Monthly Archives: January 2009

In the pink


We are in the bleak mid-winter in Chicago, the ground crusted with snow, the wind face-bitingly, finger-numbingly cold. Apart from the rare bit of blue sky peaking out at us today, we have been living in a pallet of whites and muted grays.

I am getting tired of pilling scarves and hats and salt stained shoes. I am wearying of winter’s dinge.

I have been subsisting on one warm bowl after another filled with chilis and curries and ribollitas, ladled over rice or sopped up with bread. But as much as I love these comfort foods, I am ready for a break from them too. I’ve been longing for something vibrant, with a rich saturated hue and a bold flavor to cut right through the winter doldrums.

That’s where cranberries come in. These deep red beauties are still hanging around in the produce section of my supermarket, looking lonely in the wake of the holidays.

After sputtering in a pot, slipping out of their skins, simmering with sugar and a vanilla bean and a splash of Cointreau, and then being rounded out and thickened with a couple of eggs, these tart red berries are tickled into a luxurious velvety pink curd.

I think of cranberry curd as winter’s rosy cheeks, if such a thing could be jarred and spread on lemony muffins or cornmeal pancakes or whole wheat toast, or sneaked in little spoonfuls all by itself. It isn’t a summer jam, but a rich smooth sweet spread, with notes of vanilla and orange and just a hint of a pucker. Just the thing to brighten a buttery croissant and a mug of hot coffee on a mid-winter Sunday morning.

Cranberry Curd

Source: adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess

This luxurious, brilliant pink curd is a cinch to make. Cranberry’s natural acidic tartness is tamed here into something sweet and round, but the berry’s bright fruit flavor remains strong. It would be right at home on a holiday table, but it really shines as an accompaniment to a simple breakfast or dessert. If you want to make this beyond the season when cranberries are available in the grocery store, stock up on a few extra bags and throw them in the freezer where they’ll keep for months.  

2 1/2 cups (8 ounces) fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons Cointreau
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
fine mesh strainer or food mill

In a medium saucepan, heat the cranberries and water over low heat until the cranberries pop and split open. Press the cranberries through a fine mesh strainer or food mill, discard the solids, and return the puree to the saucepan. Add sugar, butter, vanilla bean (or extract), and cook over a low gentle heat until the sugar dissolves and the butter melts into the puree. Remove the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the puree (if you like, you can rinse and dry the bean and save it for another use). Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl. Add a little of the warm cranberry mixture to the eggs (this is to gently warm the eggs to prevent the eggs from curdling on contact with the hot mixture). Add the egg and cranberry mixture to the saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Be careful not to curdle the mixture by raising the heat too high.

When the mixture is thickened, push it through the mesh strainer, and allow it to cool before putting it into jars and refrigerating.

Yields about 2 1/2 cups of cranberry curd. Keeps in the refrigerator for several weeks.

A better way to frozen pizza


Some days I don’t want to make the effort. I really don’t.

I love good food, but I’m tired, I’m hungry and I just want to order a pizza. Or stop by the freezer case in the grocery store and pick up something I can have done in fifteen minutes. Or maybe just have some baby carrots and a spoon of peanut butter and those Girl Scout cookies that I think I still have tucked away somewhere. I can’t exactly say I feel sated and refreshed after a dinner like that, appealing as it may have seemed at the time.

But I have good trick for those days. If I can think ahead a little.

It’s about a million times better than most commercially made frozen pizza. And I can even pronounce all of the ingredients.

It’s my homemade frozen pizza crust.

This is more of a method than a recipe. I have a favorite recipe, slightly modified from Peter Reinhart’s Neapolitan pizza crust in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice. You can find a trimmed down version of the recipe here. But you could just as easily use your favorite pizza dough recipe.

This is the sort of thing that I hear people recommend and I think, pshaww, I will never make and freeze a huge thing of whatever and eat it for months. That sounds onerous.

But it turns out that it doesn’t feel so terribly onerous, at least not on a lazy Saturday when I have a few hours of afternoon to fill.

And it feels absolutely terrific to open the freezer a week later and remember that I can have homemade pizza for dinner in less than an hour.

Homemade Frozen Pizza Crust

I have often come across recipes that recommend freezing balls of dough before the first rise. That turns out beautiful pizzas, but it requires thawing in the refrigerator overnight and a few hours of rising out of the refrigerator after that. When I get home from work and I’m hungry, that frozen ball of dough doesn’t do me much good (and even the one in the refrigerator means I’ll be eating late). This method gets the pizza from the freezer to the table in about 40 minutes, only about 5 of which requires any active work. I can handle that on a week night.

A batch or two of your favorite pizza dough (such as this one), mixed. If yours uses 2 cups of flour or less, I’d think about doubling it
olive oil
parchment paper
plastic wrap
gallon-size zip top freezer bags
a couple of baking sheets (or any sturdy, freezer-safe flat surface)

Lay some parchment paper out on the counter and cover it with a thin film of olive oil.  Spray oil works, so does spreading a few drops with your fingers. Take your dough and divide it into six-ounce balls, about the size of a small fist. This doesn’t have to be precise, but something close to this size fits nicely in a gallon-size freezer bag. (My recipe makes 6 of these.) Set them on the oiled parchment, spaced at least a couple of inches apart. Lightly oil the tops of the dough, and cover with plastic wrap. Let them rise until doubled in size, about an hour or two.

Cut one piece of parchment paper a little larger than your freezer bag for each ball of dough. Gently pull the dough into a circle roughly 9 inches in diameter, place on the parchment paper, place that on a baking sheet, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and put the whole thing in the freezer. Repeat with the other dough balls.  I usually manage to find space to freeze about four of these, stacked on top of each other, at once. Keep any dough that you have yet to shape and freeze tightly covered to prevent it from drying out.

Freeze the dough for about 45 minutes, or until it feels reasonably solid. Remove the dough from the baking sheet, but keep it on the parchment. Double wrap it in plastic wrap, place it in a freezer bag, and return it to the freezer.

On the day you want to make the pizza, pull the dough out of the freezer about 40 minutes before you want to eat (keep it covered with plastic wrap). Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. After a the dough has been sitting at room temperature for half an hour, top it with your preferred toppings, and bake on a pizza stone or baking sheet for about 8-10 minutes.

These keep for about two weeks in the freezer.

new year, new food: building a pantry

It is so easy to get into a rut. In college and shortly thereafter, you could open my pantry and expect to find pasta and jarred sauce and olive oil and a green can of the powdery dry parmesan-esque stuff and probably a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of salad dressing, and that was about it. Although I wanted to cook interesting things, it was difficult because whenever I looked at a new recipe, I had to go out and buy just about every ingredient on the list. Buying new spices and a bottle of vinegar and a new kind of rice in addition to whatever fresh ingredients were called for made the grocery shopping trip expensive and time consuming, and it was all too easy to retreat to the pasta-and-sauce habit or trot over to the frozen pizza section and call it a day.

Now, I hardly ever do that. (Though I’ll admit that Amy’s frozen pizzas do come in handy every now and then…)

But that’s because if I’ve built a pantry that enables me to cook, and I enjoy what I eat so much more as a result.

Over at the New York Times, Mark Bittman has a story, currently at the top of the most emailed list, about new pantry essentials. I mostly agree with his list, and I wanted to use it as a jumping off point for offering my own advice on how to stock a kitchen to be ready to prepare all sorts of meal with the purchase of only a couple of fresh ingredients.

Of course, every cook has his or her own idiosyncratic preferences that evolve over time. But this is should get you well on your way.

  •  Oils. Always, always keep extra virgin olive oil on hand. If budget permits, have an everyday olive oil for cooking with and a special one for drizzling on salads or dipping bread in. You should also have a neutral oil with a relatively high smoke point, such as grapeseed oil or canola oil or a plain, untoasted sesame oil. In the more optional category, I like to keep organic peanut oil around for meals with Asian flavor profiles. I also like to keep toasted sesame oil around to use as a seasoning but not as a cooking oil. It’s probably a good idea for our health and for the environment to look for organic, expeller pressed oils whenever possible. Store most oils in a cool dark place–light and heat can make them go rancid. Most nut oils are highly perishable and should be stored in the refrigerator.
  • Butter. Unsalted butter is typically used for baking, salted butter for spreading on toast. I mainly stock the unsalted variety and add my own salt to taste. Store butter in the freezer if you plan to keep it around for any length of time. The stick you are working on should probably stay in the refrigerator to preserve freshness, but if you want it spreadable and are going to go through it quickly, room temperature is fine.
  • Flour. If you are an occasional baker and a regular cook, you probably only need good old reliable all-purpose flour, but you could also make a case for white whole wheat flour. White whole wheat is made from a variety of wheat that is lighter and milder than the more common red variety. It’s the most versatile whole grain flour I use, and in most cases it can be substituted for all-purpose. Even if you seldom bake, you should keep some flour around for thickening sauces and for breading things. In the more optional category, I’d recommend having cornmeal around (white or yellow or even the rarer blue or red varieties are fine).  It’s indispensable for cornbread and it’s nice for sprinkling under breads or adding interest to pancakes or yeasted breads or cakes or other baked goods. Whole wheat pastry flour is nice for softer baked goods, though if you don’t bake much I’d go for the white whole wheat first. Bread flour is good for, well, bread and pizza dough and choux pastry, and if you make those things frequently it’s worth having around, but you should keep in mind that you can make all of those things with all-purpose flour too. Store whole grain flours in an airtight container in the freezer. Refined flours should be kept in airtight containers at room temperature.
  • Salt. If you keep just one salt around, it should be kosher salt. Maybe I’m putting us all at risk for goiter, but I think the highly processed iodized stuff tastes a little chemically and isn’t the best way to expend my sodium allotment. If you keep two salts around, add something flaky and flavorful, such as Maldon or any fleur de sel. If I were wealthier, I’d definitely splurge on other high end salts.
  • Pepper. Keep whole peppercorns on hand at all times and grind it when you need it. There is no reason to buy the preground stuff, which retains only a shadow of its former flavor.
  • Vinegars. This is largely a matter of personal preference. I like to keep red wine, champagne, and rice vinegar around. I also like sherry vinegar for French things, and balsamic for Italian (that’s another area to splurge if you have money to burn).
  • Lemons. Freshly squeezed lemon juice and freshly grated zest add such a zing to things. Limes are good to have for Latin or Asian flavor profiles. Also for a nice gin and tonic…
  • Sauces and condiments. I like to keep soy sauce around. I like San-J’s organic tamari. If you get into Chinese or Thai or Japanese or Indonesian cooking, you’ll find there’s a whole world of them, from thick soy sauce to dark soy sauce to thin soy sauce. But if you don’t know your kecap manis from your shoyu, you probably just want a thin, naturally brewed soy sauce. Fish sauce is good to have around if you want to do any Thai cooking. Oyster sauce or thick mushroom sauce (sometimes sold as vegetarian oyster sauce) is also nice. Sriracha is great for adding a kick to things. A dijon mustard is good for salad dressings. Peanut butter for well, sandwiches, but also peanut sauce or peanut butter cookies. Some kind of hot sauce such as Tobasco or Cholula, and maybe a jar of your favorite salsa (mine is Deser Pepper’s Corn and Black Bean Salsa) for Mexican dishes or just for chips.
  • Beans/legumes. You can go with dried or canned. I like to keep a can of black beans around for nights when I need something quick, but I’ve mostly switched over to dried beans for the other varieties. Dried beans have better texture and they are significantly lower in sodium. They are also cheaper and involve less packaging. I’ve discovered that soaking them overnight and cooking them for a couple of hours is far less arduous than I’d imagined it would be. You can freeze whatever you aren’t going to use. I typically stock chickpeas, black beans, and some kind of white beans like cannellini or great northern. I also like to have red lentils for Indian dals and firm French green lentils for soups and salads. Frozen edamame are also convenient for an easy lunch with nothing but salt to accompany them.
  • Dried pasta. I like to keep an assortment of dried pasta around. Usually something long like spaghetti, something medium-sized like penne or rotini or farfalle, and something little for soup like ditalini or orzo. I also like to keep whole wheat couscous around. It cooks in about five minutes, which is tough to beat.
  • Grains. I’ve continued to move toward whole grains, even though I tend to keep a few refined grains around. I usually have brown jasmine, brown basmati, and short grained brown rice around. I like to have Arborio around for risotto or rice pudding. I’ve learned that I really like quinoa, which isn’t technically a grain but looks like one (and it’s a complete protein and it’s gluten-free), and I try to have it around for main dish salads. I always have old fashioned rolled oats and steel cut oats around too. In the more optional category, I like to keep barley and farro and bulgar around. Store whole grains in the freezer and refined grains in airtight containers at room temperature.
  • Leaveners. There are only a couple of these, but you should probably have at least baking soda and baking powder. I seek out aluminum free varieties of baking powder, such as Rumford. Yeast is important for bread baking. I mainly use instant or bread machine yeast, which can be used in all recipes that call for active dry yeast, and it doesn’t need to be proofed in water. Store yeast in the refrigerator or freezer and use within six months of opening the container. The packets are fine if you don’t bake bread or pizza much.
  • Herbs and spices. The beginning of the year is a good time to inventory spices and toss the ones that have lost their oomph. This is going to be a matter of personal preference, but the dried herbs and spices I use most frequently are cinnamon (both ground and sticks), nutmeg (whole is best), cumin (both ground and seeds), oregano, coriander seed, fennel seed, whole dried rosemary, whole bay leaves, thyme leaves, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, chili powder (ancho or chipotle, or gaujillo are all good chili peppers), cardamom (whole), cloves (whole), fenugreek, allspice, brown mustard seeds, ground ginger, and turmeric. I also keep a curry powder blend and a garam masala blend around. I also keep a few kaffir lime leaves in the freezer. I tend to look for fresh flat leaf parsley, fresh basil, and fresh cilantro rather than using the dried versions of those spices. I always have a bottle of pure vanilla extract around too.
  • Garlic. I always keep a few bulbs of garlic around. I’m not crazy about the jars of pre-minced stuff, and I only use garlic powder when I’m nostalgic for that sharp flavor. I find it’s easy to mince a clove or two when you need them.
  • Onions. I keep yellow onions around all the time, and I usually have a red onion too. Shallots are nice to have around too. All dry onions keep well in cool dark place for weeks.
  • Parmigiano reggiano. Accept no substitutions, and don’t bother with the pregrated stuff.
  • Sugar. I’ve discovered that I now have about six kinds of sugar around at any given time, but if I were not such an avid baker, I’d only keep granulated white sugar and light brown sugar around. Look for brands that specify they are pure cane sugar. If you’re going for a third one, I’d opt for a raw turbinado or demerara. Honey is good to have unless you often cook for vegans, and real maple syrup makes pancakes so much better (I opt for the darker grade B variety). If you get more adventurous with sweeteners, you can look for agave nectar, molasses, piloncillo, palm sugar, muscovado, dark brown sugar, vanilla infused sugars and so on.
  • Dried fruits. I like to keep raisins around. Add them to oatmeal, or saute them with garlic and pine nuts and spinach for a lovely Spanish side. I tend to keep some kind of dried cherries or cranberries around, and maybe apricots. They keep for a long time.
  • Nuts. More and more, I’m convinced that nuts are underutilized in most American kitchens. Pine nuts give a richness to pesto. Almonds or hazelnuts to romesco. Walnuts and pecans can give salads a pleasing crunch. And that’s before you even get to baked goods like pecan sandies or frangipane tarts. I’m also convinced that many people think they don’t like certain nuts because they had one that was rancid and bitter because it seems we’ve only just realized that they should be stored in the freezer. So please, store your nuts in the freezer, and toast them before you use them to bring out their flavor.