Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tedious Prep, Quick Dinner

I'm on a mini vacation for two weeks as I transition jobs and decided to use some of the time to tackle some recipes that may be difficult during the week. Today's challenge: Parsley Stuffed Shrimp and Green Beans with Balsamic Pesto.

So, when I read the recipe for the stuffed shrimp, it was a no-brainer must-do in my book. I love shrimp, I love parsley and I love homemade bread crumbs. Sold! We used the remainder of our Jesus bread (see previous post), so named because the more we took from it, the more there seemed to be, and I had pots of fresh parsley. I prepared the bread crumbs and parsley and then came the stuffing of the shrimp. This is when I realized why you don't see this dish on restaurant menus. Shrimp are not very big creatures. Stuffing them = trials of patience. It took about 15 minutes and me becoming very intimate with the shrimp, but I got 'er done and threw them in the fridge.

Next up the pesto: this was the easiest pesto recipe ever.


1 clove of garlic
3-4 Tbsp of Olive Oil
1 1/3 cup of tightly packed fresh basil
3/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese

1. Put garlic and olive oil in food processor. Pulse until smooth.
2. Add basil and cheese. Pulse until basil is chopped but not fully processed (aka a liquid).
3. Put in covered container at room temperature until ready to serve.

I then left to meet Manatee at the bike store to finish outfitting my bike for my new bike commute. Exciting!

We got home and we were both rather ravenous, so I turned on the broiler. The shrimp took 4 minutes. I steamed green beans which also took 4 minutes. Then all I had to do was toss the green beans with the pesto and 4-5 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (mixed with 1/2 tsp brown sugar), then serve.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bread versus Badger Girl?

It's a tie.

After wrestling with the dough, it did come out looking (and tasting) like bread. It's just a monster loaf and I was actually worried it was going to rise right off my baking stone.

So here is how I enjoyed my first bread with a sponge...

Dieter's Tartine from Around My French Table. An open faced sandwich with cottage cheese and sour cream, tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh herbs drizzled with olive oil. Yummmmmm....

Why you shouldn't multi task

So I had to get up at 5 in the morning to do some hurry and up wait work for my job. I decided while I was in 'wait' mode to work on my bread.
I was super proud myself for getting the bread to rise and was planning how I was going to tell you how different the dough felt and how excited I was. I took it out of the bowl, did the whole shape it like a log and fold it and then make it like a torpedo and felt like I was the next master baker.
After I got the dough on the baking sheet and was just looking ahead at the next steps, I realized I had skipped Step 6: After the dough has risen, turn the dough over in the bowl and let it rise for 30 more minutes. Turn the dough again and let it rise another 30 minutes.
So I wasn't supposed to need to shape the dough into the log. It was still supposed to rise. Do I put it back in the bowl? Do I just let it rise as a log? I don't know!! I know that I probably messed up my bread. So 36 hours of work and the bread isn't going to turn out.
I think I will put it back in the bowl and hope for the best.

I will get this someday. Now I am even more determined.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Sponge

I am making a Sponge.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Not to be deterred from my quest to make homemade, from scratch bread, I have moved on to a new technique: Making bread from a sponge or starter dough.

You mix together some yeast, water and flour. You let it rise and fall, and then mix it with a regular dough. The technique appealed to me because part one takes place at room temperature. No warming ovens or sunny patches that I will use to kill any yeast. Let's just hope the yeast doesn't freeze over night as we keep the house pretty cool at nit.

It's a two day project so I am happy to report that the sponge has begun.

P.S. To update you from the dinner party: it went very well, everything was done with time for a glass of wine before the guests arrived. I did not manage to take any decent pictures (note taken: plain rice noodles in a white bowl do not a nice picture make) but hope to make the recipes again soon. The sleeper hit of the party was the carrot salad. Essentially it was grated carrots, raisins, parsley, toasted almonds and a honey-dijon vinaigrette. Yum!!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

First Dinner Party of the Year

We are having a few friends over for dinner tonight. Generally at this point, I have a list of what needs to be done, when and I have already started cooking. It's almost noon, I'm still wearing my running clothes and have a vague list of what I have to do. What's leaving me puzzling is that for this dinner, we will be cooking as we go. Here's the menu:

-Grated Carrot Salad- can't be mixed together until prior to serving
-Spring Rolls: we are having everyone make their own because mine always turn out ugly.
-Chicken Pad See Ew- we'll have to cook it when everyone is here.
-Salted Butter Break Ups and fruit- also should be baked close to party time.

I'll keep you posted with pictures as we go. We began with a Thai theme but then I got a new cookbook last week, Around my French Table, and I couldn't wait to incorporate some of those recipes (Carrot Salad and Salted Butter Break Ups), so now it's a Thai/French theme.

More to come....

Monday, March 14, 2011

Confession of a Baking Disaster

Just when I thought I knew what I was doing, I was totally humbled by a loaf of bread. Last week, I got a new cookbook, King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. I was determined to start baking from it. Unlike most cookbooks that contain a recipe with all the directions included in the recipe, King Arther begins the chapter with information on each stage of bread baking (for yeast breads at least) and then the recipes contain minimal directions.

I did learn some things from the introduction, like:

  • You are supposed to let the dough rest in between mixing ingredients together and the first round of kneading. Matter of fact, you are supposed to let it rest for 45 minutes. This makes bread baking an even longer process (which I didn't think was possible).
  • King Arthur must have a contract with bread machine companies because he repeatedly pointed out all the ways in which bread machine bread was far superior than anything else. I am dead set against getting a bread machine so this did not make me happy. 
  • Orange juice offsets the bitterness of whole grains. 
So I happily set forth on a recipe for Whole Wheat Walnut bread. Let's stop a minute. Do I like walnuts? Not particularly but I was so darn determined to make something and this was the only recipe that I had all of the ingredients. For the future, this is not an ideal way to select a recipe.

I made the dough and I probably over-mixed it before the 45 minute rest. Already I could tell this was going to be dicey. My dough began tough. Foreshadowing begins.

It was hard to let it rest for 45 minutes, but I did manage. I began kneading. In the introduction, King Arthur looked down on hand kneading as 'few are energetic enough in their kneading' to make it worthwhile. To prove the King wrong, I kneaded the heck out of that bread. Yet it was not satin-y as it should have been.

Then I put the dough on the table, dappled with sunlight. Manatee and I went to Church and then began the quest for pantry organization products. This took far longer than anticipated and led to much frustration on both parts. We finally returned home, hours later. My dough had risen but I admit I was surprised it wasn't bigger. Determined to get 'er done, I began the second round of kneading. King Arthur scoffs at the idea of 'punching the dough' (admittedly one of my favorite parts). He is shocked that people think live yeast would want to be punched. Adhering to his advice, I gently laid the dough down and folded as instructed. Back in a greased pan and into the sunshine, I left the dough.

1 hour later: No change.

2 hours later: Maybe a little bigger?

3 hours later: I decided I had executed the yeasts via sunshine scorching and decided to finish off the last of the stubborn buggers by throwing it in the oven.

The result? A dense, heavy, bitter walnut studded disaster and a very frustrated Badger Girl.

Resolutions: I won't give in to the lure of a bread machine but perhaps I will try our kitchen aid mixer with a dough hook. I also will not put bread dough in direct sunlight but will find another warm, draft free zone for rising. And no more recipes that include walnuts. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

New Badger Girl Rule

Three new recipes is two too many for a weeknight. Tonight we made a new shrimp main dish, a new vegetable saute and a new kind of bread. When I snapped at Manatee for the fifth time as he tried to empty the dishwasher while I was cooking (Really?! Is this really the best time to do this?!), I realized two things. 1- I needed a glass of wine STAT and 2-One new recipe a night during the week. Period.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A New Way to Plan

Manatee and I really enjoy planning our meals. Okay, correction: I enjoy planning the meals and Manatee enjoys eating them.

We were running into some problems in terms of 1-Manatee being upset when he had to wait to eat leftovers and sometimes wouldn't get any (yes, he is super rough to cook for, let me tell you) and 2-Me feeling like we had to base our social calendars based on these planned meals. Last week I felt a sudden shift in cooking- it was turning into something I HAD to do instead of I WANTED to do. This could be the death of me wanting to cook so I knew we had to make some changes.

I really like being able to buy groceries for a week and having the ingredients at home so I didn't have to deal with that on a daily basis. We came up with picking out 3 or 4 meals (depending on how the week looks) but not scheduling them night per night.

Our Meals this week:

  • Pasta with Chickpeas and Charred Tomatoes (Bon Appetit)
  • Crockpot Beef Fajitas (Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker)
  • Roasted Shrimp with Rosemary and Thyme with Vegetable Saute with Orange and Balsamic (Fine Cooking)
  • Chicken Pad See Ew (Ultimate Cookbook) with Spring Rolls (me making it up)
So, far we have made the first two. The pasta was actually on the list last week but we had things crop up so we didn't cook as much. It was my first recipe from Bon Appetit and I was pleasantly surprised. You actually stir some hummus with the pasta water to give it a creamy yet rich sauce. The Beef Fajitas were amazing. This recipe has entered into the ultimate top 5 and next time we make it, I will have to remember to take pictures so I can share the recipe properly. 

The next two I'm not sure when we will make. The Chicken Pad See Ew is actually a practice run. We are having friends over for Thai food and I made Spring Rolls once with someone else. I thought it would be fun to do with company but we need to do at least one practice run so I can properly pretend what I am doing. I know that may take longer than the Shrimp so it may turn into a weekend dinner.

I am curious to what other people do in terms of planning. Do you plan per day? How do you factor in unexpected social engagements? Do you just roughly plan? 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mardi Gras Treats

Today I was working an an article for the Examiner about Mardi Gras traditions and I found myself in the kitchen most of the day. I will let the pictures do most of the talking....

This next step was an interesting one. You had to melt butter in a pan, pour the melted butter into a bowl and take two tablespoons of that to mix into the batter. 

If you have never made crepes before, you may need a few attempts at making these pancakes. Or if you are like me, if you HAVE made crepes before, you will still need practice. It took awhile to find how much batter should be in the pan. Once the pan got hot and I figured out home much batter (4-5 tablespoons), they were really easy to make and went really fast. 

Squeeze some lemon juice on the pancakes and then sprinkle on sugar. 

You can either roll up the pancakes or fold in triangles. Enjoy!

For the King's cake, I think it was the first time that I have separated eggs and then just used the yolks. 

King's cake dough. 

Can you tell that in the next picture it got bigger? This always tries my patience and astounds me, both at the same time. 

So I decided to make this more difficult and make my own candied citron. First, you use a vegetable peeler to get the skin off the citrus fruits of your choosing (I did oranges, limes and lemons).  Then you scrape the pith out (pic below). This part sucks. A lot. 

Make a simple syrup of 2 tablespoons of water and 4 tablespoons (or 1/4 cup) of sugar. Let it boil and add the peels. Cover and simmer for 3 minutes. 

Drain off excess moisture and lay out to dry. Confession: I couldn't wait for them to dry. 

Add candied citron into dough and knead until well-blended. Form into log. The walnut is my baby for those of you who know about King's cakes. 

I could not bear to put the glaze on the cake. It was so amazing without it. I also couldn't find any purple sugar so it would have been a Packers King's Cake. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

CSAs: Time to Sign Up

Last summer, Manatee and I participated in a CSA. I can honestly say it was one of the best things we have ever done. We are entering into CSA sign up season so I wanted to take some time to tell you about CSAs, why I think they are amazing and share some information with you about signing up.

What is a CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Essentially, you pay a local farm a set fee and then have vegetables delivered either to you or to a pickup location every week. This benefits both parties as the farm is guaranteed an set income for their produce and you get locally grown food. There is something pretty amazing about eating vegetables that were picked yesterday and were grown down the road. 

Our Experience

We learned about CSAs through a good friend of mine who was into CSAs before they were popular. This was prior to my life as a graduate student but I always thought the concept was cool. When I returned to the Madcity, I knew I wanted to participate in one. I have to admit that our research consisted of me calling said friend and asking her which farm she used. We lucked out in that it ended up being a great match for us.

We were warned that we should start with a half share because there was no way we would ever eat all of that fresh produce. I hate wasting food, especially produce, so we had a plan. Once we got our share, we would map out all of our meals based on the produce we received. Three days later, our share was gone and we couldn't wait for the next week and a half to go by so we could get our next one. This lasted for about a month and then we decided to 'upgrade' to a standard share. This just meant that instead of getting a share every other week, we got one every week.

So, how much do you normally get? Here is our picture from one of the last shares we received which I would say was small compared to what we were getting for most of the summer.

  • Bag of red potatoes
  • Three types of squash-including butternut squash 
  • Broccoli
  • Garlic
  • Kohlrabi
  • Bag of spring mix 
  • Bag of carrots
  • Bag of sweet potatoes
As I mentioned, this was near the end of the CSA so it was in the Fall. During the summer, we got everything from strawberries, melons, snap peas, cucumbers, tomatoes (oh the tomatoes!), sweet corn, popping corn, garlic scapes, and eggplants. We also got fresh herbs and garlic (which we just recently finished). 

Benefits of CSAs

In addition to supporting local farmers and getting to eat very fresh produce every week, a CSA also forces you to try new vegetables and fruits. Our CSA included an information sheet with everything we received, how to store it and ideas for preparation. They also sold a cookbook that included all of produce we would receive and had additional recipes on their website. So not only do you try new things, you also learn about them.

I have found that since participating in the CSA, I am more adventurous when I go shopping. I am much more likely to try new vegetables or fruits. Talking with others who have participated in CSAs, this seems to be a common theme.

If those weren't enough reasons, many insurance plans also give you a rebate for participating in a CSA. Check out your company's wellness initiative benefits to see if this is included. We found that the amount we saved in not buying as much produce plus this rebate really made this cost effective choice for us.

I will also say that for most households, you wouldn't need to buy any produce at all if you were receiving a CSA. Manatee and I are an exception in terms of the insane amount of produce we eat on a daily basis. 

Drawbacks of CSAs

As I mentioned, Manatee and I may be an exception in that we both love produce, we aren't picky when it comes to produce and we eat a ton of it. If you are picky about what vegetables you like or you don't eat a lot of produce, a CSA may not be the best option for you. As I mentioned, we were initially told to get a half share since there was just two of us. If you are open to trying new vegetables but are not sure you would eat it all, most CSAs offer a half share option or offer to let you share a standard share (or even a half share in some cases) with another household. I know this is very popular in our area.

Some CSAs also overload you with certain types of vegetables. We have heard cases where people got tons of peppers or tomatoes but not much variety. We have also heard where some CSAs did not offer tips on preparation so people felt confused or overwhelmed with the variety of produce because they did not know how to prepare it. 

How do I sign up?

In Madison, there is a CSA fair on March 13th at the Monona Terrace. Click here for more information. My friend who got me into CSAs told me that this is how she selected her CSA.

You can also check out this website to 'shop around' the Madison CSAs.

Manatee and I use Vermont Valley and we have been very happy. I am happy to answer any questions about our experience with them.

But I'm not a Badger.

Here are some websites for you non-badger readers.

Find a Chicago CSA
Slow Food

Twin Cities:
Twin Cities CSA Directory

Central Wisconsin:
Wisconsin Rapids CSA Directory