of ingredients is pretty formidable, bt if you want you can substitute a scant 1T of your favorite rub for the individual spices. It wants to flavor the meat, not pervade it.

1 cup almond slivers - toasted
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts pounded until they are about 1/4" (5mm) in thickness .
1/2t paprika
1/4t ground cardomom
1/4t ground ginger
1/4t ground cumin
1/4 t garlic powder
1/4t finely ground black pepper + extra to taste for seasoning the dressing
1/2t kosher salt + extra to taste for seasoning the dressing
2T vegetable oil
1/4 of a preserved lemon rinsed, skin only, cut in small dice (optional)
2 oranges
juice of 1 lime
1 avocado
1 medium tomato
2T Extra virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt crystals and coarsely ground black pepper to taste and decoration.
2 cups packed baby spinach leaves (raw), trimmed of stalk ends and washed thoroughly

Put the almonds in a single layer in a non stick frying pan and heat over medium heat, tossing and stirring constantly until they are an even brown. They burn really easily, so watch them like a hawk. This is not the time to multitask! You could do this in the oven, but I did not want the oven on for just this task. Set the almonds aside to cool.

Make up the spice rub by combining the paprika, cardomom, ginger, cumin, pepper, salt, garlic powder in a small bowl.

Pound the chicken flat - easiest between 2 sheets of cling wrap. Use a smooth hammer (I use an empty wine bottle - after all we have plenty of those) - you are pounding it thin not breaking really tough fibers apart. Once the chicken is flat, sprinkle both sides with the spice rub and leave to rest for about 10 minutes.

Peel the oranges and extract the individual segments. Squeeze the juice from the remaining membrane into a small bowl, and add the lime juice. Cut each orange segment in half lengthways. Set aside

Halve the avocado, remove the peel and the pit, slice the halves lengthwise into thin strips. You should aim for about 12 strips per half. Set aside.

Core the tomato, halve longitudinally and slice each half lengthwise into thin strips. Don't worry much about the seeds etc. Some will naturally fall away, others will stay, it doesn't matter. Set aside.

Put 2T vegetable oil into a skillet (preferably not non stick), heat until the smoke point is reached and gently lay the pounded, spiced chicken breasts in the pan. Leave them (don't touch or move them) for 2 minutes over medium high heat. Turn the heat down if things look like they are going to burn. Turn the breasts over and do them for 2 more minutes - until they are cooked through. Remove from pan, turn heat off and add the preserved lemons to the pan (if using). Gather up the lemons and the fond and pour over the chicken - leave to cool.

Add the olive oil to the juices and mix lightly with a fork. Season with salt and pepper.

Put the spinach leaves in a mound in a serving bowl, add the almonds, oranges and tomatoes. Slice the now cooled chicken into thin strips a bit thicker than the almonds) and lay the strips like spokes on the spinach. Lay avocado slices the same way - between the chicken strips so the spinach is mostly covered. Mix the juices/OO one more time quickly with a fork, pour over the chicken/avocado salad mixture and simly let it drizzle through the spinach. Shave a few salt crystals and coarsly ground pepper over the dish and serve. I prperaed it up until the point at which I added the dressing and held it at room temp. for about 20 minutes since Madame was a bit late getting home. It held up fine. I added the dressing as she walked in, so that by the time we were ready to eat, the dressing had been in contact with the salad for about 10 minutes.

Serve with a nice, complex white wine - it needs a bit more richness/complexity than a Sancerre, the NZ Sauvignon Blancs are too grassy in general for this dish - and the citrusy notes interfere with the orange/lime clean flavors. That's why we used a white Burgundy (a Chassagne Montrachet, Premier Cru) for this. For once we didn't drink the whole bottle! Half of the bottle was enough given the complexity of the wine, the complexity of the dish and the wonderful flavor combinations.

There were left overs, so Madame took them to school next day. Apparently, it was almost as good on the second day as it had been the night before.

Don't forget that you have been handling raw chicken so please make sure you really carefully sanitize everything - yourself, the board, the hammer, any knives used for trimming, etc.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

An unnerving experience with flour

I was setting up yesterday morning to make bread. That was going to be a white loaf with a little pasta flour to give some extra texture and richness. I was planning to use Hodgson Mills pasta flour because it was what my local grocery store had. Imagine my surprise when a newly opened package of pasta flour had all manner of critters in it. Below is my letter to Hodgson Mills.


I called yesterday (Saturday) to describe an issue with one of your products. This mail is just to provide detail that I didn't have handy when I called. To recap, I bought a 2lb package of your "Golden Semolina $ extra fancy durum Pasta Flour" from my local Tom Thumb store a couple of weeks ago. In my phone message I said I couldn't find the lot number on the package. Since then I have found it. It says 0124091 on the top of the package. The issue was that when I opened it to incorporate it into some bread, there was - in the first 1/2 cup that I poured 1 winged insect (probably around 3mm across) and some stick like things - each about 5mm long. The stick like things were about the color of cinnamon bark.

I immediately poured that 1/2 cup of flour into a sealed plastic bag to to return the contents to Tom Thumb. On viewing the product through the window of the package, I see at least one more flying insect and several more of the stick like things and some wiggling larvae - at least that's what they look like. Tom Thumb, of course, did the right thing and refunded my money. I kept the package of flour, wrapped in a zip lock bag so that when you call me, I can fully describe what the packaging looks like, etc.

This is the second time that I have had issues with this flour. I generally keep my flour products in sealed plastic containers to prevent odors, bugs, etc. On a previous occasion, I had the remains (probably around 1/2 lb) of a package stored in a sealed container. When I came to use it in a bread mixture, it had little holes in the surface and on further inspection some of the same wiggly things that I saw in the current package. I thought with the first package that I might have done something to contribute to the issue, but the second, unopened batch convinced me that the problem was likely to be at the production/distribution end and not in my house.

The store at which I bought the product was the Tom Thumb store in the 75038 zip code.


Chris Bird

I will keep this thread up to date with tesponses from Hodgson Mill.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Butternut squash

With some inspiration from Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef), I did some butternut squash in the oven a couple of days ago. A quick, easy dish that works well in the winter. I served it along with a flank steak that had been rubbed with Nonya spices from Penderrys (oops spelling might be an issue here) and then grilled to medum rare on the cast iron griddle. It was too miserable to hke to the end of the yard and tun on the outdoor grill.

1 large butternut squash
3 T vegetable oil
1 1/2t garam masala (an Indian spice blend)
a sprinking of large sea salt crystals

Pre-heat the oven to 375F and place a rack on the center shelf. Cut the squash into 3/4" chunks - no need to peel it. Spread the squash chunks on an ovenproof dish in a single layer. Dust with the garam masala, and then sprinkle with the oil. Bake for 20 minutes in the oven, and then turn the heat up to 425 until they are cooked (about another 15 minutes). The dual oven temperature was because I misjudged the time that Madame would be home and needed to speed up the process.
Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with salt crystals. Serve as an appetizer or a side dish.

Note: I like the skin of butternut squash when cooked this way, so I always eat it. Madame does not, so she discards it

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Chicken, leek and potato soup

It was cold this evening in Dallas, so a warm soup seemed like a good idea. Also, I wanted it to fit into my tight schedule so it would be ready when Madame came home from school - famished as always. There were some nice looking leeks in the grocery store, so a chicken/leek/potato soup seemed like a good idea. It was! We ate it and Madame did her Oliver Twist impersonation, "More Please". so I guess it was a hit.

2T vegetable oil
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4 medium leeks
1/2 cup dry white wine
2lbs red (waxy) potatoes
3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup half and half (light cream)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large soup pan (or dutch oven) until smoking. Place the salted and peppered chicken thighs in the oil to brown. Turn the heat back to medium and allow to cook. Trim and clean the leeks, then chop them into 1/2 inch strips. When the chicken is browned on all sides, tmove from the pan. Add the leeks and stir them in the hot fat for about 5 minutes - until softened. Add the wine and cook until evaporated. Cut the potatoes into 1/2 inch pieces, lay them on top of the leeks, place the chicken and any drippings on top of the potatoes. Cover the potatoes and leeks with the stock, leave some of the chicken exposed. Putthe lid on the pot, bring the contents to a simmer, and then turn down the heat and simmer for about 25 minutes - or until the potatoes are cooked. Remove the chicken from the pan, and dice into bite sized pieces. With a stick blender (or a regular carafe style blender), puree the soup roughly. You want to leave some bits of potato and leek as texture. This is a rustic soup. Put everything back in the pan, bring to a boil and turn th heat off. Wait for the boiling to subside and add the cream. I tempered the cream by adding some hot liquid to the cream first rather than subjecting it to the total heat of the soup. Stir, adjust the seasoning, and serve in heated bowls.

Shrove Tuesday

Where I am from it is traditional to have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Traditionally it is thought that pancakes were a good way to use up the fat, eggs, etc. prior to the denials of Lent. To my American friends this kind of pancake is a crepe - a thin griddle cooked item, not the thicker breakfast style pancake often seen over here. We always served them with lemon and sugar and had them as a dessert. I hadn't had pancakes on pancake day for many years, so this year decided to do them. Being at home and having the time was a major contributing factor.

3/4 cup flour
1/2 t salt
1t baking powder
2T icing or confectioner's sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup milk (1% in this case)
1/2 cup water
a few drops vanilla essence

Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl
Lightly beat the eggs and add the milk and about half of the water. Make a well in the flour mixture and add the liquids. Whisk until the liquid has been incorporated. The consistency of the batter should be like thin (single) cream. If it is too thick, thin with a little more water.
Heat a small non=stick skillet with a little buttter until the butter just browns. Wipe the skillet. With the skillet still hot, pour in about 2 T of the batter, rolling it around to make a circuloar crepe. When it is cooked on the first side (about 30 seconds, top layer dry), flip and leave on the second side for about 15 seconds. Store the cooked crepes in a warm oven (200F) in layers with parchment paper between the layers. When all the crepes are cooked, fold them into quarters (or roll them up) and place them on warmed dessert plates (3 crepes per person), sprinkle with powdered sugar and lemon juice. Eat immediately!

Friday, February 1, 2008

More fun with bread

We now haven't bought bread for over a month. The no-knead variety has been working well for us - except for some occasional lapses. I used white wholewheat flour one day and ended up with something you could use to go curling with.
However, as I have become more practised and am able to judge the texture better, I have started to use a pre-ferment instead of the yeast. Now, when I bake a batch, I make a little more than the recipe calls for, make sure I use spring water (no chlorine) and keep a little of the dough back. Add some fresh flour to it, a little more water and let it sit in a quiet room for a couple of days. Using that instead of the yeast in the next batch adds an even greater depth of flavor. I have also stopped using a parchment sling. It is easy enough to get the bread into and out of the dutch oven by rolling it off the towel. The crust is more even and the overall shape and texture better.