Notebook*: I need an excuse to make these

 I’ve been hanging on to this as a “Draft” for way too long.  Follow ups coming soon!
 

Oatmeal raspberry scones.  Oh yes.

MYOTO (acronym courtesy of Rachael Ray, “make your own takeout”):

Shrimp Brown Fried Rice

Thai Pineapple Fried Rice.  Pair this with some grilled chicken.

 

Because my husband would eat pork every day of his life if that were an option, I should give this Island Spice Pork Tenderloin a try.

Must try cardamom:

Banana Apple Cardamom Cake with Cardamom Icing from FoodBlogga

3/10/10 — finally bought cardamom at World Market.  No more excuses.

 

The mystery that is polenta:

Perhaps doable, a la Molly at Orangette?

Also, Mark Bittman because I appreciate his take.

 

Totally cute entertaining touch:  how to make paper food baskets.

Eggplant:  This Eggplant Parmesan Casserole looks tasty. 

 

OMG, mushrooms.  If only I could get away with this for dinner. 

* Credit to Amy at The Motherload for this fantastic “Notebook” idea!

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Risotto, my love

I might need to add one more point to my last post:  I cook because, well, it’s the most likely way to achieve nirvana.  Or mushroom risotto.  Because, believe you me, they are one and the same.

Once upon a time, I was intimidated by risotto.  What, with the once-hard-to-find grain, the constant stirring, the how-exactly-does-rice-become-creamy? and just WHY do I have to keep the liquid warm before it even hits the pan? I was all afluster (sure, it’s a word!), and I was prepared to close the book on homemade risotto and be content to consider it restaurant-only fare.

And then one day, a prince rode his white horse into my kitchen and saved the day my dear brother came to our house for the weekend and we set to work planning dinner.  At our house, if it’s a Saturday and there’s less than a foot of snow on the ground, “dinner” means The Husband is grilling steak.  The rest of the menu planning might have gone something like this:

Me: “I’m tired of roasted or grilled potatoes — what else goes well with steak?”

Brother: “Grilled veggies? Risotto? Mushrooms?”

At the time, it was late Fall, not a lot fresh veggies were busting out of the crisper drawer, and it was looking to me like potatoes were the likeliest of candidates and the mushrooms, well, they’d be the highlight.  With a dismissive wave of my hand, I puffed: “Risotto? yeahright!”  Ahem. “Grilled potatoes, then?”

Brother: “Wha?!  Risotto’s not hard, Sis.”

Me: “But…the stirring? The creamy?…What kind of rice again? Aw, shucks, we couldn’t…”

Brother: “Shut up. We’re making risotto.”

Or something like that. 

And that very evening, we enjoyed the single most delicious dish I have ever tasted.  And it was that much better because it was homemade.

I am forever grateful to my dear brother for totally demystifying the risotto-making process for me, and I’m happy to report that I’ve made it several times since then–different and delicious each time.  This weekend, I made risotto with button and shiitake mushrooms and felt compelled to extend that little bit of nirvana by commemorating it here.

So here goes!

Grab a couple pots, a skillet, a ladle, a wooden spoon.  (Normally I’m averse to using upward of 3 pans, plus equipment and gadgets, to make one dish, but risotto is a very worthy exception.)

In the medium saucepan, set about 4 cups of chicken stock on low.

In a heavy-bottomed large saucepan (I use something similar to this chef’s pan), melt a few tablespoons of butter over medium to medium low heat.  Soften a diced onion in the butter, maybe 8 minutes or so.  Add a generous cup (I eyeball it) of Arborio rice to the buttery, soft onion, and toast the rice for several minutes, stirring often.  You don’t want to brown anything here, just coat everything with butter and toast lightly. 

With your wooden spoon at the ready, pour in about a half cup (again, I eyeball it) of white wine, stir to keep from sticking, and savor. That 60 seconds after the wine hits the hot pan, blends with the onion and butter, and the alcohol evaporates is one of my very favorite combinations of kitchen sounds and smells.  It is almost as if time stops just then; even my kids will stop their sprint through the kitchen, their ears perked to the sound, their eyes trained on the steam rising from the pan, their little noses searching for the source of that beautiful, fleeting smell.

Anyway!  Once the wine is mostly absorbed, and with your flame at medium low, add a ladle’s worth of the warm stock and stir. 

From here on out, your plan is to stir in a ladleful of stock, be patient while the liquid absorbs and works its magic on those grains of rice, and stir just often enough to keep it from sticking.  Stir, be patient, stir; repeat.

Now, during that “be patient” step, I like to sip wine prep the rest of dinner, and by that I mean season the steak, sauté mushrooms, and make a green veggie.

For this dinner, I sautéed button mushrooms along with rehydrated shiitakes and sprinkled them with salt, pepper and some fresh thyme, and then I pureed half of them with a little stock.   [I know!  The first time I heard of pureeing mushrooms, I think my stomach turned a little–just as much at the thought of fewer of those delicious little bites of perfection for me to actually eat as at the thought of what the final product would look like.  Which, incidentally, is something akin to wet concrete.  Fortunately, it tastes infinitely better than that.]

After about 30 minutes of the stir, be patient, stir routine, you’ll notice that the rice has plumped considerably and has become dreamy creamy. 

Taste the risotto.  (I promise, it will taste better than this picture suggests! Please forgive my ineptitude with the camera…)  It should still have a bite to it, under lovely layers of smooth creaminess.

Now, you could lower the heat add some parmesan, salt and pepper (some folks add a splash of cream here) and consider yourself done.  Or!  You could up the wow factor by, like, a thousand and add those pureed mushrooms and the remaining pile of sautéed ‘shrooms and knock the socks off everyone at your dinner table. 

Because I am absent-minded make embarrassingly dull-looking final plates was starving, I didn’t get a picture of the final dish.  My sincere apologies.  To say it was amazingly delicious is nearly the understatement of the century.  And because I am my own biggest critic, you can be sure that, when I say it was outstanding, I so, so mean it.

Thank you, thank you, dear brother, for setting me straight on the whole risotto thing.  Unlike the brother and sister that currently live in my house, I will not go running to mommy and daddy and tattle because you said “shut up.” 

That is, if you promise to help me figure out that other thing that baffles and intimidates me:  polenta.

Why do I cook?

Why do I cook?  Wait!  Before you click along, I promise this isn’t a whine akin to “why do I bother when my kids won’t eat it anyway?!”  No, this post is more about why I do bother, even when I know my kids or husband or guests or whomever give me that raised-eyebrow “whatever” kind of look. You know the one, right?!

So, why do I cook?

I cook because I can and because I want to.  Thank you to Pam Anderson, Jamie Oliver, home cooks who blog, and so many others for demystifying cooking.  Despite the message that’s broadcast by vast empires of chef gurus out there who constantly launch new lines of cookware, equipment and gadgetry, cooking should not be hard or intimidating.  Cooking is not hard; all you need is basic kitchen, a few utensils and ingredients, and the ability to read and follow simple directions.  What I can create in my own kitchen with five ingredients is infinitely better than something from a chain restaurant that contains ingredients that are more science than they are food.

I cook because I know.  I know what’s in mass-produced, chain restaurant food and boxed or frozen “meals”–and what’s NOT in it–and I know that I can prepare better tasting, more nutritious, more economical meals, on the whole.  I think–I think A LOT–about food: what’s in it, where it comes from, what is nutrient-rich, how it tastes, how to prepare it, who at my table would eat it. Having thought about those whats and whys, I could not in good conscience surrender decisions on all of those questions, on behalf of my family, to a corporate menu-maker on any more than a very limited basis.

I cook because my kids are watching ,and I want them to grow up knowing that anyone can create in the kitchen and that pretty packages on grocery shelves don’t always translate into great food that’s good for you.

I cook because it’s the way I show I care.  I’m not so great with the heartfelt words of support beautifully written in a handmade card.  I’m not so great with traveling at a moment’s notice to celebrate, support, lend a hand.  I’m not so great with throwing a lavish party with a theme and fantastic decorations and a guest list that forgets no one.  But your favorite dinner? Or a box of cookies? Or an apple pie??  Oh, I’m SO there.  THAT I can do.

I cook because cooking is inspiring and creative and, for me, it’s the ultimate reflection of life:  Working in the kitchen is like a microcosm of life.  You pour your heart and your smarts into your creation. You follow the directions, what some know-it-all chef who authored a gem of a book or what hundreds of home cooks have lauded worked or didn’t work for them.  Armed with those directions, you adapt your own circumstances–the freshness of the ingredients, the gas vs. electric range, the oven that runs hot, your focus and attention as the phone rings, you spill something, your children demand snacks or help in the bathroom.  You deal with unforseens the best way you know how, the way your experience and your reading and your intuition have taught you.  You improvise. You create.  And while you have a pretty good idea what you’re going to end up with, you never really quite know until it’s there in front of you.  That first bite might surprise, delight, or embarrass you; it might make you cringe, laugh, or smile.  But you won’t know until you’ve given it all it you can; chances are it won’t look like the photo in the magazine or taste just as you’d imagined it would.  So it is with anything in this life: the outcome is a combination of things we can control and things we can’t, along with a healthy dose of faith.  That’s what I love about cooking: it challenges me to be smart, intuitive, flexible and creative and, when it’s 7 p.m. and we still haven’t eaten dinner, to make the best of whatever it is I’ve made.