Monday, July 7, 2008

Cookin' up a storm

This weekend was full of lovely weather, good food, and lots of cooking. What else does a girl really need?

D. and I had dinner on the Fourth at Ubuntu in Napa. It's this fancy vegetarian place, and yes, it really is a yoga studio, too. (Only in California, people. Only in California). I thought the food was decent, overall, though a little fussy (look at the menu -- you'll see what I mean). The dessert, though, was spectacular -- a corn pudding cake with grilled peaches and some sort of honey ice cream. It came garnished with this super-thin wafer sprinkled with sweet popcorn. And the best part? When the waitress came over to our table and told us that they had a back patio, and would we like to have our dessert out there so we could watch the fireworks? All the fireworks with none of the beer-swilling crowd? Hell yes!

As for cooking, on Saturday we made grilled pizzas. Yum! This might be my favorite thing I've cooked in a while, and it was so easy. We used Trader Joes Pizza dough, and then experimented with toppings. The best combo was proscuitto, gorgonzola, and figs. Y. U. M. We also made a grilled veggie version and one with caramelized onions and ricotta. Making the onions was fun -- it's totally magical to me the way the character of something can change so much just by cooking it slowly. That version of the pizza, though, lacked pizzaz. We decided that next time we'd add some gorgonzola to it and maybe something with a bit more crunch. The fig and gorgonzola pizza was the clear winner of the night, and we liked the super-thin crusts we did the best.

To actually make the pizzas, roll out the dough into thin, small pizzas, which are easier to work with. brush with olive oil and toss onto an oiled grill for a few minutes. Take off the grill and flip onto a plate so the cooked side is up. Add your toppings (pre-cooked or no-cooking needed, since they don't get a ton of heat) and then put back on grill for a couple minutes, uncooked side down. You'll want to keep the flames low, so you don't burn it. Here's directions from someone who is better at this recipe thing than I am: Grilled Pizza on 101 Cookbooks.

Yesterday, after D. had abandoned me for the cooler climes of Portland (A 7 am flight! On a Sunday morning!!) I heated up my kitchen with a great big batch of strawberry jam and, once it had cooled down enough for me to even contemplate turning the oven on again, chicken stock.

Chicken stock is such a fun thing to me. When you tell people you make your own chicken stock, they tend to be rather impressed, as if you've told them that when you were fifteen you ran away to join the circus and you are really quite good on the trapeze. It always makes me laugh a little, because chicken stock is just about the easiest thing anyone could make in their kitchen. All you need is a few hours when you don't need to leave the house, so you can keep an eye on the pot. This is cooking even my dad could do. (Sorry, Daddy! You know I love you, cook or not!)

Here's how I do it: Throw a chicken carcass into a enormous stock pot with 16-20 cups of water. (I toss the leftover bones and meat into the freezer whenever I make a roast chicken and pull 'em out when I want to make stock). Also toss in a couple scrubbed carrots, broken in half; a couple ribs of celery, a big onion cut into quarters (no need to peel), parsley, peppercorns, and a bay leaf. Add a bit of salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer very gently for several hours, until the chicken falls off the bones. Strain and freeze to use whenever. If it tastes bland, add more salt. Tada! You'll impress all of your non-cook friends to no end. (Even more so if you also feed them the chicken you roasted in order to get the bones -- another simple recipe, for another day).

I also very much enjoy making jam. I feel like my grandma would be proud of me, if she could see me canning like a pro, even though I wasn't smart enough to ask her to teach me before she passed away. I like freezer jam the best, which is convenient, as it's the simplest to make. Basically, you just mush together whatever kind of fruit you want with sugar and a packet of freezer jam pectin from the grocery store and then dump it into jars. It'll keep forever in the freezer, and it's wonderful in the dead of winter to spread strawberry freezer jam on your toast -- I don't think anything could taste more like summer. Plus, when you're making freezer jam, you can add herbs to it without them tasting over-cooked. I like a little bit of fresh mint in my strawberry jam. Sounds a bit odd, but it's SO good. And today's peach-strawberry jam got some sliver-thin ribbons of basil.

But I also like the more complicated kind of jam that you cook on the stovetop till it gels and then can in a hot water-bath. There's something very soothing to me about cooking down strawberries and sugar till they get thick and lava-like, bubbling languidly on the stove. And then the sealing process! It's like magic -- boiling the jars, hearing the 'ping' of sealing lids, popping them open with a can opener weeks or months down the line. And it's nice to live someplace now where this is not such an odd thing to do. Once, when I lived in DC, I spent an afternoon making jam. When I mentioned it later that night, one of my relatives responded, with some horror in her voice, why would you want to do that, as if I had spent my day cleaning the poop off the hindquarters of a not-so-meticulous dog. Here, people just ask when I'm bringing them a jar :-)

P.S. I've been on a regular cooking binge lately. Along with this weekend's wonders, last weekend I made a rustic plum and port wine tart (from the June issue of Bon Appetit) and pickles, for the first time ever (pretty good, but too sweet, even though I cut the sugar in the recipe in half).

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