Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Artisan Baking and why I love it

I love baking. Turning the oven on, warming up the house, the wonderful smells that fill the air. Of course in the autumn that means pumpkin, apple dumplings and apple crisp, pear tarts and lots and lots savory things like stews and roasts and casseroles. I have a giant roasting pan that holds enough lasagna for an army and it takes all day to bake. Don't forget roast turkey and chicken and pheasant- the smells coming from roasting birds are just about the best smells of autumn.

And bread. I love love love baking bread. I love bread pans, I love bread machines, I love clay baking stones. I love all of it! The yeasty smell of bread dough is one of my favorite kitchen smells of all. It really doesn't matter to me if it's a yeast bread or a quick bread, muffins or cheesy biscuits, I love baking it. The approaching holidays usually include banana bread, pumpkin bread. Gardens are giving up the last of the zucchini, many of them too big to use for anything but baking. Let's not forget, the holidays are coming- you're going to need lots of dinner rolls for holiday dinner.

Baking also is a way to express yourself, show off your skills. Hence the term artisan. Now some people say it's thrown around too often, too cliche, used for every recipe that is a little off the beaten path. I think some people just have a real deep passion for the food they produce, whether it's bread, cheese, condiments such as mustards and sauces, or charcuterie, just to name a few. I mean come on-artisan cheese? Sign me up! I recently watched an episode of Real Girl's Kitchen and Haylie visited a farm and creamery that made artisan goat cheese. Yum! That is my idea of artisan, and especially bread. Think of the beautiful loaves you see in the windows of bakeries. Long golden baguettes. Round loves of earthy, crusty whole wheat bread. Seeds sprinkled over. Herbs mixed inside. Cinnamon swirled in layers of tender dough. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it!

So I am going to bake some bread. I always have yeast on hand. Flour- check.Whole wheat flour- check. I even have cracked wheat to sprinkle on top. And I think I am going to go artisan and make a beautiful round loaf of crusty bread. Maybe I will even throw a pot of soup. 

To make a really good loaf of crusty bread, you will need-
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (keep it around 100 degrees so you don't kill the yeast)
  • 1 packet active dry yeast or instant yeast
  • 2 tb honey
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 cups all purpose flour, plus more
  • 1 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1-2 tb crushed wheat for sprinkling

In a large bowl combine the water, yeast, honey and stir until dissolved completely. Add salt. NOTE- I was out of honey, so I used a couple tablespoons of sugar.

If you don't have honey, you can use sugar- I had to today.

Combine the flours in another bowl. I wanted an herby bread to go with my dinner so I stirred a couple tablespoons of Penzey's Parisian Herb mix. 

Add to the yeast mixture a cup at a time, mixing well after each cup. The dough is very soft and not a "kneading" type of dough. 

Form dough into a soft ball in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest in a warm spot for 2 hours, or until doubled in size.

Get the oven ready for baking: place one rack in the lowest position and the other in the upper middle. We want our bread to have a crusty and chewy crust and you need steam to make that happen, so place a metal baking pan on the lower shelf. Choose one that holds at least 2 cups of water. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Get your baking pan ready: all I need to do today for this bread is lightly grease the pan.

Now for the dough.  Flour your hands, sprinkle the dough with a teeny tiny bit of flour (remember, it's sticky) and dump it onto prepared pan. With floured hands again, form the dough into a round loaf, or boule as the French would say.

Using a very sharp knife cut three slits in the top of the loaf. Brush or mist the dough very lightly with water and sprinkle with crushed wheat. Let the dough rest for ten minutes while the oven reaches temp. Go ahead and place the pan on the upper rack in the oven, and add at least 2 cups of warm water to the metal pan on the bottom rack. Don't use glass or you might break it and have a real mess.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until deep golden brown and sounds hollow when you tap it. Remove to a rack and cool. You can serve the bread warm but you should let it cool for 10-15 minutes minimum. 

This is the perfect kind of bread for sopping up rich gravies and soup broth. Round loaves are the perfect bread for a party size muffuletta too. I love round loaves of bread because you get more "bread butt" and THAT is the best part of any crusty bread if you ask me. This one took a little more work than the Dutch oven crusty bread I have made but it was still fun, and I'd definitely make it again this way. I hope you give it a try! Be an artisan baker for a day!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fast Food- Thirty Minute Chicken and Noodles

Let's face it, some days all we want is a fast dinner we don't have to fuss with. For some, that means call the pizza man, for others, drive-thru or a deli meal. When you live in the country you often don't have those options. Fast food becomes junk in a box or junk from the freezer. It doesn't HAVE TO be that though. With a little planning when shopping, and a mindfully stocked pantry you CAN get a home cooked meal on the table in thirty minutes or less.

So what is in a mindfully stocked pantry? The basics. Chicken and beef stock. Noodles, pasta and a grain like rice or quinoa. Vegetables. You all know I'm a home canner so I have loads of veggies in the cupboard as well as homemade stocks, but if you don't can, just stock up on a few things your family likes. Some basic seasonings like garlic, onions, a few spices, chicken and beef soup bases. Every kitchen should have a thickening agent- flour or cornstarch, as well as baking basics like brown and white sugar and yeast. Keep a couple packages of easy to cook meats in the freezer/fridge and you're all set!

Faced with starvation this evening, no desire to cook a big dinner, and the closest pizza man an hour away it was up to me to make magic happen in the kitchen with a package of chicken breasts. So..... here is the result of five minutes of assessing the situation and making sure I had what I needed.

Thirty Minute Chicken and Noodles

You will need-
  • 1 package boneless skinless chicken breasts (mine had 3, I'm guessing roughly a pound)
  • 1 one-pound package wide egg noodles
  • 1/2 cup sliced scallions
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • cooking oil
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 4 tablespoons chicken soup base (or 4 cups chicken stock/broth)
  • 1 teaspoon thyme, chopped
  • salt and pepper

Put a pot of salted water on to boil. Cut the chicken breasts into bite-sized cubes. Season with salt and pepper. In a large measuring cup place the flour. Add about 1/4 of water- just enough to mix it with a fork until smooth. Add the chicken soup base and water to make 4 cups. Set aside.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a skillet. I used my new ceramic skillet and it was awesome!! Add half the chicken and saute until browned nicely and cooked through. Remove to a bowl and keep warm. Repeat with remaining chicken.

Add the noodles to the water when it's come to a full rolling boil. Most noodles take 7-9 minutes. Drain and set aside.

After all chicken is cooked, remove from skillet. Add a tablespoon of oil if needed and add the scallions and garlic; reduce heat and cook several minutes until garlic is softened but not browned. Switch to a whisk, stir the water/flour mixture again and add to skillet all at once. Return to higher heat and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened like a gravy. Return the chicken to the pot. Add the noodles. Sprinkle with thyme, mix and serve!

Wasn't that easy? It was super easy and fast, as delicious as something cooked all day and perfect for a cool autumn night. I recommend keeping low salt soup bases on hand because they CAN be pretty salty sometimes, but this was just right. Some buttered green beans and dinner was on the table in the Little Lake House- I kid you not- 24 minutes. Yes, I timed it!In fact, it all came together so quickly, I didn't have time to take many pictures.  Anyone can have 2 pans going at the same time- so give up the garbage food and make your own fast food!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Time for a road trip- Back to the city!

Once in a while...... the city beckons me. On a cold rainy fall day there isn't much to do around here. The garden is done. The leaves are gone. It seems a little desolate at the Little Lake House. What's a former city girl to do? Go on a road trip! Days like this are when the city beckons to me. I have always loved shopping on "crummy weather" days. Everyone else stays home. I don't have to participate in parking lot combat and traffic doesn't seem as bad. Pair that with the middle of the workday, and you have the perfect time to hit the store.

Generally speaking, I hate shopping. I hate the mall. I hate the stores, the pushy salespeople, lugging an arm full of bags around. HATE it. I'm no big fan of grocery shopping either. While it might be fun browsing the produce and different areas of the store, pushing that huge cart, lugging all the bags in the house. Just not fun. Less fun than laundry. Unless........ isn't there always an unless? Unless my grocery shopping trip has taken me to Gateway Market.

If you aren't familiar with Des Moines, Gateway Market is a small, upscale grocery store in the historic Sherman Hill neighborhood. Unlike the big supermarket chains, Gateway features local and organic produce, unique foods, gourmet items, fresh bakery, deli hot case, amazing beer and wine selections and a cafe where you can sit down and enjoy a nice meal and a bottle of wine. In warmer months they have a lovely patio to enjoy. The location is great, Sherman Hill is beautiful and close to downtown. Lots of big beautiful trees line the road and the store is just........heaven.

Walking in the door the first thing you see is the amazing produce. Today they had locally grown hot peppers- Hatch, Scotch Bonnet and ghost chilies (first time I have ever seen ghost peppers in a grocery store), cremini and shiitake mushrooms (score for me on the creminis), several colors of beets, beautiful multi-colored carrots, French fingerling potatoes, Peruvian purple potatoes, many varieties of squash, organic microgreens, and so so so much more. I'm only a few steps in the door! 

Fish tacos are on the menu so the next thing in my cart was a package of gorditas. I thought they would be a nice change of pace from the usual bland tortilla. The gorditas have a heartier texture and are a bit more substantial as well. I think they will be perfect. I have a table filled with garden tomatoes and fresh spinach in the fridge, and jars of salsa so we'll be all set. 

My heart was broken when I saw that the olive bar was disassembled. The olive bar is my sole reason for shopping there! Well, not really, but almost! There are usually about twenty or so different olives on the bar, plus olive combos, salads and Peppadews. Once in a while you will find something really different and exciting like pickled baby pattypan squash. Oh well. Probably just as well. I would have spent a big chunk of cash on tubs of olives.

Craft beers and imports- ice cold and ready to go
Balsamic vinegar has been the topic around here the last couple days, and when it comes to balsamic vinegars, Gateway has a great selection. From the everyday balsamic to the truly special imported bottles, several shelves in the store house several dozen different vinegars. There is an equally, if not more so, impressive selection of olive oils and other unique oils. Looking for truffle oil? You'll find it here. Imported and domestic, you can find an oil in any price range here.

The grocery shelves at Gateway are something to behold. Hot sauces are all the rage right now, and Gateway has a great selection. I was surprised to see pure capsacian extract on the shelf. I've never seen it in a store before. One million Scoville units. Of course, with ghost chilies and Trinidad Scorpion chilies and so on, one million isn't all that impressive ..... with an extract you are adding that to something that's usually already THAT hot...... well, at least that's what ChiliHeads do. Anyway- lots of fun hot and spicy sauces. Lots and lots of interesting Indian foods, most of which were cooking sauces and things like that. A nice selection of Asian ingredients- not as much as an Asian store of course, but enough to make a pretty decent Asian meal. 

Brave enough?
And then........we have the pasta aisle. I didn't get any pictures in the pasta aisle. My hands were restrained by The Chef (just kidding, but you can imagine). I wasn't interested in the dozens of pasta sauces available. Oh no, I was eyeballing the many unique pasta shapes! If you've never heard of it. they have it! I did spy a few familiar faces on the shelf- pappardelle, fusilli, spaghetti, a couple different styles of lasagna and penne rigate. I think I might sneak back there without The Chef and bring a few cool pastas home. I know I can always whip up a fabulous pasta dish no matter what we have in the cupboard.

The Happiest Place on Earth
Just across from the pasta aisle is the Happiest Place on Earth. No, not Disneyland- the wine section! Gateway prides itself on it's amazing wine inventory and knowledgeable staff and rightfully so. Wines are grouped by region and are easy to explore. A tasting bar has something for everyone and will open a bottle you are inquiring about for you to taste. They have a great selection of over 100 imported and craft beers too. Having dinner in the cafe? You can pick a bottle of wine to take over with you- there is never a corkage fee. They will even chill it for you in the express chiller at no extra charge. The cafe is a great spot for a quick lunch or dinner with friends or a casual date.

The wine staff will be happy to open a bottle for you.
Gateway hosts all kinds of fun activities throughout the year as well. Wine tastings and classes, such as Wine 101, provide guests with lots of opportunities to learn and explore new things. Speaking of wine, wine and cheese are a natural pairing and Gateway Market has a full-service cheese department boasting over 200 cheeses. You can have your cheese cut to order, sample different cheeses- both artisan and imported cheeses, and they always make sure to have a great assortment of crackers, and their house-baked South Union baguettes right nearby.  Having the South Union Bakery in the same building is genius. You get the freshest, most incredible breads......just steps from the ovens. I am hopelessly addicted to the bread. The bakery case is also filled with fabulous pastries, cakes, and the most meltingly delicious macarons I have ever had. Today I got Pumpkin Chai Macarons.......ohh my. Heaven!!!

If you ever get a chance, you simply must visit Gateway Market. If you're anything like me, you'll be right at home.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Girl Time- Girls Night Out

Many of us have one of those friends- you know the one, they are family, but not technically, but you find a way to make them family, like their niece is married to my son so that makes us- sisters!! For me that friend is Jessica. Over the years we have enjoyed so many good times together. Concerts, road trips, wine tastings, baking days with a stack of CDs of 70s music, epic marathons of making apple butter, dinner in, dinner out, everything a couple of sisters would do. Like it has a way of happening, life sometimes got in the way. Kids, jobs, busy lives and before you know it you don't spend as much time as you once did. We decided to make time for sister time. Do all the things we used to enjoy so much and make it a point to make time to slow down, catch up and enjoy life. 

We picked a popular local restaurant for our inaugural Sister Date. Since we are both wine enthusiasts we wanted a place where we could get a really good steak, and a really good glass of wine. She suggested John and Nick's, a very nice locally owned restaurant in Clive. That's about the midway point for me driving in and her driving west so it worked out great. I had never been here before and was impressed by the dark woods and cozy atmosphere. Candles on the table warmed the feel of the room and we were seated under a picture of the Eiffel Tower- my dream vacation destination. I liked it already!

The wine list was really pretty good. Now, if you're used to Michelin star restaurants with a sommelier and wine attendants on staff you will not be impressed, but if you are looking for good variety and some really good house wine, the wine list is for you. Jessica chose the house Cabernet. It was big and bold and filled the glass with amazing jammy fruity aromas. It was the perfect wine for a cut of beef like prime rib and was one of the better Cabernets I have had in years. We did ask for the name of the wine, but.......I forgot !!!! Anyway, I chose a Riesling. Yes I knew I'd be having steak for dinner but I don't believe in those stuffy old "rules," I believe in drink what you like when you like however you like. So Riesling it is, and I chose the Kung Fu Girl 2013. I might be a little bit biased because Riesling is my favorite wine, but this one was the best ever. Light and fruity, the perfect blend of tart and sweet, I loved it so much I found a store that sells it and bought more for home!

Like all the old family-owned restaurants here, and maybe everywhere, John and Nick's has the old standby- the salad bar. Normally I stay away from salad bars but theirs was very fresh and inviting. Lots and lots of fresh choices, vegetables, salads, and of course the odd fruity fluffy things I've never quite figured out. But besides the fresh salad and great selection of dressings, I added cubes of cheese and some beautiful olives to my plate. Of course, fresh bread arrived at the table. Some of these old traditions I just really enjoy, and the warm loaf of bread is one of them.

Choosing our entrees was not as easy as I thought it would be. They have a great selection of steaks and prime rib. I chose a New York Strip with crab stuffed shrimp and Jessica went with the prime rib. She ordered hers in a way I had never heard of before- seasoned and seared. It was delicious! Apparently, they slice off your prime rib, season it with their house seasoning, I'm guessing salt, pepper and garlic, and sear it on the grill. Now my Chef says he hates it when people order it that way, but I thought it was absolutely fantastic. My steak was perfectly cooked medium rare and was juicy and expertly seasoned. The crab stuffed shrimp were very good, although I thought they could have used a little bit more of the stuffing. And Jessica's prime rib was perfect as well- I was leery of it being overcooked once it's seared but apparently these chefs make this often- it was the perfect doneness.

No girls night, in or out, is ever complete without dessert. I deferred to Jessica to make the choice- we were both so full (Seriously, us girls are meat eaters. We don't "do" doggie bags.) that we decided to share dessert and she chose the chocolate lava cake. It was as lush and delicious as it was beautiful and we devoured it in no time, of course with a second glass of wine. Dessert and wine just go together.

We have a full lineup of Sister Dates to look forward to- days, nights, even a slumber party! We have wines to drink, movies to watch, dinner to cook, pies to bake, Downton Abbey to watch (from the beginning- I have never seen it) and so much more. Brandy, sherry, port. Beautiful teas and froofy coffees. Our favorite wine movies. Laughs, tears, memories and the kind of love only sisters share.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."