As a kid, we would sometimes have biscuits.  Made with Bisquick, and often fresh chives from the plant in the backyard (and, by the way, if you want a low light herb garden?  Look into chives.  They even flower!).  They were “drop biscuits”, and they were yummy, but there were no layers.  When my mother relented and bought biscuits-in-a-can, it was amaaaazing.  You could pull them apart!  And as I grew older, they were even more fantastic, because one could buy biscuits and crescent rolls that tasted buttery, but had no actual butter in them! Perfect for the lactarded.

Unfortunately, they also have lots of ingredients I can’t pronounce.  Which I’m not opposed to ALL the time, but it would be nice to be able to make them from scratch sometimes.

I’ve played around with them a bit, but while they’ve been yummy, they’ve never had layers.  I expected that in order to get them perfect, I was going to HAVE to use butter, and learn some crazy puff pastry type procedure.  Nope.  I mixed some things together, patted the dough out, folded, refolded, patted, folded, folded, patted, and then cut them out.  And they had FLAKES. It felt like a minor miracle.

Adapted from Rise Above:

ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour (plus 1/2 cup or so for rolling out the dough)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup vegetable shortening (I only used a half cup  of margarine and it turned out fine.)
  • 1 cup plain soy milk
  • Optional: herbs, etc.  I added about a tablespoon of Dill and a teaspoon of Onion powder

preparation:

Heat oven to 450º.

Mix flour, baking powder, salt, and any herbs in a bowl. Spoon the vegetable shortening into the flour mix as you use two butter knives in a scissor motion to break it up and mix it. (I just cut the stick of chilled margarine into little pieces with a knife. You’re going for “pea sized pieces” in this sort of thing, just like pie crust.  You can also use a stand mixer or food processor.) Once you’ve got nice, relatively consistent crumbs of shortening and flour mix, pour in your soy milk.  Mix this up until you’ve got a dough.

Then put it on your counter and start rolling it out.  Roll it out to about an inch or so thick, then fold it in half on itself, and do it again. (I did this process twice.  Not sure if it’s necessary.) Then grab a biscuit/cookie cutter, or glass and start cutting biscuits.  For your extra dough, I roll it back into a ball, and start over.  Roll it out to an inch or so, fold it over, and roll it out again.

I use a spray on oil and a cookie sheet, and toss them in the oven.  I want to say it’s about 12-15 minutes, but I usually just eyeball them. (For me, it was a little over 15 to give them some color, and they could have been a little browner.)

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Even when something I make isn’t quite worth sharing, it’s usually edible.  My first loaf of bread was NOT.

I’ve done a lot of bread since then.  I’ve kneaded bread.  I’ve not kneaded bread.  I have bought unbleached white flour, whole wheat flour, spelt, rye, bread flour.  I own a box of gluten, and buy my yeast by the pound.  Challah, brioche, Cinnamon bread, Dill bread, Sticky Buns, Pretzels…

I can’t say I’ve got whole wheat down the way I would like to yet.  But it’s edible these days.  I still don’t know what happened the first time around, but I have put it behind me.  The only thing I still muck up sometimes is when I take the bread out too early, which I don’t do assuming I can find the probe thermometer!

Mostly these days, I’m making dough for several loaves at a time, and not kneading, thanks to Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. It’s so convenient–I stir together some ingredients, let it sit on the counter a couple hours, and then shove it in the fridge.  Then when I want bread, I take out however much dough I want, shape it, let it rise, and pop it into the oven.  It’s perfect for having two of us– we end up having fresh bread all the time, instead of eating half of a large-ish loaf, and then trying to find something to do with the second half before it gets too stale.  The original recipe, as linked, has you use a fourth of the dough at one time, I’ve upped it to a third.  It’s so flexible– I can make anything from bread to calzones with it– although, to be honest, the Alton Brown overnight pizza dough recipe is much better for shaping into pizza or calzone shapes. And it’s so easy to do that even my mother, who hates anything to do with baking, will make this bread.

I can now make a nice loaf of kneaded dough without worrying about it all that much.  But I usually don’t.  Even if you outsource the kneading to a bread machine, stand mixer, or food processor, you still have to be near it.  I enjoy it sometimes, especially if I only want one loaf of something.  But having a bowl full of bread dough in my fridge is so convenient.

In any case, that’s what I’ve spent most of my baking time doing for almost the past year and a half!  Dough, dough, and more dough.  It’s been a huge learning experience.  There are some great tips at Smitten Kitchen.  But mostly I’m happy to keep learning at this point.


Saving Money?

14Nov09

My mother raised me to grocery shop carefully. She was such a stickler for coupon use that she tells me that when I was very small, I thought coupons were REQUIRED to make a purchase.  I was raised to comparison shop, to clip coupons, to be ultra-price-sensitive.  Even so, this woman terrifies me:

The tips are good- in moderation.  Clipping coupons.  Comparing prices in circulars.  Using as many coupons as possible, as efficiently as possible. Understanding store policies on “bonus” money.  But please, look at what there are coupons for– brand name processed food products and non-food items.  If you look at her pantry, it’s pop tarts, juicy juice and hamburger helper. There are no manufacturers coupons for fresh vegetables.

Just because this woman has created an algorithm for spending as little money as possible on as much food as possible does not mean that this algorithm is a good thing.  It doesn’t even mean she’s saving money– to get any utility out of the hamburger helper box, you need to buy hamburger.  If you have 15 boxes of pop tarts and everyone’s sick of them by box 4, you have wasted time and space at the very least.  What about the cost of buying vitamins because your kids aren’t getting balanced meals?  General health care costs?  Saving that much money is time intensive– is there a better use of her time?

I do not know what’s virtuous about getting food that’s not very good for you and not very tasty just because it’s basically free, instead of spending at least some of that energy on attaining better food.

 


Mmmmmmm Ray’s Hellburger.  You might have heard of it, it was on the Daily Show after Obama and Biden visited (note: clip mentions Smith!!).

I can tell you this:  since then, it’s been busy.  Don’t-try-going-on-a-weekend busy.  It was busy before.  It’s painful now.  But it’s really good.

The burger can be “au poivre” (coated in cracked pepper, as pictured), “cajun” (spicy), or just normal.  You can get it “cooked through”, “medium”, or “recommended” (very pink).  People criticized Obama for wanting his burger on the more cooked side, and while I do enjoy a good “recommended”, it is VERY juicy and VERY messy,  and the “cooked through” is much easier to eat.  Even when you do get “cooked through” you’ll need the roll of paper towels on every table.

Some toppings cost extra-  there’s a wide selection of cheese options.  I hear they’re good, and worth the couple dollars extra.   And then there’s the bone marrow and foie gras options– again, I haven’t tried them.  What I have tried are the mushrooms, the onions, the pickles, the “heck sauce” (think thousand islandish, just like everyone else’s special sauce.)  It’s all very good, and these don’t cost extra.

There aren’t fries.  There are chips, sometimes corn on the cob, sometimes Mac&Cheese.  The burger comes with either an orange “smile” or a piece of watermelon depending on the season.  But seriously, the burger is very… beefy.  When I eat here, I have enough trouble finishing the burger.  I don’t have room for other things.

It’s very good, and it’s a great experience.  But it’s become a little touristy, it’s become very crowded and rushed, and I just can’t recommend it on a weekend during the lunch rush (which, on the weekend, extends to at least 3 or 4).  It’s cash only, but there’s an ATM in the back.  If you’re willing to brave the loud and the crowded, and fight a little for a table, it’s a very good (if messy) burger that awaits you.

(PS- Ray’s The Steaks is also amazing, I haven’t tried Ray’s The Classics yet.)


Pie-cosahedron!

31Aug09

Taking a brief break from burgers, I bring you pie, plus math.  Which usually ends up being pi, but isn’t here (click picture for instructable):

If I were still at Smith, with access to the shop at Smith or Hampshire, I would be VERY tempted to make this.


Five Guys

29Aug09


This will be my first in a series on my favorite burgers. Burgers are all the hype. From Hubert Keller to former Top Cheftestants, really good burgers or sliders are gaining a place in fast food and haute cuisine.

I like burgers. I mean, they don’t even have to actually be good for me to like them. But I’m going to tell you about a few places that are worth it (but also not TOO expensive).

Five Guys makes a fast food burger– no question about it. But it’s better than your major chains. For one thing, you’ve got a lot of topping control. Really, most fast food restaurants have about 10 sandwiches– some beef, some chicken, maybe a veggie burger?  But you have no idea what’s the difference between the 4 chicken sandwiches, and neither does the person taking your order half of the time either.  Not so with Five Guys-  15 toppings, from grilled onions to jalapeno peppers, and you pick what you want on your burger (or hot dog, or, I guess, grilled cheese).  Now, a hot dog with lettuce, tomato, and mushrooms is unusual at first thought, I admit.  But I also have to admit that it’s both yummy and filling.

The fries?  Well, there’s some controversy.  They’ve won awards.  They give you a whole lot of fries.  And a lot of the time, they’re very good.  But they’re not always good.  There are huge bags of potatoes stored all over the store, and there’s a sign that tells you where that days potatoes are from.  Which means that there isn’t perfect consistency in their fries.  Or at least that’s my best guess as to why some days the fries are BRILLIANT and why some days they’re only so-so.  On any day, I still like them better than any of the big chains.

The overall experience is still fast food like, even though they take a bit longer to get you your food since it’s cooked to order.  There is no ambiance, each location has the same white with red accent decor, the chairs aren’t very comfortable.  There are peanut scraps everywhere since there are whole peanuts available in big boxes for you to eat as you wait.  If you are allergic to peanuts, avoid at all costs– in addition to the big boxes and scraps, the fries are cooked in peanut oil.  But as fast food goes, it’s fun, cheap, easy to figure out what you’re ordering, and tasty.

There’s a location finder on their website– while you’re tripping over them in the DC Metro area, they’re expanding slowly lots of other places, including into New England.


Plenty of people want to kill the president. This is pretty much just true, no matter which president in which country.  The risk increases if you’re particularly unpopular or particularly popular, and it also increases if you’re in a hostile area. I have to assume that lots of people want to hurt Barack Obama, and so he has this nifty thing called the secret service.  The watch he wears?  Gift from his detail.  I have to imagine that when your security detail, the thing that’s in between you and the people who want to kill you, you take the gift, and you enjoy it.  You’ll also note that Obama makes the occasional comment- there was something in the Matt Lauer interview around the Superbowl about the son of one of his personal agents.  These are the guys who have signed up to take a bullet for you– you don’t want them doing this because it’s their job, you want them doing it because they actually care about your well-being.  I mean, these are incredibly professional people, but in that split second, you don’t want ANYTHING to delay them doing their job.

I have nothing but respect for those men and women.  Many of them know the people they are protecting better than most, simply because they are there so often.  When you know someone well, you get the good, but you also get the bad.  And maintaining complete professionalism at all times? Not easy.

And when someone has agreed to die for you if need be, you don’t take that lightly.  And as much as you may feel that whatever restrictions they place on you curtails your freedom, they die before you do.  When it’s the Obama girls, as they grow up, it’s going to be very hard for them.  They aren’t mature enough to understand all the implications, and there will be difficulty.  I can understand that.  I feel bad for them–my parents were overprotective enough, I didn’t need the Secret Service.  (Some times, I might have had MORE freedom if I’d had a security detail.)

But adults?

I was uncomfortable with Bush II’s Surprise Thanksgiving Trip To Baghdad because of the people who had to risk their lives for him.  After seeing the TV special on it, I’m still uncomfortable.  But security said okay.  Bush did what he was told.  I’m uncomfortable, not angry.

I grew up understanding that I was responsible for what I put online.  When I was young, we had internet at home through my dad’s work, and they could theoretically look at what we were accessing.  When I was a bit older, people I knew were punished at school for things they said online, even when their names weren’t obviously attached.  It’s sadly tricky to find me using google, as Miss Illinois 2007 has taken most of the glory for my rather common name.  I would wager that most of the people my age do have some concept at this point that the drunken pictures on myspace might be seen by a future boss.  They might not care as much as they ought to, but it has occured to an ever increasing number of people.  And those older than me who have been on the internet for as long as I have (and longer) also understand this, maybe even better.

It’s great that the internet is opening up.  It’s great that we’ve gotten far enough into interactive Web 2.0 that people who haven’t been here the whole time are using Facebook and Twitter.  Kudos.

But you have to be responsible about content.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich), Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, announced his arrival in Iraq on Friday through his Twitter account. Problem was, the trip was supposed to be secret.

Top Secret information.  Security Clearance.  Intelligence Committee.  Common Sense. When Stephen Fry is surprised when he tweets while in the air and paparazzi greet him at the airport, that’s perhaps silly, but basically the worst happened- people took pictures of him.  He risked his own privacy, and it was breached (a little).  And since, he’s been a bit more careful.

Hoekstra didn’t risk his own privacy.  He risked his life, the lives of the other members of the delegation, and most of all, the lives of the people who have volunteered to take the bullets on his behalf.  Bush did something risky, but he did it for a clear gain- improving morale for troops in a difficult place.  Hoekstra?  What did he potentially gain?  Well, he has more people following him now.  But somehow I doubt it’s for the reasons he wants followers.

I’m not uncomfortable, I’m angry.  We have to be responsible for the content we put online.  And I’m worried he won’t be.


Food at Smith College was pretty amazing for college food. They (usually) knew what was in everything, there was desert all the time (even if I usually couldn’t eat it), and there were enough dining halls so that (even if you had to go to more than one) you could almost always get a full meal. My friends and I chose to opt out of the system our senior year, but I really have almost all good things to say about the system (and wonderful things to say about the people).

And the transition from eating at college to eating in the real world are sometimes difficult. It’s also difficult to go from a situation where you might get home to find a roommate making a large dinner and knowing that you’re the only one who might make dinner tonight.

Some nights, it’s just fine to eat leftover mashed potatoes and a can of corn. Some nights, you can go out. But mostly it’s you and the fridge, and you have no idea what to make. What to do? If you go online, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I follow enough food blogs that I can’t possibly keep up with the food that looks good. Sometimes I can’t even find something that was posted less than a week ago.

My solution? Smith Dining Menus. I may not know what to make, but I know what Smith makes that I like to eat.  I loved when the vegan pierogies were actually vegan (not nearly as often as the website suggests!).  I loved the Shepherd’s pie, both vegan and beefy.  Tonight at Smith, one house had Stir Fry Night, another had Tex Mex night, but most had Baked Chicken and Corn Chowder.  I couldn’t eat Smith’s Corn Chowder (or at least I always assumed so…), maybe I’ll try my own tomorrow.  Up tomorrow at Smith?  Baby Back Ribs were always a favorite, but are pretty expensive and time consuming these days.  But also up are Stuffed Shells, Minestrone Soup, Roast Beef, London Broil, and Breakfast At Night.

I wasn’t always a fan of eating dining hall food day in and day out, and there were plenty of challenges for many of us with special food needs.  But when I can’t come up with any ideas for what I can make that’s fairly easy, tasty, and has a reasonable price tag, I look at what Smith is making.  … Just don’t rule out tofu from your diet because Smith Dining doesn’t understand it.


Not even a month ago, (most of) a family I’m friendly with came to visit Washington DC.  They were on a whirlwind tour, taking the holiday break to show off more of the country than just their (adorable!) classic New England town to the local high school’s two Turkmeni exchange students.  It was bitterly cold, and we stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out at the reflecting pool and the Washington Memorial.

Turkmenistan is not exactly the world example of freedom of information, so these students have been unable to learn much of their own history, nevermind ours.  How do you explain the significance of the Civil War?  So much of it has been rewritten, ignored, forgotten.  How do you explain the significance of Lincoln?  Regardless of the truth of the man, he is a powerful national myth figure.  But then there’s the experience of Lincoln Memorial itself, from the Marian Anderson concert to “I Have A Dream.”  I can’t possibly fully understand the significance of even part of this history, how can I hope to help begin to explain it to someone else?  And that’s ignoring the rest of the National Mall.  I really don’t want to have to start explaining the Vietnam War… or Korea.  Or World War II.  Because, let’s be serious, my history classes barely got to WWII, mentioned that Vietnam happened, and the largest part of my knowledge of the Korean War is framed by Hawkeye Pierce and the M*A*S*H 4077.  I’m from New England.  I can give you a detailed history of the Burning of the Gaspee and the monetary policies of the colonies, but everything I know about history after the Gilded Age is a direct result of personal interest, and not formal education.

No matter how much I read, no matter how much I watch, no matter how much I talk to those who experienced some of the history I wasn’t there for– how can I hope to understand?  How can I hope to explain?

But despite my inability to explain, I do feel it.  Some places are steeped in history, and you just can’t deny it.  Driving in and out of Concord, Massachusetts this summer.  Benefit Street on the East Side of Providence.  And the National Mall in Washington DC.

Capitol at Night

I remember knowing that George H. W. Bush was president, I remember an older relative quizzing me on that particular fact.  I vaguely remember that there was a presidential election.  But the entire time that I have been old enough to think critically about the role of a president has been during the administration of George W. Bush.  Agree or disagree with his policies, the man has spent much of his time outside of Washington DC altogether, has spent much of the time in Washington inside the White House, and has not had an overwhelming number of speeches or press conferences.

Obama is the first internet-ready president.  And one of the most important things that the internet has given us is a sense of interconnectedness.  You can keep track of what your old teachers are doing, your high school friends, your kindergarten friends…  And they can all talk to each other.

I had hoped desperately that James Taylor would play “Shed A Little Light” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, but it was not to be, sadly.  But I’ll share part of the lyrics with you here-

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong
We are bound together
By the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead
We are bound and we are bound

This has been the never-ending soundtrack in my head over the last few months.  Obama’s election is a turning point, and it is a unifying force that calls us to serve, together, as Americans.  This is a powerful belongingness that I have never before felt.

I’ve been feeling a little under the weather, and my boyfriend has been fighting off a rather nasty cold for a while now (and he really can’t afford to get any sicker).  We’re 6 walking miles away from the Capitol.  I doubt we’ll be there in person, at least not for the swearing in ceremony.  But the miraculous part of this time in history for me?  I don’t feel like I have to be on the National Mall to be part of this moment, because this moment will not just be at the Capitol.  This is a moment for everyone, everywhere.  And I can’t wait to share it with you.

Speaking of sharing, I really do promise to tell you about my bread adventures one of these days.  But every time I think I have it pretty well nailed, I do something silly like pull out an underdone loaf, or oversalt the rolls.  But since that first loaf, it’s all been mostly edible, so I don’t really have an excuse.


Look, I know I’m not the only one rushing to agree or disagree (or both) with Mark Bittman’s recent NYT Article, but here are my thoughts about what- over and above the obvious standards- is useful to have around:

Stock:  Bittman suggests not bothering at all with canned/boxed stock.  I’m not buying it.  Yes, I can now state that homemade stock is better than store bought with real firsthand experience.  And by reducing it and freezing it into cubes, it’ll last a while and is fairly compact.  Bittman suggests boiling a carrot, a celery stalk, and half an onion in water for a half hour, with some chicken bits if you have them.  Why don’t you start with a half decent stock and then add to it, like suggested in LRK’s How To Eat Supper?  And while we’re at it, cans are out, as are the little lumps.  You can either get a small tupperware of jelly-consistancy concentrate or boxes–  either work better AND more easily.

Spray-Oil: Finally broke down and bought a $7 pastry brush, almost like this one.  This can do egg washes, normal oil, olive oil, melted butter, butter mixed with flour, and anything else.  It can get bowls, muffin tins, bundt pans, and whatever else, but not get my hand and the toaster oven as well.  And because it’s silicone with the other bit in the middle, it holds liquid well, but also goes into the dishwasher, and doesn’t loose bristles.  Otherwise, fingers often work too.

Lemon Juice: Here’s my major disagreement with Bittman, rather than a minor addition or clarification:  I’m a very strong proponent of having a small squeezey thing of lemon juice and lime juice.  Lemons and limes are expensive.  They’re cheaper at ethnic markets.  But if you’re going to go to a normal grocery store, you might as well just buy them at Whole Foods, because there’s just not that much price difference.  I do buy lemons and limes, especially when I get to one of the cheap places, but they get lost in the fridge, and moldy on the counter.  (Everything gets moldy here.  Everything lives in the fridge. So things get lost in there.)  And so, although we do try to use fresh citrus when possible, we’re often out.  And adding acid really does transform a meal.  So we keep squeezy jars.  Suck on that lemon, Bittman.

Spices: The only spice my mother goes through quickly is basil.  Most other things in the spice area have been there forever, and some may have been there since before me.  I mention this not to embarrass my mother, but to merely point out one example, because if you use spices and haven’t moved in the last year, you have something in there that’s past its prime.  Bittman’s suggestion of throw everything out and start over again every year is a little overreaching for most.  But going through and smelling everything every 6 months isn’t totally out of line.  If the spice container is more than 10 years old, the most valuable thing about it is the container, sure.  But a whole nutmeg will last longer than ground nutmeg, and some spices can easily be pushed past one year, even if you have to add a little bit more.  But ideally we shouldn’t be buying large containers of everything anyway.  We should only be buying what we can use in 6 month or a year at a time.  And often that’s not a large jar.  Best bet?  Find a hippie co-op near you that has spices in bulk.  Find something new? Get a couple tablespoons.  Everything else?  Get a couple months supply, whatever that is for you.  That way your spices don’t go bad, and you can actually afford to replace your spices often enough.

Bacon/prosciutto:  Definitely keep a little of one of these in stock.  Get a package of bacon, and then separate a few slices, and then wrap and freeze.  Then, when you’re making something that needs just a little oomph, a slice or two of bacon will make a huge difference.  You can add a number of other Italian bacon-like meats- I love pancetta.

Fish Sauce: Go to the closest asian market.  I have the stuff with the crabs on it, but aparently the stuff with the baby on it is also good?  If you like Thai or Vietnamese, you definitely like this stuff.  If you like Chinese, you almost definitely like this stuff (The more often used Oyster Sauce is less pungent, however).  Just….  don’t smell it before you use it the first time, okay?  It’s strong stuff, so don’t add much.  Add a spash just about anywhere you might add soy sauce- marinades, over veggies, pasta, rice, salad dressing…..  It adds incredible depth when mixed with things.  If you really can’t stomach the idea of Fish Sauce, try starting by adding Worcestershire sauce to things.  It isn’t as pure, so it’s somewhat hard to work with, but it’s in the same family.

More thoughts on bread (with which I have had success!) later.  After I go make some more.  The only problem with making homemade bread is that you start eating more bread!  Or, at least, we do.