Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sourdough Bread

With spurts of more and less intensity, I've been baking sourdough bread at home for about six years now.  Last week, I made this.

I've never written it up here because I use a cookbook--Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bread Book.  But my mom pointed out recently that "use" has become fairly loose for me.  I open the book, or rather, I sort of tilt it around and it flops wide to exactly where I want, the binding splayed and half broken there, the pages splotted with grease marks and uneven from wet hands dribbling over them so many times.  I need that recipe there as a reference point - the basic idea of how much starter, water, and flour somehow is so nicely lodged in those pages that I've found no need to also store it in my head.  In fact, one of the things I love about sourdough bread is how little in my head any of it is.  The feel of wet enough or dry enough under my palms, the look of flour peaks tumbling into water pools, the sense of life bubbling and bulging under plastic wrap on the countertop direct me to stop and start, add and knead, just that much just then; of course, it's just that much more or less than what Nancy Silverton suggests.  All of my creativity in breadmaking is in relation to her anchor.  But with her anchor solidly embedded in scientific explanations and fancy material, I can follow a whim, get delayed by poor planning or unexpected anythings, and use nothing but the most basic kitchen tools.  I don't have a fancy mixer or a baking stone, and certainly nothing like a bread maker.   The single greatest think I've figured out about sourdough bread is that I can shove the dough into the fridge at any stage at all for up to 2 days, and then just pull it out and pick up wherever I was, and I can do this three or four times with the same loaf.  It's that forgiving.  I've made bread where I forgot to add half of the water, where I added twice the salt, and where I left out the sugar alltogether, and it's still always not just edible but downright good.  So this is my call for any and everyone to get a copy of the La Brea book, and start playing around. 

Silverton explains how to make your own sourdough starter from scratch.  You can do that.  Or if you live in Somerville or nearby, ask and I can give you some of mine.  That starter can last in the back of the fridge untouched for months.  Like, six of them.  At least.  But if you want bread, you do have to take it out. 

So I start with a half cup of starter, because otherwise it takes up a lot of flour, and it really works well with that much.  A day before I want to make bread, any time before noon basically, I put the half cup of starter and equal parts white flour, ideally bread flour but not necessarily and warm water into a big bowl, stir a little, and cover with saran wrap.  Let it sit 4-6 hours, more or less.  Add now 1 cup water and 1 cup flour, stir in, and let sit another 4-6 hours, very approximately.  Then add 2 cups water and 2 cups flour, stir and cover, and let sit overnight, 8-12 hours. 

If you wake up and you don't really have time or energy to do anything else, make a bread that asks for a sponge, which is a little starter, a little flour, a little water, a little salt, a little sweeter and often a little dairy, that you stir together and set aside, usually on the counter for about 5 hours and then in the fridge for longer.  No kneading yet.  For this I use as my base Silverton's Sourdough Walnut Bread. 

If you wake up and you're ready to go, go for a bread that gets kneaded right away, with the starter, some water, some flour, and some sweetener.  For this I use as my base Silverton's Basic Country White. 

For either bread, and you can really at this point use any sourdough bread recipe you like, the thing about the adding all the flour and water and kneading it is this: I start with about a cup less flour than is recommended, and I use whatever random combination of flours I feel like, I don't quite measure anything but the flour and water, and I start it.  Kneading if it's too wet is a little messy, but in a sticky fun way, and it's really easy to add in more flour, just keep sprinkling a quarter cup at a time onto the counter and kneading into it.  This kneading part is a great workout.  It's a five minute intense burst, all biceps and triceps.  Then, it sits.  If you have time, there's this cool part where you leave it on the counter 20 minutes, knead it five minutes more, then move on.   That's a great time to add in any nuts or seeds that you want to add in.  You can skip that step if you don't have time. 

Then you let it rise on the counter or in the fridge for a while.  Basically, it's good to let it get a little counter time for starters 1-5 hours, and then throw it in the fridge for a minimum of whatever time is listed and a maximum of whatever fits your schedule. 

The basic next step is to cut the dough in half, roll it gently into watever shape you'll cook it in, and "proof" it.  You can just make a shape and put it on a tray, or you can make a shape and put it into a bowl that it'll kindof mold to - if you want pretty patterns on the top, use a bowl with pretty patterns.  You can use wicker or rattan or something and flour it well and the dough won't stick.  Then cover it and leave it on the counter 3-4 hours or in the fridge as long as you need.  If you've put it in the fridge, pull it out and leave it on the coutner 3-4 hours before you bake it. 

Then if it's in a bowl put it on a tray, heat the over to 500, then lower to 450 and bake for 45 minutes.  For great crust, Silverton gives this formula: use a spray bottle and spray water into the over once when you put the loaves in and 3 more times in the first five minutes.  Then leave it closed 20 minutes.  At 20 minutes, I have to take it out, spin the loaves and switch the shelves of the two loaves because my oven is so uneven.  Then bake another 20 minutes and voila. 

Ok, this was a long post and bread making does all in all take a long time, but with such ability to pause and shorten or quicken it, it can fit into any schedule!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hearty Rice Pilaf

I was making Lamb Bandit Style from Greek Cooking for the Gods - one of my childhood favorites whose realtime flavor actually matches my memory.  I had "bone-in stew meat" as one of the cuts from my half lamb about 6 medallion shaped rounds probably weighing 2 lbs.  I cut each one into about 3 big bite-size chunks, leaving in the bone because my son is obsessed with any meat "on the bone" thanks to Tom and Jerry.  If there's a television show that I can credit with inspiring good eating habits, it's Tom and Jerry.  The manners they inspire may be questionable, but after he's been watching a few episodes of Tom and Jerry, my son starts asking for sandwiches with lettuce and tomatoes and sprouts and anything else I can pile on, and meat on the bone!  So the meat was set, but then I wanted some kind of rice and one person coming over I thought maybe was a vegetarian so I wanted the rice to be able to serve as a meal.  Plus I'm always looking for ways to get more veggies onto my plate.  Rice pilaf is the solution.  It goes perfectly with the lamb, and also works very nicely on its own.

Hearty Rice Pilaf
serves 4
2 shallotts, minced
1 bunch baby spinached, chopped very thin (or 1 bunch frozen chopped spinach)
1 package-size bunch of mushrooms (crimini or baby bell or anything else on the mild side), sliced
1.5 cups brown rice
3 cups chicken broth or water
salt and pepper
olive oil

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan.  Saute shallotts until soft and  beginning to brown.  Add mushrooms, salt, pepper, and about 1 sprig's worth of fresh or dried oregano and thyme and saute until the mushrooms are nice and soft (about 10 minutes).  Stir in spinach until completely wilted.  Stir in rice until well blended.  Add broth or water.  Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce to low and cook without lifting lid any more than necessary until water is absorbed, about 40 minutes. 

Monday, December 12, 2011


The past month or two, I've been in a cooking slump.  Instead of excitedly reading food magazines, making menus, browsing grocery story aisles in anticipation of kitchen fun, I nixed most new ideas as too time consuming or too likely to meet with groans from my son.  The low point: when I realized that we were looping the same seven meals, and Monday had become not just pasta night but spaghetti with red sauce.  The ribs last week (see previous post) gave me a hint of the old fun, and salivation.  So then Renée and I challenged each other: make a menu for the week and Sunday night let's come up with something totally new and seasonal and fun and delicious.  Success: here it is!!!!!!

First, cocktails by Dave.

New England Whiskey Sour
2 oz bourbon
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz maple syrup
1/8 oz cranberry juice concentrate

Shake, pour, garnish with a cranberry or two. 

Then, salmon burgers with aoili and roasted brussels sprouts with cranberries and maple syrup.

The salmon is from Alaska, but Renée's cousin who lives on the Cape caught it there herself - somehow that makes it feel local.  Cranberries and brussels sprouts and maple syrup, local and seasonal.  And guess what else: the parsley!  Thanks to global warming or whatever is causing this nice warm December, I still have rows of little bushy fresh parsley plants in the back yard. 

Salmon Burgers
serves 4

1 lb. salmon
1 large bunch parsley, finely chopped (makes about 1 cup chopped parsley)
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 egg
1 medium clove garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
1/3 cup bread crumbs
2 tsp. soy sauce
1/8 tsp. ground pepper

Lay the salmon on a baking sheet and bake, uncovered, at 375 for about 30 minutes or until cooked through.  When the salmon is cooked, break it up with a fork, making sure to remove skin and bones, and put it in a bowl with all of the other ingredients.  Mix well with hands, until it will all adhere into a nice tight patty. 

At first, it looks like this might not happen, but if you really almost knead it with your hands, it all comes together.  Form into patties and cook in a pan over medium heat until nicely browned on both sides, 5-7 minutes per side.  Serve with aoili to drizzle over.

2 egg yolks
1 tsp mustard
1/8 tsp. ground pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
approx. 1/4 cup olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic, minced

Whisk together the egg yolks, mustard, pepper and salt.  Very slowly, drizzle in olive oil, whisking quickly and constantly.  This is easiest to do with two people.  Continue adding olive oil and whisking until the mixture turns from a bright yellow to a light yellow, and about triples in volume.  Add in garlic and serve immediately.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries and Maple Syrup
1 lb brussels sprouts, halved
1/2 cup whole cranberries
2 tsp. maple syrup
1 T olive oil
salt and pepper

Spread the brussels sprouts and cranberries on a baking pan.  Drizzle with syrup, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Toss. 

Roast at 375 for 30-40 minutes, until brussels sprouts just begin to brown, tossing once halfway through.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lamb ribs

I can usually count on one of my French or Mexican cookbooks to have recipes for kinds and cuts of meats that even some of the more adventurous American standards like the Joy of Cooking or Gourmet eschew.  I found a whole bunch of goat recipes in Cocinero Mexicano, a 19th century Mexican cookbook that was reprinted a few years ago, and I felt totally connected to traditions of the Americas and ancient wisdom as I read up on how the meat of a goat that's nursed only from its mother is more tender while that of a goat that's nursed from the whole herd is more flavorful.  I love imagining a world where I'd know, and anyonw who bought a cookbook would know, who the goat I'm eating nursed from--not in a macabre or self-flagellating way, but in a totally connected to the cycle of life kind of way.  Not one of my adventurous or well-grounded books, however, even suggest a recipe for lamb ribs.  But lambs have ribs.  And since I bought a half a lamb last month, I have a half rack of lamb ribs.  I looked at beef rib recipes and didn't have time or energy to braise first and then broil.  I looked at pork rib recipes and thought they looked pretty easy.  Apparently, lucky for me, lam ribs cook like pork ribs!  These were delicious.  Tender and deeply flavorful with a lovely little crunch on the outside.  A great hit with my son partly because he likes the flavor of "meat" (ie, red) and mostly because he loves to eat anything "on the bone" Tom and Jerry style. 

Lamb Ribs
serves 2-3

1/2 rack of lamb ribs (about 1.5 lbs)
1 large clove garlic, minced
2-3 tsp. coarse sea salt
1 sprig rosemary, minced
1 tsp. coarsly ground pepper
1 T olive oil

Blend together all of the ingredients and rub all over the ribs.  Let sit at room temperature for 30-60 minutes.  Heat oven to 350.  Place ribs on a roasting pan boney side up and roast 45 minutes.  Turn meaty side up and roast another 30-45 minutes.