Monday, February 28, 2011

A Favorite Haunt

Ahhh, food shopping. I love it. Many people hate it but for me it's a favorite pass time. Give me a grocery list and I am a happy, happy girl. Need to know exactly where they keep the organic basmati at Woodman's? I can tell you. Marcona almonds at Trader Joe's? Got you covered. Maybe it's a bit sick.

A few weekends ago I was in Chicago for the Green City Market and one the way home, stopped in Fox and Obel. Ever been there?

A really great grocery, it falls into the hobby shopping category for me - foods not needed to prevent starvation. I go with a list of specific things in mind and with the exception of a few missteps hold firm. I call it hobby shopping after an ill fated trip to Whole Foods during which time I referred to it as entertainment. Hobby budgets are smaller in my head.

This haunt has most anything a food lover could want. Aged beef, esoteric produce, a dairy case to drool over, organic ghee and beautiful pastries. Nice fixtures, too. I'd love to fill this piece with baked goods in the yellow house.

Cheese - the highlight of the trip. Where shall I start? All of the handmade lovelies you read about, ready to be cut to order. Taking it all in and reading the tags is fun. Tasting and taking it all home is better.

In the middle of the store is candy island packed with jars and jars of candies and all varieties of Vosges Haut Chocolate. Maybe it's a childhood thing? Maybe it's the colors? Maybe it's jars and jars of inspiration. Ella and I are going to use the pearlescent malted milk balls on an Indian-inspired elephant cake for her 11th(!) birthday this summer. Fun!

So really you should go to Fox and Obel. It'd be a lot of fun.

I'd be glad to take you or maybe you can just give me your list.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Many Tamales

I think I've shared that I don't have much of a calling to cook Mexican food. (remember?) I have a great calling to eat it though and it's yet another reminder to be so thankful for my spouse. As is tradition for many Mexican families, in the yellow house tamales are a Christmas tradition. Time got away this year and our tamales didn't arrive until a few weeks ago but they were fabulous and even better than last year.

Before he's tried to make them start to finish in one weekend. This year he approached it differently, and broke the process down - meat one weekend and assembly the next. Much better.

Tamales are little packets of meat or vegetable surrounded by masa harina then wrapped in corn husk to steam. Masa, a bit of water and lard mixed together to form a soft dough. Let's not dwell on the lard.

Through trial and error, Doug's learned to tweak the dough until it feels right. The recipes tend to be a bit stiff and dry and a softer dough makes the wrapping easier and creates a more tender end result.

Ironically, the most expensive part of this project seems to be the corn husks. At the corner store a package runs about 5 bucks which seems absurd. My guess is they might be a bit less costly at a Mexican market.

Soaking corn husks, slow cooked shredded pork and corn dough ready to go.

A layer of corn dough goes onto the husk first. Ladies with many, many tamales under their belt seems to slap these together with a flick of the wrist. Doug's still working on his technique and it's getting smoother with every batch.

Meat goes on next. He likes to use a nice amount of meat since sometimes they can be a bit skimpy. That can be disappointing.

Sides folded in and top up. Traditionally, they are tied with a small strip of husk. This time around Doug skipped it. They look really nice tied up but it takes a lot of time. He's streamlined my contribution right out of the process!

The steaming of the tamales takes 2 hours. We use our pasta pentola, since the extra deep strainer allows many tamales to be set in vertically. Far more efficient than a vegetable steaming basket.

They are especially delicious and they go quickly once they're done. Some are eaten, some are frozen and many are given away. This last week, lots were shared at an employee meal in Doug's plant. The best compliment of all was from the Mexican ladies claiming they were amongst the best they've had. I believe them.

Even if Lupe has a huge crush on my husband.

Respect Thy Food

Last week I finally broke down and bought a pair of poultry shears. It's something I've threatened to do for quite awhile but never seemed to commit. Poultry shears allow you to buy a less processed whole chicken and perhaps, if saving on the whole bird, enabling you to buy a organic or local bird. Finding ways to use a whole bird, beyond a roast chicken, I often encourage my class participants to do. A chicken has lots of good parts besides the monstrous breasts, which quite frankly are a bit frightening. Frightening quickly becomes horrifying if you look into it any further.

These shears have allowed me more control over our food and greater respect for the animal - all of its parts.

That's the way it should be.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Love Hurts

I tell Ella boys are stupid.

Last Sunday, while presumably flirting over the fence line, June got her right pinky nail stuck in the chain link. A trip to the vet, a painful removal and lovely pink bandage. Poor Bug!

Hopefully, June has learned what her big sister knows.

And to be fair, I tell the boys girls are crazy.

The Sucker Saga

This year when unpacking the Valentine's decor, I stumbled across a recipe/idea I pulled out of a magazine years ago. Valentine Suckers. Of course, I had to make them for Ella and Henry to attach to their handmade valentines.

The other bonus was a trip to the craft store. I love craft stores. I found Hobby Lobby had the best and most complete selection. It is there one may select from many mold choices and flavorings. Be sure to buy the tempered molds designed for hot sugar. Chocolate molds will not hold up to the 300 degree heat. The flavoring packages include a variety of recipes.

Candy making is fascinating to me. It starts with corn syrup, water and sugar, cooks to 300 degrees, remove from the heat and stir in the flavoring extract or oil and it's candy. Very cool.

Various recipes suggest adding the coloring at various times. Since I used paste coloring and wanted to be sure it was distributed evenly, I added it with the ingredients in the beginning. It worked out fine.

Lightly canola oil sprayed molds at the ready, sticks in place. Since I was unsure exactly how many suckers a "batch" of hot sugar made, I also had two trays of "jewels" to use up the extra. The "jewels" were adorable in cello bags tied with wide satin ribbon for Jake and Max's "girl friends". They also pulled Jake and Max's forgetful friends out of certain Valentine misery. Nice to know they have their buddies backs.

The trickiest part is pouring the hot sugar into the mold. I suggest a glass measuring cup. Work quickly since it cools really fast.

I think they were really adorable. However, I do want to share a few things I leaned on Sucker Street...

#1 - Buy as many molds as you can if you have a ton of suckers to make.

#2 - Realize before you start that 30+23 = 53. If you subtract your own two kids from the equation that's 51. Sucker sticks and bags come in packs of 50.

#3 - 50 is A LOT of suckers.

#4 - Start making your suckers well before the day before the "need by" day.

#5 - While I typically seldom rely on my microwave, in this case it was huge help. Microwave batches are smaller so if you have limited molds, it's the only way to go.

#6 - Cinnamon oil will take the varnish off a wood surface. For real.

#7- Avoid cherry extract at all costs. While it may be tasty in the end, it makes the entire house smell like Robitussin for a very long time. Gross.

#8 - More often than not, my insane projects "for the kids" are my own self destructive path to stress and anxiety. Midway into the path of said anxiety, one must continue forward since it's "for the kids" and I've elevated the suckers to rock star status.

#9 - There is always at least one kids sick on Valentine's Day so stop while you're ahead.

In the end, we had a lovely Valentine's Day gathered around the fondue pot. Much cheese and chocolate were consumed and really, besides love, what else do you need?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mother Says Eat Your Citrus

I am a big proponent of eating seasonally and locally but I freely admit there are somethings I can't imagine not having all year long. Lemons for example, not even worth discussing giving them up to achieve "locavore" status. I got to pondering this as I snapped the final pictures of my latest "blog worthy" recipe.

Mother Nature really has everything down pat. Think about a beautiful beefsteak tomato, sliced and lightly salted, not a grocery store tomato but the homegrown kind. If it were possible to have a still warm garden tomato in the clear white light of a Chicago land winter would it taste as good?

Part of the joy of seasonal eating is the anticipation. The hot sun beating down as you select the perfect tomato from the farmer you missed all winter, makes it taste even better. The just warm breeze of spring only magnifies the first sweet bite of a tender strawberry. As I look out onto several feet of snow, I won't argue the thoughts are delicious, but the anticipation is better. Winter is hearty and substantial. Winter is bright citrus.

Interesting produce fascinates me. I want to bring it home and figure out something unusual to do with it. Recently, two pints of rather costly kumquats found their way to the yellow house. Perhaps as a follow up to last year's Honey Preserved Clementines, I bring you Kumquat-Riesling Sauce.

The method is straight forward and one you've seen here many times before. I love to cook up a pot of fruit and spice and see what happens. This recipe won't disappoint. How can it with vanilla bean, cinnamon and honey?

Riesling with just a bit of water.

Fresh ginger warms but doesn't bite. I always use a "lunchbox spoon" to peel fresh ginger. The thin edges of an inexpensive teaspoon make peeling ginger easy while still leaving the flesh in tact.

Bring the liquid to a boil, add 1/8" slices of kumquats and leave it on easy heat until the fruit is translucent and syrupy.

From the moment I saw this recipe, I knew I would love it. The dichotomy of sweet and bitter is always appealing to me. The spicy warm richness of the syrup and bright bitterness of citrus rind. Amazing.

What's even more amazing would be if you were to put it on vanilla ice cream and watch a repeat of Top Chef in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon.

I really need to try that.

Kumquat-Riesling Sauce
With more high praise Fine Cooking
February/March 2011

2 1/2 cups Riesling
2/3 cup mild honey, such as clover
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3) 1/4" thick slices peeled fresh ginger
1) 3" cinnamon stick
1/4 vanilla bean, split length, seeds scraped out
12 oz. kumquats (2 1/2 cups), sliced to 1/8" thickness and seeded.

In a 4 quart saucepan, combine the Riesling, honey, sugar, ginger, cinnamon stick, vanilla bean and seeds and 1/4 cup water. and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the kumquats adn reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook until the kumquats are tender and translucent, and the liquid is syrupy, about 30 minutes. Cool and serv at room temperature (or cold if serving with ice cream). the sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chicken and Egg

I just finished reading my new favorite cookbook, Chicken and Egg. It's really so much more than a cookbook though. Full of amazing recipes, it's a lovely memoir, too. Documented in a year of seasons, the author, Janice Cole shares the fun and foibles of a fledgling chicken mother while imparting spot on information for the would be chicken wrangler.

Her stories are charming and call to mind experiences of the last year. A completely uninterested, but later (very) proud husband. Discovering chickens have personalities. Learning chicken chasing is a most humiliating experience. A mother worries about her brood, feathered or not.

Why keep chickens? Beyond the fabulous eggs?

Read Chicken and Egg and you'll know.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Snow Day - Day 2

If one snow day is great then two is better. The first we enjoyed the snow a lot, but the second with crazy low temperatures kept us indoors. When the kids were little we did projects all the time. Not having anyone home during the day and the older kids bailing on me has put a damper on my creative crafty ju-ju. Recently a new friend inspired me to be more crafty. So, Tuesday while the grocery stores were crazy, I did the craft store tour of Randall Road.

The kids have always liked to make their own valentines and a day at home seemed like the perfect opportunity to get a jump on the next holiday. While I was at Michael's I ran into my good friend/neighbor/artist JoAnne. She is a printmaking and paper artist - if it involves either, she's done it. Check out her new blog here. What luck for me - she was chockful of ideas that cost me next to nothing. Thought I'd share a few in case you'd like to make valentines, too.

Have you ever done potato printing? Super easy and super inexpensive. JoAnne lent me her cool tools so I didn't have to invest (they were $17 each). They were great for carving designs into potatoes. Never fear, if you don't have an artist neighbor you can cut simple shapes, like X's + O's, above with a paring knife.

Try this as another way to utilize those heart shaped cookie cutters. Press the cutter about half way into the cut side of a potato. Then cut around the cutter with the knife parallel to the flat side of the potato. Great stamps for little hands.

For easy block printing, buy a sheet of medium thick craft foam. Cut it into the desired size then etch the design onto the foam with a dull pencil. Dip into paint or brush with a foam brush and let the printing begin. Be sure not to use too much paint since it will make for a murky print. In the picture above, I used a foam scrap as a make shift handle. Easier to use and, in theory, neater.

We used craft paint and watercolor paper from the stash in the basement. Watercolor paper makes the prints look much more special.

The above was printed after generous dipping in a huge stamp pad left from a kindergarten party craft.

I've done botanical printing with leaves, fruits and vegetables but I've never used celery. Cut a few inches up from the root end and used as stamps in pink and red stamp pads, it creates beautiful roses. I got a little compulsive. Some were stamped directly onto torn edged water color paper.

Some I stamped on scraps and cut out to be collaged or used as gift tags. I'm always thinking about food gift presentation. (more on that coming soon.)

After a busy crafting session, we proceeded to chocolate chip pancakes for lunch,a viewing of Despicable Me. The bright sun came through and there was even some remodeling done to the greatest snow fort EVER. Talk about a great day.

Everyone returned to school today and the house was eerily quiet. To moms with young children, I know some days never seem to end but don't wish them away.

All too soon, they're over.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Snow Day

Ahhhh, a snow day. A highlight of childhood.

The snow was perfect and the whole family was home.

They dug tunnels.

The neighbor kids of all ages worked together to build "the coolest snow fort EVER."

I think June had more fun than any one. Added bonus, she was too tired to create puppy havoc inside.

Just a bit of snow lining the sidewalk.

I promised Henry an adventure so we walked the 7-11 and the donut shop through 20" of snow. It was really tons of fun!

From the front door.

Somewhere there is a sidewalk.

Henry was the first to volunteer for work. He's trying to dig a path to the hen house.

Yesterday was a great day and today will be another one (detect note of sarcasm). It's too cold to go out and the natives are getting restless. Time for arts and crafts before all hell breaks loose.

Ahhhh, the highlight of every mom's snow day. Sending them back to school.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Blizzard of 20-11

I am so excited. There's a blizzard. School is already canceled. Doug is closing the plant.

Maple syrup candy, snow ice cream, breakfast sausage making. Valentine crafting, movies and playing in the snow. We'll have pot roast and meatloaf and cinnamon rolls, too.

How many days does a snow day last?