Small comforts

chicken-pie

I KNOW IT’S A CLICHÉ to write about “comfort food,” but the anxiety I’ve experienced  since the election has made comfort seem more necessary than ever. There is something calming about the normality of cooking, especially if you’re making something both comforting and nourishing.

Last week I made a mushroom-chicken pot pie topped with biscuits that fit the bill. Aviva showed me how to do this basically in one pot: saute onions and garlic with your choice of vegetables –some options: mushrooms, chopped potatoes or sweet potatoes, carrots, peas, cauliflower greens– in butter and/or oil in a cast iron skillet. Add a few tablespoons of flour and seasonings (salt, pepper, rosemary or thyme) and then add enough broth (chicken or vegetarian) to make a nice “gravy” for your pie. Add cooked chicken or leave it out for a vegetarian version. The sauce should be a little thinner than you want it as it’ll thicken in the oven. You can top with a biscuit dough, as I did here (Mark Bittman’s biscuit topping works well) or with a typical pie crust.

puff-pastry-pot-pie

Or, for the easiest method, do as I did recently and use puff pastry (buy it frozen and thaw it). Lay a circle of puff pastry over your filling, and cut a few slits for the steam to escape.

For any of these toppings, bake at 400 degrees for about 30-40 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the biscuits or other crust is golden.

The pot pie is a little more ambitious than my usual comfort nourishment though. I gravitate toward the simplest form of cooking. Faithful readers of this blog (thank you!) know that I love SOUP, especially in fall and winter, when my go-to supper is soup and bread (or toast, popovers, cornbread, etc.).

Indeed I have a long family history with soup, one part of which I wrote about in my latest sketchbook:

soupspoon-jpg_0001

In just the last few weeks, I’ve run through a lot of my soup favorites: lentil with spinach and lemon, parsley-potato; chicken soup with matzo balls, red lentil soup; and of course, minestrone.

My latest soup creation is another lentil soup, this time with lots of carrots to brighten its color, and some seasoning to perk up the flavors. I adapted it from a recipe by British food writer Diane Henry for “Turkish carrots and lentils with herbs” in the book Plenty (no, not the Ottolenghi Plenty).

Henry’s recipe is more a side dish with fewer lentils and no real broth; I doubled the lentils and added more water for a soup-ier version. She suggests fresh mint, parsley or dill for the herbs — I chose to use cilantro (but I do want to try the mint version sometime.) Henry also adds 2 teaspoons of sugar, but I left it out; it didn’t seem to need it. The coriander seeds and red pepper, along with the lemon and herbs give it a bright and lively flavor.

carrot-lentil

This first serving was more stew-like; when I heated it up the next day, I added more water to make it more of a soup. Really good either way.

Carrot-lentil soup

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly chopped
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed
  • 1/4 – 1/2 dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup lentils
  • 6 large carrots, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (or you can use tomato puree)
  • 4 or 5 cups vegetable stock or water
  • salt and pepper
  • chopped cilantro
  • lemon juice
  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan and saute’ the onion until soft. Add garlic and spices and cook for two minutes. Then add everything else except the cilantro and lemon juice.
  2.  Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Add more water or broth as you like — it can be more of a lentil stew or a soup.
  3. Adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. If desired, add a glug of olive oil to the soup (I don’t but you might want to).
  4. Ladle into bowls, adding a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a good sprinkle of cilantro into each bowl.

I love Diane Henry’s concise description: “This shows just how delicious frugality can be.” And comforting too.

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Filed under Praise for other cooks, soup, supper time, vegetables, winter

Rolling with the seasons

rollingpin

YES, IT’S OFFICIALLY AUTUMN, and the change of the seasons and cooler days call me back to baking once again (not that I’ve ever left it entirely).

In the late summer/ early fall, I made some Zwetchgenkuchen with the beautiful Italian plums, but now that the plums are all gone from the trees, and I’ve said farewell to summer, my fruit dreams turn to apples and pears.

zwetch2016

Next week, when I visit my daughter in Arkansas, we plan to make an apple pie together, so I was recalling a post I wrote here back in 2007 that spoke of my “one-per-season pie calendar” and featured the marvelous Pie Queen Reeb Willms with her recipe for apple pie. You can read it here.

apple-pie-blog

Another must-bake for me in the autumn is the round challah with raisins. Along with apples and honey, it signifies the sweet and spirit-nourishing tradition of Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year.

roundchallahblogMy round challahs are never quite symmetrical, but then, it really doesn’t matter!

It seems timely to put a link to yet another blog post from years ago, titled “A circle, a braid, a meditation on challah”

In fact, circles seem to be a theme here — appropriately, as in the autumn, we are so aware of the circle of seasons.

bowlofapplesblog

So, even if you don’t do any baking this season, do enjoy a wonderful crisp, juicy, sweet (or sweet-tart) apple — and roll with the season!

p.s. Need a good challah recipe? A reader writes in: “I know everyone has her/his favorite challah recipe, but my late wife Ruth׳s was truly spectacular.  See her web site ruths-kitchen.com”

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Blackberry supper

BLACKBERRY SEASON is making me a little nostalgic. Blog-nostalgic, that is (though I still think blog is a particularly ugly word), as I wrote my first post on Toby’s Kitchen Notes nearly seven years ago, toward the end of berry season, with my recipe for Blackberry Cobbler No. 8.

It seems hard to believe I’d made eight versions of blackberry cobbler in 2009, but I did, along with some other must-have fruit desserts. This year, as I write, it’s just the beginning of blackberry season, and the other day I had a couple freshly picked pints on hand. I really wanted to bake something with them — but not a dessert. Aha — it remembered Nigel Slater’s marvelous recipe: Blackberry focaccia.

blackberry foccacia slice

Blackberry focaccia has only a hint of sweetness, from sugar sprinkled atop the dough.

Half the recipe would be plenty, I figured, as there were only two of us eating it, and it doesn’t keep well for leftovers. (I wrote of this before, so the recipe is here.)

blackberryfoccin progress

The yeast dough is easy, but does need gentle handling, especially when you fold in half the berries after the first rising. The rest of the berries are strewn on top; then, it rises again and you drizzle olive oil and sprinkle demerara or sparkling sugar on top.

blackberry foccacia

Once out of the oven and cooled just a bit, you can sprinkle with confectioners sugar if you like.

We had a choice: ruin our appetites by devouring the focaccia immediately or wait a few minutes, make a green salad, and call it supper.

saladandslice BF

We chose the latter — and it wasn’t a sacrifice. Calling it supper gave it a certain sense of legitimacy, if not outright virtue.  (More nutritious than pancakes with syrup for supper, anyway.) And yes, it was delicious. I plan to repeat this combo!

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Filed under baked goods, bread and pizza, fruit, Praise for other cooks, salad, summer, Uncategorized

Breads of summer

wholewhbreadIF YOU’RE SWELTERING IN THE SUMMER HEAT,  you probably won’t relate, but here in the Northwest, we still have plenty of cool-ish, windy days and rain. I think it’s perfect weather for bread baking, which is an activity I thoroughly enjoy. And isn’t summer made for pleasurable activities?

Sunset1

Cloud watching is another of my favorite pastimes these days. Any time of the year.

Lately, inspired by my son Zak’s incredible breads, I’ve been experimenting with a hybrid (hy-bread?) method of bread making, combining the Jim Lahey no-knead method, with, yes, a little bit of kneading and shaping  using sourdough starter (1/3 cup approximately for one loaf) along with a tiny bit (1/4 teaspoon or less) of yeast. I’ve also been increasing the proportion of whole wheat/ whole grains, with varying success. This loaf I baked yesterday, about 50 percent whole wheat, rated a photo and is being enjoyed in sandwiches today and toast tomorrow.

Breadwwheat

Actually, as I write this, it isn’t quite officially summer yet. Maybe soon my cooking plans will turn to potato salads or berry jams. But it’s very likely that there will also be more good bread-baking days ahead here in the Northwest corner. . .

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Matzo Caffee a la Dad

ON  PASSOVER, WHEN WE’RE FORBIDDEN to eat any of the five grains–wheat, oats spelt, rye, barley — except in the form of matzo,  naturally a number of specific recipes involving matzo developed. I’ve been thinking about all the food traditions I grew up with on this holiday, realizing that I make an effort to keep some of them, fail to keep others and toss some away without regret.

For example, I do make kneidlach (matzo balls) for a chicken or vegetarian soup and matzo brei for a special breakfast, but I don’t make a roasted turkey with my mother’s wonderful matzo-mushroom stuffing. I fail to make an authentic fermented beet borscht as my Baba (my mother’s mother) did — but come to think of it, I don’t remember my mother making this either. Perhaps she made it before I was of an age to remember, and gave it up.  She let Manischewitz handle the borscht-making and served the ruby-colored soup hot or cold, pouring it into bowls in which we’d crumbled matzo pieces and topping it with a dollop of sour cream, great for a Passover lunch.

And despite my fond memories of making sponge cake with my mother for the Seder dinner — besides the matzo meal, nine eggs were required, with silky-beaten yolks and whipped egg whites in the batter, and a frosting of egg whites and honey — I prefer my own custom of making flourless chocolate walnut torte.

One of my favorite Passover matzo traditions  is one that my father introduced,  a simple European treat that he would make nearly every day of the eight-day holiday, starting on the first morning: Matzo Coffee. We knew by its German name, Matzo Kaffee. Or, in a more personal rendition, Matzo Caffee a la Dad.

Matzah Kaffee 1

Passover in Chicago, April 2000. Dad was 89 then.

Dad would break most of a sheet of matzo into his coffee cup, crunching it into small pieces, then adding sugar and milk to the cup.

Matzah Kaffee 2

Finally, he poured hot coffee into the cup, right to the brim.

The result was softened, sweetened matzo floating about in some milky coffee. We made a similar children’s version, Matzo Cocoa, which was simply broken-up matzo pieces covered with hot chocolate. Both Matzo Kaffee and Matzo Cocoa are hybrids of food-and-beverage: you take sips of the coffee or cocoa and spoon out the softened bits of flavored matzo. Mmmmm.

I admit, it’s not for everyone. It has very little nutritional value, and doesn’t hold a candle to a good coffee and buttered toast or a croissant. Most people who didn’t grow up with it look upon it with disdain, as if you had torn up a piece of toast into little pieces and tossed them into a cup of cappuccino.

It’s certainly not an essential food for Passover, but rather a minor tradition, probably born of the monotony of eating dry, unsalted matzo day after day. Whatever others thought, we  loved it and had it (or the cocoa version) often, either for breakfast or for an afternoon snack. Still today, for me the taste and messy consumption of Matzo Caffee ala Dad  carries so many pleasurable associations.

My father — in a play on the word Seder, which means order — insisted there was a also a certain order to be observed when making Matzo Kaffee. On the last Passover of his life, when he was 93, he wrote the instructions for each of us four children in his inimitable handwriting.

Matzah Kaffee order

I love the “WOW!! What a TREAT!!” which captures my Dad’s vitality and almost childlike enthusiasm, while the instruction “Do NOT change order to do it o.k.”  reminds me of the authoritarian side of his character.

Twelve years after he wrote it, this little card is one of my most treasured documents from my father. And, yes, of course, I’m still enjoying that special Passover treat, Matzo Caffee a la Dad.

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A pie for imperfectionists

Piemaking

Despite that recipe you’ve found for “the perfect pie,” it will probably be imperfect — and that’s just the way it should be!

“PIE SHOULDN’T BE PERFECT,” declared an article on making fruit pie that I’d saved from a Bon Appetit magazine.

Aviva and I could  not have agreed more. While we learned a few things from the article (the butter in the crust should be in unevenly sized pieces) wondered over some pieces of advice (a pie should bake for an hour and a half at 350 degrees?) and  rejected others (really, the crust does not need that much butter!), the philosophy expressed in that simple line is what really struck home.

Aviva making pie

Aviva visits the Toby Kitchen for a pie-making session!

 

WE ARE NOT perfectionists, we realized  — and glad of it.

Being an imperfectionist (my new word) means you are content with “good enough,” and not devastated by minor failures in the kitchen or other areas of life.

The Bon Appetit article detailed a finished pie’s characteristics: “The filling will spill out, bits of crust will collapse, and it’s only natural for the fruit to shrink as it bakes, leaving a little gap beneath the top crust.”

And these “imperfections” not only don’t matter, but actually add to the pleasure of  making and eating pie.

“That’s the trouble with cake,” Aviva noted (she has a strong preference for pie over cake). “It’s too perfect.”

RhubarbbirthdayPie

The still-warm pie was too juicy to serve it on the fancy plates I’d set out, so we served it in mismatched bowls, with ice cream melting on top. My twisted-lattice crust had become rather skewed and messy, but that didn’t bother us.

 

Just as the article had predicted, my pie had not yet set properly when we served it to friends a couple hours after taking it from the oven (the article advised waiting at least four hours, and added that pie was even better the day after it was baked. But warm-from-the-oven pie is sooooo good!)

We carved out some fairly sloppy slices and ladled them into mismatched bowls with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. We used spoons instead of forks.

No one complained. It was a perfectly delicious imperfect pie and we were all happy.

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Here’s the updated recipe. And for you fellow rhubarb-lovers, here’s some history and more on the wonderful pie plant.

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A day to celebrate

St Pats lemon tart

I decorated a lemon tart with lime and lime zest for St. Patrick’s Day. That was last year.

ST. PATRICK’S DAY IS A BIG HOLIDAY IN MY FAMILY — and not because we’re Irish or even big beer drinkers.

It’s because my father, Eric Sonneman, a refugee from Nazi Germany, arrived in this country on March 17, 1939. He was 28 years old.

When his ship arrived in New York on St. Patrick’s Day, the passengers were greeted by a band playing Irish music at the pier. My father knew nothing about St. Patrick’s Day, but his uncle, a recent immigrant himself who had met my father’s ship, insisted on going to Fifth Avenue to see the fabulous parade.

“I thought this is a wonderful country, to welcome the immigrants with a band and a parade!” my father always said. (A more complete story is here.)

Now I always celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as a day to remember my dad’s wonderful introduction to America.

greenriver

In Chicago, where I grew up, they dye the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day

The traditional food for the day, of course, is corned beef and cabbage, but that has never appealed to me. Something-or-other green (and a little Guinness stout) is enough for me. Last year I was fancy with the decorated lemon tart, but this year I’m lazier, and I’m just making my bright-green parsley soup (the recipe is here, though I now use my hand-blender) and some oatmeal-currant scones. It’s my own little St. Pat’s tradition. Anything green will do, though — even a green salad!

The important thing is the toast.  I’ll be toasting my dad and the country that welcomed him.

ST PATS card

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Fresh from the pantry (almost)

RedLentils

Red lentils are also called Egyptian or Mansoor lentils

THE ENTRY FOR LENTILS in the Oxford Companion to Food follows closely behind the one for lemons — and that seems right, as lemons add brightness to this easy-to-cook-but-sometimes-a-little-dull legume. A recipe on my lemon blog for Lemony Lentil Soup with Spinach (scroll to second recipe) is testimony to this great marriage.

Lentils have been cultivated since antiquity in Egypt, and evidence of lentils has been found in many prehistoric sites in Europe. In India, the largest producer of lentils today, they are an everyday food called dal, often cooked with onion and spices and served with rice. Next to soy beans, lentils have the highest protein content of all vegetables.

There are dozens of different colors and sizes of lentils, each with their own character. Brown or green lentils are fine, but red lentils are very nice for soups as they cook quickly and break down into a puree. And, of course, there’s the color. Some of that lovely salmon color fades with cooking, though, so I was happy to find New York Times’ food writer Melissa Clark’s recipe for Red Lentil Soup with Lemon, which adds carrots and tomato paste to the pot to bring some of the color back. And this time of year, when it’s often grey and dismal outside, I really appreciate a burst of color in the soup bowl.

Lemonsqueeze

When cooking any kind of lentils, don’t forget the lemon

Another thing to love about this soup is that (as long as I’ve got the red lentils in the pantry), I usually have all the ingredients on hand. Lemon, onion, garlic — check. Cumin, chile powder or cayenne, tomato paste — check. I don’t always have fresh cilantro, but parsley or even chives will do in a pinch.

Truth be told, I very rarely follow a recipe precisely (often not even more-or-less) but this one was so simple and easy — and didn’t call for any unusual ingredients — that I didn’t have my usual tendency to depart from it. (That is, aside from adding an extra carrot for more orange flecks, and a good squeeze of lemon juice in the serving bowls for brighter flavor.)

I made some popovers and a green salad to go with it, and called it supper.

RedLentil soup

 

 

 

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Filed under Praise for other cooks, soup, spring, vegetables, winter

Marvelous mandarins

mandarins, MM

Mandarins at Monterey Market, Berkeley, California

I KNOW, I’VE SAID IT BEFORE, but it’s worth saying again: The mandarin is a wonderful winter treat, the season’s ultimate snack fruit.

If you can find mandarins in the store with leaves intact — and the leaves look nice and fresh — that’s the best indication that the fruit is fresh, picked only shortly before being shipped to market.

Mandarins, tangerines, clementines — what’s it all about? What are Pages and Sumos, Murcotts and Tangos? And what about Cuties and Halos (commercial brand names for mandarins) — and why are they better later in the season, from January to April?

Find out the answers to all of these questions and more in the excellent recent New York Times’ article, Mandarin Oranges: Rising Stars of the Fruit Bowl, by fruit expert David Karp.

For my other post about mandarins, including a mandarin cocktail, click here.

Bowlofmandarins

Mandarins and oranges — both in their winter prime.

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The best food gift

Tobysfeedbarnrolls

The aluminum pan makes it easy to give a generous amount of homemade cinnamon rolls. No returns necessary.

OF COURSE THE BEST FOOD GIFT is (usually) something homemade. A lot of cookies and candy are exchanged this time of year, and I’ve enjoyed some marvelous biscotti, truffles and shortbread, but in years past I’ve also received homemade applesauce, spaghetti sauce, flavored vinegar and herbal salt, among other edible delights.

This week I made a couple pans of cinnamon rolls for my neighbors, and another for a special breakfast at home. They have some wheat and spelt flour along with all-purpose flour, no frosting and very little fat — so while I wouldn’t say they were “healthy,” they are not too destructive. And they have plenty of cinnamon and raisins, with a few walnuts on the top. My basic recipe is here.

Cinnamon rolls are more flexible than you might think. You could add other spices (cardamom), leave out the raisins or the nuts or add in some different things (dried cranberries and pistachios?) You can make the dough and shape the rolls the night before you want to bake them, and they will rise in the refrigerator. Once baked, they can be frozen or reheated.

CinnRolls

Toby’s Feed Barn (what a great name) is a terrific general store in Point Reyes Station, California

CINNAMON ROLLS will make your house smell wonderful.  And, best of all — if your neighbors are anything like mine — are the big smiles you’ll get when you appear at your neighbor’s door with a pan of the rolls, still warm from the oven.

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