Thursday, September 9, 2010

Making Stock

The assignment from my Food and Wine Seminar last week was to make a stock of some sort, following the general stock-making guidelines demonstrated by the Chef. Seeing as how I had foolishly discarded the shells from the last few times we had shrimp (used in shrimp stock) I decided to make a chicken stock using one of the small organic chickens in my freezer. The first step in the stock was to roast the chicken, which I did after rubbing it with herbs, for about an hour. It was a small chicken, but it provided enough tender, delicious meat for that night's dinner of Pesto Chicken Pasta with Summer Vegetables (a recipe I invented on the fly) and for a very nice chicken salad wrap lunch the next day. I stored the carcass in the fridge overnight, for the next day's attentions.

Following the instructions on making a Mirepoix, (fancy word for basic stock vegetable combo) I chopped onions, carrots and celery (2 parts onion to 1 each of the other) into medium, uniform dice, put those along with the carcass in a large stock pot, and filled the pot with cold, not hot, water. Then I dangled a tea strainer filled with dried parsley, a bay leaf and whole peppercorns into the pot. This was a substitute for a real Sachet, which should have been a little bag made of cheesecloth, but since I was unable to find cheesecloth, the tea strainer sufficed. I let this simmer at a low temperature, uncovered, for several hours, until the vegetables were tender but not mushy. Then I strained it through a regular strainer lined with coffee filters (another stand-in for cheesecloth, per an internet article) and was rewarded with about a gallon of amber, fairly clear chicken stock. It tasted very nice, subtly chickeny. We had been cautioned against salting the stock, as salt would be added into whatever recipe the stock is used.

For the second class, Chef Dowie used the previous week's shrimp stock and demonstrated the making of a Shrimp Bisque,. This involved teaching us the whys and wherefores of Roux, in its three varieties: white, blond, brown. All three consist of equal parts butter and flour, cooked together till thick and bubbly. The color difference reflects cooking times, since the longer it cooks, the browner and more flavorful it gets. The bisque started with "sweating" onions and garlic in butter, adding spices and tomato paste, the stock, dry sherry, and cream. When that had cooked down a bit, he added the blond roux he had made and whisked it into the thin creamy liquid till it thickened. The bisque was smooth, spicy and very subtly shrimpy. The acidity in the Pinot Gris white wine we tasted (and expectorated) offset the creaminess of the fat in the bisque quite nicely.

Now lest this all seem very gourmet, let me add a few down-to-earth elements. 1) I have been making Roux for years, just not knowing what it was called. I didn't know the exacting proportions, and had no idea that color differentiation was acceptable. I just figured I was being negligent and burning the butter, changing a "white sauce" into too-brown glop. 2) "Bisque" is a fancy name for a cream soup made from stock, though turning my chicken stock into bisque doesn't sound as delicious as Shrimp Bisque. 3) My handy equipment substitutions worked just fine, though I do regret handing off the antique Chinois to my brother several years ago. I had been told it was for ricing potatoes, and figured we hardly ever ate potatoes so he could have it. Now I discover it is in fact a fancy kitchen tool, necessary and useful for all sorts of straining. Of course, it has to be lined with cheesecloth, which I finally found in the paint section of the chain hardware store. My coffee-filter lined strainer worked acceptably as a quick substitute.

And this brings me to a rambling conclusion. Cooking is definitely a skill and can become an art, but where I find satisfaction is in the elevation of the "know-how" I learned from my mother and grandmother, while watching them and helping them cook for the family. I was blessed with being allowed to mess around in the kitchen, and learned how to do amazing things through trial and error and reading cookbooks and watching others cook. This class is the "Aha!" for all those skills and nuggets of knowledge---as in "Aha! That's why that happens when you let it cook too long!" or "Aha! That's what that funny holey funnel is called and used for!" or "Aha! That's why people order white wine with cream pastas!"

Incidentally, Chef Dowie was demonstrating how to clarify stock into a consomme, which is an utterly clear liquid used as an elegant type of soup. At the end of class, he declared the consomme clarification process a failure and said it would have to be a "do-over." So even all the fancy knowledge still ends up with a bust once in awhile.

Friday, September 3, 2010

College Care Package

It was a good excuse to send a care package-- I found a small portable lamp that my college freshman daughter could use near her sink in her dorm. She wanted something she could turn on early in the morning which would not disturb her sleeping roommate. It seemed silly to mail such a minor thing all by itself, so I decided some baking was in order.

I found black bananas in the freezer, ready to be thawed and smashed for banana bread. It didn't take long to mix up a batch of our favorite chocolate chip banana bread. I put the batter into a few mini loaf pans to make shipping and sharing easier. Then I made a batch of peanut butter cookies to accompany the lamp and bread. One upside of making cookies for a care package is that invariably there are too many in the batch to ship, so my husband and I were happy to eat the excess.

I bagged the mini loaves and cookies, wrapped them in bubble wrap, and put them in a priority mail box along with the cute little lamp, then sent them off to my daughter. I included a note instructing her to share some with her sister, who is also on campus.

The package arrived a couple of days later, to positive reviews. Our older daughter happened to be in younger daughter's dorm when she opened the package, so they shared the bread and cookies together. I've had several text messages since then about how delicious the bread was and that the cookies are gone.

I still haven't heard for sure if the little lamp will suitably serve its purpose.

Back in School

I am back in school.

That sounds grander than it really is. I've only signed up to take one class, and that at our local community college. But it is for credit, it meets weekly for an entire semester, and there are EXAMS!
The class I signed up to take is called Food and Wine Seminar, and is designed especially for the food and wine hobbyist. It is taught by faculty of the Iowa Culinary Institute, but does not apply toward a degree from that well-respected institution. It was advertised in our newspaper this summer, and my daughters encouraged me to sign up for it. They were concerned that after they both went off to college, I would be at a loss for what to do with myself and an empty nest.

So I had to apply for admission and be accepted as a part time student at the college, which I thought was kind of funny. At least I didn't have to take any entrance exams! I was assigned a student ID and a campus email, which I much remind myself to check occasionally.

The first class met this past week, for 3 hours on Wednesday evening. As I expected, most of the 60 other students are of my age and station in life, with some variation on both sides in the age area. It is not a hands-on class, as we do not have the kitchen safety and sanitation prerequisites completed for actual cooking. So we sit at tables and watch the chef do his thing; this is projected onto various big screen TVs which zoom in on his hands and utensils.

Chef Robert Dowie demonstrated how to make a shrimp stock, imparting knowledge and techniques offhandedly as he went along. He talked about knives (high carbon stainless steel are best), sharpening knives, color coding your cutting boards by type of food to limit contamination (such a great idea!), and the concept of Stocks. I learned about Mirepoix, which is the base of every type of stock, consisting of half onion, and one quarter each celery and carrots. He demonstrated making a sachet for herbs and peppercorns out of cheesecloth, which will simmer with the veggies and whatever bones you decide to use. In this case, he used shrimp shells he had frozen from past shrimp recipes (how many times have I thrown those stinky things away?!) for the flavoring. Because it takes only about 30 minutes to extract the flavor from the shells, he chopped the vegetables very finely, demonstrating various types of dice, mince, julienne and other knife techniques. For a poultry or beef stock, the vegetables can stay in larger pieces because they have to simmer longer. He said sometimes they will let beef bones simmer for about 24 hours.

While the stock was simmering, another instructor, Paul Gospodarczyk, demonstrated the proper method for tasting and describing red wine. He is a Sommelier and wine scientist and directs the eonology (wine science) program at the culinary institute. His role in the class is to teach us how to pair different kinds of wine with food, based on flavor and texture. We were instructed to taste the unidentified red wine given to us, then spit it out in the accompanying "spit cup." He even showed us how to properly spit so as not to embarrass ourselves or gross out our classmates. Then he called on some of the other students who are in the wine science program to describe what they were tasting. It was impressive to listen to all the dimensions they describe when looking at and tasting a small amount of wine. Incidentally, we were tasting a 2007 Pinot Noir from Oregon.

After that flavorful venture, we were given samples of the shrimp stock, which was smelling so good by then. The chef had strained it through a cheesecloth-lined funnel shaped strainer called a chinois, which resulted in it being clear and smooth. It was fragrant, silky and subtly shrimpy.

Our homework for the first week is to write a letter to the instructors about what we want to get out of the class, to taste a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc white wine and describe what we taste, and to make a stock of some sort. We were advised to freeze some of the stock to use for future homework assignments. That's the most fun homework I've ever had assigned to me!

I'm off to roast one of the organic chickens in my freezer, in order to acquire a carcass to use for a chicken stock. Looks like we'll be having a chicken dish for dinner, along with some of the New Zealand wine I'm supposed to try. Sounds pretty good for a Friday night dinner!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Blueberry Bash

Blueberries at our house are typically a seasonal treat, most specifically during the month of August. This is because the berries that are sold year-round in our grocery stores are from far away and very expensive. During late summer, however, the prices drop because the berries come from nearby Michigan and are plentiful and delicious. I trot out my blueberry recipes every summer and we feast on their luscious juiciness.

Blueberries are a Super Food, at least according to the know-it-all nutritionists, because they are high in anti-oxidants and vitamins and all those things that are good for you. They are alternately an ingredient in comfort foods (muffins, pancakes, coffee-cakes) and a stylish addition to trendier offerings (smoothies, juice drinks, candies). Growing up, my experience with blueberries was limited to the tiny berries that came in the can with the Duncan Hines muffin mix. There was more juice to drain off than there were berries in the can. They added mostly color, but little texture, to the muffins.

For a couple of consecutive summers, I made take-your-daughters-to-camp road-trips along the east coast of Lake Michigan, where blueberry farms abound. I made it a point to stop and buy their berries, and kept myself awake during the long drive on the chocolate covered dried blueberries that were sold by the pint container. I felt satisfied buying Michigan berries in our stores in Iowa because I had seen the farms for myself, and talked to the fruit-stand vendors along the highway.

This year, however, locally-grown blueberries will be around all year at our house, for we discovered Pick-Your-Own Iowa blueberries. I happened to have a conversation with a local berry farmer while picking up my food at our Iowa Food Cooperative distribution site a few weeks ago. She told me that they allow visitors to come and pick their own berries, and that the blueberry bushes were loaded with berries in easy reach. My daughters were game for the trip, so we drove the forty minutes northeast of Des Moines through rolling green fields to the Berry Patch Farm, near Nevada ( pronounced with a long A, not to be confused with that state out west).

We were given buckets and shown on a hand-drawn map in which fields we should pick. We drove along the gravel road past apple trees, raspberry bushes, and a tomatoes-only greenhouse. The blueberry bushes grew in rows, acres long and wide. They were the tall-bush variety, growing about 3 feet high, and were loaded with fruit in varying stages of ripeness. We worked for about an hour in the warm sun and light breeze---it was a perfect morning to be outside. The picking job was easy---when the berries are ripe they can be easily rolled off the stem with your thumb. Each of us filled our five quart buckets about two-thirds full of the marble sized berries, and ate handfuls of them straight off the bush. They were warm from the sun, and perfectly ripe.

We took our harvest to the little stand where the berries were weighed, and we paid the $2.50 per pound---we had picked 10 pounds in all. We felt quite smug about our industriousness and chattered on the way home about how cool it was to do our own harvesting, like the hunter-gatherers of old.

I spent the rest of the day figuring out how to use our gorgeous berries. Some were set aside for immediate use---a blueberry-orange tea bread, blueberry smoothies, fruit salad, and sending home with my daughter's friend. The rest I laid out on cookie sheets in single layers and let them freeze; this keeps them from sticking together during storage. When they clanked together like marbles, they were ready for ziploc baggies. I filled five three-cup bags with frozen berries; when I am ready to use them, I won't have to thaw them since they are small and easy to measure.

The blueberry buckle (an odd name for what is basically a coffee cake with cinnamon-sugar topping) that just came out of the oven didn't have a chance to cool before a piece was cut and consumed by the resident teenager. She did, after all, assist in harvesting the berries, so why shouldn't she get the first piece?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Farm Feast

Part 3 Family Celebration Summer 2010

On the actual day of our parents' 55th wedding anniversary, we all gathered at the Colorado country home of our youngest brother, John, and his wife Jen and their four kids. John and Jen raise Berkshire pigs which become reputedly (and deservedly so) the tastiest pork on a plate. We knew that the meal at their house would feature their delicious pork, either ham or pulled shoulder roast. In fact, earlier in the week, some of us had assisted in the physical pulling and bagging of the meat from a recently slaughtered piggie. I had offered to prepare the vegetable side dishes from produce that is already abundant in our Iowa farm markets---in addition to the 36 ears of corn we ate the first evening, I had brought along green beans, Yukon gold potatoes, various summer squash, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and fresh peaches.

What you should know about John and Jen is that they are laid-back and creative cooks. They have industrial-strength equipment and do just about everything totally from scratch. They are used to feeding crowds and don't let a little chaos or extra people milling around bother them. Eventually, the food finds its way to a table, and you will have witnessed amazing technique along the way.

We gathered in the kitchen after a late lunch, a coffee break, and a quick ladies-only excursion to a historic mansion nearby. John had rousted out two enormous hams with bones and smoky rinds into a massive roasting pan and put them in the oven to bake. I parceled out vegetable cleaning and chopping tasks to willing helpers, mostly of the female younger generation, all four of whom are showing impressive kitchen skills. On the vegetable menu was a green bean-potato dish, which dresses the vegetables in a homemade vinaigrette with fresh herbs (mint, chive, parsley) I had brought from my garden. Unfortunately, I am not used to cooking at high altitudes (7000 plus feet at my brother's farm), and was surprised at how long it took the vegetables to cook to tender. As it was, the potatoes could have used a bit more cooking, as they should have been tender enough to create a creamy coating to the beans.

We cut up the squash and onions, and Jen dressed them with olive oil and seasonings, then sent them out to John to grill. We also sliced gorgeous vine-ripened tomatoes and laid them simply on a platter; they glistened like jewels. The cucumber was sliced and treated to a classic sugar-vinegar dressing. We dumped the frozen corn from earlier in the week into a big pan and heated it through, adding butter, salt and pepper. Somehow, dinner rolls and mounds of fruit appeared---probably from Gina's limitless supply of food (she's like the disciples and the feeding of the thousands----food miraculously appears and multiplies in her presence). We washed grapes and cherries and set them in large bowls for the taking, and put the buns in a basket. Then it was time for the meat to be plated, but alas, the ham was not done--nowhere near close to done.

Hungry teenagers and small children and older people were beginning to circle around the food in process, so John pronounced with authority that it would be a pulled pork dinner instead. From some mysterious hiding place, a massive supply of pulled pork shoulder roast appeared, delicately seasoned and needing only a quick heating through before serving. The ham went back in the oven and about an hour after dessert, decided it was done. With the near-crisis roundly averted, we gathered around for a blessing and sent the guests of honor through the food line first. Similar to the previous evenings, there was little left for storing as leftovers. The home-grown Colorado pork with the Iowa farm-grown vegetables were perfect complements to each other, and both received many compliments from appreciative family members.

The meal was finished perfectly with a delicious chocolate cake that Gina had baked and decorated (you guessed it) ahead of time and kept in her freezer, accompanied by homemade vanilla ice cream from John and Jen's bottomless freezer. I think there were one or two pieces of cake left.

We finished our three day feast with a song-fest to celebrate the long running affair our parents have carried on for the last 55 years. The look on their faces was worth all the planning and traveling and cooking and serving and cleaning up--- a look of utter satisfaction and happiness well-seasoned and flavored by years of family togetherness.

Fresh Fajita Feast

PART 2 Family Celebration Summer 2010

The Californians in the family planned and executed the second large family meal in my family's days-long summer anniversary celebration, this time held at the folks' house where they were staying. My brother Dave and his wife Nancy, recently moved from Texas to the LA area, have used their time wisely by finding farmer's markets. Admittedly, when you live in California, it's probably hard NOT to find a fresh-food stand of some sort. However, the lucky folks live just minutes away from a market that is open several days a week. One of the things they have fallen in love with are homemade whole-wheat tortillas, sold fresh at this market. So they decided to master-mind a meal centering on these delicious whole wheat tortillas---which they bought in bulk, planning to carry them on the plane to Colorado. Unfortunately, they somehow managed to leave them in their freezer at home. Not to be deterred, Nancy found the tortilla makers online and had a large quantity delivered to the folks' house in Colorado the day before their planned meal.

The meal was to be fajitas, with grilled marinated chicken, sauteed peppers and onions, and trimmings. Gina, the plan-ahead cook, assisted by providing two crock-pot side dishes of rice and beans, which turned out fabulously. Miraculously, from Gina's kitchen a large cut-up watermelon somehow appeared, apparently sliced and diced well in advance of the fajita dinner. Because fajitas are a more last-minute meal, we all got involved in the preparation. There was lots of slicing of onions and peppers to be done. Dave was dispatched to the grill at the appropriate time to watch over the chicken, and what do you know? When someone stands over the grill, the meat does not get burned or scorched or dried out or any of those nasty side effects of negligent grilling that tend to occur at my house.

The jewels of the meal of course were the tender, flavorful FRESH whole wheat tortillas straight from California. They were like none I had eaten before---none of that chewy, nondescript non-flavor that characterizes the average tortilla from the grocery store. Paired with the deliciously flavored and perfectly grilled chicken, topped with the veggies and sauces, the fajitas rivaled any at a top quality restaurant.

After all that delicious food, we still managed somehow to find room for the two cakes, chocolate and lemon, which had been lovingly offered to our parents by some friends for the occasion. It was short order to get the meal cleaned up with all the people milling around looking for tasks, though there was some mild squabbling about how to dispose of the plastic disposable plates---rinse? recycle? reuse? No matter, it gave more time for fun and opinion sharing and silliness in the kitchen which makes any job go faster.

There was some debate about how to use the left-over tortillas to their best advantage, as there was not much chicken and veggie filling left for future fajita meals. Nancy recommended keeping it short and simple----warm one up, butter it and put cinnamon and sugar in it. Then eat it while it is hot and fresh.

Welcome Home Feast, American Style

Part I of Family Celebration, Summer 2010

For the occasion of my parents' 55th wedding anniversary, my three siblings with our spouses and children (except for some young adult males) gathered in Colorado for several days of family fun. As is usual for family occasions, especially a Socolofsky gathering, food figured largely in the celebration plans The number of diners varied from between 17-20, depending on the meal, so we planned food that was relatively simple and would please most in any crowd. Each of the three large meals we shared reflected the talents and preferences of the "Head Host."

For the first evening, we gathered at my sister's house. She and I had worked during the day to do some final preparation for the meal, which was the quintessential American summer picnic menu. It was the perfect welcome home dinner for our daughter, Jen, who had arrived back in the states the day before from a six-month study-abroad experience in the Netherlands. She added a flavor of Holland to the meal with several Dutch cheeses she had bought a few days before from the open-air cheese stand in the Leiden market. She was excited to have some of the traditional American foods, some of which she had to describe to her international friends while she was abroad (what are deviled eggs???)

What you should know about my sister, Gina, is that she is a do-ahead cook. She likes to plan food that can be prepared in advance and be ready with just a stir or an addition of an ingredient; or food that can be made in a crock pot early in the day; or desserts that can be baked or frozen ahead of time. Once the advance prep is done, she is free to clean up the kitchen, lay out the serving dishes, and not be troubled by last minute preparation and mess.

By the time I arrived, the evening before the picnic menu, she had already done a majority of the preparation. She had boiled and cubed all the potatoes for a potato salad, hard boiled the eggs and made the dressing; all that was required was mixing the parts together. The eggs for the deviled eggs had likewise been boiled, and only needed stuffing. The two ice cream desserts were already in the freezer. We put beans in the crock pot, and she had her husband out on the patio grilling the burgers well before the guests arrived. The grilled patties were then stored in another crock pot till ready to serve.

It's a good thing all this was done ahead, as I had brought along three dozen ears of Iowa sweet corn for the meal. Several people pitched in to shuck and clean the corn, but boiling all those ears took numerous pans. As they were done, I transferred them to a cake pan coated with butter, and rolled each ear in the butter, added salt and pepper, then piled them in a roasting pan placed on a warming tray. The pre-buttering reduced the mess and delay in a serving line for all the diners. There was a little bit of last-minute preparation involved in slicing and arranging relishes on a tray for the burgers. But by the time the rest of the family arrived, we had everything ready and laid out. Barely had people walked in the door than we were gathered for the blessing and sent through the line for the food.

A quick survey of left-overs showed that there wasn't much to store and put away. There was a bunch of corn, which a couple of us worked to remove from the cobs and put into freezer containers. The dishes went in the dishwasher, the pans were washed, and we all had a chance to sit down with each other and look at photos, listen to Jen share her travel stories, and let the younger kids watch a movie together. It was nice not having to spend hours in the kitchen after the meal cleaning up, since so much had been done earlier in the day and week. We got to have our cooking fun together with the few things that needed last minute preparation, and no one minded that the hamburgers weren't flipped onto the buns straight from the grill. It was a study in American epicurean efficiency, and a fitting Welcome Home Feast for any traveler.