From the Beginning of Time

Culture can often be defined by many things. Two major things: Food and Music.  These are the two things that have been with us longer than countries have had borders, longer than written language, longer than just about everything. Humans learn rhythm even before they are born and learn to eat! And we all know how long it takes us to learn how to refuel ourselves. Music and food have out lasted everything, and have grown to describe street and home cultures around the world.  Go to any cultural festival, aromas of the food will fill your senses. and you will hear music constantly of that corner of the world.

When I am cooking, at times all day long, I need to have music on.  Sometimes, my room mate will be the DJ and spin vinyl for me. Other times I have my Pandora blasting. The music is an integral part of my cooking processes.  Achieving the Zone can only really be done with the proper musical vibe happening.

Naturally, with the music comes along singing to my ingredients.  That usually happens more when the roommate is being DJ.  We have a set list we like a lot, beginning with the Blues Brothers.  Many an amazing meal has been created over the Blues Brothers.  The energy behind their music is so uplifting, and always seems to create a positive environment, and the need to dance.

Some might think that it isn’t wise to dance with a sharp knife and an onion at the same time. I beg to differ.  It is almost a nightly occurance in my kitchen.  I love watching people cook at home, especially when they get to singing and dancing. Yes, dinner and a show.  Almost like those Benihana restaurants that were so popular back in the 90’s.  Are those still a thing?

The joys of food and cooking are never ending for me. Simple living in all of its complexity.

 

 

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Evolution of food

There is no “Authentic” anything any more.  Which is amazing really.  Traveling around the world has introduced humans to different types of ingredients that change our palate  as well as our eating habits in profound ways.

In a (food porn) series I found on Netflix about indian food called Raja Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyaan (Kings, Kitchens and their stories) explains the traditions and origins of the regional cuisines of India. This series is a big eye opener for me in the sense that I am a simple ignorant American exploring the world through food. The popular dishes us Americans know are such a tiny portion of this rich and beautiful cuisine, and through this series, I learned of how Indian food evolved to be what it is today.

Mexican food is another ancient cuisine that has lost much of it’s personality through the American eyes.  Taco Bell is NOT Mexican food.  Even if you make tacos at home, that is not Mexican food.  That is Tex-Mex, which is a whole different blog altogether.

One of the greatest things about living in this Melting Pot is the food that has been made available to us.  Of course, I do live in a city that prides itself on being a foodie city, so we have more options than smaller more rural areas. In the city limits of Portland, I have found regional specialty stores from several different countries: Russia, Ethiopia, Mexico, Asia, the UK, Indian (seperate from the Asian market), European (seperate from the UK market), and Halal markets too!  Of course, I know there is even more options that I have yet to find.

Armed with this dietary arsenal, I can develop new combinations of flavors, aromas, textures and visionary delights for the ultimate mouth-gasms.  Fusion food is not a trend, it is how we have always cooked.  It is how culinary arts have been cultivated throughout human history.

I once heard a so called chef say on Gordon Ramsay’s cooking competition show Hell’s Kitchen “Who makes Mexican/Indian food?”  The answer: I do!  There are similar spice combinations, and main ingredients.  To combine the two is rather simple, a real no brainer.  He, of course, did not win that specific challenge due to his lack of vision.

Be bold with your foods, be creative, have fun, learn from your mistakes, and glorify your successes. Do not let tradition cloud your vision of your culinary goals.

Elixir of Productivity

The coffee made me do it!  I was just laying in bed, content to be sleeping, minding my own business when I had to get up and make a pot of coffee.  That means: grinding the beans, boiling the water, washing the press from yesterday’s coffee, telling the dog she had to wait for me to get dressed to go out.

There wasn’t a morning in my childhood that didn’t have the amazing aroma of coffee brewing. Coffee, it is ingrained in the lives of Americans more than they know.  During the Revolutionary war, in rebellion against the King of England the colonists drank coffee instead of tea. Here in America, we all grew up with coffee running through our proverbial veins.

I have always loved coffee, although, I have not always been a coffee drinker. Of course I am now, like right now, I had to stop writing just to make a fresh pot.  As a kid, I would basically flavor cream and sugar with coffee. Was it creamy and delicious?  Yes, very much so.  But I always had this romantic notion of drinking black coffee.  Thanks Squeeze!  How I got to black coffee is a whole different blog.

When I first arrived at work yesterday, I had to be reminded the order of operations in which I do my duties (several times),  all because I didn’t consume at least 20 fluid ounces of coffee before work.  So I got everyone laughing about it to cover up my  lack-of-caffeine-induced-stupidity. Excellent cover up.

When I had a chance, I went to the break area to see if there was a pot of coffee going.  sure enough, there it was in all of its steamy hot glory.  I grabbed my travel mug, and poured myself a new  cup.  As I poured it, the color of the coffee was… well, the color of used over used motor oil. I pressed on, maybe it was just older coffee.  The voice in the back of my head was screaming “Don’t drink it!”

I move on about my duties, and head out to a client’s shop when I took the first and only sip. The only thing right about it was the temperature.  It was one of the foulest substances on the streets of Portland.

When it was time for my break, I had to make a new pot.  When I went to clean out the old filter and grounds, I noticed that the filter had been over flowed with coffee grounds for 12 cups of coffee. ending up with truly black coffee.

With my passion for food and nutrition, I do my research on everything that I ingest.  I feel that I owe it to myself to know what I am fueling my body with.  I am not alone in wanting the very best for myself, even down to something as simple as making coffee (or tea for that matter).

Who did I turn to for advice?  When I was first getting into coffee for myself, I asked a coworker who was literally 98 years old,  Gramma Thelma.  She told me the way she liked it was one heaping teaspoon for every cup of coffee in the coffee maker. I followed her guidance word for word.  She was right, it was excellent!  Then I broke it down, turns out the well rounded teaspoon we used was a normal everyday spoon one would find on any restaurant table, was a measure of one tablespoon.

My research went further!  Folgers coffee was my next avenue of coffee knowledge,  where there is a coffee measurement calculator.  I entered the amount of cups on the workplace maker, and sure enough, Gramma Thelma’s instructions were right.

Armed with this knowledge, I am going to take some proactive efforts by supplying my coworkers with a brew chart so I am not subjected to sledge again.  I am willing to go as far as supplying work with the proper measuring devices too.

Awww Gramma Thelma, I can hear her giggling about this now as we did over so many morning cups.

 

 

Baked, and Baked Good!

Traveling is one of the best ways to learn about food.  Eating local cuisines is a joy of discovery.  Especially when it is something so meaningful to the visited area. National favorites like Onigiri from Japan, or Pirozhki from Russia, or Sausage Rolls from the UK.

When I went to the UK the first time, I fell in love with Sausage Rolls and Pork Pies.  On my return to the UK, I made it a point to try as many different kind of Sausage Roll and Pork Pie as I could.  I had to break down what makes an excellent roll or pie, and what kind of work I would have to put into making the perfect roll or pie.

Over the years, my friends and family are given notice when I am making these, so they can try to get in on some of the baked porky goodness.  As for Pork pies, they are a lot of work, so I keep them to holidays and special occasions.  But Sausage Rolls, well, now, they are much more fun to make, and gosh, just so dang easy to eat. So much so, my daughter recently asked me for my recipe for Sausage rolls.  So, all y’all can thank her for this blog.

Sausage Rolls do take some planning, as in time management planning, if they are going to get done in a timely manner.

Mise en place.

For the Sausage: about a pound of ground pork meat, one large yellow or white onion, fresh sage, or parsley, or both,

For the Roll:

Flour, butter, salt, and ice water.   Egg wash.

Rough puff is super easy to do.  it’s started the same as any pastry dough, use butter (not shortening or butter substitute).  I use a food processor, but it isn’t necessary to use one, it is just a time saver for me. I cube up a stick of butter, into 16 cubes, 2 cups of flour and a healthy pinch or two of kosher salt.  I turn the food processor on high for about 20 to 30 seconds, or until the butter and flour look like cornmeal with small chunks of butter.  I transfer this to a bowl, and add ice water a few tablespoons at a time as I mix the dough by hand.  When it all turns into a nice ball, it like it to be a little moist.  Then I wrap it in cling film and chuck it in the chill box.

This is a great time to cut up another stick of butter into tiny evenly sliced pads. I dust them with flour and set them aside. Other important right now side-work, preheat oven to 350, have dusting flour available,

Sausage rolls require a tasty sausage.  But you can’t just grab a breakfast sausage and roll it in pie crust.  Well, yes, you can. And, it is very tasty, a total easy snaky thing.  But that’s pigs in a blanket more than a Sausage Roll.

Finely chop the whole onion into tiny bits, more than a basic chop up, less than a mince and put into a large bowl.  Then the green herbs, I usually gauge my herbs on how much onion I have.  I match the amounts of onion and herbs.  If they have the same size pile when I am done chopping, then I call it good.  Herbs in the bowl with the onion.  Then the meat, salt and pepper.  As gently as possible I combine the ingredients. When it looks and feels all blended, I then form the sausages.

I usually use a handful of meat, when I say handful I mean a chunk that I can close my fingers around without it squishing out between my fingers.  I bet if I were to actually weigh it, it would be 2 ounces.   (Let the snickering begin) I then form the meatwad into a sausage shape, rolling the meat between my hands making the shape of a cylinder.  The length of it will be as wide as my hand.  I square up the ends as much as possible, making them as uniform as possible.  I cook them on a large cookie sheet in the oven. Baked until they are medium to medium well done. If the oven is preheated, then they should be done in about ten to fifteen minutes.

While those are in the oven, I roll the dough. The dough I make is usually pretty wet, so I am liberal with the flour while rolling. If it gets sticky at all, more flour. I roll it out to about 18 x 18 inches.  Then I fetch the butter slices I set aside a little while ago and put them side by side making a square sheet of butter in the middle of what I rolled out.  Then I fold the sides onto the butter, enveloping the butter in the dough, then roll it out a little more, sealing the envelope. Flip it over! Dust the top of it with flour, and roll it out some more making a long rectangular shape.  This is when the folding and lamination begin.  Fold into threes, roll out, fold into threes, roll out, fold into threes, wrap in cling film and chill.

Now the sausage rolls should be just about done.  I precook the sausage so they don’t cause a soggy bottom in the pastry crust. Plus, they will have shrunk up as much as they are going to so the pastry will fit around each sausage better. I want the meat to be the same temperature as the pastry dough when I wrap the sausages, but I do not rush their cooling time.  I leave them out of reach of wandering room mate, and curious guests.

Break time!  Put on a record!  The Blues Brothers. Dance and sing for a minute.

back to the pastry.  It should be chilled enough to work it out a little bit more.so back to the roll into a rectangle, fold in threes, roll into a rectangle, fold into threes, one more time, roll out, fold into threes.  Re-wrap and chill for another 15 to 20 minutes.

We have options on the next roll.  The dough can be rolled out and cut now, or, more rolling into rectangles, and folding.  The more folding, the more layering will occur.  I like more layers, so I typically roll and fold three more times before I do my final roll out. Regardless, the meat has to be cool enough to wrap.  If the meat isn’t cool enough, it will melt the butter in the pastry dough, and then everything gets weird.

Moving on!

I turn the oven up to 400. The meat is now cool enough to wrap up so I roll out the pastry dough just like I would a pie crust.  Same thickness and all. I keep in mind how many sausages I have when I am cutting the pastry.  I can fill extra pastry with other yummy things like cheese and onion, or apples, or, whatever else strikes my fancy.  As long as I have enough for the Sausage Rolls.  I like to cut the pastry into small rectangles for the sausages.  I give about 1/2 an inch of pinching space on each side of the sausage.  So if the sausage is 5 inches long, I make the pastry sheet for it 6 inches long by 3 wide.

With the small pastry sheet on my hand, I lat the sausage diagonally across the sheet, and them make the edges meet.  Pinch the center area first and work out to the ends, then seal the ends by pinching the edges together still. I lay them seam side down onto a baking sheet.

When they are all done, I egg wash them all twice.  If the Sausage Rolls are cooked as is, they will puff up and turn into a big pocket of air and meat and grease, so the tops of each roll has to be cut.   Just vent the pasty with three marks. I cut  the vents by using a sharp blade on the rolls dividing without cutting them into four pieces. in the middle, then in the middle on each side.  When they cook, these vents will help keep the pastry close to the meat. My blade is really sharp, so I am basically resting the sharp on the pastry dough.

These get baked until they are all a rich golden brown in color.

The hardest part about these is not eating them immediately.  because they are still lava pockets, it’s best to let them rest for about 30 minutes.  I like them cold from the chill box, so I make sure I make enough to last that long.

 

Eat Me!

Happy mistakes are always welcome (thanks Bob Ross).

It is my birthday today, so I decided to make a cake for my coworkers. This cake started out with plans of becoming a layer cake.  But the Universe said that a layer cake was too passe’, and I needed to turn my attempt at cake decorating into a swiss roll.

I had every intention of making a chocolate Genoise cake.  I was mixing along with the recipe, and then forgot to add 2 components that would have made this the perfect cake.

There isn’t much to a genoise cake: 6 large eggs, 1 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of butter, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and 1 cup of flour. For this swiss roll, I substituted 1/4 cup of flour with cocoa powder.

I love making this cake because of the chemical reactions in eggs.  To get the proper texture in the sponge, the eggs have to be whisked over a double boiler, for making cakes, that is usually a large bowl on top of a simmering pot of water.

The eggs and sugar are whisked over the heat until they are foamy, and warm to the touch.  Then the vigorous whisking starts.  All recipes I have found suggest an electric mixer for this, because it takes a while even with modern conveniences.  It has to be whisked until the eggs have tripled in volume.  This is where I lose my patience and rush things along.  DON’T DO THAT! Do not make this cake to this example, a future one, yes, but not this time.

The flour and the coco powder go in the mix next, but before that happens they have to be sifted. I had the forethought to sift them together before I started, so I had tan flour to work with. It was pretty.  The flour mix has to be added slowly so the air isn’t taken out of the eggs, so mix slowly with a big rubber spatula if you have one.

I wanted to just cut a sheet sponge into the shape of a square cake, so I used my biggest sheet pan I have. I poured the cake batter into the sheet pan, and put it to bake at 350 for 10 minutes.  Sheets cakes are thinner, and don’t take as long to bake as long as cake rounds.

The cake was in the over for about 2 minutes when I saw the remaining 1/2 cup of butter and vanilla that I was supposed to add in the batter with the flour.

DAG NABBIT! I ruined my genoise!  but wait, I told myself, I can just turn this into a Swiss Roll. The filling is simply whipped cream, made with powdered sugar instead of granular, it disperses differently, and I feel it makes a lighter whipped cream. I spread it out evenly and gently rolled it up.  Of course, a bunch squirted out the end, but I expected that.  Rolls always squirt out like that.

With encouragement from my room mate, and reminders f what we have learned from watching Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood on the Great British Bake Off, I was able to create a perfectly rolled, not cracked Swiss Roll.

To all that have a birthday!  Happy Birthday! For everyone else who is eternally 29, Happy 29 again.

 

 

Tilapia Night!

Okay, sometimes my food is too good to stop eating long enough to take pictures, so I end up with an empty plate and a fork.  Not such a bad place to be in, I think. Last night was tilapia night.  I have a few different tricks to make tilapia palatable.  Last night was all about the fish boil?  Can my Midwest peeps give a shout out to this one?

I first learned of fish boil in Door County Wisconsin.  Up there in the Great lakes region, Fridays are dedicated to fish.  “Let’s go to a Fish Fry!” was all I said, and we ended up at a fish boil. I had no idea how this would rock my personal culinary world, and change the way I eat fish.

Prior to this fish epiphany, I had been true to eating raw fish, you know sushi and sashimi.  Most fresh water fishes were mainly avoided because of that.  Oh how I love sushi, so much that I would refuse to eat cooked fish at all. of course there were few exceptions, such as seared tuna, and fish and chips when I went to the UK, rarely a grilled halibut.  But again, all ocean fish. Lake and river fishes like perch, white bass, trout and pike were not even on my my food radar.

Fish boils are big showy meals, simple in construction, and unbelievably tasty.  At the restaurant we went to, they served boiled potatoes and onions, coleslaw and bread, and of course a buttery tangy sauce to go on top of it all. The meal reminded me how simple can be simply amazing.

My take on a fish boil, I do not have a lot of access to go fishing every time I want to eat fish, so I buy tilapia instead.  It is inexpensive, and absorbs flavors fairly well. A lot of cooks do not like working with such a bland piece of fish, but in the right hands, mine, tilapia turns out really tasty.  I prefer the wild tilapia as opposed to the farmed, it has a more earthy flavor.

I start with a big pot of water and put it on to boil.  I add carrots and potatoes, cut into similar sized pieces, then bring it back to a boil. When the water is up to a mild boil, I add celery and onions, a handful of chopped parsley and salt.  Really simple!  Really cheap with tilapia to make, and tasty even without the fish!  When the carrots are soft enough to poke through, I add the fish.  The fish only takes 3 or 4 minutes to cook.

For the buttery tangy sauce, I melt a few tablespoons of butter, add finely minced garlic, and a tiny splash of lemon juice. I can not seem to have a meal without mushrooms, so last night I also added grilled mushrooms to the butter sauce.

To serve this, I scoop out the cooked veg first with a large slotted spoon, I do not want a lot of liquid on my plate for this, I reserve the broth for future soups and soup bases. Then I scoop the fish out. Around the fish I will scoop more veg. On top went the mushroom and the buttery sauce. On the side I have made some stuffed hungarian peppers (of which many future blogs will be dedicated) and a fresh baked dinner roll.

Every component has the holy-moley moment, the moment when the first bite hits the palate. The flavor/texture dance that takes control of the entire body.  Eye rolling, mouth watering, groan inducing satisfaction.  Instantly, more is needed: From hand to mouth.

 

When Life hands you Lemons

I have always been the kind of person that makes do with what I have.  It is one of the reasons, I feel, that I am such a good cook. I know that some people can be discouraged when trying new things because they don’t have the necessary equipment.  I say RUBBISH!

Good food is easy, even without fancy tools.  I make do with the basics, an 8 inch knife, a good cast iron pan, and a well seasoned wooden spatula are my core tools that I can use to make just about anything. I have used drinking glasses for rolling pins, along with glass bottles.  I have used stacked butter knives to elevate chicken in a roasting pan. I have used metal spatulas for pastry scrapers.

I have to be imaginative when it is important. Usually I find out after I have started a project that I am missing some element of usefulness.  I don’t let that stop me though, because failure through giving up is not an option.  I come up with a clever replacement, and make a note to add the other gadget onto my culinary tools wish list.

Cooking isn’t about having the most gadgety of gadgets.  It is about creating something wonderful to fill the belly and nourish the body. It is about using what is available, and making it so good that it has to be put on the weekly rotation of recipes.

To everyone that cooks, either new to it, or has a lifetime of experience, imagination is probably the most useful kitchen tool on the planet.