Change of Plan

Okay, SO.

The short story is that my sweatpants are fitting tightly, which is nature’s way of saying, “Yes, excuse me, but you see, you might want think about dialing it back a bit. Like, now.”

My sweatpants, guys. SWEATPANTS. I don’t have to think about how that happened, because I know exactly how it happened. I never exactly got over the post-wedding holiday bliss of not giving a shit about what I was eating, how much I was imbibing, and how little I was moving due to the increasingly miserable cold weather.

So it’s time for a change. I have neither the time or patience to count points and go to meetings, so I’m not doing Weight Watchers. I have some respect for my arteries, so Atkins is out. I don’t eat enough meat to make Paleo a viable option. And replacing solid food with juice—not my thing. I have working teeth, and I want to eat food.

Enter VB6, a flexitarian approach to diet from one of my culinary heroes, Mark Bittman, who wrote the cookbook I have continued to use with the most frequency since I started experimenting in the kitchen. VB6 stands for “Vegan Before 6pm”. To me, there’s nothing flexible about the word ‘vegan’, and I have to admit I was dubious when I first picked up the book. I do eat meat, but not very much, though I do eat fish and yogurt and eggs, and I REALLY like cheese. I don’t like fake meat or soy crumbles or tofurkey or any kinds of soy products masquerading as meat. I like tofu when I treat it like tofu, not as if I were trying to dress it up and make it look and taste like chicken.

But there’s no fake meat involved in the VB6 program. Actually, there’s nothing fake or highly-processed—and that’s the point. If you’re following VB6, you eat a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes—basically a whole lot of whole plant-based foods, minimally processed with no refined flours or added sugar or ingredients you can’t recognize. You can drink alcohol, but not before 6pm. You can have a grilled rib steak and frites if you crave it, as long as you eat it after 6. There are no calories or points to count, but you do have eat mindfully. And fish? By all means, after 6 – but stick with sustainable, responsibly caught sources. Bittman recommends the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. (There’s an app!)

If you know how to cook, and you know healthy eating (even if you’re not currently eating healthy) VB6 is not a stretch… until you start to think of things like how you like your morning coffee (with milk, no sugar), or your favorite post-workout recovery drink (lowfat chocolate milk), or some of your favorite at-work snacks (string cheese!). I realized that I consume a lot of dairy unconsciously, on top of the dairy I do eat frequently and very consciously: cheese on pizza, greek yogurt with granola, and my favorite, fro-yo (with damn near anything).

I am preparing to give up all but one of those things before 6pm. I need to have my coffee in the morning, but I’ll drink coffee black after I leave the house. I will not put sugar in my oatmeal. I will eat bananas and apples and almonds and NOTHING FROM A VENDING MACHINE while I am at work. I will not sneak chocolate. I will not eat pasta or ciabatta or semolina or pita bread and—

Oh my god, my life is OVER.

Okay, maybe not. But when confronted with the idea – really, the fact – that I do all of my nervous/stress/bored eating at work, I feel a little terrified about following this program. And then I remember the sweatpants, and how horrible I feel about myself when I put them on. I don’t want to feel horrible. I want to feel like an unstoppable, powerful, force of nature. I want to feel like Wonder Woman. She could summon the wherewithal to resist mindless eating, to delay gratification and not have a treat nightly, and to instead focus on making her 10,000 steps every day and eating a healthy diet. I can do that. I’ve done much harder things.

This weekend I invested several hours and many, many ducats shopping for whole, vegan foods. I pored over the recipes in the book and today set about making three dishes in bulk for the week:

Miso Soup with Vegetables and Tofu

Miso Soup with Vegetables and Tofu

Super easy recipe with a lot of flexibility. Made with spinach, shitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, baby bok choy, scallions, red miso and firm tofu. Oh, and water. No stock, no seasoning. Came together in 30 minutes, and yielded 4 quarts. Also, my non-VB6-following husband loved it.

Chickpea Ratatouille

Chickpea Ratatouille

I started with Bittman’s recipe and then just started cooking what I had in reaching distance: onions, garlic, zucchini, roasted red peppers, chickpeas, a medley of fresh herbs & some red chili flakes. Great to have on top of polenta, brown rice, farro, or with…

Whole Wheat Flatbread

Whole Wheat Flatbread

Homemade flatbread! You can eat bread on this diet, and it can be poofy bread if you want it. But it has to be whole grain. Since I don’t have the patience to read labels on packages of supermarket bread, and because supermarket bread just plain sucks, I opted to make my own. It was super easy (thanks once again to my food processor), and the recipe yielded enough servings to last me over 8 meals, so it was really economical, too. Whole wheat flour, instant yeast, salt, olive oil and water. Boom.

I’m planning on using the blog as a tool for recording my experience with VB6, to keep me honest and motivated, and to share new recipes from Bittman as well as those inspired by necessity, creativity or just trying to make something filling and delicious from just a few ingredients. And remember, this is VB6, people. There will be some treats. I just won’t be eating them every day.

Happy Cooking,

J.

Kitchen Lab, Non-Blizzard Edition

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So it wasn’t the storm of the century that the news media [and Mayor DeBlasio] made it out to be, but Juno deposited a fair amount of snow on my town overnight. Thanks to the two-man team of Paul, my husband, armed with a shovel, and Nick, our neighbor, the proud owner of a brand new snowblower, our porch, front walk and driveway were clean and passable by mid-morning.

Nick and his wife, Wendy, are wonderful neighbors. Since we moved in last August they’ve been so helpful and—well, neighborly. I always thank them, but typically when I want to send a big thank you to someone who’s been extra-special wonderful, I say thanks with food. Usually, I’ll bake cookies. (My mother’s go-to-thank-you is lemon bread.)

Cookies usually do the job, unless you’re trying to thank a diabetic and his Weight Watchers-following wife. I refuse to bake with Splenda, so I had to think of something else. I had time, bread flour, and also needed to make dinner for Paul and myself this evening, so I decided to make pizza.

I’ve been conducting experiments making homemade pizza dough over the past few weeks. My first experiment was Whole Wheat Pizza Dough, which while much easier than I expected was a little too crisp and bland for my liking.

Today I made pizza dough using a recipe from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker. This is a great book for anyone who has moved beyond beginner-level cooking but still appreciates a simple, straightforward approach to baking both sweet and savory treats. Also, if you have a bunch of cooking toys like I do (such as a stand mixer and food processor), you’ll love how Ms. Field provides options for preparation. She tells you exactly how to mix and work with pizza dough by hand, with a mixer, and with a food processor. I’m a novice with dough, so I went with the easiest method: pizza dough by food processor.

I made one adjustment to Ms. Field’s pizza recipe and elected to use bread flour instead of all-purpose flour. I had a huge bag of bread flour in the house, so I figured I might as well give it a shot.

I chose wisely. The crust of this pizza baked up golden brown and crisp, with the kind of giant air bubbles you usually see on restaurant pizzas. So light and airy, but still with enough structure and strength to support sauce and cheese. Bonus: the recipe yields enough dough for two pizzas, potentially 3 depending on the size of the pan you use. I made a Margherita pizza for Nick and Wendy, one for Paul and I, and then I made third irregularly shaped pizza with leftover roasted fennel, Parmegiano Reggiano and mozzarella.

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Here’s a rundown of what I did to make Pizza Dough—

Ingredients:
1 envelope active dry yeast (OR instant/”rapid rise” yeast)
1/3 cup warm water
A pinch of sugar
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for the dough
1 cup cold water
3 and 3/4 cups bread flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt (NOTE: next time I will use 2 tsp as I think this recipe would benefit from a little more salt)
About a 1/2 cup of all purpose flour to have on hand

Tools:
Food Processor (12 c.) fitted with dough mixer attachment or large blade
Mixing bowls, plastic wrap, a large dish towel
Rolling Pin, preferably a French one
Pizza crisper pan, round

Time:
4 hours, largely inactive

Method:
Combine yeast, warm water and sugar in a measuring cup. Stir and set aside for 5 minutes, until a little foamy. Add flour and salt to processor mixer bowl, and pulse a few times to mix. Turn the processor on and pour in the following through the spout in this order: yeast/sugar/water mixture, olive oil, and cold water. Continue mixing until a mass of dough forms and starts pulling away from the edges. Turn the processor off and remove the dough.

Knead gently by hand until dough is soft and shiny. Then rub about a teaspoon of olive oil on your hands before gently rubbing the outside of the dough ball. Place the dough in a glass or aluminum mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Cover with a dish towel and place the bowl in a warm, dry place. All of our radiators have covers (basically turning them into benches), so I placed the bowl on a radiator.

Then find something to do for the next hour (or two, in case you have to go run errands).

When you get back to the dough, it should be roughly twice the size of when you last saw it. Remove it from the bowl and place on a cutting board or marble slab. Now, if you want to refrigerate or freeze the dough, this is the time to divide, wrap and freeze (or refrigerate). If you intend to make pizza in the very immediate future, knead the dough gently for about a minute and then put it back in the bowl and cover as before. Back to the warm, dry resting place it goes—for another 30-45 minutes. By this point the dough will have grown to a lighter and somewhat puffier mass.

Remove from the bowl and divide the dough into two halves. Sprinkle flour on your cutting board. Shape the first half into a ball and then flatten with your hand into a disk onto the board, then sprinkle the top with flour. Get your trusty rolling pin and, rolling out from the center, roll the dough into a flat circle about 1/4 of an inch thick. You’ll see air bubbles, and using the rolling pin will help to eliminate the excess air. Carefully peel the dough off the board and lay it on your crisper pan with a 2-inch overhang, so you can crimp the edges. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and set aside.

Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. After the dough has rested 15 minutes, and the oven has reached temperature, apply your toppings. Go light – more toppings means more weight, which means a pizza devoid of structural integrity. You don’t want that. I used a 14oz can of Hunt’s Fire Roasted Tomatoes (enough to spread on 2 pizzas) and seasoned with generously sprinkles of oregano, garlic powder, red pepper, black pepper and kosher salt. I put the pizza in the oven and set the timer for 14 minutes.

Wait a minute, you’re thinking. You put the pizza in the oven without cheese? Whaa?

Yes. This is critical. If you want melted soft bubbly cheese—not dry, brown, leathery cheese—you have to put it on near the end of baking. So when the 14 minutes are up, take the pizza out of the oven, admire how beautiful and airy and golden your crust is, and apply thinly sliced cheese, which will start melting immediately. Put the pizza right back in the oven and set the timer for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, remove the pizza and add some chopped fresh basil. Let it rest 3-5 minutes, then cut and serve. Repeat with the other half of the dough.

As I mentioned, I had enough extra dough to make a third, albeit irregularly shaped pizza. Having run out of tomatoes and basil, I improvised and topped this one with roasted fennel, mozzarella and grated Parmegiano Reggiano. Dee-licious!

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In my next round of experiments, I’ll be using only all-purpose flour to make the dough. I’ll let you know how it turns out. For the moment, a couple key tips:

Working with room temperature dough makes for easier kneading, shaping and rolling. Cold dough isn’t very pliable.

Patience is key.

Happy mixing!

J.

I needed a cookie.

There are cravings you can suppress, and then there are the other kinds of cravings. The kind that can’t be ignored, however much you really, honestly want to ignore them. The ones that fall under the category of “I MUST HAVE THIS IF I EVER HOPE TO BE A COMPLETE/HAPPY/FUNCTIONING HUMAN”.

I have learned – and continue to learn – that when you really want something, and you have an image of this very thing in your head that’s so vivid you could just reach out and touch it, there is no substitute. You must have it. You could try having some alternate version, but it won’t satisfy that deep-seated NEED.

I’m like this about certain pairs of Nikes, burgers, and cookies. Sometimes I’ll want a cookie, and I’ll get one from Starbucks. If I catch a nice barista, the cookie will be warm and a little gooey in the middle, and it’s alright. Nothing spectacular.

And then there are times I need a cookie. A real cookie. I’m not after the sugar so much as a multi-layered experience of WOW. Crisp edges, chewy center. Maybe some melt-y chips inside. But I don’t want a lot of goo. I want crunch and spice and warmth and zing and CHOCOLATE (most of the time; I do eat lots of cookies without chocolate).

I’m back on the Weight Watchers wagon at the moment. I had myself in tip-top shape, and then I got married and went to Hawaii, and my husband and I were all about relaxing and stuffing our faces and taking a break from being consumed with our diets. It was a magical week. And then it was Thanksgiving. And then it was Christmas.

And then there were another 10 pounds on the scale. Oops.

So I’m watching what I eat, and most days I do fine. I eat my veggies, I drink my green tea, I look like the picture of self discipline & inner poise. But last night, as I approached Penn Station on my way home, I found myself wanting a cookie. So I ducked into the Starbucks on 7th Avenue & 31st and got a warm chocolate chip cookie. And a few minutes later, after I took a second bite I thought to myself, “This is really not what I wanted. It’s sugary and has no variation in its texture and it’s so disappointing. Ugh.”

Of course I ate the rest of it. I hate it when I do things like that.

Today I was determined to erase the experience of the bad cookie and instead make a cookie I could be proud of. I flipped through a bunch of my cookbooks and looked at my usual spots online, but nothing was jumping out at me saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”. I had three ingredients I really wanted to use: dark chocolate chips, tart dried cherries, and walnuts. You know, antioxidant rich and pretend-healthy.

So I decided to improvise. I looked at a recipe for oatmeal cookies in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, took it apart, and put it back together as a brand new recipe. If the raw dough is any indication, these babies are going to be fabulous, and I expect the result to be…

The Cookie I Want When I Need a Fucking Cookie

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Ingredients:
1.5 cups rolled oats
1 cup fresh walnut pieces
12 oz. bag Nestlé Dark Chocolate Chips, divided
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1.5 cups flour
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup tart dried cherries, roughly chopped

Method:

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine oats and walnuts on a sheet pan. Toast in the oven for 5-7 minutes, until you can smell the walnuts. Remove the pan immediately and set aside to cool.

Measure out a heaping cup of the chocolate chips, place them in a microwave safe bowl. Set the remaining chips aside.

Microwave the bowl of chocolate chips for 30 seconds, then remove and stir chocolate. If not several whole chips remain, continue microwaving at 10 second intervals and stirring until you have a homogenous mixture. Set aside to cool.

In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium-high speed for about 5 minutes. You want to allow time for air to work its way through the mixture – it will be light in color and fluffy. Turn off the mixer and add the melted chocolate. Resume mixing at medium speed, and add eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition. Then add the vanilla and continue to blend for another 30 seconds. Stop the mixer.

Add the flour, cinnamon,baking powder and salt and mix on the slowest setting for 30 seconds – this is just so the flour doesn’t blow up in your face. Then increase the mixing speed to medium and mix until all ingredients are just combined. Turn off the mixer. Add oats & walnuts, the dried cherries and remaining chocolate chips. Mix on the lowest setting for 10-20 seconds, until everything is combined.

Remove the mixing bowl from the standing mixer, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4-6 hours, or overnight. Make sure to take the bowl out of the fridge about an hour before you’re ready to start baking – otherwise the dough will be solid as a rock.

Position rack in the center of the oven and set the temperature to 375 degrees. Use a cookie scoop or large spoon to form balls of dough, and place on a cookie sheet about 1.5 inches apart. Since the dough is cold, the cookies don’t spread very much. If you make small cookies (1 scoop each), you’ll fit about 14 to a pan. If you make them larger, as pictured, 9 will fit on a pan. This recipe yielded 30 small cookies and 9 large. It could have been more, but I ate some dough.

Whatever. It was good. Real good.

-JM

The Magic of Not Having Any Plans

I finally have it: a perfectly wide open afternoon to spend in the kitchen, not to cook with the purpose of preparing a meal, but to cook—just because.

I don’t get many afternoons like this one, and I want to take advantage of the time. I have nothing I need to get done immediately, no places to rush off to, no emails that need answering (right this second, anyway).

I haven’t blogged in a long time. I don’t know if it’s because I lost my taste for it, or I got too busy, or my mind just wasn’t in the right place. 2014 was the kind of year that made me forget what it felt like to slow down, to stand over a pot, gently stirring and wafting all the aromas, and just enjoy the no-rush aspect of cooking on a Sunday afternoon. This is not to say I had a bad year—it was ultimately very good—but marked by a lot of changes, some not-so-good, some great, and all exhausting. I made a laundry list of goals for 2015 (my usual practice every December), then proceeded to strike a line through all of them and instead focus on one goal:

Learn how to slow down and just BE.

If you know me, this is much easier said than done. But I am going to try. I am going to march into the kitchen, figure out something to make, and leave my iPhone alone until it is time to snap a picture of whatever lovely dish results from this afternoon’s experiments.

Thus my extended hiatus from blogging ends today. See you soon.

Make a steak on the austerity plan? Don’t mind if I do.

I make healthy look good.

I make healthy look good.

Hot diggity damn—I made a five ingredient dinner!

Behold, a roasted cauliflower steak dressed with a sauce of olive oil, butter, red pepper flakes and chopped Manzanilla olives. Spicy, healthy and actually really cheap to make.

Set a jelly roll or sheet pan inside your oven, and pre-heat it to 450 degrees. While the oven heats, cut two one & a half inch “steaks” from the center of the cauliflower; save what’s left for another use (like steaming and throwing into your lunch salad tomorrow).  Brush olive oil on one side of the steak and generously sprinkle with Old Bay. When the oven is ready, carefully set the slices on the pan, oiled side down, and repeat the oil brushing and Old Bay sprinkling on the top of each slice. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 14 minutes.

Once your timer goes off, use a spatula to gently flip the cauliflower steaks, then continue baking for another 14 minutes. In the meantime, grab a small pan (not nonstick) and set over medium-low heat. Add about 2 teaspoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons butter, and a generous shake of red pepper flakes to the pan. As the butter melts, give 1/4 cup of small Manzanilla olives a rough chop, then add to pan. Give it a gentle shake, reduce heat, and continue cooking on low for another 3-4 minutes.

The steaks are ready when they are easily pierced with the point of a knife. Remove each steak from the pan gently [again], and dress with the sauce. Ta-daa.

Note: this recipe is vegetarian, but could easily be made vegan by eliminating the butter and just using more olive oil in its place.

Note Part Deux: One large cauliflower will yield two steaks.

 

 

 

Yes.

"I'll get you, my pretty..."

“I’ll get you, my pretty…”

That beautiful monstrosity in the picture is a slice of lime meringue tart from Mustard’s Grill in Napa Valley, California.

My boyfriend and I stopped into Mustard’s between vineyard tours. It was a warm, sunny California winter day, the kind that makes you wish you rented a convertible instead of the Kia 4-door parked in the front lot. There was a 40-minute wait for lunch, so we leaned back against the wall of the crowded bar and took in the scenery. Plates of gently charred salmon steaks, lamb burgers, pork chops, fettuccine with scallops, and smiles as far as the eye could see. Two seats emptied at the bar and I wasted no time claiming them. A lamb burger for him, the fettuccine for me.

Some of our best meals together have been eaten at the bars of very crowded restaurants, and this lunch may be in my top three of best meals of all time. I hadn’t eaten seafood fra diavolo this good since I was in Italy, about fourteen years prior. And I knew my boyfriend loved the lamb burger—it’s not very difficult to grin with your mouth full.

Later that day, we had dinner further up the road at Bottega, an inviting and capacious Italian restaurant in Yountville, one of the American West’s great capitals of food & wine. I remember sampling a fruity Zinfandel at the bar, and then one of us may have ordered duck or lamb ragu for dinner. I couldn’t tell you exactly because I have no recollection of the meal itself. All I remember is that at some point I looked down at the freshly-cleared table and saw a ring being held in front of me. I nodded, and then nodded some more. A few minutes later there was a bottle of champagne on the table and people we’d never seen before were congratulating us.

It was the very best meal we shared at a table, my pre-husband and I, and I couldn’t tell you what it was.

The next day, we continued to eat and drink our way through Napa, giddily smiling and holding hands, wondering how much free booze we could procure by telling people, “Guess what? We’re getting hitched!”

Turns out, quite a lot. We returned to Mustard’s for dinner and enjoyed a wonderful flight of local wines, followed by a round of champagne. Full of love, bubbles, devil-may-care and la-tee-daa, I signaled our waiter and asked about the tower of fluff I had seen on a passing dessert cart.

“That,” I said. “Whatever that is, I hope you saved a slice for me.”

That was later December of last year. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of planning, decision-making, working, and run-of-the-mill life stuff. Somewhere in there we bought a house. In New Jersey. We’re an aunt and uncle to twin girls. I bought a big froufy dress, which was a surprise to everyone, including me. I’ve made a few impressive meals and had zero time to write about them.

Well, that’s not entirely true. With the little time I have had, I’ve been reading and researching Consumer Reports, BHG, and Cook’s Illustrated. Exactly one month after we became engaged, pre-husband and I put in an offer on a 1912 Craftsman across the street from a park in Bloomfield, NJ. It’s the kind of house where you could host Christmas dinner for your family, your friends and their kids.

But the house is need of lots of love, a new bathroom, and most importantly a new kitchen. This isn’t me being like one of those people on House Hunters, who walks in to the house and says, “This kitchen has to go. The paint color is just not my style.”

This kitchen is a wreck and needs to be gutted top to bottom.  And while a full renovation project may be a little intimidating, this is a challenge I’m embracing. This is my playroom, my laboratory, and the nucleus of the home Pre-husband and I will share. It is the room where I will brew and quietly drink the first cup of coffee every morning, where I will roast my first Thanksgiving turkey and test recipes for the hundreds of cookies I’ll bake & give away every December. It’ll be the place where I’ll make chili and ice cream and birthday cakes and cassoulet and green salads. It will be a space worthy of a spread in This Old House magazine, complete with workhorse appliances, a place for every pot, pan, knife, gadget, cookbook and baking sheet that I have collected over the years.

Now I just have to figure out where all that stuff will go. Now the fun begins.

And Thus, It Begins

“It” being the commencement of my holiday baking.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the class of 2013:

Gbread2013

Recipe courtesy of Mark Bittman, made extra spicy.

Happy Holidays!