Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Brown Beef Stew

Brown is a nice color.
You never see it in a rainbow,
but. . .
Brown is all around. Ground is brown.
Mud puddles are brown.
Mud pies are brown. Mince pie is.
Turkeys are brown.
Turkey is nice and brown.
Brown gravy is nice, too.
Brown bread and brown betty are brown.
Brownies are brown.
Brown elves are brownies.
Brownie girl scouts are brownies, too.
I like brown.
I like brown eyes
and brown
shoes and
brown cows
ad the first day of November.

Did you grow up with this book? What is a Color by Alice and Martin Provensen, from 1967?  Oh, it's so, so good: funny little illustrations of funny little bits of text, interspersed with a moody, saturated spread for each color: "36 baby chicks and four yellow lions" for yellow, "ten thousand policemen" for blue, "five fire engines at a four-alarm fire!!!" for red. And a gentle herd of long-eyelashed cows for brown. When I started reading it to Ben and Birdy, it turned out I still had it memorized from my own childhood.

And I'm thinking of it this morning because this stew is the brownest thing I make; it is, to me, what brown tastes like. The chunks of meat cook forever, and they masquerade as cubes still--you can even spear one with a fork--but then in your mouth they fall into the heap of tangy shreds that they've actually become. A rich, savory sauce clings to everything--the kind that makes you run your finger around the rim of our empty dish and lick it. "Didn't you just remind me to use my fork?" a child might ask you, and you'll just have to shrug and smile the sheepish smile of the hypocrites.

But this stew seems like the perfect gift to give yourself this week: a hearty, warming meal with an absence of fuss--one that can simmer away while you wrap or bake, work or shovel or sit by the fire under a blanket, the house filled with the smell of the fact that later there will be dinner. It is warmth in a bowl, all comforting deliciousness.

Brown Beef Stew
Serves 8
Active time: 40 minutes; total time: 3 hours

This makes a lot. The truth is that we were bringing half of it to a sick friend, and so I took the measurements from that vast amount. But you could easily make half as much--just keep an eye on the liquid, and prepare to add more as it cooks.

4 pounds of beef stew meat, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes (I bought a single piece of chuck and cut it myself)
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced
1 cup red wine
2 cups plain tomato sauce (I use Hunt's) or tomato puree
1 cup broth (I use chicken, though beef might make more sense)
A sprig of thyme and a bay leaf
4 celery stalks, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces, their leaves chopped
6 carrots and/or parsnips, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

Heat the oven to 325.

Season the meat very well with salt and pepper, and sprinkle the flour over all of it, tossing the cubes to coat them. It's okay if some cubes are flourier or saltier than others; it will all even out in the pot.

In a large Dutch heat half the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking, then
brown the meat well on as many sides as is reasonably possible. This is the only part of this dish that's a bit of a pain, and it just is what it is: you will need to do the meat in batches, adding more oil at some point, because if you crowd it then it will steam instead of browning properly. I do the meat in 2 1/2 batches: I add the onions to the pan with the final half batch of meat and stir and brown them while the meat is doing its thing across the way. Tongs are good for flipping the meat over, and you can adjust the heat if the meat is either not browning properly or if anything seems to be burning. Also, and I swear this is the last thing I'm saying about this, I actually deglaze the pan between batches because otherwise the bottom of my pot seems to burn: so after the first batch of meat is done, I pour half the wine into the pot, swirl it around and scrape with a spatula to get up all the nice stuff from the bottom, then pour it into the dish with the already-browned meat and heat more oil for the second batch, which I do the same way. Honestly, you're talking about a twenty-five minute investment in browning for immeasurable stewy pleasure later on. It's totally worth it.

Have you already browned the onions by now? If not, add another splash of oil to the pot and brown the onions for 5 or 10 minutes until they are nicely colored. Add the meat and its juices back to the pot, along with whatever wine you haven't used yet, the tomato sauce, the broth, the herbs, and the remaining vegetables. Bring to a simmer over high heat, then press a large piece of parchment down onto the surface of the stew--the paper should come up far enough that the lid will hold it in place--and cover the pot with a heavy lid. (If you don't have any parchment, skip this step, but expect to add more liquid at some point as more will evaporate).

Cook the stew in the oven for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is fork tender, checking on it every now and again to make sure that the liquid isn't on the verge of being entirely evaporated; if it is, add more broth or a cup of water. After it's cooked, taste the stew and add salt if it needs it, which it might or might not, depending on your broth.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Apple Pie Tutorial

I have written before, I know, about Michael's New Year's resolutions and their amazing, er, concreteness. And so, with the end of the year looming suddenly, and with apple season in full, fragrant swing, Michael decided to learn how to bake a pie crust. Which was the entirety of his personal goals for 2010. Of course, fulfilling his resolution presented a direct challenge to one of my own: patience. I am just not that patient a teacher sometimes. Michael has these beautiful hands, these intuitive massage-therapist hands that work magic on the bodies of people in pain, people in need, people looking for the kind of experience that makes you groan, one minute into it, "Never stop. Oh, I'm already sad about the fact that you're going to stop at some point." Honestly. And yet in the context of the pie crust, it was as though he suddenly had ten thick sausages stapled to his palm. "Gently!" I admonished him, more than once, and he said, sheepish, "I'm trying." I'm sure it didn't help that I was snapping a million pictures, or just snapping in general.

And yet: he found the overall experience to be a positive one, and he was thrilled with the finished pie which looked, there's no way around it, like a specimen from a magazine cover (or centerfold). And it tasted even better.

As I was teaching him, though, I started to understand pie crust's bad reputation for making people feel incompetent and afraid. There's a lot of that kind of hazy "not too much. . . but not too little. . ." precision that throws everybody. You want to mix the butter into the flour just enough; you want to add just enough water; you want to work it just enough. I know. It's a little stressful, and I tend to offer recipes here that are much more like, "between 1 and 16 tablespoons of butter" or "walnuts or pecans or something else crunchy that's not even a nut if you want." But if you are new to pie crusts and want to try making one, you should; this is as hand-holding a recipe that there could be for pie, and I'm happy to entertain any questions in the comments section here. If you need to, you can even fax me a photograph of your pea-sized butter bits so I can say, "Yes. Exactly like that. Good job, sweetheart." And then you can head into the holiday pie season full of the confidence of the capable pie-makers.

Apple Pie Tutorial
Serves 8
Active time: 1 hour; total time: 2 hours

You could make this crust with all butter, if you prefer, but I make it this way--with (non-hydrogenated) shortening--because it's my mom's crust recipe and that's how she makes it (though now we both use lard when we can get away with it). Also, if you must add spices--I think that cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves are the classic apple-pie trifecta--go for it. But don't come grumping to me when you can't taste the apples.

For crust:
3 cups of flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
2 sticks of butter (mine is salted), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 tablespoons of shortening or lard (I was feeding vegetarians and used shortening. Sigh.)
2/3 cup ice water (put some ice in the water, and when you're ready to use it, fish out the ice and measure the water)

For filling:
7 apples, peeled, cored, and sliced fairly thin
1/2-3/4 cup sugar, depending on how tart your apples are (we used 3/4, and I think I was the only person who thought it was a hair too sweet)
2-3 tablespoons flour (we used two, and our filling was on the juicy side, but that's how I like it; if you want perfect slices, with all the apples lining up like little beige mosaic tiles, use 3)

For egg wash:
1 egg, beaten

To make the crust:

Mise en pie.

Butter cutter.
Food processor method: Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of your food processor, then distribute the butter and shortening over it. 

Sandy pebbles.
Pulse for a second or two at a time, 5 or 6 times, and then check to see what it looks like: you want to see a mix of butter sizes at this point: some should be the size of peas or even a little bigger, like, hm, the tip of your thumb, say, and some should be mealy and crumbly looking. If you see giant pieces of butter at this point--the size of dice still--then pulse a couple more times. Those butter pieces are going to create the flakes, though, so be judicious. Now dump the mixture into a large bowl, and proceed from the asterisk, below.

By-hand method: Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl, and distribute the butter and shortening over it. Use a pastry blender or your fingertips to work the fat and flour together. For the former, you're on your own, since I've never used a pastry blender; for the latter, you want to lift handfuls of the mixture up out of the bowl, then gently let it fall through your fingertips as you rub it lightly together. Eventually, you'll have a bowl full of clumpy lumps, some the size of peas or fingertips, some the size of fish-tank gravel and cornmeal, and this is perfect. You don't want to spend too long doing this, or the crust will be tough and unflaky; nor do you want the fat left so big that when you go to roll out it sticks all over the place and you curse me.
Stirring in the drizzled water.
* Now, whichever method you've used, drizzle the ice water over the flour and fat mixture, and stir it with a fork until it starts to cling together in shaggy crumbs. Gather a little clump in your hand and squeeze: if it creates a shaggy dough, you're good to go; if it seems to dry to stick together, then drizzle another tablespoon or two of water over it, stir, and try again (this part's a bit tricky: too little water, and the dough will crack and break as you try to roll it; too much and your crust will be tough). 
Gathering up the dough.
Dump it onto your clean countertop and gently gather it into two balls, squeezing and pressing and very slightly kneading just enough to hold it together. 

Flatten each ball into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it while you prepare the filling.

To make the filling:

Peeling and slicing the apples.
In a large bowl, sprinkle the flour and sugar over the apples, and use your hands to combine. There. That was totally straightforward, right?

Heat your oven to 425 and roll the dough:

Rolling in the deep.
Sprinkle your clean, dry counter with flour, put an unwrapped disk of dough down, sprinkle it with more flour, and use a rolling pin to roll it thin. The thing is, this is more dough than you'll actually need, so the size is less important here than thinness. It should be about as thick as, geez, metaphors are eluding me. Glove leather? I don't have leather gloves, but I once did. About an 1/8th of an inch is what you're going for. Roll from the center out to the edges, pressing as evenly as you can to make a roundish shape, and checking to be sure the dough is not sticking beneath; sprinkle more flour as you need to, but cheat it as much as you can (sticking is a disaster, but too much flour will make a tough crust). If the dough tears, wash your hands and dry them, sit on the couch for a minute to take a few deep breaths, then patch it as best you can.


When the dough is rolled out, fold it loosely into quarters, center the point in the bottom of your pie plate, and unfold it. Now lift the edges as you use the flat of your hand to press the dough down into the pan--that is, you don't want to just press down, or you'll tear it, so you want to offer it some slack and a certain generosity of spirit. 
When the plate is lined, use a pair of clean scissors or a knife to trim it, leaving about an inch of overhang to make the fluted crust.

Roll out the top crust in the exact same way, then dump the apple filling into the pie plate, center the point of the folded-into-quarters top crust on top of it, and unfold it. Trim the overhang to match the one below it, then brush some water where the top and bottom crusts meet and press gently to seal. 
Tuck the overhang underneath itself (I realize, looking at the pictures, that Michael folded it up over itself, and this worked fine too) all the way around the crust to make a thick lip, then flute the rim by pressing it with your thumbs and index fingers all the way around. (You could crimp it with a fork instead, which might be a look you have some affinity with from your own childhood.)

Use a sharp knife to cut 4 or 5 2-inch vents in the top crust (to let the steam escape!), then brush the crust and edge all over with the egg wash. 
If you like, cut some of the leftover dough scraps to make decorations: apples, say, or leaves. I always roll up a little rose shape, because that's what my mother always did.
Bake the pie in the middle of the oven for 25 minutes, then turn the oven down to 375 and bake for another 30 minutes, until the crust is nicely browned and you can see the apple filling bubbling away through the vents. If the edges threaten to burn at any point, you can wrap a strip of foil around them, which is kind of a pain, but works. (I tented my little rose with foil for the last 10 minutes or so--though I think it actually would have been fine.) Cool the pie on a rack before showing if off and devouring it.

p.s. Gather the leftover scraps into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate. When you've recovered from the pie experience, you can let your kids roll them out to make little jam tarts and chocolate chip pastries. Maybe I'll post a few pictures of this activity later in the week. . . 

Lemony Broccoli Pasta with Chicken

Lemony Broccoli Pasta with Chicken
Serves 4-6
Total time: 30 minutes

Wildly nutritious broccoli gets a starring role in this zingy, substantial pasta dish. For the highest yum factor, try to get your hands on a bunch of super-freshly grown broccoli--and don't discard the stems! Peeled and sliced, they add a sweet, mild crunch to this lightly sauced and deeply flavorful pasta.

12 ounces dried pasta shapes (fusilli, wagon wheels, rotini, etc., ideally whole-wheat)
1 pound (4 small or 2 large) skinless, boneless chicken breasts, preferably naturally raised
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter (divided use)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, pressed through a garlic press
1 large bunch broccoli, stems peeled, and stems and florets cut into small pieces
1 cup chicken broth
Juice and finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped and toasted at 350 for 5 minutes
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Bring a large pot of pasta-cooking water to a boil and salt it heavily: it should taste as salty as seawater. Cook the pasta (if you add it when the chicken is about half cooked, the sauce and pasta will be done at the same time), drain it, and return it to the pot with 3 tablespoons of the butter.

Pat the chicken dry and season on both sides with salt and pepper. In a very large skillet, heat the olive oil and remaining 1 tablespoon of butter over medium-high heat until foamy and very hot, then add the chicken and sauté until well browned and cooked through, around 4 minutes per side (thicker breasts may take longer; turn the heat down as needed to keep the chicken from burning). Remove the chicken to a cutting board.

Turn the heat to low and add the garlic to the pan, stirring for a few seconds until it is fragrant but not browned, then add the broccoli, the broth, and 1 teaspoon of salt, stirring to dissolve the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan, turn the heat up to medium, and cook/steam until the broccoli is just tender: 3-4 minutes. Add the chicken, which you've sliced thinly, back to the pan, along with the lemon juice and zest, the walnuts, and the buttered pasta, and stir to combine well (if the skillet isn't large enough, combine in the pasta pot). Now taste a piece of pasta: it should be lemony and flavorful; add more salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. Stir in the parmesan cheese, then serve, passing more parmesan at the table.

Hummus Among Us

It all started with a pita the size of a car tire. No. It started before that, in Target, where I'd taken the kids on an errand, even though it was such a beautiful Sunday morning, and driving to the mall was a strange and guilty pleasure. But a "quick" trip to Target is about as likely a "quick" trip to Kathmandu. Finding what we were looking for was easy--though I have to be cagey about it, since it's for Michael, and no, it's not barbeque-related, but, yes, there was plenty of barbeque-related merchandise laid out for people like us to buy for people like him for a particular upcoming necktie-themed holiday, if you know what I'm saying. It's the things we weren't looking for that took so long--the toy aisle, which sings its siren song to the kids, and where they remained for years on end while solar-powered strings of patio tree lights sang their own special siren song to me (too expensive, sigh) until I finally plopped down into a comfy demo lawn chair and waited for them while my beard grew down past the outdoor furniture aisle and through electronics and finally out into Joann's Fabrics next door. By the time the kids were done ("Save your money," I counseled wisely, "and if you wake up still thinking about those pet shop critters, we'll come back.") we were all starving to death.

Food shopping while starving to death--now that's as sensible, really, as a "quick" trip to Target on a glorious spring day. Nevertheless, there we were, in the Turkish market that I had been meaning to investigate since it opened a few months ago. Everything looked good to us--from the Armenian string cheese to the dill-flecked tzatkiki to the barrel-sized jars of pickled peppers (okay, those looked good only to me). Instead, we got a quart of local strawberries, a jar of roasted-pepper relish (see picture at right) and a still-warm pita bread the size of a car tire. The kids grew a bit unravelish in line, and suggested we get some hummus (there was a sample out, and it was, indeed excellent)--but hummus? I can make hummus with both hands tied behind my back and a pair of hungry children watching hungrily.

And so, inspired by the Wheel-of-Fortune pita and our beckoning picnic table and the children's "utter starvaciousness," as Ben put it, that little chip off the exaggerative block, I did. Homemade hummus is both excellent and wildly inexpensive. Plus, you can keep all the ingredients on-hand, and you can make it just the way you like it. For me, and I realize this is heresy, that means no tahini. Tahini is a middle-Eastern sesame paste, and while I love everything middle Eastern when middle Eastern folks make it for me, tahini in my own home always tastes exactly like the dust that has been scraped off of a fossil of prehistoric cave-dwelling sesame seeds. I dutifully added it to my hummus years ago, as it was called for in every recipe, but have been secretly winnowing down the amount ever since until I have finally come up with my ideal measurement: zero tablespoons. I know.

But I do use plenty of olive oil and lemon juice and garlic and salt, because if it's not super-vibrantly seasoned, then hummus, even without tahini, tastes like the dust you scraped off of a fossilized can of chickpeas. And if I have fresh mint, I use that too (if I don't, I add a bit of lemon zest instead). Plus, I add a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses, which is a deliciously tart syrup you can buy at middle-Eastern markets or even at Whole Foods, and which can be stirred into seltzer to make a refreshing drink (but if you don't have any, just use more lemon to taste). The other hummus trick is to make sure you move past the super-grainy stage to the super-creamy one, which you do by adding a bit of warm water. Easy.

Homemade hummus is zingy and wholesome, and it makes an ideal lunch-box addition with a handful of carrot sticks and pita chips. Our kids love it (which is more than they could say about the red-pepper relish), but if yours are squeamish about trying it, well, you know what I'm going to say: Butt-pea Paste. What could sound better?

Hummus Among Us
Makes about 2 cups
Total time: 5 minutes

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 teaspoon kosher salt (use more or less, depending on how bland your chickpeas start out)
Juice of half a lemon (plus some of its grated zest if you don't have any herbs)
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses (or skip it and add more lemon juice to taste--just don't substitute regular molasses, which is nothing like it!)
A few fresh mint sprigs, finely chopped (parsley is good too, but I didn't have any)
1/3 cup flavorful olive oil
Hot water (about 2 tablespoons)

In the bowl of a food processor with the metal blade, whir together the chickpeas, garlic, salt, lemon juice (and zest), pomegranate syrup, and mint, stopping to scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula, until the mixture makes a coarse mash. With the motor running, drizzle the olive oil through the feed tube until the mixture is smooth. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula, then, with the motor running again, drizzle in hot water, tablespoon at a time (up to 3 tablespoons), until the mixture turns very creamy.

Crunchy Oven Fries

Ben is ten, and he asks many questions that begin this way: "If you had limitless wishes…" What would you wish for first? (Justice.) How many wishes do you think it would be before you wished that poop didn't smell bad? (Never. Poop smells bad so we'll stay away from it, which helps keep us healthy.)Which wish do you think would go the least like you'd meant it to? (No mosquitoes. Then all the bats would die and the world would fall apart and it would turn into one of those King-Midas stories where you feel like a greedy, foolish jerk.) There are many related questions of the if-you-could-have-anything sort. For instance, this is a popular one: If you could change one unhealthy food to being healthy, what would you pick? Beer? That just doesn't seem like the right thing to say to a child. But then again, Most of the foods I like are already healthy feels like a smarmy Polyanna Granola cop-out. Jalapeno Bottle Caps feels short-sightedly specific, even though our local brew-pub's batter-fried pepper rings may be the junk food I crave most often. But then fried foods is deemed too general. ("Even though you and Birdy both said candy?" "Yes.") So I usually pick French fries.

And I'm seeing the way this story should go: this column should be of the wish-fulfillment sort: And look, now French fries can be healthy! But that's not quite how it's going to be. True, you make these with the skins still on, thereby keeping intact much of the potato's nutritional value. And you use healthy oils, thereby making the most of the grease factor. Plus, I'd always rather see oil amounts in tablespoons rather than quarts. Those are all good things. But, though baked in the oven, these are hardly dietetic. What they are, though, is soul-satisfyingly good. Deeply crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Salty and garlicky and addictive and just totally French-fry-like. They are not at all like those false-promise oven fries that are as limply disappointing as fat-free nuts (if there were such a thing as fat-free nuts, believe me--they'd be disappointing). Oh, they are so good, these fries. If they are a component of a healthy meal, you will feel happy about them. If instead you cave to the pressure of your own craving and make them as an after-school snack and serve them with chipotle mayonnaise, your children will still be too full, even hours later, to eat their lentil soup. "Life is short, eat dessert first." That's a slogan we saw over the weekend and Ben said, "Yeah, and then you'll never actually get to the healthy stuff, and life will be really short." Indeed.

A quick recipe note: I hate to run a recipe that requires a microwave, but I haven't tried making these without that step. Which is funny, given that we are still using Michael's late grandmother's microwave, which is like a cross between a slow cooker and a bug zapper--not in a good way. Also, nuking plastic wrap is not my idea of a good time. If you didn't microwave them, I imagine that the potatoes would still cook through, but they'd be less fluffy inside, and if you try it, please let me know. Likewise, please let me know if you make these with sweet potatoes. Sweet potato fries is another favorite around here. They'd be in at least my top 25 for foods I'd wish were healthy.

Crunchy Oven Fries
This recipe is adapted from America's Test Kitchen, from a recipe that uses all vegetable oil, more garlic, and more seasonings overall (including garlic powder, which seems redundant to me). We ate these with chipotle mayonnaise: a third of a cup of Hellman's (or Best Foods) full-fat mayonnaise, whisked up with a spoonful of chipotle puree, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a bit of salt. Heaven.

4 garlic cloves (or 1 garlic clove the size of a baby's fist), smashed, peeled and pressed through a garlic press or finely chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes (about 3 or 4)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Heat oven to 475. Quarter the potatoes lengthwise, then cut each quarter further into 3 or 4 skinny, even wedges.

Combine the garlic and oil in a large bowl and microwave until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour off most of the oil onto a rimmed baking sheet, and tilt the sheet to coat it; you will leave behind the garlic with around 1 tablespoon of oil in the bowl, and this is just right.

Add the potatoes to the bowl and use a rubber spatula to toss and coat them with the oil and garlic. Wrap the bowl tightly in plastic wrap and microwave on high power until the potatoes are translucent around the edges, 3 to 6 minutes, shaking the bowl to redistribute the potatoes halfway through cooking.

Combine the cornstarch, salt, pepper, and cayenne in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the hot potatoes and toss well to coat. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and bake, turning once, until deep golden brown and crisp, 30 to 40 minutes (I flip them after 15 minutes). Drain briefly on brown paper bags, then serve hot.