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I just had to share my recent popcorn success. After reading the helpful comments I got on my post about things I can’t cook I went out an bought a fresh bag of popcorn on Saturday. I wanted to find a way to pop regular popcorn in the microwave without the special bowl that Sue has. A little internet research led me to the paper bag method and I actually made a delicious bowl of popcorn, and the house didn’t stink! Robert and I had a good night eating popcorn, drinking Champagne and watching Weeds. I interrupted the show a couple times (OK, three or four times) to say ‘This is great! I’m so proud of myself!’ I felt like a real kitchen pro, popping corn and being able to eat it and all.

For those of you who want to try my new paper bag popcorn method, here’s how:

Put a generous 1/2 cup of popcorn in a paper bag. Squeeze out the air and fold the top over a few times. Put it in the microwave and turn it on. Nuke it until you stop hearing lots of popping. I think it took about five minutes in my microwave, but it is old and crappy so yours might be quicker.

Paper bag popcorn

Paper bag popcorn

Put popcorn into a bowl and pour melted butter over it. I ground up some salt in a mortar and pestle to sprinkle over. The powdered salt sticks to the popcorn better, I highly recommend it.

I can't believe I made this!

I can't believe I made this!

Robert and I have been really stressed out by our house building project lately. We’re feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and out of money. But the new popcorn development has been a bright spot in our life. I told Robert as he was heading up to bed that we need to think of something to do tomorrow to make it feel like Friday night without spending any money. He said “We could have popcorn…” We laughed a lot thinking of all the days we are going to have to make special by eating popcorn. It’s good to laugh.

Birthday

Birthday Girl

Birthday Girl

Today my sweet Lola turned six. We had a family party this evening with my parents, my brother, and my grandma. For her birthday dinner Lola requested “chanterelles in a creamy sauce” on homemade pasta and “green beans from Costco, fried brown.” Do you know how happy that makes me? To have my daughter request chanterelles and homemade pasta for her birthday? I am so lucky. And I have to say, those green beans from Costco are really good too, especially when you cook them in butter and top them with lemon juice and good salt. The grownups at the party also had an arugula salad with Parmesan and toasted walnuts. I have only one terrible picture of the pasta that we had because I was rushing around and forgot to take pictures before we ate. Here is what was left at the end:

chanterelles in a creamy sauce on homemade pasta

chanterelles in a creamy sauce on homemade pasta

Her cake is one that I am not proud of. She wanted a yellow cake with chocolate frosting which is easy enough, but she wanted me to draw a chicken on it and she wanted the chicken to be saying “Happy Birthday Lola”. Our day didn’t go as planned, in fact my whole weekend didn’t go as planned, and I ended up with an undecorated cake at 5:00 and people were coming at 5:30. So I couldn’t take the time that I normally would to decorate the cake. And it showed. This next picture is a humiliation. I mean, I used to decorate cakes for a job! This looks like it was done by a second grader. But Lola has a good imagination and she didn’t mind. And we cut it up and ate it pretty quickly.

Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake

Today was beautiful and sunny, just like the day Lola arrived. She was born in my parents living room just before ten o’clock in the evening and there were thirteen people waiting to greet her and love her. What a welcome she received.

I have never felt quite so cared for as I did in the week after she was born. When I think back on that time I remember the overwhelming love for my baby and my husband, a love that consumed me. But I also remember the love that was showered on our family by everyone around us. And the food, oh my. We ate so well. There was my mom’s Chinese chicken soup, and her tuna casserole (never have you eaten a tuna casserole like this, with fresh tuna, Italian egg noodles, lemon zest and herbs, oooh). There was tapioca pudding and homemade ravioli from Sue, blackberry pie from Sara, beef stew from Kathy, macaroni and cheese from Winoma, oatmeal cookies from Lauren… There was multi grain bread spread with triple cream Brie. There was apple and onion frittata. There was tomato salad from just about everyone (it was a good tomato year). There was food from people we hardly knew. For a few days after the birth I didn’t have much of an appetite, very rare for me, but I was still nourished and tempted into eating by all the carefully prepared food. And when my appetite came back with a vengeance I had the best of the best to choose from.

From the night she was born, Lola has been surrounded by good food. She knows how to appreciate the work that goes into a good meal. She loves that her birthday is during chanterelle season. She has the words and the knowledge to ask for exactly the meal that she wants to eat. What a gift that she has so many good cooks in her life. And what a gift she is to all of us.

Some things I can’t cook

I usually feel pretty confident in the kitchen. I am comfortable there and for the most part I know that I can cook what I set out to cook. Until I try to make a pot of rice. Or a cup of coffee. Or a bowl of popcorn. These three things, these basic, basic, things can throw me into a panic. They are the bane of my culinary existence. I know there are people out there who can’t cook anything else but who can make coffee, rice and popcorn. And I wonder, what the hell is wrong with me?

Let me elaborate.

I can cook a decent pot of white rice. Not great, but good enough. But I like brown rice, and when I make it, more often than not it ends up mushy, or starchy, or undercooked, or stuck to the bottom of the pan. Robert thinks we should get a rice cooker, but I don’t want a rice cooker. That feels admitting defeat, and I don’t want to be defeated by rice, of all things. I know that you don’t need a rice cooker to make decent rice, people do it all the time. Just not me. And I try, I do. I change the proportion of water, I rinse, I don’t rinse, I boil the water before adding the rice, I start everything together… And still I get bad rice. I think I must have a rice cooking curse on me.

And coffee, well, let me tell you. I don’t drink coffee, that is part of the problem. But I want to be able to make a decent cup for someone who comes to my house. I mean, really, that’s basic hospitality. I never know how much coffee per cup or what kind to buy or how fine to grind it. I had some friends over for dinner a few months ago, and we had a good time, everything went well, and then I made coffee in my French press. After a while I asked if anyone would like any more coffee, and no one did but I didn’t think anything of it (I was drinking tea). After they left and I collected the cups on the table I realized that all the cups were half full of sludge. Thick, black goop. Apparently I had ground the coffee beans much too fine for the French press and I had made a kind of coffee soup. Lovely. Luckily I have friends who, although they are too polite to say anything, will overlook this kind of culinary debacle. Good friends, bad coffee curse.

On Saturday night I had a craving for popcorn while Robert and I were sitting on the couch watching a movie. I hadn’t had popcorn for quite a while. Not since my last attempt, and that killed the craving for a good long time. Here is another instance where maybe I should go out and buy a special appliance for making popcorn, but I really think it shouldn’t be necessary. But I’m starting to reconsider. When I make popcorn the house always ends up smelling like burning oil and my kernels only pop half way and are hard as rocks. And there is always some kind of fiasco where the pot is too small or I burn myself or get hit in the eye with a popping kernel. I even have a burn mark on my counter from a popcorn incident years ago to prove that this has been a life long issue for me. This last time I looked in the Joy Of Cooking for a popcorn recipe so I would get it right. But the Joy of Cooking doesn’t have a recipe for popcorn because it’s that basic. I swear, I have got some kind of problem. Corn popping curse perhaps.

So, if you have any suggestions for me, please pass them along. Maybe I am cursed, or maybe I just need some good advice.

Carciofo, mi amore

There aren’t words in this language to express my love of artichokes. At my wedding I carried a bouquet of dried purple artichokes. And while I wasn’t marrying the chokes, my love for them is eternal. It will always be true. It will never die. You may think I’m just being silly, but they have a treasured place in my heart. And their hearts have a treasured place in my mouth.

Artichokes

Artichokes

On Friday afternoon Robert and Lola and I drove to Sequim, about an hour and a half from here, to pick up a case of artichokes at Nash’s Organic Produce. I didn’t get any pictures of the farm store, but it is most charming, and all the people I have ever dealt with there have been kind, helpful, and passionate about what they do. Here on Bainbridge Island, we have access to beautiful produce, but it comes at a cost. This is an expensive place to live, and a very expensive place to farm so we pay through the nose for the food that we get here. Nash’s farm is much more earthy than anything we have on the island and the prices are more than reasonable. For a small farm it is pretty large, if that makes sense, and they are able to devote land to crops that take up a lot of room, like artichokes. Usually their chokes are ready at the beginning of the summer but this year they had new plants in that weren’t producing until now. I have been waiting and waiting for them!

Lola and 22 pounds of artichokes

Lola and 22 pounds of artichokes

Today I finally got around to dealing with all 22 pounds of chokey goodness. A few years ago, my aunt Chris and I roasted 2 cases of them with shallots and canned them with a slice of meyer lemon in each jar. They were beyond fabulous. This year I decided I wanted to do that again, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on a pressure canner (necessary for canning artichokes) so I decided to try the same thing but to freeze them instead of can them.

Lola hung out with me for most of the time that I was trimming artichokes this afternoon. She collected the fuzz from the insides and has grand plans for making winter coats for her chickens out of it. Who knew that we could clothe our chickens with vegetable trimmings? I learn something new everyday!

Most people have never eaten an artichoke any way but steamed and this is so sad. Not that a steamed artichoke is bad, it just doesn’t do the vegetable justice. Think about the difference between a steamed carrot and a roasted carrot. Or a steamed potato and a fried potato. You get the idea. I think that preparing artichokes is intimidating to many people and the reason they so often don’t get the treatment they deserve. I will admit that it is time consuming, but once you get the hang of it it is not difficult. I am here to walk you trough the process (with pictures), and I promise you it is worth it. So worth it.

Roasted Artichokes

Start with an artichoke:

Artichoke

Artichoke

The artichokes I got from Nash’s were on the small side, not babies, but not like the huge ones you get at the grocery store. You can use any size. Smaller ones need less trimming, but you need to prepare more of them. And the taste of a fully mature choke is different from a younger one. All are good.

First thing you need to do is to break off all the tough outer leaves. The trick is to do this without losing all the meat on the end. To do this you need to break off the leaves part way down, leaving the end still attached. The first layer or two will come off completely, and that is okay, but as you get into the artichoke a little ways, be sure to leave the end attached. In this picture, the leaf on the left was all the way broken off (incorrect), and the one on the right is broken off at the correct place:

Artichoke leaves

Artichoke leaves

When you get to a point where the leaves feel tender you can stop pulling them off. Chop off the top third, or thereabouts, leaving whatever is tender. Next, check out the stem of your artichoke. Fresh, young artichokes have delicious stems and you can just peel them and cook them along with everything else. As artichokes get more mature the stems get stringy and unpleasant. Use your judgment. Most of the stems I got were long and tender. Use a sharp knife and trim off all the stringy bits. Also trim around the base of the artichoke to take off any tough skin or bits of leaf left on there.

Preparing an artichoke

Preparing an artichoke

Now, cut your artichoke in half lengthwise. Most with have a furry center with some sharp purple spines around it. This is the “choke”. All that needs to come out. Take your knife and insert it just under the furry stuff and cut it out. This takes a little practice but you will get the hang of it. Smaller, less mature artichokes might not have a choke and then you don’t have to do anything to the inside.

Inside an artichoke

Inside an artichoke

Removing the choke

Removing the choke

Depending on the size of the artichokes, I cut them into quarters or smaller.

Most recipes you will read tell you to put your cut artichokes into lemon water so they won’t discolor. This is a total waste of time. They will discolor when you cook them anyway, and it doesn’t make any difference in the way they taste.

Now for the roasting. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. When you have a good sized pile of trimmed and rinsed artichokes, put them into a big shallow pan (cast iron is good). I like to add some sliced up shallots, but you don’t have to. Toss them with a bunch of olive oil and salt. A grind of pepper is good too.

Ready for roasting

Ready for roasting

Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring every once in a while, until they are brown and caramelized. They are wonderful just on their own or you can toss them with pasta, put them in an omelet or frittata, or serve them on bruschetta for an appetizer. Let me know what you do with them.

I trimmed and roasted almost my entire case of artichokes in about two hours. So, yes, it does take a while, but if you are just fixing enough for one meal it’s not too overwhelming.

Roasted artichokes

Roasted artichokes


P.S. A word to the wise: Eating copious amounts of artichokes, in any form, has been known to cause some indigestion. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

A Little Rant

Right at this moment I am not thinking about the perfect fig, or beautiful vegetables from some friend’s garden. I wish I were. What is on my mind has nothing to do with seasonal, homemade, wholesome food. What I am thinking about is what the state of Washington says my kid should eat. The Washington State Department of Health sends out these mailings until your child turns six with information about immunizations, car seats, child safety and health. We just received our last one and I have to express my extreme frustration with the information that the Department of Health (!) is putting out there. First of all, let me say that I have always found these mailings to be condescending and biased. For instance, the mailings they sent out during the first six months included brochures about why you shouldn’t shake your baby. I’m sure there are people out there that need to be told this, but are these people really going to read this brochure that comes in the mail and say to themselves ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that shaking my newborn when I’m frustrated is a bad thing, I’m going to stop doing that.’? I think all that information like that does is upset mothers (like me) who are having a little bit of postpartum sensitivity and cause them to cry all the time because they can’t stop thinking about babies with “Shaken Baby Syndrome.”

But back to what I’m upset about tonight…In my oh so helpful packet of information about six year olds there is this pamphlet entitled ‘Think Inside the Bag Think Outside the Box.’ This pamphlet is brought to us by our friends at the Washington State Dairy Council and it tells us how to keep our kids healthy by encouraging them to exercise and feeding them healthy food. Healthy food like microwave popcorn, pudding, fortune cookies, fig newtons, pizza, chocolate milk and granola bars. These things were all on the list of healthy snacks for your child. There were other things on there too, like dairy in every form imaginable, but this just bugs me. The pamphlet says you should have you kids check out the list and pick their favorites so you can keep them on hand. One of the choices on the list is “any veggie”. What kid is going to pick “any veggie” over pudding and microwave popcorn?

Another part of this pamphlet that I find crazy is this kind of message: “Do your kids think eating healthy is boring? Not true! They can eat healthy and still enjoy their favorites like chips, cookies and candy. All foods can fit. The trick is to teach them what a portion or serving size is.” It goes on to explain about the size of a serving of meat, pasta, cheese (imagine that!) and a few other things, but not about the chips and candy. And is anyone’s kid going to decide that they need to eat their piece of chicken the size of a deck of cards and their baked potato the size of a computer mouse along with their chips, cookies and candy? It’s ridiculous.

I know most of you don’t care about my tirade, so I won’t go page by page through the stupid thing pointing out everything that makes me angry but I have to get one more off my chest. This page is called ‘Fitting in Fast Food Favorites’: “There’s no doubt that a meal of a burger, fries and soft drink tastes great. It’s fun to stop at your favorite fast food place with your family.” Really? Tastes great? Fun? I beg to differ. The pamphlet suggests not supersizing your meal as a way to make it healthier. Yep, I feel healthy just thinking about a Big Mac with a bag of fries the size of, hmm, what would it be, oh yeah, one of those paddles they use to make your heart start beating again when you have a heart attack.

I’m sure you know that I’m not opposed to pudding, candy, chips and fast food (okay, I am sort of opposed to fast food); what I’m upset by is including these things in a brochure about healthy eating. If we followed the guidelines set out by the dairy council we would all be eating white flour, cheese, strawberry milk, yogurt in a tube, and the occasional “any fruit or veggie” along with our junk food. Our kids deserve better than this. And I resent being talked down to. Stupid Department of Health.

The Figs are Ripe!

Our local green figs are ripening on trees around the island. I don’t know what kind they are, but they are big and bright green with red flesh. Robert has been bringing me the occasional handful of figs when he comes home from work, ones that he has picked off this tree or that during the course of his day. Getting figs for a gift is so much better than getting flowers. I mean, flowers are great, and sometimes the most appropriate thing, but really, wouldn’t you rather have a fig? I would. Robert is no dummy, and he has realized that figs he can find to pick are not only a free gift, but one that I might cook up and share with him. Pretty slick. Luckily he has a good eye for fig trees that aren’t being fully appreciated so I think I will be well stocked for the next couple of weeks.

Green figs

Green figs

This afternoon my grandma brought me some figs, and I had a few on my counter that needed to get used up so we had our first real fig feast of the season. I hadn’t planned on having figs for dinner so my meal wasn’t very well thought out, but we enjoyed it anyway. I had the grill going to cook some salmon so I halved the figs and threw them on too. I didn’t even put anything on them and they cooked beautifully. All that natural sugar makes for really nice browning.

Grilled figs

Grilled figs

The juice that came out of the figs after they were cooked was so syrupy. I couldn’t believe how much sticky, tasty, pink goo came out of them. I put them on a salad of mixed greens with some goat cheese and toasted pecans. I tossed the greens with lemon juice, hazelnut oil and salt and pepper before putting all the goodies on top but if I had not been in a rush to get dinner on the table I think a balsamic vinaigrette made with really good balsamic and a little bit of shallot would’ve been nice.

Anyway, this is my salad:

Grilled fig salad with goat cheese and toasted pecans

Grilled fig salad with goat cheese and toasted pecans

I read a recipe in the ‘Chez Panisse Fruit‘ cookbook for a salad topped with seared quail and roasted fig dressing. I need to try something like that before the fig season is over – I LOVE quail, and figs, and I’m sure it’s a divine combination. I’ll keep you posted.

One of the great crimes against humanity, along with slavery, genocide and religious persecution is the proliferation of bad pie crust. A warning to sensitive readers: what I am about to say may be upsetting to some. There are people in this world who have never had a good pie crust. There are people who think that one of the main ingredients in pie crust is Crisco! Worse yet, there are some who buy pie crust in the refrigerated section of the grocery store! Think of what this does to their friends and family. Think of the children! It makes me want to cry.

I haven’t been doing very much inspiring cooking in the last week. We have been super busy, and the weather has been hot, hot, hot so I haven’t felt like hanging out in the kitchen. But in the last few days I have found time to make two blueberry pies. In an attempt to end the suffering caused by Pillsbury pie crust I am going to post my recipe here. I will also post the recipe I used for the blueberry filling – it turned out quite tasty.

I use almost the same recipe for pie crust that I got from my mom when I was a little girl. It is the very first recipe I ever wrote down. Judging from my handwriting I must have been about nine or ten.

My first recipe

My first recipe

Pie Crust

this “recipe” makes 1 top or bottom crust and it is easily doubled

1 1/3 c. all purpose flour

1 stick of butter (I use salted butter for my crust)

pinch of salt

1/3 c. of cold water (or more. or less.)

Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. Cut your butter into little tiny cubes, about the size of peas and toss them gently with the flour. Your butter needs to be firm at this point. If for some reason it is not, refrigerate the whole bowl until it is. Start mushing the butter between your fingers to break it up. The whole idea is to incorporate the butter into the flour while still leaving little tiny hard pieces of butter. I tend to break the butter up a bit, then go through and smash the remaining lumps between my fingers to make what I think of as “butter flakes”. When you are satisfied that your butter is mixed in, but not too well, you can add the water. Now, this is the part where people can really screw up. You don’t want to mix the dough any more than necessary after you add the water. If your dough is too dry you will have to mix it more to get it to stick together, so you want to add enough. I sometimes add too much water though, and you don’t want to do that either because you end up with a sticky mess. You have to watch what you are doing. I cannot stress this enough. If you just follow the recipe without paying attention to your dough it will not behave the way you want it to. Some flour is dryer than others, sometimes your butter is more mixed in than other times, sometimes you didn’t measure that accurately. Whatever. All those things can be overcome if you pay attention while adding the water. Make sure the water is cold, I never use ice water, but if you want to it won’t hurt anything. Pour in about half the water you think you will need, then fluff everything up very gently with a fork. Pour more water onto spots that look dry and fluff again. When things look uniformly dampened, gently press the dough together into a ball. I like to flatten mine out into a disc, wrap it up and refrigerate it for an hour or so, but I don’t when I am in a hurry and you don’t need to either. When you roll it out, especially if it was in the fridge, give it a few firm squeezes to soften it up and show it who is boss. It is important that your dough always knows that you are the boss of it, and not the other way around. Move your dough with purpose and don’t be timid! Don’t be shy with the flour either when you are rolling, you can always brush some off at the end if you need to.

Those are all my pie crust secrets. Use butter, pay attention to your dough, tell it who is boss. Now go make pie! Make pie for the whole world!

Pie crust

Pie crust

P.S. Don’t ever bake pie in an aluminum pan if you can help it. Aluminum doesn’t conduct heat well and the bottom crust never gets brown. I like glass pie pans. I also have a copper one that works well.

The blueberry pie filling that I made was adapted from a recipe in the July/August 2008 issue of Cook’s Illustrated. It uses a combination of tapioca and apple pectin to thicken it and I really like the final texture. I played around with the recipe a little bit, I just can’t help myself, but the basic technique came from the magazine.

Blueberry Pie

2 pie crusts, one for the top and one for the bottom

6 c. blueberries

1 large apple, peeled and grated

juice and zest from 1 lemon

3/4 c. sugar

2 T. tapioca, ground in a food processor or mortar and pestle (you don’t need to grind it, but it helps avoid lumps in your filling)

pinch of salt

Heat your oven to 400 degrees. Place 3 cups of berries in a saucepan and smash them with a potato masher. Cook them over medium heat until they are broken down and reduced to about 1 1/2 cups, about 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, place the grated apple in a kitchen towel and wring it dry (wring it into a glass and drink it while you cook!) Put the apple into a bowl with the remaining filling ingredients. Add the cooked berries when they are done and stir to combine.

Pie filling

Pie filling

Roll out one of your pie crusts and place it in a 9 inch pie pan. Roll out your top crust before filling so that things don’t get soggy. You can cut little wholes in your top crust like this:

Pie crust with holes

Pie crust with holes

Or do any kind of top you feel like. Lattice is nice on a pie like this too.

Pie with lattice crust

Pie with lattice crust

Fill your bottom crust, moisten the edge with water, and carefully put your top crust over the whole thing. Trim off the edges of the dough leaving about an inch. Roll up the edges and crimp them. I like to sprinkle the top of the pie with cinnamon sugar before it goes in the oven but that is optional.

Polka dot pie

Polka dot pie

Bake the pie on the bottom rack of your oven. This is very important, the bottom rack. I baked mine for about 45 minutes in the 400 degree oven, but if you find that your pie is browning too much you can turn the heat down to 350. It may take a little longer. the pie is done when it bubbles in the center. Cool on a rack for at least four hours if you want it to slice neatly. Otherwise, just dive right in.

Blueberry Pie

Blueberry Pie