Monday, April 30, 2012

Getting Over It

Hi Readers!

I want to begin this by thanking each and everyone of you who actually read this blog. It might sound silly, but I can't tell you how much it means to me to have "readers." I never ceased to be amazed that, according to Google analytics, you actually exist. I don't know who all of you are but I love you.

Please, please know that I appreciate every single one of you and the time you take from your busy lives reading about my homemade adventures and (often only semi-coherent) ramblings and reminiscences. You all are awesome. And I am truly humbled by your existence. I mean it.

Alright, so onto this post. It has been really hard for me to accept that I can't just eat whatever I want. I don't just mean in terms of quantity although THANK YOU, 30-something metabolism, for letting me learn that one the hard way.

What I'm talking about this time is more in terms of ingredients. Specifically, being challenged to create a delicious dietary life without all-purpose flour and its many relatives...bulgur, wheat berries, and many packaged things. (Pasta, I'm talking to you. And you, crackers. And you, Acme Bread. And croissants. UGH. I looooove croissants.)

But maybe I was meant to be this way. To paraphrase Lady Gaga, maybe I was "born this way". I'm a purist. Always have been. Since birth, I've loved and prioritized the freshest, most whole ingredients, almost instinctively. I'm not a picky eater in the classic sense...I've always been adventurous in the food department. It's not the food itself, but the freshness and the quality of the ingredients that have forever mattered to me. Always. Maybe GMO wheat and I were never meant to get along. Philosophically, we're just not on the same page.

Nevertheless, it is somewhat difficult for me to admit to you, aloud (or whatever the "aloud" equivalent of typing is), that I used a mix in making these cookies. To be fair, it was a gluten-free flour blend. But still. I do NOT bake from a box. I never have. That Cake Doctor lady has her niche and that's just fine, but that's not me. Not who I am. I've got "from scratch" written all over me.

All of that said, I'm excited about these cookies. Really and truly excited. Not just because they are gluten-free but also because I fed them to a bunch of people (science-experiment-style), who, in my view, can eat whatever they want and you know what? They loved them, too. And I think you will as well.

Kate's (Gluten-Free!) Salted Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from this recipe

Makes up to 4 dozen, depending on how much raw cookie dough you pilfer in the process.

Prepping ingredients. By the way, I have been using my own homemade vanilla extract and so far, so good! Here's the recipe.

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups gluten-free flour blend (I used Better Batter for this particular endeavor but you can sub an equal amount of regular all-purpose flour

1/2 cup oat flour
 (for info on how to make this, see here)
2 cups rolled organic (gluten-free) oats

1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
 (I used Ghirardelli bittersweet chips and chopped them up since they are huge)
Maldon sea salt or kosher salt

Chopped gigantic bittersweet chocolate chips

1. In a stand mixer (or using a hand-mixer), cream the butter. 
Add the brown sugar, white sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. 

Creamed butter, adding sugars, baking powder, cinnamon.

Combine at a medium speed until the mixture has a crumbly texture. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix again until combined.

 2. Fold in the all-purpose flour and oat flour until just combined, being sure not to over-work the dough. Gently fold in the oats and chocolate chips. 

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and transfer to the refrigerator to chill the dough for an hour. NOTE: This is important. If you do not do this, your cookies will spread all over the cookies sheet and you will be sad. 

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. When the oven is hot, drop the cold cookie dough, using a tablespoon or cookie dough scooper, onto a parchment lined baking sheet.

Sprinkle the tops of the dough with sea salt or kosher salt. Do not skimp on this front. There's no salt in the dough, so you really need to be pretty liberal here.

Bake for 13-15 minutes until the edges are golden brown but the center is still kind of soft. The cookie should still be soft to the touch so carefully transfer them to a cooling rack. (If you bake on parchment, as I do, you can just slide the whole sheet off the pan onto the rack, which is a method I highly recommend.)

Serve to people without dietary restrictions and don't be amazed at their responses! These cookies are delicious!

Cookies as seen at our Point Bonita picnic.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Game of Scones

Last Sunday I breakfasted at the Fairmont with Mom and Doug. We sat at a ridiculous low table in gigantic mohair wing chairs which made me feel very much like Alice in Wonderland when she takes the "Drink Me" potion.

Mom and Doug both had delicious-looking scones ("A Fairmont Specialty") that I immediately decided to go home and recreate without the all-purpose flour. With the prior week's blueberry oat scones fresh in my mind, I also wanted to work on improving the texture (more flaky, less spongy) and was aiming for a more classic scone flavor.

Kate's Classic Dried Fruit Scones
Makes 12 2" square scones

1 1/2 cups white spelt flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold and cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons dried blueberries
2 tablespoons dried currants
5 dried apricots, chopped finely
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup yogurt

A bit of extra milk for brushing the tops of the scones (which I absolutely forgot to do this time).

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. 

2. In a large bowl, combine spelt flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt with a whisk. Cut butter into flour mixture using a pastry blender or your (cold!) hands.

As much as I love the food processor, the pastry blender really does work better for this, I think.

3. Stir in dried fruits. Put flour mixture back in fridge for 5-10 minutes.

4. While the flour mixture is chilling, combine the milk and yogurt with a whisk until well blended. Remove the flour from the fridge and pour in the milk/yogurt mixture. Stir to combine. The dough will be very dry.

Very dry and crumbly, just as it should be.

5. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and, using your hands, knead the tough together, picking up the remaining dry bits. Form the dough into a rectangle. 

Like magic, the dough comes together nicely.

6. Using a chef's knife or bench scraper, cut the dough into 12 squares. Place squares on the prepared baking sheet and place back in the refrigerator for 5-10 minutes.

Studded with fruit. Yum.

7. Remove from refrigerator and brush the tops of the scones with milk (or an egg wash). Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until scones begin to brown on top.

Once I was on the scone kick, it just felt right to cook up some lemon curd with the remaining lemons in the fridge. Very British of me, no? Once again, I used Alice Waters' recipe, which is killer. You can read about it here.

I am happy to report that these scones turned out to be quite delicious. So much better than the last batch! They are tender yet flaky and just dense enough to feel legitimately scone-y without being like dried out hockey pucks. I love the mix of dried fruit versus the traditional single-note of currants alone.

I have managed to restrain myself, once again, from eating them all...

Dessert scone, anyone?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Popeye, The Sailor Man

I bet you can guess what this post is about!  Spinach!

No. Actually it’s about having disproportionately large calves.

Just kidding. I have those, but you were right the first time. It’s about spinach.

Raise your hand if you’re tired of spinach. Personally, I feel like I eat it all the time. In omelets at brunch, in salads at lunch, as a side at dinner, on pizza, etc. And I really, really can’t stand that minerally, nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling I get on my teeth from eating cooked spinach.


But spinach is something that my stomach doesn’t get bent out of shape about, and also, I just got a bunch of it (two bunches, to be precise) in the farm box.

Much like I am tired of cooking bok choy with the same flavorings over and over, I’m not sure I can do sautéed spinach with garlic and olive oil any longer. I’m done. After 30ish years of eating spinach prepared that way, it’s time for something new. Surely there’s another way to cook spinach. A way that's not creamed.

Thanks to last year’s 2011 “Learn to Cook Some Indian Food” foray, I pulled Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking at Home off the shelf and looked up “spinach”.  And there it was. Several of the usual ingredients – garlic, olive oil – but also some new ones – cumin seeds, cayenne.


Figuring I had nothing to lose, I whipped it up. It honestly couldn’t have been easier. This is not a dish you need “cooking skills” to make. All you really need are tongs.

You have tongs, right? If you don't, go get yourself some, they are the most indispensable kitchen tool I own. Seriously.

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large skillet. I used a combo of olive oil and grapeseed oil, and my 12” pan.

When the oil gets hot, add a teaspoon of cumin seeds.

When those little guys start dancing in the pan, add three cloves of garlic that have been, essentially, julienned (cut into thin strips lengthwise).

When the garlic starts to become golden, add the spinach (washed, stemmed, still damp, and coarsely chopped if not the baby variety).

Use tongs to toss/distribute the oil/garlic/cumin and then put a lid on it.

Let it steam/sauté for about 4 minutes or so? I don’t know. Check it.  Toss it with the tongs occasionally. You know what cooked spinach looks like.

When it looks done, add half a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of cayenne. Turn off the heat and toss with the tongs to incorporate.

It’s wild how different this tastes than your typical spinach. I actually stuffed some into a quesadilla I made with Monterey jack cheese (and a spelt tortilla, THANK YOU RUDI’S ORGANIC BAKERY) which was amazing, like some kind of Indian-ish burrito.

Try this sometime. It’s eye-opening, in a good way.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ode to Joy

There's something about having grown up in the brutal winters of Chicago that leads me to embrace Spring like it's the second coming.

Despite having gotten out and firmly situated myself in what must be the world's most temperate climate, a climate where you never freeze and you never sweat, I still love Spring.

Spring feels optimistic. It inspires hope. Every year, Spring equals new.
New clothes, new shoes, new places to go on vacation, new foods at the market. The last of these, of course, being my favorite among favorites.

After the recent parental visit weekend (featuring much dining out at many fabulous places) and after foods such as the Chocolate Pot de Creme at Boulevard which I am pretty sure contained in its tiny cup twice the sum total of calories I typically ingest in a day, I was ready for - craving, really - some lighter fare.

Night number one was a simple preparation - just some pan roasted wild salmon and a few spears of asparagus. I rubbed the salmon with a little salt, pepper, smoked paprika and olive oil and threw it in the hot pan. Ditto for the asparagus, omitting the paprika.

By the time the salmon was done, so was the asparagus. Delicious, healthy, easy, fresh.

Alas, once again, my eyes were bigger than my stomach, and I was left with a few leftover spears and a couple of ounces of salmon.

Of course, I was also getting ready to take off for the week to the wilds of Central Wisconsin for a longer-than-usual business trip. This meant no trips to the grocery store. I would have to make do with what was on hand for dinner the night before departure.

Time to get creative.

Here's what I was working with:

A bit of cooked salmon, a few spears of roasted asparagus, an egg, a lemon, a bag of unshelled green garbanzos (I saw them at the store earlier in the week and could not pass them up!), a baggie of frozen (spelt) breadcrumbs, some dill, a stalk of borderline-rubbery celery, some sorry-looking parsley, and one gigantic shallot.


Here's what I turned it into:

Salmon Cakes with Green Garbanzo Salad and Asparagus in a Blanket.


And here's how:

1. Prep the green garbanzos. This involves shelling them. When I was done (it took at least 10 minutes, and be warned, the stem bits can prick your fingers), I had about 3/4 cup of fresh garbanzos.

In the pod.
Cute! A little green garbanzo!
All shelled and ready to go.
2. While I was shelling the garbanzos, I put a small pot of water on to boil. I had no idea how long the garbanzos would take to cook and I overcooked them a bit. Turns out they take about only as long as fresh peas, so be warned. They are delicious and taste like a cross between fava beans and edamame. I drained them and rinsed them under cold water to stop the cooking, then put them on a towel to dry while I dealt with the other items.

3. Stem the parsley. I just pulled the leaves off the stems, whole. Like so.

Peel strips off the lemon peel - make sure you don't get the pith. Slice into thin strips (julienne). Whisk together the juice of half a lemon, some salt, and some olive oil to make a little dressing. Add the garbanzos, parsley and lemon strips and toss.

4. Prepare the salmon cakes by combining in a bowl the following:

about 2 teaspoons minced shallot
half a stalk of minced celery
1 tablespoon of minced dill
1 scant tablespoon of capers, drained and chopped
1/4 cup of breadcrumbs
a pinch of cayenne
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons of egg, beaten (reserve the rest of the egg for the "blanket")

 Add the leftover salmon, flaked (skin removed and discarded).

Mix this until combined and then divide it in half. Form patties by mushing it together with your hands. It looks like they will fall apart if anyone in a 4-block radius slams a door, but I swear they'll hold.

5. Prepare the "blanket" batter. Add to the bowl with the remaining beaten egg about two tablespoons flour (I used whole spelt flour), a pinch of salt, and a splash of milk. Whisk to combine.

6. Now get your pans ready. Heat over a medium flame a bit (a tablespoon, maybe? I didn't measure) of canola or grapeseed oil in a small frying pan (this is the blanket-cooking pan). Swirl to coat the pan and then use a paper towel to remove any oil that's running around the pan. You want a nice coating but you don't want to fry the blanket.

Put a few tablespoons of the same oil in another frying pan (the salmon cake pan). Heat until shimmering. In this pan, you want a standing pool of oil, probably about 1/8".

7. Pour the blanket batter into the smaller frying pan and tilt the pan so the batter covers the bottom. Cook undisturbed until bubbles form on the surface, pop, and don't close themselves.

8. Meanwhile, gently slide the salmon cakes into the hot oil. I found that the best way to do this was to use two spatulas, one under the cake and one to help slide it off into the oil without splashing. This is a good trick for flipping them, also.

9. Cook the salmon cakes a few minutes until browned and crispy, then flip them. Don't forget to flip the pancake blanket, too!

10. Drain the salmon cakes on a paper towel lined plate. Heat the leftover asparagus for a minute in the microwave. Wrap the asparagus in the pancake blanket, seam side down.

11. Plate your delicious dinner!

I have to say, I'm really glad I decided to make a pancake for the asparagus rather than just tossing the leftover egg. It was really fun to have Asparagus in a Blanket. What I learned is that I should eat more things "in a blanket." Or, as the French say, "dans une couverture."

The salmon cakes came out crispy and flavorful and didn't fall apart, much to my utter incredulity. I was kind of expecting to end up with salmon hash when I was forming the patties.

And the green garbanzos are a total pain in the butt to shell but their flavor is delicious. I will certainly be looking for other ways to prepare them before they disappear from Whole Foods until next April.

The whole meal felt very Spring-like. Just what I wanted!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Paradox of Choice

I finally made my own granola yesterday, for the first time. Making granola is surprisingly confusing. There are just too many options. Sure, oats are a given (Quaker Oats of course!) but beyond that...

There are nuts.  Almonds, Pecans, Walnuts, Pistachios, Cashews, Coconut...
There are seeds.  Sunflower, Chia, Flax, Pepita...
There are dried fruits.  Cherries, Blueberries, Apricots, Currants, Raisins, Bananas...
There are sweeteners.  Brown Sugar, Granulated Sugar, Agave, Honey, Rice Syrup...
There are fats.  Butter, Canola Oil, Grapeseed Oil...
There are flavorings.  Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Vanilla, Pumpkin Pie Spice, Cardamom...

Based on the above, there are 10,800 different granola flavoring options. At least I think that's right. Math was honestly never my strong suit.

Anyhow, that's a damn lot of options. It's enough to make you want to lay down and take a nap.

But I managed to power through.

Kate's First Granola

2 cups Quaker old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded dried coconut 
1/3 cup pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
1/4 cup flax seeds
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine first five ingredients in a bowl and toss to combine. 

2. Place butter, honey, salt, and vanilla bean (including seeds) in a small saucepan and warm over low heat. Stir while heating. When butter is completely melted, remove the vanilla bean pods and pour the melted honey-butter over the oats and nuts and stuff. Toss until the grains and nuts and stuff are totally, evenly coated. 

3. Prepare a large rimmed baking pan by greasing it lightly with butter. Evenly-ish spread the granola mixture in the pan. 

4. Bake for 15 minutes or until browned, stirring at least once while baking. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container. 

I realize this doesn't look materially browner than the uncooked shot, but I swear it is browned. See that piece of coconut in the middle of the picture? Totally golden.

The results here were good although I am looking forward to investigating other combinations. I'd really love to amp up the coconut flavor - it was pretty subtle here. More granola experiments to come!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

16 Months in the Making

Remember a while ago when I discovered that I needed to either close my bathroom door or put up cafe curtains in my kitchen? Clearly, curtains were the option as I'm pretty sure there is no roommateless person on earth who closes her bathroom door when no one else is around.

It's not just me, is it?

Yeah, well I've been wanting to make a valance for the kitchen window that matches the cafe "curtains" (really two striped dishtowels) I put up in January.

Not January 2012. January 2011.

Indeed, I am a little bit behind.

I can't quite figure out how nearly a year and a half passed since I assigned myself this project. There was nothing tricky about this valance. I just got busy with life, I guess. And my cute stripe-y valance got backburnered. Big time.

Today, I finally, FINALLY, made the valance.

It was so easy, I'm embarrassed it took me as long as it did to finally get around to it.

Basically, here's how this went:

I took two dishtowels and cut them in half horizontally.

I joined three of these panels by overlapping their side hems and sewing double-stitched hems.

Joined panels on the floor next to the old non-matching Target-issue valance. I wanted a little more volume in the valance than I got from the old red one. Luckily, the width of three panels is a few inches longer. I love it when things work out.

Then I hemmed the tops of the joined panels by folding in the raw edge 1/4" and then folding over again to create a  1/2" hem to match the prehemmed bottom of the dishtowels.

The first fold, ironed.

Finally, I cut 2 1/2" strips of fabric from the remaining fourth panel, sewed them together lengthwise, pressed a hem, and sewed them on the back of the joined panels 1" down from the top hem to create a channel for the curtain rod.

You can see the two lines of stitching on the front of the panels that indicates the curtain rod channel. This is now ready to hang!

And voila! A matching valance! And after all that buildup, I think this project took me all of an hour and a half to do. It was really a snap and I love the possibilities for changing up the look in the kitchen. All in all, these 4 dishtowels cost me about $20 bucks plus a little sewing time for cute, custom cafe curtains and a valance. Not too shabby!

Yea! Finally! The drapes match...uh...the drapes.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Easter Feasts

This past Easter weekend, we had a family mini-reunion at my Aunt and Uncle's home.

A lot of Vitullos in the same place at the same time can only mean one thing:


On Good Friday, we dined on a feast of many fishes...

Grilled shrimp that I briefly marinated in a bit of lemon, wine, salt, pepper, and olive oil.
Flounder Amandine. Aunt Margaret used corn flour instead of regular flour so I could eat this. And I'm so glad she did because it was unexpectedly my favorite of all the fishes. So good.
Pepper-crusted ahi. Perfectly cooked by the Uncles.
A giant bowl of mussels, Cousin Lucas' and my favorite. Also, two types of crab cakes. Because one type would never be enough.

We tried to make natural egg dyes...

It looked pretty, but the colors didn't really take...even after an overnight soak. So we resorted to the Paas.
The Paas worked.
Saturday, I made a Meyer Lemon Upside Down Cake.
It came from this recipe.

Prepping ingredients. The lemons I brought to DC from San Francisco. They came from the tree in my boss' backyard!

Prepping the pan.

Layering in the lemons. I love this picture. The lemons smell delicious.

Baked. Perhaps a little overbaked...

But at least the cake unmolded from the pan successfully.  That's always scary, flipping the pan and hoping the goods land in one piece.

I've got to say, this is the first time Martha Stewart has failed me. The thinly sliced meyer lemons were positively bitter. I think this could be fixed by candying them first, so I'm going to try that, because I have high hopes in the future success of this recipe.

At least it came out pretty!
We made table decorations by stuffing jumbo cupcake wrappers with Easter grass and putting candied eggs in them. Cute and delicious!

We also introduced the cousins to the Easter Aardvark. The Easter Aardvark likes to sleep in on Easter Sunday, but when he does eventually show up, he brings candy and toys. Good deal.

Happy (belated) Easter!