Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Sunny Hello

I would like first to apologize for my absence. I just returned from a wonderful week in San Francisco and the Bay Area, a questionably well-deserved break after finals. We ate and ate, and I have many wonderful things to share with you, but I would like to give this past week the attention it deserves, which happens to be a bit more than I can muster up the time and energy to devote right now.

Though I have a backlog of things to share, my trip included, I did want to stop by and share a nice little brunch I made for myself this morning (in about 5 minutes). My no-holds-barred approach to food this past week left me yearning for something healthy and light, yet still filling. And the textures and the flavors seemed befitting of an all-too-cold spring morning; brightness of the salmon and green onion, a perfectly oozing poached egg, accompanied by the heartiness and identifiable graininess of the wild rice. The flavors were bright, the dish was not heavy, but it still had substance and bite thanks to the rice cakes.

Wild Rice Cakes with Smoked Salmon and Poached Eggs

I used leftover rice from my dinner last night; it is SunWest Harvest Medley, a medley of CalMati Brown Rice, Wild Rice, Heirloom Red Rice and Sweet Brown Rice. It has great bite and crunch to it, which is what I love about it. Any substantial rice would work, but I especially like the fact that this has a variety of textures running throughout. The rice cake is a nice healthy alternative to an English muffin – though it has another egg in it, there’s whole grains and protein in there, as opposed to just some measly flour. The cakes would be great topped with salmon and crème fraîche as well, if the addition of more eggs is not to your liking. They’re a great base and are open to infinite adaptations and uses. Try the rice cakes with chorizo and jalapeno inside for a spicy spin and top with fried eggs, for example.

For the Rice Cakes:
1 cup cooked wild rice
1 green onion, white and light green parts only, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
Pinch dried thyme
1 tablespoon Butter

4 oz smoked salmon
4 eggs
1 T vinegar
Chooped fresh parsley for garnish

Mix rice and green onions in a small bowl. Mix in the egg and season with thyme, salt and pepper. Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Using a 1/4 cup dry scoop, spoon the mixture into four equal-sized mounds in the skillet. Use the back of the dry scoop to flatten each slightly until they resemble pancakes. Cook until lightly browned, about three minutes, and flip to brown the other side.

While the pancakes are cooking, fill another skillet with about 1 1/2 inches of water. Bring it to a boil and add in the vinegar. Reduce to a simmer and crack the eggs, one at a time, near the surface of the water. The fresher your eggs, the better they'll poach.* Cover and allow to simmer for about four minutes, or until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny. If you like your yolks more well-done increase the cooking time until they're cooked to your liking. Remove with a slotted spoon, allowing excess water to drip off.

Neatly arrange an ounce of salmon over each rice cake, then top with a poached egg. Sprinkle with parsley. If desired, a hollandaise sauce would work quite nicely with this, but that's definitely going to up the prep time of this quick meal.

* I learned a neat trick recently to tell whether your eggs are fresh. Fill a glass (wide enough to fit an egg) with water. Gently place your egg in the glass. If it sinks horizontally to the bottom, your egg is very fresh. If it sinks with the tip to the bottom, it is less fresh. If it floats, it is bad and should be tossed. Helpful, no?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sodie McBread

Among the holidays outside of my family’s ethnic heritage but which we celebrate nonetheless with food, I’ve always been a bit wishy-washy with St. Patrick’s day. Don’t get me wrong, I love to celebrate the holiday with the rest of the Irish and non-Irish world on the streets and in the bars of Chicago (or Montreal, or New York). Corned beef and cabbage was just never really my thing. Actually, I’ve always quite liked the cabbage part, but I didn’t warm up to corned beef as much. My dad spends hours boiling the brisket and my brother loves it like green loves beer.

When I was younger I would sit there and pick all of the visible fat off of the corned beef, which was honestly disgusting – but my family is forced to love me so I was never too concerned.

This isn’t to say I don’t like corned beef at all, I much prefer it sandwiched between two pieces of bread with a ton of spicy mustard is all. In fact, on Sunday I kind of had a hankerin' for the stuff, but I wasn't going to set out to cook a giant hunk of meat with a trip on the horizon.

Aside from the corned beef and cabbage, my parents always come home with soda bread around St. Patrick's day. I would pick at it, slowly, until, sure enough I had eaten nearly the entire thing on my own. Cakey, crumbly, slightly sweet and rather dense, the stuff is just great. And so, with my St. Patrick’s Day celebrations taken care of on Saturday (though the effects were still being felt, surprise, surprise, for the rest of the weekend), and Mom and Dad a few hundred miles away, I set out to bake a loaf.

I looked at quite a few recipes, and they varied immensely, using anywhere from two to five cups of flour and two tablespoons to half a cup of butter. Being that it is now spring break and most of my friends have taken off already, I figured there was no need to bake anything with five cups of flour. So I settled on the recipe you see below, tweaking things ever so slightly. The recipe didn’t call for caraway seeds, but I absolutely needed them in there. They remind me of the pumpernickel bagels that I, unlike probably every other child in the city of New York, could not get enough of as a kid. I added the raisins because I felt like I should, since every soda bread I’ve ever eaten has had them in there. I don’t care much for raisins, but pretty much everyone else in the world does, so I figured if I was going to share this with anyone (which is still to be determined), they might appreciate that. The bread came out golden brown, incredibly moist, crumbly, but not impossible to cut a nice slice (though well all know that a hunk of it just tastes better than a slice) and just begging for a generous pat of butter.

Irish Soda Bread with Caraway and Raisins
Adapted from Bon Appétit, February 2005

2 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons plus two teaspoons sugar, plus more for dusting loaf
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
2 ½ tablespoons butter, chilled, cubed
1 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup raisins
1 heaping tablespoon caraway seeds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an eight inch cake pan with butter or coat with nonstick spray.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a large bowl and whisk together. Add the butter and rub into the dry ingredients with your fingertips until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk. Slowly mix until the dry ingredients are incorporated. Mix in raisins and caraway seeds.

Lightly flour your hands and form the mixture into a ball. Place into the cake pan and press down to bring the ball closer to the edges of the pan (don’t worry, it won’t touch). Using a floured knife, cut an X in the center of the loaf, about ½ to 1 inch thick. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of sugar over the top of the loaf.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for ten minutes then turn out onto rack. Serve warm with butter and jam. This bread toasts up great, too.

Hope you all had a great St. Patrick’s Day!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Half Shell

Finals are back - with a vengeance (ah, the joys of the quarter system) - and I'm in the midst of them, so I can’t stick around for long today, but I wanted to tell you about a nice little meal I had a couple of weeks ago at Half Shell.

It’s nothing too special and it’s far from gourmet, but if you have a hankering for seafood in Chicago - and I’m not talking Branzino or house-cured gravlax here, I’m talking roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-crackin’ seafood – this is a pretty good bet. The atmosphere is kitschy and fun – it’s a basement bar with all the adornments you’d expect of a basement bar. It’s dimly lit, the tables are small and pretty close together; the service is pleasant, if a bit on the gruff side, and it all fits so nicely together. There just aren’t a ton of places in this city you can go to on a whim and shell out $26 for a giant plate of crab legs – atop a giant pile of fries (which I didn’t even attempt to eat) – along with some toasted white bread and herb butter.

We started with a dozen Blue Point oysters. They were huge, and while not incredibly flavorful, they were certainly passable considering Chicago's in the middle of the country, not to mention a pretty good deal for around $13 for the dozen.

Half Shell is no-frills, which probably is what allows them to keep the prices as low as they are. Yet the crab we had was great. There was plenty to eat inside these shells – and I left stuffed to the gills. The herb butter was fantastic (as herb butter usually is). I didn’t see anyone order anything but crab legs while we were there – but I can’t really imagine why anyone would.

Half Shell
676 W. Diversey Pkwy (b/w Clark & Orchard)
(773) 549-1773

Monday, March 3, 2008

Conquering Yeast

There are few things of which I can say I am legitimately afraid. Among those things would have to be bees (though this fear has dissipated a bit since being stung for the first and second times), a Yankees World Series championship and cooking with yeast. Especially cooking with yeast – I mean, the stuff is legitimately alive! Something about it just seems so ominous, like I’m setting myself up for incredible failure. The kind of failure that leaves you covered in flour, with shards of dough draping the cabinets, a lingering reminder of yeasted carnage. Once activated, the yeast would surely take on powers that would leave the outcome of my efforts totally out of my hand.

And so it was. I would search and search for recipes, and as soon as I saw the word “yeast” I turned away. Such a small word, so monosyllabic, yet so – ugly, the word was enough to make even the most delicious-sounding recipe totally unappealing.

Oh – yeast, you little devil you, you always manage to sneak yourself into an otherwise perfectly good recipe. How quickly cinnamon rolls go from yum to ew.

But I’ve always been a brave girl. Knowing that I would muster up the strength to tackle yeast, I purchased my first envelopes while in the grocery store for another reason. And then you sat – taunting me.

On my kitchen counter, acting all untouchable, like there was no way I was going to ever actually find it in me to rip that package open and activate you. Little did you know it was just a matter of finding the right recipe.

Because I like you guys, I’m not going to lie to you - it took a while for the right recipe to come up. But then, in my daily blog readings, it arrived. It was advertised to be one of the easiest yeast doughs I’d ever make. It was the shining beacon I was waiting for. Not one of the easiest yeast doughs I have ever made, but one of the easiest I would ever make. That implies that this was easy enough to not turn me off from yeast altogether. This was it.

And so I set off on my mission. It was my rite of passage – something every person who calls herself a cook should do. I was going to knead, and I was going to kick some ass.

Everything came together really well. The dough was easy to handle. But I don’t think I let it rise enough during the second resting period, since it puffed up a lot in the oven and a bunch of the tomatoes actually fell off the focaccia (never mind that I halved the tomatoes improperly. Oh, and I tried to put olives on it. Note: don’t do that). But that wasn’t the point of this. So what if I didn’t let it rise enough? Who cares that I over baked it? I made bread! With yeast! And I’m going to do it again!

Potato Focaccia
Makes one 8-inch focaccia
The Wednesday Chef, January 27, 2007

My focaccia didn't really rise enough during the second resting period (I think that's what happened anyway, this being my first yeast dough I could be totally wrong, please advise) and the dough puffed up in the oven. Make sure your dough is in a warm place after you set it in the cake pan to make sure it gets it rises properly. The recipe really is incredibly easy and the result is a surprisingly light, flavorful bread, even if it is a bit overcooked.

1 medium Yukon Gold potato
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon fresh yeast
A pinch of sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more for salting water
2/3 cup warm water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced crosswise
1 to 2 teaspoons dried oregano
Coarse sea salt

1. Wash the potato and place in a small saucepan along with enough water to cover the potato by an inch. Place the pot over high heat, covered, and bring to a boil. Add a handful of kosher salt to the water. Simmer until the potato is tender when pierced with a knife, around 20 minutes. Drain the potato and let it cool. Peel the potato and mash finely with a fork. Set aside.

2. Put the yeast in a large mixing bowl along with a pinch of sugar. Add the warm water in a thin stream over the yeast, using a fork to help dissolve the yeast entirely. Let the mixture stand for a few minutes.

3. Pour the flour into the yeast water and stir with a fork, then add the mashed potato and the salt. The dough will be relatively thick and shaggy. Use the fork to incorporate the potato into the flour. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and begin to knead the dough by hand. It will come together quite quickly. Knead against the bowl for a minute or so, until it is relatively smooth. Add more flour if the dough is too sticky to handle. Form the dough into a ball and let it rest, covered with a kitchen towel, in the bowl for an hour.

4. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of an 8-inch cake pan. Using your fingertips, gently release the puffy and risen dough from the bowl and place it in the cake pan. Gently tug and pat it out so that it fits the pan. Cover the top of the focaccia with the tomato halves, distributing them evenly. Sprinkle the oregano and a large pinch of coarse salt over the tomatoes, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and let it rest for another hour.

5. While the focaccia is resting, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the cake pan in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Let cool on a rack for 20 minutes before removing the focaccia from the pan.