Monday, January 30, 2012

Between Dreams and Reality

I just came back from a stress-free weekend visiting family in Southern California. It was sunny and 75 degrees outside. I wore a skirt and sandals to the beach. There were strawberries in the farmer's market - both local and seasonal. Is it any wonder my entire being was screaming "No!" at the idea of coming back to the reality of work and several months before spring?

These whole wheat chocolate chip cookies helped ease me back into real life, without slapping me in the face too harshly. They are comforting enough to harken to that dreamy land of suspended reality, yet they have enough nutrients to fit into the real world where calories count and fiber is a necessary part of life.

They taste great, a little nutty from the whole grains, a little bitter, a little salty, and just enough sweetness to keep you reaching for one more. Chocolate Chip Cookies that are 100% whole grain? It's a perfect balance of escapism and what your body really needs. (Need pictures? Check out these.)

Whole-Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Based on a recipe from Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain

3 cups whole wheat flour (I used whole wheat pastry flour)
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped into ¼- and ½-inch pieces, or bittersweet chips (I used Scharffen Berger bittersweet chocolate chunks - perfect!)

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment. (If you have no parchment, you can butter the sheets.)

Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, and whisk to blend.
Put the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, mix just until the butter and sugars are blended, about 2 minutes.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the bowl, and blend on low speed until the flour is just incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the chocolate, stirring in with a wooden spoon. Refrigerate the dough until cold, about 30 minutes.

Scoop mounds of dough about 3 tablespoons in size onto the baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie. (I made smaller cookies; about 1 inch balls of dough.)

Bake the cookies for 16 to 20 minutes (check after 12 minutes). Transfer the cookies, still on parchment, to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.

Yield: about 20 big cookies or 36 smaller cookies

Monday, January 23, 2012

River Cottage Pita Bread

Many things have converged lately to make me want to try my hand at pita bread.

At the moment, I'm reading "A Year in the Village of Eternity", a memoir by a British woman who lived for a year in a remote mountainous village in Italy. She learns the traditional, seasonal way of eating, which involves a lot of homegrown vegetables and olive oil. This diet, coupled with a lot of physical activity, leads to an extremely healthy population, and the village has a high percentage of centenarians and actively aging elders.

Also, I just finished the Hunger Games trilogy, and all that talk about "Peeta" made me crave some flatbread. And maybe some homemade hummus to go with it.

I am currently making my way through the wonderfully British "River Cottage" series, including the River Cottage Cookbook, Jam Book, and Bread Book. The books follow a certain English chap (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) who buys a farm in the countryside and learns how to raise or make his own... well, everything! Now the farm is also a cooking school and hub of fair food activism.

I found this recipe in "The River Cottage Bread Book" (and made a few changes). Technically, it's called Turkish flatbread, but it sure looked like pita bread to me, so there you go. Whatever you call it, it was the best flat bread I have ever had, and this will not be the last time I make it.

Flat Bread
(Makes about 12)

4 c. bread flour
4 c. whole wheat flour
1 T. active dry yeast
4 tsp. sea salt
1 1/3 c. warm water
1 1/3 c. plain low-fat yogurt, warmed
2 T. good olive oil

To use a food mixer: fit the dough hook and add the flours, yeast, salt, water and yogurt to the mixer bowl. Mix on low speed until combined, then add the oil and leave to knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and silky. Shape the dough into a round, then place in a clean oiled bowl. Leave to rise, covered with a plastic bag, in a warm place until doubled in size.

Deflate the dough, then if you have time, leave to rise a second, third, even a fourth time (this improves the dough but is by no means essential). Tear off pieces the size of small lemons. One at a time, shape into a round, then using plenty of flour, roll out to a 1/8" thickness and leave to rest for 5 minutes or so; this improves the finished bread dramatically.

Meanwhile, heat a large cast-iron skillet over the highest heat and set the oven to broil. When the pan is super-hot, lay the first bread in it. After a minute or possibly less the bread should be puffy and starting to char on the bottom Slide the pan under the broiler, and watch your creation balloon magnificently. Remove the bread when it starts to char on the top, drizzle with olive oil, and feed your awestruck friends.

P.S. This bread was awesome with my homemade hummus. I'm going to stuff the rest with homemade falafel!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Porch

2012. This year, we set some goals that may not be conducive to maintaining a blog, but hopefully can improve our overall quality of life. One of those goals is to limit our eating out to twice a month. For us, that's not an easy order to fill, but we don't count gift cards or meals that other treat us to (whew), so that might be the saving grace as we transition into cutting back.

Another idea I've been pondering is to live more fully in reality than in virtual reality. To play with my dog daily, write daily, knit, create something tangible whenever possible. I may not blog as much, but when I do, it will be to share something really special.

I am starting with The Porch. When my husband and I traveled to Portland (OR), we fell in love with Screen Door, an upscale Southern food mecca. When I heard that a similar restaurant was opening up in Sacramento, I knew that this would be our first meal out of the 2012, and it turned out to be a great decision.

When we first arrived at the restaurant, I immediately loved the old-fashioned sensibility of the damask curtains, refurnished antique mirrors and porch light on the facade.

From beginning to end, our food was to die for. It started with a Muffalatta spread and crostini toasts, compliments of the chef - not too salty despite the presence of capers and green olives. I actually considered spooning this tasty stuff into my mouth once the toasts were gone, but withheld in anticipation of the good things to come.

The Porch Salad had perfectly cooked, sweet, tiny beets, plus nuts, apples, and a light creamy dressing. Then came the entrees, which were anything but light - buttermilk fried chicken, biscuits, velvety mashed potatoes with chunky sausage gravy, tangy collard greens with vinegar.

My Shrimp Po Boy was a dreamy sandwich filled with bacon, avocado, crab mayonnaise, lettuce, and cornmeal-breaded shrimp. My mouth waters just remembering it! This is the best sandwich of the year for 2012 so far, and it will be hard to beat! (Last year's choice: Cuban Pork sandwich from Seattle's Paseo.)

For dessert, we had the Black Bottom Creme Brulee - the "black bottom" refers to a layer of chocolate ganache on the bottom, a welcome surprise to our mouths. Loved the blueberry sauce served with it - a great compliment to the dish.

Bottom Line: I'm recommending this place to our friends. It's a splurge for dinner, but I will be coming here for lunch as fast as I can afford it again!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pumpkin Muffins with Everything Good

Happily, this week I discovered that the pumpkin I have been storing on my front porch since our harvest in October was still in good eating condition! I started off the slaughter of the pumpkin with Dorie Greenspan's recipe for Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good. Bread, cheese, cream, bacon and chives... How could you go wrong? Just a wedge for dinner and we were full.

Then came this morning. I always feel like Saturday morning calls for a real breakfast, since I don't necessarily get one during the work week. What could be more appropriate than pumpkin muffins? I have a great recipe to share - it's even relatively healthy, with half whole wheat flour. Olive oil, dried cranberries, apples and walnuts made it hearty enough to fill you up for a while. (Two muffins at 11:00am and I was good till dinner! True story.) In a tribute to Dorie, the grand dame of French cookery, I'll call these Pumpkin Muffins with Everything Good.

Pumpkin Muffins with Everything Good

1 1/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cardamom
Dash of: ginger, cloves, and nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs
1/2 c. olive oil
1 c. pumpkin puree
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. chopped apple
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 c. dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350f. Grease a 12-muffin tin.

In a bowl, combine all dry ingredients and whisk together. In another bowl, combine the wet ingredients and whisk together. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, then stir in the apples, walnuts, and cranberries.

Bake for 35-40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for 5 minutes before removing from pan to wire rack to finish cooling.