Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Seasonal Fruit Bowl for the Train

I feel a little guilty about sending my husband off to work everyday. Truth be told, I kicked him out of his home office a few months ago. I too started working out of our residence and we quickly realized that two people working out of one condo gets a little tight. I love my husband, and he loves me . . . but seriously. Luckily my husband has an optional office building at his disposal, and we decided that he would use that workplace 3-4 days a week. At least until we get a bigger house or basement or more space so we don’t kill each other. In order to make his day a little more enjoyable, and to alleviate my guilty conscience about kicking him out of our home, I make a healthy fruit bowl for him every morning. It’s the least I can do for a husband who is “being forced to ride the train to work everyday.”

The Fruit bowl consists of:

Fruit (Sweet Fruit, that’s in Season)
Lemon or Lime juice to prevent fruit browning
Raisins (Golden or Regular Raisins)
Plain Greek Yogurt
Chopped Nuts (Almonds, Walnuts or Pecans)
Flax Seed Meal (adds texture, photo below)

A few things to note: I cut the fresh fruit into bite size pieces. For browning fruit such as apples or bananas I drop them into lemon or lime juice before placing them into the bowl (especially if the fruit bowl isn’t eaten immediately). I’m careful to only use sweet fruit– not tart fruit. With grapes I always test eat one at the store to make sure it’s a sweet batch. Raisins are always a nice accompaniment to the fruit bowl, since they’re extra sweet. I use Plain Greek Yogurt because it’s thicker and accompanies the sugary fruit perfectly. The Flax Seed Meal is the secret ingredient. It makes the fruit bowl hearty, filling and healthy. Here is a picture of the Flax Seed Meal product I use:

Since I’ve been assembling the fruit bowls for the past few months, I’ve become cognizant of which fruits are in season and which are out-of-place at the grocery store for the time of year. For example, I purchased a peach that was clearly a month or two out-of-season. I had so much fun with my fruit bowls when the Georgia peaches were ripe and I didn’t want the peach party to end. But purchasing a peach out of season was more expensive and even worse was the peach was tasteless and unusable. I couldn’t include the out-of-season peach in my fruit bowl. I had to throw it away. Sad face. This is what my fruit bowl looked like during peach party season. Goodbye summer, I’ll miss you.

As an aspiring self taught chef my goal is to stay on top of which fruits/vegetables are in season. Currently, I use Pears and Apples for my fruit bowls because that’s what’s in-season right now.

For more details on which fruits are in-season, I’ve been using this wonderful seasonal calendar for Fruits from CUESA:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Crisping Greens, First Video Blog

I committed a rookie mistake at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market this weekend. My food blogger friend Becky and I watched a chef demo, and then after the demo we walked through the greenmarket to pick up a few goodies. And the rookie mistake began. . . I walked up to the first vendor and impulsively purchased a bag of greens from the first booth visited. Then post-purchase, and after further inspection, I noticed my greens were a little floppy and wilted. Bummer! Of course the very next booth we visited had the brightest, crispiest, most beautiful greens at the market. Buyer’s remorse instantly set in. Regret then morphed into sheer jealousy when Becky revealed that she purchased her crispy greens from the superior vendor earlier. How did she know which vendor had the best greens?? I would consider Becky an expert in the Farmers Market scene, so I felt honored to hear her outdoor market strategy: 1) always circle the Farmers Market once to inspect the vendors. 2) Don’t purchase anything until the 2nd walk around after you’ve compared all the vendors. That’s how Becky ended up with the finest greens, and my impulsive purchase left me stuck with flimsy depressing greens.

But have no fear, these wilted greens will not go to waste. As I was driving home from the Farmers Market ruminating over my flaccid leaves of lettuce, I thought it would be a great opportunity to produce my first video blog. I use the word ‘produce’ loosely. My first video blog is pretty much a home video that shows you how to liven up your greens if they’re droopy and sad. Chef Hector Santiago reminded me of this technique at his demo at the Farmers Market, and I adapted his technique with my new kitchen toy called the ‘Salad Spinner’. I figured it would be easiest to show the crisping technique through video, versus trying to describe over writing. I had to crisp my greens for lunch anyway AND I could show off my new Salad Spinner (win-win situation). Best of all, my droopy greens would not be sad anymore - - they would be happy, crunchy greens ready to make my lunch salad delightful.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Chicken Stock is made with bones people!!

Making chicken stock the day after your bachelorette party is not as fun as it sounds. Sure, smelling chicken soup aroma all afternoon may sound nice, but at the end of the day you don’t have chicken soup to eat and nothing smells good within 24 hours of your bachelorette. But, I didn’t have a choice. I had *finally* located chicken bones (which was a process in of itself) and I refused to let these chicken bones go bad on me.

Now it’s a good thing that making chicken stock isn’t a rigorous activity. It’s actually quite soothing and there's something comforting about the process of making a stock. I also learned that if you want to become a bona fide self taught chef, stock making is critical to keeping up with the culinary pros.

At the beginning of each culinary text book, one of the first lessons they teach you is how to make a good stock. Stocks are the ‘base’ of so many things we cook – soups, sauces, gravy’s, braises, and more. Chefs in fine dining restaurants often distinguish their food by uniquely flavoring their stock. For example, Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun’s here in Atlanta smokes his stock, which enhances his food with a unique smoky taste.

The most important fact I learned about stock making is that chicken stock is made with chicken bones!! This is quite a revelation for me. I’ve seen a few You Tube videos and read a few non-real-culinary books that claim it's okay to use an entire whole chicken. I think you would be silly to use an entire chicken. First of all, it’s expensive - - you can buy chicken bones for $1 per pound or less, even at Whole Foods. The whole point of a stock is to extract the entire flavor out of chicken parts. If you use a whole chicken and you heat your stock properly, you will extract the entire flavor from the chicken . . . thus leaving the meat tasteless an unusable. Besides that, chicken bones have the most flavors, and the more bones, and less flesh you have, the more complex and tasty your stock will be.

With all this talk about chicken bones, you would think that locating chicken bones would be a piece of cake - - but it was kind of a hassle. After visiting my local grocery store and two mega Farmers Markets to no avail, I went to Whole Foods for the easiest, cheapest and most painless transaction I’ve ever made. I had been warned that buying chicken bones from Whole Foods could be expensive. But when I connected with the butcher she was friendly and easy, and she said I could pick up the chicken bones in the morning. The bones cost $1.00 per pound - - I picked up a little more than 8 pounds, celebrated my bachelorette that night, and then made the stock the next day.

A few tips and first steps:

1) Use a stock pot (I borrowed the stock pot from a friend so I didn’t have to buy one)
2) When you get the bones, cut off as much skin as possible from the bones, and then place into stock pot
3) Cover the bones with COLD water, fill it up 2 inches above the bones (make sure all bones are covered with COLD water)
4) Gently and slowly bring the temperature up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit. ***don’t add any vegetables or spices to the bones quiet yet
5) Never boil the stock at any point.
6)While the stock temperature is rising, you should notice a Scum rise to the top for the first 40-50 minutes. Skim the scum off the top of the stock with a spoon or ladle to remove the impurities. **Try not to disturb or stir the bones, it will make your stock cloudy.
7) After about an hour of skimming scum, add these ingredients:

For 8 pounds of chicken bones I used:

2 cups Diced Onion
1 Cup Diced Celery
1 Cup Diced Carrot

(classic Mirepoix, remember?)

Herbs – I threw in some parsley, peppercorns, and a bay leaf (you can also use Thyme – for some reason I failed to remember the Thyme, post-bachelorette blonde moment I can assume)

I let the pot of ingredients simmer, hovering around 185 degrees Fahrenheit for about 3.5-4 hours (i.e. post bachelorette nap time). From what I learned regarding chicken stock 3.5-4 hours is the sweet spot to extract the most flavors from the bones. Any less time and you’ll have a weak stock. Any more time and you can overcook the stock and produce an unpleasant bitter taste. I skimmed the scum about once an hour during this main simmering period.

Once the stock finishes cooking, do this:

1) Double Line a Strainer/Colander with a Coffee Filter (you can also use cheese cloth)
2) Place the Colander over another bowl and gently ladled the finished stock into the colander **be careful to not disturb the bones/vegis otherwise your stock can end up cloudy
3) Once the stock is filtered into the clean bowl, surround that bowl with an icy bath in your sink to help quickly cool the stock before placing it into the refrigerator. **Do not add ice into the stock; make sure icy bath is around the bowl to cool
4) Cover and place the stock in refrigerator to cool overnight
5) Once cooled overnight, the fat will rise to the top. Skim and de-grease the stock with a spoon or ladel to remove the fat.
6) Run the cooled and de-greased stock through a coffee filtered colander once again, and place the stock in covered plastic tubs for storage.

The stock will last 3-5 days in your fridge. After then, place the stock in your freezer for later use.

I produced approximately 3 gallons of stock with this recipe.

When my husband inspected the chicken stock for the first time, his first observation was that “it kinda looks like urine”. I knew then I was on the right track. The next test was to include the stock in a few recipes. I made Irish Stew last night, and will be making a tomato soup today. As far as I can tell, the stock couldn’t have turned out better– it will add body, flavor and texture to all of my stock-required recipes.

During this journey to become a self taught chef, I quickly realized the importance of making a beautiful stock. It may seem weird to say this, but I was excited and nervous in the days and weeks leading up to the creation of my first proper stock. I feel like this was a small success, and my confidence in becoming a self taught chef is slowly building. Where do we go from here? Maybe beef stocks, maybe smoking stocks . . . this is definitely not the last you’ll hear of stocks from The Self Trained Chef.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Moist and Delicious Pumpkin Bars

My pumpkin cravings are strong this year – been considering an IV-drip, but instead opted to make pumpkin bars. This pumpkin bar recipe has been in my family for years - - via my Cousins Steve and Nikki’s mother Deb. I haven’t made these delicious bars in the last two years because of the cream cheese frosting and my husband’s aversion to things ‘white and creamy’. But sometimes I can’t resist recipes with cream cheese, and I have to be selfish sometimes and take care of my needs. I also figure my friends and neighbors and concierge downstairs could use a nice fall-time snack after a long week on a Friday afternoon.

There is seriously no better pumpkin bar recipe. I remember my friend Carrie used to insist I bring these to our pot-luck Thanksgiving dinner over the holidays. Pumpkin bars are a staple at my mother’s household – every year around fall my mother would make these. My mom included this recipe in the family cookbook with a note that says around Halloween she would buy pumpkin shaped candy corn to place on top of each bar or sprinkle each bar with Halloween-themed sprinkles to make them a little more festive. My mother, being the creative genius she is would also make a spider web on a few bars with black gel frosting and place a plastic spider on top.

No matter how you choose to decorate your pumpkin bars, or if you make them for Halloween or Thanksgiving – I would highly recommend this recipe. They are light, fluffy and tasty – and ridiculously easy to make.

Pumpkin Bars

1 Cup Vegetable Oil
2 Cups Sugar
2 Cups or 1 Can Pumpkin Puree (real Pumpkin, not pie filling)

Stir well, and then add:

4 Eggs
2 Cups Flour (unbleached)
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Salt
2 teaspoon Cinnamon

Stir well then pour pumpkin batter into a jelly roll pan. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees (or until knife inserted comes out clean). I prefer using a jelly roll pan because it makes the pumpkin bars a little thinner then if you used a typical 9x13in pan. I think the frosting-to-cake ratio is better in a jelly roll pan. However, if all you have is a 9x13 inch pan, the recipe will still work great. The only difference is that you will have to bake the cake longer in the oven.

And the best part . . . drum roll please . . .

Cream cheese Frosting

8 ounces cream cheese
¾ Stick Butter
1 ¾ Cup Powdered Sugar
1 Tablespoon Milk
1 teaspoon Real Vanilla

Mix together all ingredients for frosting. Frost the pumpkin cake once the cake is completely cool.

I think the picture speaks for itself.