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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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    Copyright 2008-2019Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Three-Hour Sourdough

Three Hour Sourdough

I love sourdough–eating it, anyway. Baking? That’s enough of a challenge that I’m elated when it turns out relatively edible. Because even with my standards, which are a bit loose, there are times when the outcome is decidedly not up to expectations. I have trouble getting the dough risen well enough and into the oven before the acid chews up all the gluten. In other words, it tends to overproof and then flop. Few of my loaves–I can face it–have ended up risen enough to consider serving other people, and most of them are a bit coarse inside–partly because I want rye or whole wheat rather than just white bread.

The other challenge is the perennial one for sourdough cultures–it takes several days to build a decent-tasting and stable mix of flour, water, wild yeast and lactobacillus culture with no undesirable bugs or off-flavors and odors. And in the meantime most instructions tell you to take a small bit of the mixture, feed it fresh water and flour, and toss the majority. Wasteful–both of ingredients and time.

So for the past year or so I’ve wondered whether I couldn’t somehow just get a running start past all that by using commercial yeast (a big no-no according to sourdough experts) with some commercial lactobacillus culture–yogurt, maybe?–and flat-out cheating. As in, faux dough. Well, more precisely, perfectly real dough, with a real-enough sourdough taste and texture, only about 4 2/3 days faster. At least. Without just caving and paying 6 bucks at Whole Foods for a small decorator loaf.

Yesterday I wondered it strongly enough to hunt around online and see if the yogurt idea had occurred to anyone else–and it had.

Ladyandpups.com is the food blog of a sometimes cranky, sometimes poetic, impressively prolific and creative baker named Mandy Lee. She has a “fraudulent easy sourdough” recipe that uses more than a cup of plain yogurt with a small amount of yeast and 3.5 cups of bread flour–no added water, apparently–and some salt for a firm dough that rises either 18 hours at room temperature (1/4 t active dry yeast) or 6 hours (3/4 t. yeast) and comes out tasting right and looking beautiful and crackle-crusted via the Jim Lahey no-knead-but-preheat-the-dutch-oven method.

And that’s all to the good.

But I’m even more impatient than that, and most of my sourdough faux pas have to do with letting the dough sit too long before baking. Even a 6-hour rise seems like too much. I also wanted a whole-wheat sourdough (so half whole wheat, half bread flour), which means it’s already comparatively gluten-challenged. So I wanted a really short, sharp rise that would get the dough puffed up and bakeable before the acid got to the gluten too badly. With luck, the yeast would win out just enough to outpace the acid buildup and resulting hopeless flop, but still allow enough to develop a good tang, which is the whole point of sourdough in the first place.

That meant changing things a bit:

1. Less yogurt, only about half what Lee calls for–half would still have plenty of lactobacillus culture to reproduce, but wouldn’t contribute as much acid right up front.

2. Some water to dilute the initial acidity further to delay the inevitable gluten-chewing effect. More water also gets the dough smoother and the gluten developing more quickly even when there’s no acid-producing bacteria to worry about. That’s an added benefit since I was going whole-wheat.

3. Not too much yeast either. Normally, adding more yeast means getting a faster rise. But even 1/4 t. is about what I usually go with for a slower-rising dough with 5-6 cups of flour, and that only takes 3-4 hours to more than double in my kitchen, at least with a hot rise. I didn’t want so much extra yeast at the start that it outcompeted and inhibited the lactobacilli from the yogurt altogether, because no sour culture equals no sour flavor. Continue reading

Color and Taste

We have a week and a half before Passover, and I’ve been experimenting a little with the foods I have to use up before then–flours, beans, lentils and spices.

I also–help! got “gifted” an awful lot of leftover vegetabalia from my daughter’s youth group director after last week’s major fundraiser, a huge Harry Potter-themed congregational dinner (Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them, still quite a popular title) that brought in nearly 200 diners and was frankly amazing.

bulk sacks of celery and onions

This is just the smaller bag of onions, along with way too much celery…

I managed to donate an entire 25-pound sack of onions to a local food pantry, but got another 10 pounds as a reward, along with two caterer’s packs of organic celery–that’s six full-sized heads–a huge box of organic mesclun that leaked horrible brown liquid in the shopping bag, so I composted it rather than trying to use any.

too much garlic

Worst of all….a 5-pound box of peeled garlic cloves. Which looked well-sealed and fine if ridiculous.

I looked squint-eyed at the youth director, who had such a hopeful wheedling expression on her face:  You like vegetables, you believe in garlic, could you please, please take it? Please?

Oy. By the end of a 10-minute ride home it was definitely reeking up my car. Why? Because the garlic cloves themselves were prepeeled, which always seems like such a bright idea to caterers and those who aspire to buy big. They were also machine-peeled, so some were cut into, hence the reek. And I mean, 5 pounds? I grabbed a modest handful of uncut cloves, rinsed them carefully, stuck them in a baggie and froze them. I had to toss out the rest of the box immediately. In the outside trash bin. Well wrapped.

In using the few cloves I kept, I’ve discovered I’m not wrong–looks really aren’t everything. The garlic itself, fresh or frozen, is impressive in size but very different from the usual small tight heads of garlic I buy for myself–harsher and yet less intense, lacking the warm flavors that make garlic garlic to me. So I’m going back to the real thing, peels and all.

In the meantime, I’ve been practicing my microwave not-chicken soup skills, along with testing the microwaveability of matzah balls–yes, you kind of can, they just won’t be spherical–which means we may all be sick of soup by the actual seder. Oh, no!

And while distracting myself from doing taxes, I’ve been looking for inspiration on another library cookbook binge. I drift by the New Books section and get caught by the new cookbooks with all the pretty colors–purple soup? red and yellow nasturtium blossoms on a salad? Bright green or pink or charcoal-gray (literally, as it turns out, using bamboo charcoal powder) shu mei wrappers?

As with the caterer’s box of garlic, though, looks can be deceiving.

I snatch up the books; I check them out, I lug them home and marvel at all the photographic bravura on my desk. Most of them are unexecutable in my kitchen because I don’t have a stick blender or enough counter space to do the fancy dim sum wraps justice. And some of them feature pork belly or crabmeat or other unkosher items.

Mostly, I look through the ingredients list and wonder mightily if they actually taste as impressive as the colors suggest, or if it’s all just for Instagram-worthy photos.

Love Italian Food (Maddalena Caruso, 2014) is a good case in point. Gorgeous photo of three technicolor puréed soups–cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage with purple potato. I’m stunned by the purple velouté. But reading through I get cautious and skeptical. I want cream of red cabbage soup to taste amazing if it’s going to be that color and topped with a pale-jade romanesco floret. Caruso says it tastes peppery from the red cabbage; she adds purple potatoes for body and further color, some chicken broth, salt and pepper. She simmers the cabbage only 10 minutes or so before blending–hopefully that keeps it from going sulfurous. It might be good. It might be too subtle for me. I might have expected some lemon for the mild acidity that will keep the cabbage pigments from turning blueish-green. Or basil and garlic pesto. Maybe something smoky–smoked paprika? Or hot peppers and toasted sesame oil? Something.

I nuked a wedge of chopped red cabbage one recent afternoon to test the concept. It wouldn’t really blend smoothly in my food processor, and on its own, the purple mash smelled distinctly sour and a bit dank, lightly cooked as it was. It might combine well with other ingredients, but it wasn’t obvious that it would. Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: Black Beans

microwaved black beans

Cooking seasonally is a tricky thing–especially if your season currently includes hurricanes or extreme heat. Pasadena has finally cooled down to 80s/90s with a bit of cloud cover, but last week’s 105-degree afternoons were a serious challenge. It was so bad the only time to go out for a walk was about 5:30 in the morning. Hard to think school has been in session for a month, it’s already September, and Rosh Hashanah is a week and a half away. Running the oven is, to put it bluntly, not an option, and the stove top isn’t much better in my small and easily overheated galley kitchen.

Microwaving is a powerful way to cut the time and pain (and airconditioning bills) for bulk cooking of things like vegetables, rice, pasta…and dried beans, which are much cheaper and more versatile (and much lower in sodium) than canned. Make a bean stew or chili and you can zap a portion of it at will later in the week. Plus bean salads can be served cold–a plus for weeks like the ones we’ve had recently.

But for microwaving, you usually have to adjust whatever method is spelled out in a recipe to your oven, your containers, your food quantities. Microwave times are sensitive to all of those factors, plus how much water you have (water’s the main molecule microwave radiation acts on) and whether or not you’ve got a lid.

Most people don’t try to make changes based on their first-run results and most cookbooks never really explain how to make useful adjustments. Predictably, most microwave cookbooks end up in the Last Chance bin at your local Friends of the Library booksale.

It’s a shame, because once you’ve got your timing and so on down, you can repeat it with reliable results.

Over the years I’ve posted basic heat-to-simmer-and-let-sit-to-absorb microwave methods for cooking split peas, chickpeas, lentils and other bulk dried beans. Lentils and split peas always did work out well without needing to soak them first–they tend to be easier to cook quickly by standard stovetop boiling too. Chickpeas work okay if you presoak them or hot-soak in the microwave (heat briefly in water just to cover, let stand 15 minutes or so and let them swell up) before the main cooking, and adding a dash of baking soda to the soak water really helps. Same with gigantes (giant favas)–which I’ve now decided cook better with the skins left on, same as if you were boiling them, and they’re certainly a lot quicker and easier to peel afterward–also more fun.

But some beans just seem to toughen if you don’t presoak overnight or if you microwave them too long. Black beans and kidney beans have given me more trouble than they seem to be worth–and I’m a bit reluctant to post this because it’s fussier than I like to admit even after adjusting the method successfully. Microwaving isn’t supposed to take more time and fuss than straight boiling on a stove, or working with a pressure cooker, if you have and trust yourself with one.

But this is a good illustration of how to use a microwave as a workaround when you don’t, and it shows you how you might think about making adjustments based on what the food is doing or not doing.

I microwave because I want something relatively safe, that doesn’t heat up the kitchen, and that turns itself off when done because, let’s face it, I’d rather be reading or writing than waiting for a pot of water to boil or jumping up at the whistle to avert an explosion. And I want the beans properly cooked and tender in less total microwave time at the least and without having to boil them afterward on the stove. I’ve done that before and I’ll probably do again if it ever cools down enough, but I’d rather not have to. The prior microwaving steps still shorten the stovetop time to maybe half an hour, but really, I’d rather it were all microwave, no fuss (I can dream, can’t I?)

So after a rethink of my previous methods, I’ve made some changes to the way I cook black beans from scratch by microwave. It also works for things like brown rice, steelcut oats, and other tough, uncut, unpeeled whole grains like farro or pearl barley when you’ve forgotten to put them up for soaking overnight, and at least for the rice it’s quicker than the 45 minutes or so of my previous brown rice method–maybe 20-30 minutes for a pound or two of brown rice. For the beans, maybe an hour of time total, with sitting and rechecking. Maybe less if your beans are fresh enough and/or you remembered to soak them overnight first.

Cracking the method

It starts with the water. I had been covering a pound of dried beans (or brown rice) with more than an inch of water and heating it all, or else heating that much water by itself (more than a quart) and then tipping in the rinsed beans to soak for a bit. But since the water molecules are what the microwave heats up first for preference, the more water you have, the longer it takes for the Continue reading

Chickpea Crêpes, Masala Dosa style

instant dosas with chickpea flour, ground rice and yogurt

Project 1 of Panic Week: “instant” dosas made with chickpea flour, rice and yogurt. The heavy dose of mustard seed and black pepper is surprisingly good.

Planning the cooking for Passover usually means thinking about the week itself, buying matzah and gefilte fish and horseradish and so on. But for me, it also means using up the open bags of flour, beans, rice and pasta, plus whatever yogurt, cheese and milk I have left, and yet not overdosing on starches. And I’ve just gotten the taxes done, so it’s time to look in the fridge and panic.

We’ve got just over a week to go before Passover, and there’s still a lot of chametz in the house…a pack of fillo (luckily only one), a pound each of dried chickpeas and red lentils, a bag of mung beans I don’t really know how to use, some rice, a bowl of dough…wonton wrappers. Chickpea flour! Rye flour! Why did I leave it all this long [breaks down and bangs head against wall for a second]?

I don’t usually want to cook or serve that much starch in a single week, but at least most of it is legumes with some fiber and protein. So I’ve been thinking about foods–both chametz and not-chametz–that don’t have to be devastating dietwise or empty your wallet or take forever and a half to cook.

Because even with snow on the ground all over the east coast, where my mom and my sister and most of my old friends are still shoveling it out of their driveways this late in March, Pesach is coming. And then maybe an actual spring with shorts weather? We can only hope! Time to lighten up in anticipation.

This week I’ve decided to post the chametz countdown (aka, “Panic Week”), and the next week or so, a couple of attempts at a Pesach week with mostly fresh, simple foods and a lot more vegetables, and without the usual total matzah-on-eggs-on-more-starch-and-potatoes-and-choke-cake-and-too-many-canned-macaroons kind of meal plan…can it be done? I think so. As long as I don’t let my husband do the shopping. Can it be done in a microwave? I’m counting on it.

Anyway–back to the Panic Week Project. First up, the chickpea flour and rice…as a batter for on-the-spot masala dosas. Continue reading

New hope for lowering arsenic levels in rice

A new study has identified a key protein in rice plants that allows some varieties to keep any absorbed arsenic safely contained in a separate part of the plant from the grain itself. The authors are hoping to introduce the gene for this highly effective transporter protein into plant strains that don’t have much of it and see whether the new genetic hybrids can reduce the arsenic level in major rice crops.


Taking the chaos out of batch cooking

When my husband and I were much younger, we stayed a week with the children of some friends who wanted to go off skiing on spring break. In preparation, the mother batch-cooked a huge dutch oven each of chicken breasts and brisket for the week–just for their two young children and us. She left elaborate instructions about how to reheat it (I’m not sure she trusted us to know how to cook anything). I can tell you that even in my 20s I thought that was an awful lot of meat, and by the end of the week we were really, really tired of it. Even the kids.

On the other hand, a friend out here who has something in the range of adult ADD has a hard time cooking anything that takes longer than about 5 minutes because she’s so easily distracted she forgets to eat. Keeping track of multiple cooking steps  is genuinely daunting to her, as it is for many people with ADD and ADHD. She’s taken the expensive brown-rice-bowls and organic-microwaveable-freezer-meals-for-one route (keeping brand names out of it for the moment) but wishes she could find a better and cheaper way to deal with dinner. I suspect she wishes my east coast friend could supply her with a couple of dutch ovens’ worth of meals…

I bring up these two friends because lately I’ve started running across Meals-for-a-Month how-to books. They pop up every once in a while in the cookbook aisles of your favorite bookstore (or the 641 section of your local library). They’ve been reappearing since at least the early 1970s, when a major recession under Nixon led people to rethink their household budgets. Now these books are back in “For Dummies” and “Everything” versions, complete with tie-ins to About.com and other popular web portals.

The basic premise sounds ideal: shop and cook just once a month, the books promise, and you get a month of frozen real-food reheat-and-serve meals at your convenience, and you still save money. I keep hoping there’s some kind of solution in them for people short on time, cash and kitchen tolerance, but so far I’ve been disappointed.

Read one of these books and you quickly realize why almost no one follows them for long. First, if you hate to cook, you’re going to hate cooking marathons even more. Especially if they look like all-kitchen circus-style nightmares of boiling chicken and roasting AND stewing beef and slicing ham and cheese while also cutting vegetables while mixing sauces while separately packaging just enough gingersnaps for each package of the sauerbraten (assuming you even like sauerbraten or know what it is anymore) and finding the right sized bags and labels and and and and….

If you batch-cook the way these books suggest (in the intro section “game plan” complete with NFL-style charts), your once-a-month cooking scheme will probably take you all weekend (shopping alone is a full day) and wear you out from dawn til dusk. One weekend a month. I bet this is where most people flipping through to see if it’s the solution to their dilemma quietly shut the book, put it back on the shelf and edge away as quickly as possible.

These books also seem to replicate the worse aspects of frozen tv dinners, only without the convenience. The food’s too elaborate and long-cooking–mostly heavy meat stews and casseroles taken straight out of the 1950s Americana repertoire, and the scale-ups still only stretch to two or three meals for a family of four. If you go that route, you’d need ten recipes, and a huge freezer.

Also, there are no, and I mean no, shortcuts. I’ve looked. Each main dish is an hour or more by conventional methods. The reheats alone typically take at least half an hour and some extra cooking steps–and this is after having thawed the packages overnight in the fridge. Have the authors never heard of a microwave? Wasn’t avoiding repetitive, excessive cooking the whole point of once-a-month cooking? Do you really want to have to plan so much and follow so many steps–especially if you’re on the ADD end of things? Or even if you aren’t.

It would make so much more sense to simply buy a big resealable bag of frozen chicken parts and some bags of frozen vegetables and large cans of beans and tomatoes and boxes of spaghetti and relearn some cheap, easy and fast-cooking techniques from your college student repertoire. Wouldn’t it?

Needless to say, this is not the way people who traditionally have to cook big on a tight budget cook. Most people don’t have as much money at any one time as they’d need to pay for a month’s worth of food in a lump sum, nor do they generally have a dedicated extra freezer to fit it all in.

But batch cooking itself can work out and still treat you gently on a more modest scale. You just need to choose what makes sense to cook in multi-meal batches, and not do every possible big job all at once.

Unless you hunt and dress venison for the winter or have a garden with enough produce that you need to harvest and put up in bulk at the end of summer to keep it from spoiling, you don’t really need to do marathon-style cooking. Continue reading

Post-Kiddush: our leftovers are better than yours

Round spare spanakopita just for us after the big kiddush

Round spare pinwheel-style spanakopita just for us at home. The big ones for the brunch had three pounds of spinach apiece (and were cut in small diamonds), but they still went together pretty fast–except for squeezing all that spinach dry…

This weekend I did it again–I made the kiddush, or in common speech a lunch buffet, for my congregation’s Saturday morning service. My husband kind of volunteered us for this week and because he doesn’t cook, most or all of the cooking, shopping, chopping and schlepping landed on my shoulders.

Last time he volunteered us, it was for our anniversary, and  I was ready to skip ahead to the divorce until I got over it, because it’s a lot of work to cook for 60 or so people who like to eat. And kibbitz. Especially when the 60 suddenly turns into 80-plus and having to use the synagogue kitchen with the more complicated and confusing rules on only a week’s notice. As they did this time…..

Soooo….a two-day hell of shopping and then marathon cooking-and-juggling in my little galley kitchen. The microwave got a serious workout. So did the food processor and the oven. Sometimes all at once. And it was raining hard for three days, so bringing things over to the synagogue kitchen as I went got a little tricky. I triple-wrapped the chocolate cake and stuck it in a USPS Priority Mail box so it wouldn’t get left out in the rain. Same idea for the spanakopita trays.

A few hints about cooking big and real for a synagogue brunch, learned the hard way by moi and passed on for your edification and safety (and sanity):

1. You can buy a 6-lb can  of chickpeas for massive half-gallon batches of hummus (Mid-East brand, maybe Goya as well). Cost? about $5. But–as I found out, and I’m glad no one was filming the process–industrial-sized can equals industrial-strength steel. A dinky hand-operated can opener is no match for such an item. I got just far enough to be able to pry open a kind of spout but there were tears and long-fluent-repetitive-all-throughout-the-house swearing sessions involved.

Still….

2. If you have a good corner greengrocer, you can buy quantities of eggplant for cheap–eleven or twelve eggplants made for a large tray of roast eggplant and onion slices (with garlic slivers and za’atar sprigs and olive oil) plus a large vat of baba ghanouj. Only the five eggplants I nuked for the baba ghanouj didn’t feel like cooperating fully when it was time to peel them. Might have been easier to peel first, then nuke, since it was all going into the food processor eventually. Next time…

3. Whole smoked whitefish for whitefish salad comes two ways–cold-smoked or hot-smoked. What’s the difference? I asked the counter guy at my favorite Armenian grocery. “Cold-smoked is a little less hard,” he said. So I bought it, thinking he meant the hot-smoked was tough as shoeleather and twice as chewy. I was wrong. Cold-smoked actually means the fish is smoked raw, like lox, only a little drier and tougher. But you don’t necessarily want to put it in whitefish salad that way. Man, it still had the scales on too. I couldn’t get it off the bones for love or money, and there were a lot of bones.

However, the microwave came to the rescue. I cut the fish in half and Continue reading

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