After I read Michael Pollan’s Cooked, I developed a minor obsession with fermentation. I had attempted to make sourdough bread when I lived in Idaho but it just didn’t ever really go well. I tried to make it with water straight out of the tap but I have since learned that the chlorine (or chloramine) in city water might interfere with yeast growth (which totally makes sense!).
I started with a 50:50 flour water mixture (1/2 c. each) using water I brought home from the water cooler at school. In retrospect the jar was too small but it seemed like such a neat little package to start with!
The second day I added another 1/2 c. water and a 1/2 c. flour. The next day, I fed the starter again in the late afternoon. I was starting to be skeptical about whether anything was going to work, yet again. I went into the kitchen in the evening to make tea and there were bubbles! It was alive!
By the next morning, the starter had exploded on the counter. There was plenty enough still in the jar to salvage so I moved it to a larger bowl and measured some out to make bread! I used this recipe and the result was unmitigated failure. It didn’t rise. There was a hunk of solid dough just sitting there. I didn’t use non-chlorinated water, which might have been the issue, I’m not sure.
I did some more research and found this post on Pinch My Salt that described how to make a “sponge” and THEN mixing up the dough. Finally I was on to something.
My first “sponge”:
The loaves themselves seemed a little flat. But they were clearly bread!
I slightly overbaked them but they were pretty delicious for the first few hours!
I tried again, making the bread into one loaf. It didn’t brown very well but oh my god it is so freaking good!
I’ve never been a sourdough fan but this has really great flavor. I can see myself going back to a commercial yeasted bread in the future but I’m having fun experimenting right now!
Quite awhile ago, I won a giveaway from Modern Steader and received multiple boxes of awesomeness. Last year was super busy and as much as I wanted to jump into everything all at once, I was facing some uncertainty about where I was living (which made planting stuff a little difficult), staying in a place without an oven (which makes baking bread not an option), and I was generally overwhelmed with everything happening around me.
This summer, I had a little bit of time to myself and was finally able to sit down and read a book! Or two!
The first thing I picked up was Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Healthby Jo Robinson. This book is somehow simultaneously a breezy read and absolutely crammed with information. Robinson delves into the natural history of vegetables and fruits and relates how they changed when certain traits were selected for.
Each chapter deals with a subset of plants (apples, stone fruits, legumes, tomatoes, corn, etc.) and discusses the best choices in each area (generally dark colors are good … but not always) and how to best prepare the food so that its nutritional value is maximized (cook your carrots!). Conveniently, each chapter has a summary at the end because I know I’ll need to reference things as I try to shift some of my buying habits to healthier choices.
One of the things that found so awesome about this book was that the ideas for changing buying habits aren’t necessarily any more expensive or harder to prepare than the things that I’m already buying. This book was mostly just full of tools to make what I’m already doing (or know I should be doing) better and I really appreciated that.
Cooked was more classic Pollan awesomeness. In each of four sections, he examines a way of transforming food through cooking. The first section examines transformation with fire by exploring the barbecue traditions of the south. I really struggled to get through this section mostly because I was laying in the back of the Jeep after eating a bagel for dinner and I just wanted a good barbecue sandwich. The second section, transformation with water, looked at cooking and mostly at “pot cooking.” Pollan sings the praises of learning how to braise and I’m excited to give it another shot this fall.
Transformation with air focused on bread baking. Pollan, with trademark thoroughness, starts with baking with white flour and a sourdough culture but continues on to exploring a variety of whole wheat flour options and the challenges they present for a baker. (My Modern Steader prize package included a copy of Bread Alone and some bread baking goodies so I’m excited to jump in this fall.)
The final section was on fermentation (transformation by “soil”). It was obvious that Pollan was particularly invested in this transformation and explored cheese making, pickling, mead making, and beer making. I definitely identified with some of the arguments that are made about how our sterilization obsession has decreased our bodies access to good microbes. Cheese and beer are some of my favorite things to eat and in the last few years, have discovered pickled vegetables beyond cucumbers and would really like to experiment with that more.
In conclusion, there was a ton of history and science wrapped up in this book. I absolutely loved it and the reading went really fast once I got over the fact that I wasn’t eating all the deliciousness I was learning about on the pages. This is somethings worth reading for anyone: I’m not much of a chef myself but we all eat and my enjoyment of things is pretty much universally enhanced by knowing more about it.
I’ve been fascinated with the idea of tree influenced cocktails since I heard about a restaurant in Seattle serving an “Evergreen Martini” with douglas fir sorbet years ago (I think I was in college?). Last spring, I read this post about making your own fir-tip simple syrup and it became only a matter of time and opportunity before I tried my hand.
While Daniel and I were hiking Mt. Washington, I noticed all the trees were still displaying beautiful spring growth. I picked a species (I think it’s the pacific silver fir) and started picking tips and dropping them into a baggie that had formerly held my bagel. Daniel was remarkably patient with me and over the course of our hike I filled one baggie and almost filled another.
While my mom was at work the next morning, I started on my project. First, I put the tips on a cutting board and tried to pick out any pinecone pieces or other “intruders” (there weren’t very many, careful picking was totally worth it). Next, I rinsed them off and left them to drain in the sink for awhile.
Next, I chopped the fir tips up. This step smelled totally divine. It was a little bit citrusy, a little bit woodsy, and really just made me super happy. I tried to not chop the tips too finely since they’d need to be strained out but I also wanted to make sure I was getting the full flavor complement. I was a little bit nervous about this step. It seemed so destructive and final! I followed the directions from Amy Pennington’s blog as best I could hoping for the best.
I combined two cups of fir tips with four cups of water, brought it and brought it to a boil and then reduced it to a simmer. They started out nice and green, but as they cooked, they blanched out a little bit as they simmered for 15 minutes.
I was really excited to discover that my mom had a fine metal mesh strainer. I probably should have checked for this before I started but it all worked out just fine. I had about 3 and a half cups of fir-water so next I added 3 1/2 cups of sugar to the water and boiled it down to reduce it approximately by half.
I’d never made simple syrup of any kind before and had read many conflicting opinions of how long to boil it and how far to boil it down. I was terrified of going too far and ending up with an un-usable thick syrup but didn’t want to have to put it back in a pan to reduce it further. With a bit of trepidation, I poured the finished product into a jar and waited for it to cool.
Sugar takes a long time to cool, my friends. When it was finally happy hour time, I mixed myself a drink using ManMade’s Coniferous Collins recipe as a guide:
1 oz. fir tip simple syrup
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
2 oz. London dry gin
I eyeballed everything so there were no perfect proportions but it all seemed to turn out just fine. And by just fine, I mean, delicious:
We were really conscious all the way through our wedding planning of what was really important and let that guide how we spent our money. One of the big ticket items for a lot of people planning their wedding is food. Catering is expensive wherever you are but we didn’t have many choices in Moab and our wedding wasn’t even going to be in town. I did some checking around to be sure and the final answer was, “Yup, won’t be paying someone to cater!”
Instead, we decided that self-catering was going to be the thing. While there’s a lot of information out there on the internet about how “self-catering” your wedding it seems like even more sources talk about how it’s a lot of work. They also warn you that if you don’t really like to cook and haven’t ever cooked for a crowd that your wedding is probably not the time to start. I really don’t like cooking. And I’m not particularly good at it. Given budget goals, the location, and the relatively small guest list we decided to do it anyway. (I rationalized to my mother that we have fed more people for Thanksgiving…)
Our menu wound up looking like this:
We made two big crockpots and two smaller ones worth of lasagna and it was about perfect for 27 people. For the Caesar salad, we used 5 heads of romaine, also about perfect. For bread, I think we had four loaves. The lasagna went together really fast and if you had access to more crockpots this could absolutely be scaled up to a little bit bigger wedding.
Before the wedding, I tested the lasagna recipe to make sure it was okay in the refrigerator overnight and accidentally found that it was okay to make two days in advance (we forgot to eat it the day after I made it). Between piebaking and relaxing, the lasagnas didn’t get made in advance but Jolleen, Stacia, and Andrea threw them together pretty quickly on Saturday. They also buttered the bread I’d picked up at the grocery store that morning and put it in aluminum foil for heating.
I’d talked to Tasha several weeks before the wedding and asked her to be in charge of wedding meal logistics. Basically this involved putting the bread in the oven to warm, tossing the Caesar salad, and taking the whole lot out to the serving area. From what she told me it was pretty easy to get everything on the table, especially when Vanessa jumped in to help.
Bottom line? This was a totally workable solution for us. I have really no complaints or things that I’d adjust. And since Tasha doesn’t either and the food got rave reviews, I declare this a major success.
8 curly-edged no-cook lasagna noodles broken in half
15 oz. ricotta
1 1/4 c grated Parmesan
1/2 c. minced fresh basil
1 large egg
1 1/2 jars pasta sauce (I use whatever’s on sale.)
1 lb italian sausage removed from casing
4 c. shredded mozzarella (1lb)
In a bowl, mix ricotta, 1 c. Parmesan, basil, egg, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper.
Spread 1/2 c. tomato sauce in slow cooker.
Arrange 4 lasagna noodle pieces in slow cooker (overlapping is okay, make them fit the best you can.), then dollop 9 rounded tablespoons of ricotta mixture over noodles. Pinch off one-third of sausage into tablespoon-sized pieces and drop over ricotta (yes, raw…it cooks, promise). Sprinkle with 1 c. mozzarella, then spoon 1/2 c. sauce over top.
Repeat layering of lasagna noodles, ricotta mixture, sausage, mozzarella, and sauce twice more.
For final layer, arrange remaining 4 noodles in slow cooker, then top with remaining sauce and sprinkle with remaining mozzerlla and remaining Parmesan.
Cover and cook until lasagna is heated through. About 4hrs on low. Let lasagna cool 20 mins and serve.
Just a random note since this post gets found by Google fairly often (hi, Googlers!), I also did this for a big family meal after my dad’s funeral and it worked out really well. I assembled everything the night before in crockpots and started them when we left for the service. Lasagna is a real crowd pleaser so this makes for an easy way to serve a big crowd.
Winter has come to North Idaho which means no more driving to the cabin; there’s probably 2-2 1/2 feet of snow on the road in some places. In 2011, we were able to drive in for a scant 4 months and 13 days.
Saturday, our friends Terry and Glenn came to visit from Missoula. After we gave them a quick tour of Mullan we decided to head for the cabin. Terry had perused our copy of Woodstove Cooking and was inspired to make dinner for us without the aid of the propane cooktop; he grabbed some tarragon, rosemary, and chicken bullion cubes from the refrigerator and requested a grocery store stop for some chicken and vegetables before we tackled the snowy road. Continue reading “Another cabin trip”