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Why I Cook. Part I.

I now have a professional excuse to read food blogs (more on that later). A post by Michael Ruhlman last week about why people cook, or do not cook has kept me ruminating this week. And then Culinate.com featured a piece about eating-in and solicited comments from readers about memorable experiences of staying home and cooking instead of opting for take-out or going out to eat.

I can think of dozens of reasons why I cook but I think the fundamental one is that I love preparing food for the people in my life. I started cooking at a very young age, in part because my mother suffered from severe migraines. When she was laid up, I often cooked for my siblings and father. And even though I remember those days without my mother bustling about and taking care of us, as quiet, sad, and just wrong, I also remember the joy and pride with which I served dinner. From then on, preparing food became the go-to-gift for all occasions.

And then there’s just the everyday cooking, the nightly dinners that are so part of my routine that if I don’t cook for two or three nights I start feeling a little antsy. It’s not that I don’t love to go out to eat. Eating out is in fact one of the things I miss most about my pre-child life. However, since we don’t  go out much any more, I have daily opportunities to enjoy the process. And I have a most appreciative eater in my husband, and more often that not, in my son as well. My son recently turned three, which was a great reason to bake cinnamon rolls, muffins, a chocolate birthday cake, and lots of savory snacks too.

Today, my kitchen looked like a production kitchen. I had a few hours to myself and the result was a double batch of muffins and a triple batch of granola. Now we’re stocked for after-school-snacks and breakfasts for two weeks.

The second batch of muffins was baking and the kitchen smelled of cinnamon and I was wrist-deep in granola, oily hands covered with pumpkin and sunflower seeds and oats, and loving it. I love the process. I love the smells and the toasty clumps I nibble as soon as the granola is out of the oven. I love the creativity. (I have become a bit of a pathological substituter–sometimes because I don’t have  all the ingredients, but sometimes also because I like to tinker with the original.) And I do like to eat, so the consumption part is a joy too.

Speaking of results and creativity, the granola I made today was inspired by a recipe from Lottie + Doof , one of my favorite food blogs.  I’ve been making this variation for several months now and it illustrates another reason I love to cook. I could never afford to buy this kind of granola at the store. With a few tweaks to the original recipe (I omit the pecans and use applesauce for part of the olive oil called for) I can make six pounds of granola for about $15 by buying products in bulk from Azure Standard and making it myself (active time 10 minutes!)

These are just a few of the reasons why I cook. I’d love to hear why you do or don’t!

Granola (inspired by Lottie + Doof who adapted it from Early Bird Granola)

  • 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
  • 1 cup raw sunflower seeds, hulled
  • 1 cup coconut chips
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • generous 1/2 cup apple sauce
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 300°F.
Place dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix until well combined. Mix honey, maple syrup, olive oil and applesauce in another bowl and then stir into dry ingredients. Spread granola mixture in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to oven and bake, stirring every 10 minutes, until granola is toasted, about an hour. It should be nice and golden brown. Remove granola from oven and let cool completely before serving or storing in an airtight container for up to 1 month.

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Olympics, McDonald’s, Michelle Obama, and Savory Bread Pudding

The beginnings of Savory Bread Pudding -- the addition of some Winter Greens pesto makes this dish even better.

I love watching the Olympics, that is, I love the actual races, performances, personal stories and all the emotion and physical rigor and determination that culminates in these two weeks. I tend to go on longer runs myself during the games. I stay up too late watching just one more qualifying speed skating race, and I read the sports section every morning.

I do not like the staggering number of commercials (actually it’s not a staggering number, it’s the staggering frequency with which the same dozen are broadcast). And I particularly dislike the McDonald’s commercials that say things like, “Eat like an Olympian!” and have smiling, sporty children running around their swanky apartments with little red happy-meal boxes! I’m sure some Olympians do eat fast food but I would imagine that the majority of them do not.

My three-year-old has been watching the coverage with us sometimes and so he is seeing these commercials for the first time which brings me, somewhat indirectly to Michelle Obama’s recent unveiling of her fight to end childhood obesity. She has an ambitious plan and the President has pledged 1 billion dollars to get better food into schools and fund other areas of access and education that really could make a difference. These issues are close to my heart and the work I and many others have been doing through Slow Food for years and through our current Time for Lunch campaign. I am excited to see more national attention paid to this issue that affects all of us in one way or another. And this brings me back to my very own kitchen and the daily routine of cooking dinner.

I’m not surprised that parents take their children to McDonald’s. It’s cheap (in some ways), and it’s there, everywhere, in fact and children devour it. My son turns his nose up at the food I prepare all the time and I know he would devour french fries and hamburgers every night if the opportunity arose. But when he exclaims (after some perseverance on the parents’ part) “I DO like beans!” with a big smile on his face I am reminded of what constant exposure to vegetables and fruits and home-cooked food does for children, and parents. I could write a book on this but to wrap up this post and get to my final point, let’s briefly talk about a dish my son needs no encouragement to devour. Savory bread pudding! It is the answer to my 5:30pm-what’s-for-dinner? prayer when I have two hungry “men” circling the kitchen. The stale half-loaf of bread in the fridge, the carrot and onion, the remainders of a bunch of cilantro and a few cups of milk and maybe a handful of grated cheese. These humble and almost ever-present ingredients turn into a moist, savory dinner in no-time and no-one needs convincing to clean their plate!

Oh and if you want to take a cooking class on other kid-friendly meals, check out my Sunday, Feb. 28th class!

Savory Bread Pudding

Bread soaking in the custard of eggs and milk

You can use almost any vegetable you have on hand and you can add bacon or sausage if you like as well. You can make it drier with more bread or more custardy with more milk and/or eggs.The point is don’t feel you have to follow the below quantities and just use the technique to use up whatever you have or use your favorite veggies/herbs.

Serves 4-6.

5 eggs

3 cups milk

5-6 large slices bread, cubed (or varies ends for a total of about 5-6 cups of cubed bread)

½ an onion, diced

1 carrot, diced

couple of sprigs of parsley, chopped

grated cheese (cheddar, or parmesan or crumbled feta or goat cheese) (optional)

salt and pepper

I had leftover chard stems (from making Winter Greens pesto) and chopped those up with the onion and carrot to saute and add to the custard.

Preheat oven to 375 (or 400 if you’re in a hurry). Cube the bread. In a large bowl whisk the eggs and milk. Salt and pepper generously. Heat a little olive oil in a sauté pan, add onions and carrots and sauté for a about 10 minutes until golden and the carrots are cooked through—the finer you chop the carrots the faster that will be! Chop the parsley and add parsley and veggies to bread mixture. Pour into a 9 x 13 baking dish, top with grated or crumbled cheese, if using and bake for about 30 minutes, or until set and slightly browned on top. Again if you’re in a hurry turn on the broiler for the last few minutes to get the cheese and top nice and crusty.

P.S. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo of the pudding right out of the oven. We must have  been in such a hurry to eat it that I forgot to take a picture. It was nice and golden-brown and bubbly!

Winter greens become pesto

I have been making this version of pesto for  a year or more now and I’ve been teaching it  in my winter cooking classes and it’s usually a favorite. I originally started making it because my then, 2 year-old loved basil pesto but once basil was out of season and he had become a pickier eater I started making this version with greens of all kinds (beet greens, chard, spinach, etc.) I made it this past weekend for my son’s birthday party. I mixed it with some fresh goat cheese and spread it on toasted bread. People were eating it by the spoonful out of the bowl in the kitchen before I could even get it on the bread.

And then when I went to the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market on Sunday, the greens were back!  The hard freeze we had in early/mid December really did in the leafy greens this winter. The last few weeks, however, have been so mild that the greens are showing up in the market again.

I loaded up on collards, lacinato and Red Russian kale, rapini, bok choy and spinach. And all were beautiful! So if you have greens in your fridge, by all means try this recipe. Use whatever nuts you have on hand. Walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts or all delicious in this and if you have pine nuts, by all means use them.

And if you’re going to mix it with goat cheese like I did you can skip the hard cheese in the pesto and reduce the oil. Buon Appetito!

This is a very adaptable recipe. I use the pesto as a sandwich spread (and on grilled cheese sandwiches), on quesadillas, as a dressing for pasta or for rice salads. You could spread it on fish or meat before grilling or baking. You can mix it with goat cheese for a lovely little crostini. You can thin it down with a little water or more oil for a salad dressing for hearty green salads for roasted vegetables.

The quantity of ingredients can be adapted to your taste and what you have on hand. This pesto keeps well in the fridge for 3-4 days and freezes well so feel free to make a bigger batch if you have everything on hand.

2 medium-sized bunches of greens (chard, kale, beet greens, spinach etc.)

1-2 cloves garlic

1- handfuls of hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts or pine nuts

2 oz of hard, aged cheese such as parmesan or Asiago stella

¼ – 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

salt, pepper

Wash and stem greens (if stems are tough). If using beet greens or spinach keep the stems. Bring a large pat of salted water to a boil. Add greens and cook for a 2- 3 minutes. Drain, let cool and squeeze out all the water with your hands. Place cheese and nuts in food processor and process until finely chopped, add greens and garlic and salt & pepper, process until well integrated. Drizzle in the oil and periodically check for consistency and flavor. Do not over process. If not using immediately store in a sealable container in the fridge with a little more olive oil poured over the top.

Whole wheat adaptation of no-knead bread

As requested, here’s my version of Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread. A trick I recently learned from Hank Sawtelle on Culinate.com is to lift and flip the dough once or twice during the rising, which creates a nice open crumb and bigger holes.

75% whole wheat loaf

No-Knead Bread

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

4 cups bread flour (very important to use bread flour – don’t use all-purpose it won’t rise properly), more for dusting
(I use 3 cups whole wheat bread flour – shepherd’s grain is the best but Bob’s red mill is fine too and 1 cup white bread flour but experiment with other ratios and other types of  flour—rye, fine cornmeal, etc.) you might start with more white than that as you get started with it but it’s totally up to you, your taste. . .

1 teaspoon rapid rise yeast
 (it has to be rapid rise/instant for this recipe)

1 generous Tbs salt if you’re using kosher salt which I do

extra flour, cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 2 cups luke warm water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with towel or plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, or up to 18, at room temperature.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and knead it gently for a minute. Cover loosely with towel and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 500 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Bread, bread, bread

Today's crusty loaf of whole wheat no-knead bread (Jim Lahey/Sullivan Street Bakery)

Like so many people, I’ve been making the no-knead bread made famous by Mark Bittman’s NY Times piece three or four years ago. I now regularly make this loaf with 75% whole wheat (using Shephard’s grain whole wheat flour) with magnificent results. the crumb is open and the texture chewy and the crust, crackly and toasty brown.

I’ve decided to focus one of my upcoming classes on the many uses for bread (not in a sandwich kind of way) as part of dinner.

Three hours later. . . already consumed a third of it

I tend to still have a 1/4 of a loaf leftover (for fear of running out) when I pull a new one out of the oven and then we want to eat the new one, fresh with butter or cheese as a snack or make sandwiches. Maybe that’s why I have such a repertoire of dishes that incorporate that last 1/4 to delicious effect. Many cultures/cuisines have used up bread in creative ways for hundreds of  years and it’s certainly a hearty base for many a dish, especially this time of year.