Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Secret Obsession

I don't admit this very often, but I am completely and utterly mad about bread and butter.  If some law ever came into effect that I could only eat one thing, that would probably be it.  Sushi is a worthy contender, but in the long run, I would probably have to go with the bread.  I'm not talking about Wonderbread here.  Not sliced bread, and not even the stuff "baked" fresh daily at Costco.  I mean that real, honest artisan loaf with that toothsome yet tender crumb, really well defined crust, and the complex aromas from sourdough or a good long preferment.  And butter; that's a whole separate topic for discussion.  Salted or not?  Goat or cow?  Oh, I could go on for pages...

This fascination really started during childhood, with my mother baking the majority of our bread.  It wasn't particularly complex, but it was fresh, smelled incredible, and instilled a lifelong appreciation for fresh loaves.  Perhaps six years ago, I bought the book Artisan Baking Across America, by Maggie Glezer (which I would highly recommend to anyone).  This book has had a huge impact on the quality of my bread.  Both my husband and I have always baked, but the recipes we used were always pretty rudimentary.  Since this book came into our home, we have been teaching ourselves how to bake and have consistently produced beautiful loaves worthy of the best bakeries in the area.  So, this gorgeous loaf was the product of yesterday's labors:

The method for this loaf isn't particularly complicated; it has a preferment (a small percentage of flour and water combined with yeast and allowed to ferment for many hours to develop flavor and build up the yeast) which is then added to the standard flour/water/salt combination, but this is where the recipe diverges from standard lean doughs.  This loaf has just a touch of honey and about three ounces of mashed potato.  Also, the preferment is the only source of leavening; generally when using a preferment, more yeast is added when putting together the final dough.  So the low yeast content (effectively 1/3 of 1/4 teaspoon for this one loaf), a high percentage of water, and some added sugars resulted in a fairly sloppy dough and a very long proof time.  I have to tell you though, the result was worth it.  I ended up with a thick, well developed crust, beautiful pale golden crumb, and an aroma to die for.  And yeah.  I ate it with butter. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Memorial

Perhaps a six weeks ago a good friend of mine called me up to see if I'd be interesting in volunteering for a Martin Luther King Jr memorial service in Tacoma.  I thought, sure, why not, it'll be a fun experience, right?  I was going to be in charge of setting a menu for and executing a sort of cocktail hour-minus-the-cocktails reception after the two-hour performance. 

There were a few restrictions on the menu which made the development process a good challenge.  First off, the group organizing the event wanted everything vegetarian (I can't tell you how many people asked me "where's the fried chicken?").  Next, this was the first year providing food after the service, so it was kind of sketchy how many people would hang around after for a snack (anywhere from zero to three hundred fifty).  Recruited to help me were five (even though it turned out closer to ten) high school students looking for some community service hours.  Last but not least, kitchen space and storage logistics turned out to be rather difficult.  We had limited access to the kitchen at the event site so we had to scrounge a bit...

So, the menu had to be vegetarian, very inexpensive, easy to execute so my enthusiastic but untrained assistants could actually have something to do, and all of the food had to be able to be made the day ahead, stored, and then all served at room temperature with minimal assembly.  This is what I came up with:

 Fig, Gorgonzola, and Walnut Crostini
Goat Cheese and Tapenade Crostini
Vegetarian Antipasti
(agrodolce pearl onions, roasted red bell peppers with sun dried tomatoes,
marinated wild mushrooms, olives with fresh herbs)
Spiced Grilled Eggplant and Cucumber Salad
Tunisian Carrot Salad with Toasted Cumin and Parsley
Cannellini Bean and Rosemary Spread
Labneh with Sumac, Olive Oil and Fresh Herbs

Not exactly what one might think of considering the occasion, but it worked within the constraints of budget/skill levels/kitchen coordination.  In the end though, everything worked out very well.  We ended up feeding perhaps one hundred fifty people with just a bit of leftovers.  All of the guests enjoyed the food, even if I was accused of "making them eat this healthy stuff."  The biggest seller was the fig crostini, I think people really enjoyed the sweet versus savory in every bite.  It was definitely new food for the highschoolers (a long way from top ramen, they pointed out) and it was for many of the diners as well.  It was a great opportunity to introduce a group of people to new flavors and textures in a very gentle manner. 


Monday, January 11, 2010

A Little Bit of Tuscany

After a couple of gloriously sunny days, we're back to winter weather in the Puget Sound.  It's gray, misty, and pouring rain.  To counteract this dreariness I wanted something for lunch that was bright and the complete opposite of what's going on outside.  After digging around in the cupboard, this is what I came up with:

When we were in Italy last year we stayed in Lucca for a few days, unaware upon arrival that the area is know in particular for it's olive oil and farro.  We ate farro in many forms- in soups and chilled salads mainly.  This farro salad is my take on what we ate almost every day there.

Grilled Squid and Farro Salad
three to four first-course servings

1 c. farro
6-7 squid, cleaned
1 small clove of garlic, finely minced
1/4 c. minced fresh parsley
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil, unfiltered if possible
salt and pepper to taste

Simmer the farro in salted water until tender (usually about 15 minutes, but check frequently).  Drain well and then dress immediately with the lemon, garlic, and olive oil.  Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.  Meanwhile, heat a grill pan (or other grill) and lightly oil and salt the squid.  Once the pan is very hot, throw the squid on and cook for about 30 seconds.  Turn each piece and cook for about 10 seconds longer.  Remember that squid is best cooked either very quickly or very slowly; in between and it will be like eating fishy bubble gum.  Remove the squid from the grill and add in to the farro.  Add the parsley and season to taste with the salt and pepper, and feel free to add more oil and lemon to suit your palate.  As a side note, I think next time I will serve this on a bed of wild arugula.