Tuesday, September 25, 2007

So Goode: jalapeno-cheese bread

jalapeno cheese bread recipe

Raise your hand if you haven’t made no-knead bread yet. Yep, that’s what I thought—I’m the only one in the world who hasn’t baked this miracle of yeast, flour and water. Heck, my mom, the person who taught me how to knead at a very young age, even she now bakes it. That’s my loss, I suppose, because having had the pleasure of eating it I do find it quite delicious. But Sunday I wanted a loaf of fresh-from-the-oven bread and just couldn’t wait overnight for the dough to work its magic: this meant I’d have to bake bread the old-fashioned way—by kneading.

I grew up with homemade bread and mom always had a jar filled with sourdough starter living the in the fridge. Though she didn’t just make sourdough bread—she also made cinnamon-raisin bread, dark whole-wheat bread, dinner rolls, saffron rolls, hot-cross buns, and a multitude of other baked goods that involved yeast, kneading and patience. When I was young I hated being the only kid with a sandwich on homemade bread, but over time I grew to love that toasty, yeasty smell that filled the house as a loaf baked, and the way butter just tasted better on a soft slice of bread straight out of the oven.

When I graduated from college and realized I’d have to cook for myself otherwise I’d go broke, bread baking became one of my passions. The first loaf I ever baked was a French baguette from The Joy of Cooking. It wasn’t very crispy and the crumb was a bit dense but it didn’t matter, I was hooked. I started spending my weekends experimenting with all sorts of different breads—one in particular that was a big hit with my friends was an olive-rosemary recipe I found in The New Basics Cookbook.

Now that I’m older, I don’t bake bread as often as I’d like—but last Sunday was a lazy day perfect for reading and waiting as my bread dough rose. Laurie Colwin has an amusing chapter about bread baking called “Bread Baking Without Agony” in her book Home Cooking. As she recounts the first time she baked bread with a friend, she expresses frustration with all the time involved for just one loaf. She writes: “The result was a perfectly nice loaf of bread, but after spending an entire day in its service, I expected something a little more heroic.” She has a point—there is a lot of downtime when baking bread, but on certain days I don’t mind being abiding as the yeast does it work. I find it peaceful that so much is happening without my exerting too much energy—save for the mixing and the kneading.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Breaking the fast with tacos

Breakfast tacos are one of those simple things you don’t really think about much, until you can’t find one. Take New York City. Most New Yorkers’ quick breakfast of choice is either a bagel or an egg sandwich—a scrambled or fried egg with a slab of American cheese (and sometimes bacon or sausage) on a Kaiser roll. Every deli, bakery and street cart sells these (well, not all carts make eggs), and while quality varies, there is no shortage of supply. If that’s what you want to eat for breakfast, then your desire will be fulfilled

That’s how breakfast tacos are to Texans: they are our go-to breakfast, so ubiquitous you don’t think about it much. Sure, it may be from an authentic taqueria that has carnitas or babacoa to add to the eggs, or it may be from Whataburger, where the meat on offer is the less exotic (but no less satisfying) bacon or sausage. And while quality varies, you always know you’ll find one and even a not-so-good one is never that bad.

Tacos have taken New York City by storm, but it’s still not a breakfast taco town. A couple of places do sell them, but none of them are close to me—and that’s the key to a breakfast taco: it should be ready and available; it’s just not quick and convenient if it becomes destination food. (Though in Texas there are breakfast-taco joints that become destinations due to their excellence, but it’s not for the everyday.)

Lots of New York restaurants offer breakfast burritos, but sadly, that’s not the same thing. They’re always in that overstuffed, football-sized Mission style, which, despite my having a hearty appetite, is just a bit much for breaking the fast. Not to mention, these can run you $7 to even $13, which is expensive for a quick, morning meal.

Breakfast tacos on the other hand are nimble and efficient. They easily fit in your hand and your mouth, with all your breakfast needs self-contained in one neat, little package. While I don’t advocate eating and driving (or eating and walking) these are up to the task, though they are equally as delicious in a more proper, sit-down forum.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Trip to Texas part 2: A farm-fresh meal

As I exited the highway and drove towards Chambersville, I marveled at how long I’d been making this journey—every twist and turn on the country road as familiar to me as the shape of the letters in my own name.

It was sunset, and while driving to my grandparents’ farm I decided to take a detour along a gravel road lined with old trees. These bois d’arc trees (pronounced boe-dark—this tree is the bearer of horse apples, that inedible knobby green fruit) are made of super-strong wood and were planted as a sort of natural fence before people put up barbed wire. Through the years, as these trees along the road have grown tall and wide, their leaves and branches have met above the road creating a green canopy. It’s breathtaking. Sadly, the owner of that estate has sold the land to a developer who plans to build a subdivision. That road’s days are numbered and so I try to take a drive down it any chance I can.

I arrived at my grandparents’ farm as always, trailing a big cloud of white dust as I raced along the rocky road in anticipation of arrival. It’s a good feeling to know that when you arrive somewhere people will be happy to see you. And while my visit was short, there were enough stories told and lived in the next couple of days to fill this blog for a month or two, or at least write a really long article for Progressive Farmer. So I won’t bore you with all the details, instead, as it’s Eat Local Month, I’ll share with you a meal I made almost exclusively from the fruits (and fish and vegetables) of their land.

Early the next morning, my grandmother and I went apple picking. There has been a record amount of rain this year (and actually for the first time in recent history, not one place in Texas is suffering a drought) and while the water was welcome, it left all their Golden Delicious apples covered in black spots—yes, it was mildew. The apples actually looked pretty cool—like speckled green eggs—but Grandma thought it wise not to eat the skins, so after filling a couple of huge tubs and a bucket, a peeling session was in order.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Trip to Texas part 1: so many salsas!

Howdy! I’m back—how I missed y'all! I don’t think in recent years I’ve spent this much time off-line, and while I’m a bit behind with so many interweb-machine activities—such as e-mail, blog reading, or catching up on the latest trashy celeb news—it was still very relaxing hanging out with friends and family in the warm and welcoming Lone Star State.

My first stop in Texas was in Austin. I was only there for less than 24 hours, but I got my fair share of solid food and an array of salsas. I stayed with my friends Monica and John, and as Monica's baby girl is due any day now, instead of grubbing at a BBQ joint or grabbing a chicken-fried steak, we opted to have a multi-course meal at a fancy restaurant that she’d be less inclined to bring her soon-to-be newborn to in the near future. (And while we're on the subject of newborns, be sure and stop by Good American Wife and say hello to Anne's first child, Walter—he's super sweet and cute!)

Monica chose Wink, a place I’d never heard of but I was delighted with how fresh and delicious our food was. Granted, when I travel to Texas my focus is pretty singular—only foods from the Texan Trinity of bbq, Tex-Mex or home cooking will do. But I've been closed minded, and this restaurant had an exquisitely creative menu with most of the meats (save for the Hudson Valley fois gras), seafood, cheeses, fruits and vegetables sourced from local farms and fishermen. One of my courses featured Gulf shrimp, and it had been so long since I’d had the real thing I’d forgotten the sweet, mineral flavor these contain, especially when right off the boat. For dessert we shared a goat-cheese plate with the cheeses coming from Pure Luck Organic Farm in nearby Dripping Springs. If you have access to their cheeses, you must try them—these were some of the creamiest, most flavorful (without being too earthy) goat cheeses I’d ever had the pleasure of eating. They paired equally well with fruit or honey, but were also a joy to eat straight off the knife.

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