Monday, August 31, 2009

The other tortilla...and a quick digression to Puerto Rico

Because "tortillas" are so prevalent in our society, as well as in a bunch of other societies (with Mexico leading the pack), the "tortilla Española" is a little confusing to Americans. This dish has nothing to do with flour, corn, or tacos. It is actually more like a potato and egg omelet.

I still don't know very much about tortilla Española, though my awareness of it has slowly increased in recent seems to keep coming up here and there. I first heard of it in about 2003, when Intermezzo (my main employer) almost ran a recipe for it but ended up cutting the article. has only two recipes for TE*, the earliest dating back to 2000. (Epicurious is the website of Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, and has thousands of recipes in its database.) I think the TE is an ordinary, everyday food eaten throughout Spain in many variations; I don't remember eating it when I was there, though I think many bars offered little portions of it as tapas.

But finally, I did eat Puerto Rico. Scott and I went to San Juan and the British Virgin Islands last fall. In San Juan we stayed at this tiny, fabulous, really inexpensive guesthouse called Andalucia. It was in a great location with many amazing restaurants nearby. The neighborhood (Ocean Park) was not built up and touristy and just sketchy enough to be charming but not dangerous.

Across the street from Andalucia is a hugely popular bakery/restaurant/deli called Kasalta. We ate there every day for breakfast, most days for lunch, and after dinner each night we'd stop by on the way back to the guesthouse for baked goods to eat in bed while watching bad TV. The best thing we had there was a sandwich called the "Elena Ruth." This was a baguette with roasted turkey (like from a real roast turkey, not cold cuts), cranberry sauce, Swiss cheese and mayo, served toasted and warm. To many people who know me as a vegetarian and mayonnaise hater, it is no doubt very strange to hear me praising this sandwich. I could do a whole separate blog on the vegetarian thing, but the super-short version is, I sometimes eat meat when I'm traveling. And the Elena Ruth is amazing! We would take them to the beach with cans of Coke and a cookie for dessert. Sandy perfection.

But breakfast at Kasalta was also pretty awesome. This is where we first had the tortilla. I knew what it was by sight and by name: a thick, golden, firm cake cut into wedges (links to pics below). Served cold right out of the display case, the tortilla was a dense layer of egg and potato...mild yet nourishing, rich with olive oil, and just excellent with a cup of coffee.

Back to the present. I'd been thinking that potatoes were an ideal choice for a package-free carb, and a lot easier than rolling out pasta. The only problem is, I don't LOVE potatoes. I mean, they are fine, but...never my first choice.

But when I got my eggs from Mr. Milagro, it suddenly struck me that tortilla Española was kind of a perfect food. And with the inevitable addition of roasted hatch chiles--they are in everything I eat this month--it was sounding better and better.

I used a combination of a recipe in my big yellow Gourmet cookbook (probably the same one they have online) and the step-by-step instructions I found in this article. The first thing to do, in either case, was "poach" the potatoes (Yukon golds) in a huge amount of olive oil. How "poaching" in oil is different from deep frying, I'm not quite sure. But I did it. I sliced the potatoes ( method, and what I remembered from Kasalta) rather than dicing (Gourmet), heated up a huge amount of olive oil (which I'd recently bought in bulk from Wheatsville Coop) and added minced onion and the potato slices. Immediately I knew what I had done wrong--added too much stuff at once and lowered the temperature of the oil. So I removed half, and kept on poaching.

Apologies for this stupid picture. I was trying to reduce the resolution, and cropped out one corner instead.

When they were tender enough to eat, I transferred them with a slotted spoon to a strainer set over a bowl, added salt, and let them drain. Then I did the other half, strained them, etc. Then, though this put me at risk for third-degree burns, I strained the oil through a strainer and into a jar to reuse. The potatoes didn't seem to have absorbed that much.

Then I tossed up the potatoes with like, 4 or 5 eggs, a good amount of previously roasted and chopped hatch chiles, salt, and pepper. The mixture went back into the pot to cook.

Once again, I immediately sensed a mistake. I just KNEW that they were going to stick and that I would not be able to do the "flip" so beautifully illustrated in I needed seasoned cast iron without the high walls, and I didn't have it. Can you believe I don't have a cast iron pan? Ridiculous.

So I tried to flip it, spilled egg everywhere, swore creatively, and shoveled it as best I could back into the pan to finish cooking. Then, I "transferred" (scooped) the whole thing onto a plate for serving. It doesn't look like the About pictures, does it?

However! it was awesome anyway. We ate it for dinner, and I had it cold the next day for breakfast. Just goes to show you can totally screw up and still have a great meal. But I would like to try it again with the right kind of cookware and see if I can get the perfect little cake. Maybe I'll try to make minis in my nonstick omelet pan.

In the meantime, I urge everyone to go to Puerto Rico. It is a pretty cheap destination, the food is amazing, and you don't even need a passport.

*Just realized Epicurious has a few more recipes if you search "Spanish omelet."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Eggxactly the cliche title I was hoping for

Well. The two weeks are up. And I still have a lot to post. I think for now I will talk about eggs.

Last Wednesday I went to the farmer's market here in Austin at the Triangle, a little development on North Lamar and Guadalupe, in the same plaza as beloved Mandolas. I was looking for Milagro eggs specifically, but was tempted by a lot of other produce too, mostly okra and zucchini. In the end I didn't get any, fearing I wouldn't use it fast enough. It wouldn't be the first time I had a fridgeful of rotting okra.

But I did get my eggs, from this guy:

I had brought my own container to put them in, just a cardboard egg container from last time I bought some. But the guy, whom I shall call Mr. Milagro, has his own system. You pay twenty-five cents deposit to get one of his plastic egg things, and then trade it in for reuse every time you come back for new eggs. Total cost, $4.25 for a dozen eggs.

(PS, it is a nice departure from magazine-land writing for me to post this without Mr. Milagro's real name. I could probably look it up, but I think I just won't bother. So deliciously lazy!) (PPS, I just tried to find a website for Milagro and can't, anyone know?)

I have to say, I would have paid more! Totally unprompted, Mr. Milagro told me all about how he has several kinds of hens (I forget how many...) and they all lay eggs in slightly different colors and shapes. Casual inspection revealed most to be different shades of brown, with one that was kind of light-blueish. The hens eat an assortment of ten different whole grains, plus veggie scraps (but no onion or garlic).

(photo no longer sideways thanks to Rohan!)

At home, I saw the eggs were all slightly different sizes, and some had much harder shells than others. Honestly I can't comment whether or not they tasted different than my usual almost-as-expensive organic eggs, because I used them in this really condiment- and flavor-heavy preparation (shocking for me, I know!).

(this image no longer sideways thanks to ME!)

This was the "final dinner" of my no-packaging project. It was kind of a melange of leftovers. Tortillas made with dough left over from last time I made them (for fish tacos), homemade salsa (from same tacos) mixed with some leftover roasted hatch chiles (from tomatillo sauce and tortilla Espanola), strained yogurt (not homemade...), homemade refried beans, and a kind of home-fry hash brown thing. I realize none of these above-referenced meals and ingredients have been blogged yet. All will be, in bite-sized portions so as not to bore and overwhelm.

But what else can I say about about the eggs for now? Oh, well I did use three for banana bread, and have a few more left. I'll fry one up for a real taste-test and let you know how it is. But I am really happy that I have found a source for them that is truly local, from someone who cares about his chickens and feeds them well, and that generates no waste from packaging.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tomatillo salsa with hatch

A couple of posts ago I said I would give the recipe (by which I mean "guidelines," because it's not an exact science with me) for the tomatillo salsa I used on my tortilla/egg/cheese thing. I roasted some hatch chiles the other night for something else and thought the pics made sense here too.

This time of year in Texas we have hatch chiles from Hatch, New Mexico. So that is what I've been using, but at other times of the year, I use poblanos. Poblanos are the real workhorse chile in my life--mostly mild but sometimes spicy, especially up near the stem. They are generally available even in the crappiest of grocery stores, and are pretty cheap. But this time of year, in the southwest, it's hatch all the way.

Here are the hatchies fresh. They are usually all green but you can see a few starting to blush.
There are "hot" and "mild" hatch chiles...but as with all chiles, it's a gamble. The mild can be completely heat-free, or they can be pretty spicy. The hot are generally medium to medium-hot, but some of them will unexpectedly make your teeth bleed. So I buy three mild and three hot, and then combine.

First thing to do is roast. You do this right on an open flame, either a gas stove or a grill. You want nearly the whole surface to be charred but not coal-black and not ashy. Just deep brown and blistered. But if it goes too dark that's really ok too. Believe me I've screwed up many and it's fine.

Yeah, my stove is kind of dirty.

These are about 1/4 done. Keep turning till the whole surface is blistered, put them in a bowl and cover them. Let them sit for like half an hour. If you do this first, you can chop other things while you wait.

Next, remove them from the bowl. They will be all limp and soggy. Chop the stem and very top off. Stand over the sink and kind of split them open lengthwise, and rub off all the charred skin and simultaneously remove the seeds. Do not give in to the temptation to run them under water to speed things up. I have been told this washes away the essential smoky flavor. Just get rid of as much char as you can (there will be some left) and as many seeds as you can. Put on cutting board and dice. Put in a bowl together and mix up so the hots and milds are fully mingling. For this recipe you only need about half of this. Save the other half for something else.

Now we do the tomatillos. These are widely available here, and I used to buy them all the time in the northeast too (and my CSA farm grew them). In the store, they look like this.

At home, pull off the papery husk, wash them (they are kind of sticky, that's ok) and cut out the hard bit around the core. Then finely chop, or, as I tried, grate them.

It worked pretty well, but then you end up with this leftover skin. The skin is tasty so I diced it and used it too. This is also a good trick for tomatoes, especially when you don't want their skin (like in sauce).

Now that you know your ingredients and methods, here is the recipe. I am 100% making this up as I go along. I've made this a million times and never really keep track of any quantities. Insert "about" in front of every ingredient listed and adjust to your tastes. (This is what I love about this blog--so different from my regular job editing recipes and measuring tablespoons of olive oil, etc.)

Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa Verde) a la Jes
Yields: about 4 cups

olive oil or other cooking oil if you object to the taste of olive
1/2 onion, diced
a few cloves garlic, minced
1 pound fresh tomatillos, diced or grated
3 hatch chiles, hot, mild or a mix, or 2 to 3 poblanos, roasted and diced
1 lime
1 bunch cilantro

Heat up some olive oil. Just a couple tablespoons. Add the onion and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the tomatillo and cook about 10 minutes. Mixture will start to really meld together.
Add the chiles. Simmer it all together for awhile...Don't overdo it or it will start to dry out. Probably no more than half an hour.
At some point, add a squeeze of lime juice and season with salt.
Turn off the heat and stir in cilantro. This is really up to you how much you use. I would use nearly a whole bunch. You can use either just the leaves, if you are patient enough to pull them all off, or just chop up the leafy top with a bit of stem. If you don't love cilantro, use considerably less.
Let it sit off the heat for awhile. At least 20 minutes or so.
Depending on your preference, you might want to blend it up in a food processor or blender. But I like it chunky.
Serve as a topping for enchiladas, burritos, eggs, or chill and use as dip.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bloody, bloody plums

In the middle of cooking my tortilla and cheese dinner the other night, I had to run to the store because my dog was out of chicken. While I was there I decided we needed something sweet...I was out of chocolate chips, my usual snack. There are no bulk bins at Ridiculous Randalls, so all I had was produce. So I got a bunch of plums.

When I was a kid plums were my favorite fruit ever. I have such vivid memories of standing in front of the fridge and chowing them down on hot summer days. But I've struggled to recapture that flavor. I don't know if plums are going downhill in general or maybe we just had really good ones in Vermont?

I took a chance and got three, which I decided I would cook and then eat on one of the homemade tortillas--it would be a little makeshift crostata/tart. I sliced them into thin wedges and cooked them with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a few spoonfuls of turbinado sugar. I cooked until the juice got sticky and they were quite jelly-like and glazed.

For the "crust" I rolled out a slightly thicker tortilla, and heated up little canola oil in my nonstick pan (I had visions of a puffy, fritter-like crust but there was no way I was deep frying...way too messy, fattening, and hot...but maybe with a little oil I'd get some richness). I cooked the tortilla and topped it with the hot plums, and sprinkled them with a little more sugar. It looked great:

Put it in the fridge to cool down. After dinner we shared it. Well, it was amazing. The plums seemed to be both more sweet and more sour than when fresh. They actually slightly burned my tongue--in a fabulous way. I was glad I hadn't added cinnamon or vanilla as I'd been thinking of. They were pure and perfect, like the plums of childhood summers but on steroids. The tortilla didn't really add much for me, but Scott liked it a lot.

A couple days later I cooked up a big batch of plums in the same way. This time they came out even better, not sure why. The color was the most beautiful electric red--the perfect thing to eat while watching my current favorite show True Blood! I dished out a bowlful, and poured a glass of my red hibiscus tea (in a light blue glass so that it appeared even darker red)!

Unfortunately my camera can't capture the brilliance, but it was fabulous. I cheesily savored every tongue-searing, sweetly acidic bite. A poor substitute for a nice bottle of O negative, but still good.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Homemade cheese, curdly fun

The other night when I made tortillas, I also made cheese. Nothing fabulous, but it was technically curdled milk, and it tasted pretty good.

What I made was basically paneer, the kind of cheese they use in Indian food (saag paneer, etc). I found a recipe but it didn't work so I won't link to it. Fortunately, I saw my friend Charlie make this a couple years ago, so I knew what was going wrong and how to fix it.

The first thing you do is heat up some milk. I did four cups of 2%. When it just starts to boil, I was told to add 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice. Well this did nothing...the milk just kept on foaming. I squeezed in a whole lemon until it looked the way it did when Charlie made it, like this:

Then I lined a colander with a (clean) dishtowel and poured the mixture through, and squeezed till it looked like this.

Then I sort of rinsed the curds a little and wrapped the towel around the stuff to make a ball, and squeezed and rinsed some more so it would be cool enough to handle. Then I hung it up from a cabinet handle with my iPod cord for said 20 minutes but I had it up there a lot longer.

Finally I took it down (not a lot of liquid drained out during its hanging, but this is what the recipe said to do, and Charlie did it, so...) and took the curds out and...Well I struggled with how to proceed at this point. I needed to compress them into a firm block. I eventually settled on putting them in a Tupperware, with another Tup over them (fitting inside) and on top of that, a pot of black beans that were soaking for the next day:

I let it sit this way for like 20 minutes while I did other stuff. Then I took the patty o' cheese out by inverting the container and whacking it. Then I cut the sucker into little cubes. I could have eaten them at this point, but wanted them to be a little more appetizing and snazzy, so I toasted them on a dry skillet. They browned up nicely, and I sprinkled them with kosher salt while they were still hot. I wanted to use Adobo seasoning, but that would be against the spirit of this project.

And that is it. They were so good and perfect for our dinner. They were slightly chewy and crumbly, I'm not sure they could have melted, like I I had wanted to do quesadillas, but maybe I'll try it sometime. Here is how they ended up in our finished dinner.

Next time: a recipe for tomatillo poblano sauce! (the green component).

Those are the homemade tortillas, and there are two fried eggs under there, then the sauce, cheese and avos.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A word about bread (but it's never just one word with me)

When you think of cooking at home, from scratch, one of the first things that comes to mind is baking your own bread. However, keen readers of this blog (all two of you) will observe that I bought bread, rather than made it, and already mentioned this as an example of something that it was better for me to buy than make. Let's look at that in more detail.

Some people don't even eat bread anymore, though this trend has mostly passed--right about when Robert Atkins did. I'm not laughing or even smirking. But it should be noted that if everyone on this planet ate the amount of protein that the Atkins diet advocated, we would run out of land, water, fish and animals in about five minutes. No, that isn't very well researched, but I know that this planet can not support six billion people eating meat three times a day. It's already struggling mightily. (And that's not even considering the monetary side of things--people expect meat to be cheap--it shouldn't be! The affordability of meat--high quality, muscle meat--hides a lot of unpleasant truths.) We gotta try to eat from lower on the food chain.

Anyway, I love carbs and think they are part of a healthy diet, particularly in the form of whole grains. And while I can roll out my own pasta and make tortillas and other basic stuff, I don't think I can bake good bread. I don't have the skills, ingredients or equipment to do it right. Plus, is heating my oven up to high when my AC is already working full-time just to keep this place at 81 degrees a very pleasant or environmentally sound idea?

Central Market sells a million different kinds of breads that are not wrapped, so the only packaging used is a paper bag. I thought about just chucking it in my shopping bag, but then I was like, have some damn dignity. I think that unless I get a designated bread bag, I don't need my unwashable food mingling with everything else. I think one paper bag is ok.

The bread I bought is called ten-grain, and it is so good. I highly recommend it--it is chewy and not coarse, and has a really nice and mild flavor, despite the hippy-high grain count. I would have to buy TEN different grains to get the nutritional benefits of this one loaf. No fun.

Just to share, here is one way that I have enjoyed this bread this week. I made a fried egg, put it on a piece of bread and topped the whole thing with leftover tomato sauce that I made last week. Sounds kind of weird, but it was delicious. I will give my recipe for easy tomato sauce at another time, but it's basically just olive oil, tomatoes, onions, garlic and in this case, rosemary, because I have been on a big kick with it lately and there is a shrub of it growing in front of my neighbor's apartment. It makes everything taste like it comes from a fancy restaurant.

Here is my bread working hard for me. Tasty!

Learning to love flour tortillas as much as I love corn

Last night I decided to make a kind of huevos rancheros thing for us: tortillas topped with egg, salsa, and cheese. I had all the stuff to make it except tomatillos, which Scott picked up for me at Randall's (overpriced grocery store where they keep potatoes in the refrigerated section, which is just so wrong). If you are not familiar with tomatillos, they are like smallish green tomatoes. They are a lot firmer than tomatoes and less juicy, and have a kind of papery husk over them. They taste like a cross between a tomato and a crabapple. If you have ever had salsa verde/any kind of green salsa, you have had them.

First thing, make tortillas. I found what appeared to be a really easy recipe here, courtesy of a blogger called "Homesick Texan." This recipe is for flour tortillas, even though I LOVE and could eat by the truckload, corn tortillas. I never knew how great they were till I moved to Austin. I never knew what a pain in the ass they were to make until I went to the fabulous La Villa Bonita cooking school in Mexico. There is absolutely no way I will ever make corn tortillas at home--you have to get the right kind of dried corn, soak it with a chunk of lime (the rock), cook them on low heat for hours, and then either pound them by hand in a molcajete/mortar and pestle, or, as most people do nowadays, take your bucket of corn to the town mill (usually there is more than one) where (when I did it) two ladies pour the corn into a huge piece of machinery that grinds it into dough. One of them pours, the other one catches. Then you take the dough home and make the tortillas, which is another paragraph's worth of explanation. Not happening.

But these flour tortillas looked good too. When I told my friend Clare I wanted to make tortillas she said "Oh my sister made them recently and they were great, let me email you her recipe." And it was the same recipe from the same blog I was already planning to use. Encouraging!

The dough: Flour, baking powder, tiny bit of oil, salt, warm milk. Kneaded it for two minutes, let it sit for 20. Divided it into eight balls, let them sit for ten minutes under a damp dishtowel. Here they are, looking cute next to my tomatillo sauce.

Then you roll out each one to tortilla thinness. The first one I made was thicker and I used it for another purpose (which will be revealed in another posting), but here is about how thin I rolled the rest. You can kind of see my rolling pin in the corner. I HIGHLY recommend this kind of rolling pin--it's basically just a thin wooden dowel, as opposed to the thick kind of rolling pin with the detached swiveling handles. I find I can better feel what I'm doing with this much simpler tool.

When rolled, the tortilla goes on a hot unoiled skillet for about 20 seconds, then is flipped, and maybe flipped again depending on how it looks. Here it is bubbling up before its flip.

And that's it. I found that I needed to periodically brush off the skillet, as stray flour got left behind and started burning. It would probably be smart to brush/wipe your tortilla of any lingering flour before putting it on the pan

Pictures of the finished tortilla later with finished dinner...They were absolutely perfect, tender and "toothsome" as we annoying food writers say--just like the recipe claims they will be, and so easy to make. Today I made Scott's sandwich on them (wraps).

Next up: cheese.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jaime Lee Curtis is not doing commercials for this yogurt.

Yesterday, it was time to make the yogurt. I found an extremely random and sketchy website that told me I could make yogurt in a couple of simple ways without having a yogurt maker. All I needed was milk and yogurt (recall, you need yogurt to make yogurt, defeating the no-packaging quest--but, now that I have some yogurt, I can use it to make more...forever! and its only one glass jar as opposed to a week's worth of plastic cuplettes).

So the first thing I did was heat up four cups of milk (2%) until it was hot but still not too hot to touch. The website said "warm" milk. Then I added three tablespoons of the White Mountain yogurt, stirred and poured it into this glass bowl with a lid I have. This was exactly the kind of vessel called for, and I have this because a few years ago for my birthday Scott baked me a ladybug cake and it needed this shape of thing to bake in! It was so cute, the spots were made of Oreos, and the red was accomplished through Christmas cookie sprinkles...legs were licorice...really great. Anyway.

So to make yogurt, you need to keep your milk/yog mix at a low heat for a few hours, and then chill it. You can use a yogurt making machine, which is essentially a low heat source, or, according to my source, a crock pot, your oven, the back of a wood stove, or...the sun.

Sun is something we have way, way too much of here in Texas, especially this year. I am not ashamed to admit that I regularly use an umbrella as a parasol, yet I am still tanner than I have ever been in my life. This summer has been the worst drought in like over 100 years or something, and its just unrelenting. I am considering vampirism (but who isn't these days).

Might as well harness it for something useful, right? So I carried this bowl of dairy products out into the near 100-degree heat and put it right in a big beam of sun and left it there for five hours.

Was I an idiot brewing up a big pot of e-coli? only time would tell.

After its little sunbath it went in the fridge for several more hours. When cold, I brought it out and stirred it. It looked kind of yogurty...pretty liquidy but in the right family. I stirred it until it was uniformly smooth and tasted it. It tasted...PRETTY much like yogurt. Something was different. I asked Scott to taste it but he refused because it was so liquidy. So I did the old straining trick: line a strainer with a coffee filter (unbleached biodegradable but still waste...I guess you could use cheesecloth if you had some) put it over a cup or bowl, and pour in yogurt. Let it sit a few hours or overnight. You can do this with any plain yogurt to make it thicker and tastier--the longer you leave it, the more whey will drain out. Its like Greek yogurt.

Well, a ton of liquid drained out in the next few hours (I had it in the fridge, btw). Before bed, I checked it. It was pretty normal consistency, and tasted ok. Enough like yogurt to be passable. Scott was upstairs in bed so he would have to wait to try it.

So for his lunch I mixed it up with a chopped peach and a little maple syrup. He too reported that it was..."ok." There's something strange about it, but its definitely yogurt. And we're both still living!

I actually just had my first full serving of it for lunch (for breakfast btw, I had the granola as cereal again). I strained a small portion for me just for like half an hour, and blended it up with two bananas, and some powdered matcha green tea that I got to sample for work. It's "cooking grade" and meant to be used in smoothies and stuff--I also have some for making regular tea. Check it out:

Anyway, you might have thought I was pretty clever, making pasta and whatnot, but seriously, I do the dumbest stuff sometimes. I just daydream and mess up the little things. So, as I was blending the smoothie, I took off that round clear plasticy part in the center of the lid to pour in the green tea powder. Somehow, I dropped the thing INTO the blend, and heard it crunch a little before I got the machine off. I thought this was why manhole covers are round--because round lids can't fall into the round holes that they cover!?

Well, I fished it out. It had a few chips in it. But I really wanted my smoothie. So I drank it, slowly, through my recycled iced coffee straw, and chewed every mouthful. I extracted two biggish and six tiny chunks of plastic...and hopefully ingested none. But between that and the redneck yogurt I might be a goner.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Kneading, chopping, cooking, eating

When I got home from the store with my groceries on Sunday at seven, I had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.

First thing would be to start the pasta. How is homemade or fresh pasta different from store bought dry? Well, the main difference is that it is made with flour and eggs, whereas most dry pasta from a box is made only with flour and water (noodles and some fettucini being notable exceptions). It tastes lighter and softer but also springier than pasta from a box. The other difference of course is that it takes a lot longer than opening a box! I do it often, but usually for special occassions. It was interesting to just do it as part of my bang-it-out-get-it-done worknight cooking routine.

The type of flour used in pasta is debated a lot. 100% durum...semolina...type 00...there are so many terms floating around, and a good deal of misinformation and misnaming. I think its enough to put people off trying to make it, which is unfortunate, because at the end of the day you can get fine results using just all-purpose flour, and making it is not difficult. I won't go into the techniques here, but I learned do to it from Jamie Oliver and Marcella Hazan--they are both very opinionated and quite expert, and sometimes contradict each other. I actually find this forces you to go into it with an open mind and try new things. There is no 100% ultimate formula--and its supposed to be fun!

Anyway, I decided to use half all-purpose and half whole-wheat flour, to make it a little healthier, and to make a double batch. The doubling was a terrible idea. I heaped up a big mountain of flour, made a well in the center, cracked in four eggs and...they leaked out and made a huge mess. It was pretty sad. Egg running down the counter attracting roaches (I could do a whole blog about those little bastards!), my hands already covered in sticky dough...ugh. But I salvaged it. The dough felt firmer than usual because of the whole-wheat (and the volume I suppose), but I just kept kneading it and beating it to death for about 15 minutes. It's a good workout. Anyone who thinks pasta is fattening should try making it--the calories in probably equal the calories out.

I saved half the ball of dough for another time, and rolled out the rest. It made a ton and was perfect, didn't need any reflouring. Here it is, honey-blonde thanks to the whole-wheat. A nice departure from the usual platinum.

While the pasta was resting (before I rolled it out) I did a bunch of other things.

Granola: I mixed up all the stuff from before shopping with roasted pecans that I crushed by hand, shredded coconut, and rolled oats. Not sure about any quantities. Think there was about as much oat as there was everything else. I heated up some canola oil and honey, mixed it together, and spread it out on two baking sheets. 300 degrees for about 45 minutes, and the house kind of smelled Christmasy. Delicious! When I packed it in Scott's lunch the next day, I added chocolate chips.

So, I also had to consider the beverage side of things. We don't drink alcohol at home, but we do drink other bottled bevs, especially Scott: the new sugar-free vitamin waters, diet Coke, and my favorite, Topo Chico mineral water. But this would have to stop, or at least reduce. So I made a big pitcher of hibiscus tea, using Nile Valley tea bags. I just found the flowers in bulk, but had these bags on hand. I fell in love with hibiscus tea in Mexico (it is also called flor de Jamaica). I add a little sugar but keep it pretty mild. Scott loves it too. So we've been chugging that the last two days.

At some point in all of this I got the lettuce ready for the week. This is part of my usual routine but thought I'd share since it's a good trick. I chop it up and wash it and spin it dry, and then store it in the salad spinner in the fridge. It keeps it pretty fresh all week and is always ready for sandwiches and salads. A tip: the less you can cut it, the better, as it's the cut edges that turn brown. Isn't it pretty?

Finally, time for dinner. I had decided to do the pasta tossed with shrimp and collard greens. So first I had to peel and devein the shrimp, a chore about which I am extremely thorough. My father and I had a big fight about this on vacation once, as he doesn't do it. Lots of people and restaurants don't. If you are eating a shrimp that doesn't have a cut down the outside of its back, it hasn't been deveined.
(If you don't know what this is all about,

is removing the shrimp's intestinal tract, basically. Pretty much a bunch of gross brown grit. It won't harm you to eat it, but sometimes you can taste/feel the grit, and I just simply refuse to eat any amount of shrimp excrement, no matter how small. Call me uptight, I don't care. My shrimp are always tender and NEVER gritty.)

So I did all the stupid shrimp, sliced the collards into ribbons, and chopped up about half the parsley. I sauteed about three cloves minced garlic in olive oil, then added the shrimp and greens at the same time.I had enough shrimp and collards and parsley that I only cooked half. There would be enough to make this again tomorrow. When everything is all cut up and ready to go, it's almost as easy as leftovers.

The pasta only had to boil for a few minutes. Tossed up half with the shrimp and greens, and let the other half cool uncovered before covering and fridging. We did add grated parmesan (wrong, I know...and it wasn't even Parmigiano Reggiano...hey that stuff is like 15 dollars a pound! I can't buy it every time) and I seasoned liberally with cayenne because I am a jackass who always craves the spice. It was great, both Sunday night and Monday when we had it again.

I finished everything by 10 pm. Outrageous to most, normal for us. (And don't tell me it will make me fat because I have lost about 25 or 30 pounds in the last two years and eat between 9 and 10 almost every night!)

Pasta with Collard Greens and Shrimp

Serves 2 twice, or serves 4
Medium pour of olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch collard greens, sliced into thin ribbons and chunkiest part of stem removed
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/3 (about) bunch Italian parsley, chopped
About 1 pound pasta of your choice, homemade if youwant

In a heavy bottomed pot big enough to hold everything, heat olive oil and garlic, cooking till garlic is soft and fragrant. Add shrimp and greens (or, if you like the greens softer, add them first) and cook until shrimp is cooked through, about 5 or so minutes. Season all with salt and pepper. Serve with pasta of choice, and grated parm if you want to laugh in the face of tradition.

My first trip to the store

After I wrote yesterday's introduction and idea for this I got a little panicky. Am I in over my head? Maybe. But its my game, so I can make and break the rules as needed. The point isn't to make myself miserable.

So first thing, I thought about the week's menu . For Sunday there would be pasta with some kind of fish and veg, and Monday or Tuesday, depending on my leftovers situation, would be Hatch chile quesadillas with leftover roasted chiles from the other day.

I also had to think about breakfasts and lunches. I want this experiment to impact Scott (my husband) as little as possible. I make him lunch every day and he skips breakfast (sometimes we have oatmeal but not since it's been hot). He usually has a turkey or ham sandwich, fruit, yogurt, and granola bar. I usually eat a lot of cereal, fruit, smoothies, and leftover dinner foods for lunches (or whenever I feel like eating, as I work at home).

I had some stuff from last week for Scott's lunch, including turkey and one yogurt. I also of course have mayo and mustard so I don't have to think about that just yet. But I would need to provide more yogurt, and granola bars--which I decided would be easier as just "granola."

So for Sunday night, I would have to make:
Fresh pasta and finished dinner

Monday night I would have to make
Homemade tortillas
Dinner out of homemade tortillas and cheese

OK. I looked up some yogurt and cheese recipes and started making my shopping list and gathering containers. Central Market, where I do most of the shopping, has an extensive bulk section with plastic containers or bags provided. I have a bunch of them laying around that I'd normally take to the recycling, and looking in the cabinet I found a few more that were about half full of stuff that conveniently would be perfect for my granola. I had a basic recipe for granola from the cookbook Super Natural Cooking, but I decided to vary it quite a bit to suit my needs. So I dumped out all the random stuff lurking in my containers and got this:

Dried cranberries, a little dried mixed tropical fruit, whole almonds, sliced almonds, and toasted pumpkin seeds. A nice start. I washed out all those empty containers, added them to the ones I already had, grabbed my shopping bags and headed out.

All in all, here is what I ended up taking to the store. A bunch of plastic containers, and bags. Oh wait, there was one more thing to do. Central Market has a "label your own" produce system, where you weigh each item and print the label from the scale. They provide plastic bags for this. I've seen people put the labels on their shirts, and I usually put a million on one bag and put a lot of stuff in the one bag, but this time there would be no bag. I got a piece of junk mail and folded it lengthwise, to put my stickers on. Should work ok.

Scott was really concerned that I was going to appear to be insane, juggling a bunch of containers and asking for special treatment. I didn't want this any more than he did.

So I put all the buckets in one of the shopping bags, and at the store I put the bags in the cart. At the bulk bins I filled up my containers quietly and quite normally, just using my own containers instead of theirs. The first exception: I needed something bigger than what I had for all the flour I was buying, so I stole a paper bag from the bread area (I also used one for my bread). But the rest of my containers were enough, and I used no new plastic.

So far, no one seemed to notice me at all. But then I had to go to seafood....

All I wanted was for them to fill my cylindrical container with shrimp. Usually, they put your fish in one plastic bag and then into another one filled with ice. I didn't want any plastic or ice--I didn't care about a couple of stray fish germs mingling with my other groceries, and I wasn't going to be gone long enough to need ice (I never am--I usually tell them to skip it but sometimes forget). So I gave the fish man my bucket and politely asked him to just fill it with shrimp. He did, seeming a little befuddled...He then tried to put it in a bag with ice, and then in a bag without ice. Both times I just smiled and said I didn't need that and that it was fine the way it way it was. Having worked for years in a health food store full of high-maintenance clientele, I am very sensitive to not being the asshole customer. While it might have been a little unusual, I caused him no extra work--in fact, it was less work. I was polite throughout and smiled, and felt a little awkward, but in the end it was fine.

In produce, I filled my bag, printed my labels and was done. I decided not to get any berries even though I wanted them, because they are all packed in plastic containers. I got Texas peaches which I used another paper bag for (helps them ripen), plums, bananas, and two oranges. Plus all the veggies for my dinners.

Now I would need some packaged stuff--there was no way around I. I had looked online and couldn't find a small dairy within driving distance or with a delivery program to do a glass bottle exchange, and the farmers market with the eggs isn't until Weds. So I bought three half-gallons of milk in cardboard, and one dozen eggs in cardboard. (BTW, regarding the milk containers, I wonder if plastic is better, as its recyclable? They say explicitly at my recycling place that they DON'T take the lined cardboard milk containers.) I would use all the milk to make the yogurt and cheese, and the eggs for pasta and other recipes later. But to make the yogurt I also needed some yogurt. Annoying, but in theory once I'm started I'll never have to buy it again. So I got a glass jar of the White Mountain Bulgarian Yogurt that is so popular around here. I also needed cooking oil, to make the breadsticks I was thinking of, and for my granola (it calls for coconut oil but I didn't want to buy a bunch of extra stuff--I knew it would taste fine with canola). They don't sell olive or any oil in the bulk section, actually, so I bought a big jug of it. In the future, I'll check other stores for bulk oils. And, I needed to get parchment paper for the cheese, which I also wanted because I can use it when baking instead of foil, or to wrap stuff at home. (I want to reduce plastic wrap and other at-home disposables.)

I got home around seven with $70 worth of stuff, including dog chicken (my dog eats raw legs, will discuss in another post). Now it was time to cook! Fortunately, Scott and I eat really late and stay up even later, and I'm very fast in the kitchen, but this was going to be a challenge.

Next posts, cooking and recipes.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

How complicated is simplifying?

I love to cook, and for a long time now I have been thinking about "making everything from scratch." Essentially only shopping in the produce aisle and bulk bins. The goal would be to eat minimally processed, healthy food that generates zero waste from packaging.

But the more I think about this, the more complicated it gets. And then I start whittling it down..."Well, I'd have to make exceptions for olive oil, and milk...what about yogurt and crackers?'s not like we really buy that much processed stuff anyway...I guess we're doing ok the way things are."

And, we are doing ok. We eat pretty healthfully and I make most of our food. But I still find myself going to the recycling place every couple weeks with bags and bags of waste, and taking the kitchen trash out every couple of days.

Recycling is good, but it's better to just not use stuff in the first place. Something like a plastic cup--I always recycle them, but each one has a lifespan of about half an hour. It is useful for about half an hour while you're drinking your iced coffee, and then you "discard" it--even if you recycle it, you pass it off to someone else and are no longer responsible. And what about the materials and energy used to make it? all for about half an hour of usefulness. Something like a napkin or coffee stirrer--useful for about five seconds! This is just not reasonable.

And what about the "trash" that I call "my possessions?" Looking around my house, how much of this stuff will be in a landfill someday? Unfortunately, a lot. I'd like to think that all my possessions are valuable antiques that will be passed down for generations, but...ha.

Imagine if we had to be personally responsible for every object we brought into our lives. Not just responsible for getting it to the dump or recycling center, but for the impact its production and decomposition would have on the planet forever.

Yes, it's an extreme point of view (and thankfully, not original, as lots of people care about this stuff). I also understand the value of a division of labor in our society--there are many industries devoted to properly disposing of our stuff, recycling our bottles, sanitizing our toilet water, etc etc. But we are really lucky to not have to think about it all too much, and maybe one of the last generations to be in this position.

Division of labor brings me to another point about "processed foods." Some of the processed or packaged foods we eat are made by experts and artisans. For instance, it's not going to do the Earth any favors if I run my oven at 400 degrees every couple of days to make bread, bread which is going to end up being way inferior to what I could buy from an actual baker who has the proper equipment and expertise to make great bread. What about cheese makers like Grafton cheddar, candy makers like Kakawa chocolate beans, my beloved Ana's salsa (which I will continue to buy even when it's like 10 dollars a pint), Brown Cow yogurt, Sriracha* hot sauce. These are products I love and respect.

But...what would life be like if I really did try to do without any and all packaged foods? For, oh, let's say two weeks. What if I learned to make my own yogurt? My own crackers, and granola bars and breakfast cereal (Frosted Mini Wheats I will miss you!). What if I were that annoying person who asked the people at Central Market how to calculate the "tare weight" on my Tupperwares because I didn't want to use their provided containers?

And what about the exceptions? I can't make olive oil, soy sauce, milk, or eggs. But rather than going without these things, I can try to find them in package-free versions. My friend tells me I can get local eggs from Milagro farms at the farmers market on Wednesdays. And I think Central Market might have olive oil in bulk, for example--I know they have peanut butter, honey, and a million other things. But that brings me to another point--should I be buying peppermint bark and mini peanut butter cups and jellybeans and honey roasted pecans from the bulk bin just because they technically come with no packaging?

The simple idea of "making everything from scratch" can get really complicated, I'm finding out. What is "scratch?" I know its not mini peanut butter cups, but there are some people who consider flour to be a processed food, and basically only eat whole sprouted grains and produce and beans. I know this kind of thing can get very restrictive and extreme. That is not really my goal. My goal is to eat healthy, delicious food that does not generate any waste. I'll do this for two weeks, I'll find solutions to the snags and snafus and challenges, and I'll decide about exceptions.

Hopefully it will be fun!

*Actually, I don't know anything about Srirarcha, it could be made by Vietnamese child slaves out of nuclear waste. But I really hope not because I eat a LOT of it.