German Soft Pretzels

Ladies and gentlemen, we flipped the Kaschper today.  Let me explain.

I'm on spring break, which means I've stayed in Chicago for crew, because ain't nobody got time for that vacation thing (sarcasm).  I'm only able to row every other day because my back is still healing, and so today I was in the launch boat with our coach, Trish.  We were doing some seat racing, which is a pretty accurate way to tell which rowers are faster than others - you have two boats race each other, then switch two rowers (either switch two rowers who were in the same seat but different boats, or swap one rower from the launch for another in one of the boats), and race the same course again.  In this way you can isolate which rower makes a boat faster.  This is a very over-simplified explanation, but for those of you who are here for the food and don't care about rowing, this has already gone on for too long.

In any case, we were racing in 4's (four rowers and one coxswain), while the novices were doing drills in an 8.  After seat racing, we (the varsity rowers) were going to go out in an 8 and let the novices go out in 4's for the first time ever.  Now, 4's are very exciting - it means they're moving up in the rowing world - but they're also much less stable on the water than 8's.  A group of more technically experienced novices went out in one of our 4's, the Power, while some of the less experienced novices with one varsity member went in the Kaschper.  As they were pushing off from the dock, the rowers in the Kaschper were leaning too far to their port side.  The port rowers were also pulling in their oars to push further away from the dock, making the boat all the more unstable on that side; then crash bang boom, plop, and they weren't in the boat anymore.  

I didn't witness any of this myself - the varsity rowers were up at the crate (we don't have a boathouse... sooo we keep our equipment in a shipping crate next to our boats) - but the water-logged coxswain ran up and got us to come down and help.  Trish and I went out in the launch boat, removed the oars from the boat, then pushed it back to the dock.  From there we bailed the water out of it with whatever we could find: sponges, ziplock baggies, bailers, gallon water jugs.  It took seven rowers to lift it out of the water.  This is all quite exciting, but also exhausting for everyone involved, and we never did get to take that 8 out.  Maybe tomorrow.

I was relieved when I returned to the apartment to find that a couple of my soft pretzels had survived the morning, with three hungry rowers milling about here.  This recipe is from Food & Wine Magazine, with a couple minor adjustments, and it's wonderful.  I made a full batch yesterday, and among the four of us living in this apartment right now, they're all gone.  They.  Are.  So.  Good.  Please make them, and dip them in Dijon mustard, or really any good mustard.  The diastatic malt powder isn't strictly necessary, so don't worry if you don't have it, or don't want to bother with it.  The original recipe called for all-purpose flour rather than bread flour, but I figured this would be an appropriate application for the latter, so I suppose you could use either.

German Soft Pretzels 

1/2 c brown sugar
2 c warm (~105 degree F) water
5 teaspoons (2 packets) yeast
1/4 c vegetable oil
~5 3/4 c bread flour
1 1/2 diastatic malt powder 
3/4 c baking soda
Coarse salt

Stir together the brown sugar and water in a large bowl, then sprinkle over the yeast and let it dissolve until foamy.  Add in the vegetable oil, then 3 cups of flour.  After combining thoroughly, stir in remaining 2 3/4 cups of flour and the malt powder.  You may not be able to work all the flour in by just stirring.  Dump the flour mixture onto a clean surface and kneed, adding flouring as necessary, until the dough is soft and smooth, tacky but not sticky.  I kneeded by hand, and it took me 5-10 minutes (it didn't pass the window-pane test, but the dough turned out fine).  Let it rise in a warm place, covered, in an oiled bowl, for ~45 minutes until doubled.  

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  In a deep, wide skillet, bring baking soda and ~half a gallon of water to a boil.  Meanwhile, cut the dough into 24 pieces and roll into sticks.  I divided the dough as evenly as I could, but naturally some of the sticks were longer than others.  After I rolled them out, I cut the ends to make them even, and made those ends into pretzel nuggets.  Let them rise uncovered for another ~25 minutes.  

Once the water-baking soda mixture is boiling, turn down the heat to a simmer, and add 6 pretzel sticks at a time.  After 30 seconds, turn them over to the other side.  After another 30 seconds, remove them from the water, pat dry with paper towels, and place on an oiled baking sheet.  Before boiling another batch, add 1 cup of hot water.  Sprinkle boiled pretzels with salt, then bake ~10 minutes until dark brown.  

Bacon-Roasted Chickpea Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette

It has been quite the week.  But finals are over, I have decompressed for the most part, and I'll start working on my sleep debt tonight.  I cannot express how happy I am to sleep and sleep and sleep, and not care, and wake up and do job work without feeling like I'm neglecting my homework.  And row!  And maybe even read a book!  Or two!  I started A Farewell to Arms a couple weeks ago, but naturally haven't picked it back up yet.  Also, now that I've finished my last formal physical therapy session, I'm allowed to row every other day, and see how that goes.

Oh, and the things I will make next week.  Get ready kids.  Even though it seems that Cheri of Kitchen Simplicity beat me to the punch on baked doughnuts, I've planned on making Marion Cunningham's version from The Breakfast Book, several different yeast breads, Samoas, and chicken pot pie.  I have been craving chicken pot pie all quarter.  I am excited.

I'm terribly excited, also, to share this creation with you, because, well, bacon.  Having been a pescetarian for three and a half years, until the end of last summer, I feel that I appreciate bacon all the more.  With all the meat on this site, you'd think that I would've never survived without it.  But it wasn't really that heartbreaking or difficult - I mean, passing on my dad's ribs, and refusing to eat bacon after much prodding by my brother and company, wasn't easy.  And I cheated once in a while, whether purposefully or accidentally.  But I found that it helped me make better choices about what I was eating.  All the talk about artificial growth hormones, pink slime, and antibiotics also deterred me from eating meat.  It was something I could control.  

Now that I've gone back to the dark side, as a general rule I eat meat if I'm the one who bought and cooked it; and when eating out I tend to choose vegetarian options, especially if I'm worried about meat quality (like at the dining hall).  I do enjoy vegetarian fare, but there are some food experiences that are irreplacable, one of which is bacon.  I rendered a mess of bacon until it had released all of its porky goodness and had become incredibly crisp, then reserved some of the fat for the vinaigrette while the chickpeas roasted in the rest.  The orange segments in the salad and zest in the dressing round out the briny, smoky qualities of the bacon, making for a really lovely combination.  The leftover chickpeas serve as a yummy snack the next day, too.

Bacon-Roasted Chickpea Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette, for two (with leftovers)

1/3 pound bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
29 ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
~2 teaspoons dried oregano (I used Mexican oregano, but regular would be fine)
~1 teaspoon smoked paprika
~2 teaspoons Kosher salt
1 orange 
1/3 head escarole (or other lettuce of your choosing), chopped
~1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

In a large cast iron skillet, add the oil and chopped bacon, then turn the heat on to medium-low.  Render the bacon at this low heat ~30 minutes.  I know this seems like a long time, but it's the best way to render as much fat from the bacon as possible.  Meanwhile, add the chickpeas into a bowl and season to taste with oregano, paprika, and salt, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Once the bacon has begun to crisp and most of its fat has been rendered, turn the heat up to medium-high and crisp thoroughly.  Remove the bacon pieces and drain them on a paper towel.  Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of the fat into a bowl to use for the dressing, leaving ~2 tablespoons in the pan for the chickpeas.  Pour the chickpeas into the skillet, tossing thoroughly in the bacon fat, then roast in the oven for ~30 minutes until golden and crisp.

Meanwhile, zest half of the orange into the bowl of bacon fat.  Cut away the skin and white pith, revealing just the flesh, then cut into segments by running a paring knife at an angle along the membranes that separate the slices.  Once you cut out all the segments, only the membrane and some flesh will remain.  Squeeze this into the bowl, then add a splash of vinegar and sprinkle of salt.  Whisk until emulsified, then adjust seasonings.  Remove the chickpeas from the oven once done, then immediately serve over the escarole with the orange segments and dressing.

Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

Shhhhhhh.  It's a secret.

This is my world-famous, best banana bread recipe.

You may all applaud now.  I wouldn't mind a little confetti either.

I generally wrinkle my nose at people who describe food as sexy.  Please, you're making me uncomfortable, objectifying my dinner like that.  But damn, this is some sexy banana bread.  The barely warm chocolate, lusciously melting and seeping into a soft, supple loaf that perfumes the air with its heady aromas of butter and banana.  You raise a slice to your lips, you take a bite.  You swoon a little.

And then, if you're a stress eater like me, you forget about how sexy your banana bread is and shovel a couple slices into your mouth.

In the interest of keeping this post short, since I should be finishing up my linguistics final right now, it will suffice to say that I have used this recipe for so long that I can't remember not using it.  It originally came from the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking.  I've adapted it over the years to streamline its flavors and to make it a one bowl, one utensil enterprise.  This may be my favorite recipe to prepare, and one of my favorite foods ever.  If you have a better banana bread recipe, well, challenge accepted.  Mine is the best I've eaten. Bring it on, fool.

Disclaimer: I don't mean to be combative, but finals week makes me sassy, and I am very proud of my banana bread.  And since this recipe is basically my baby, it's taken a lot for me to share it with you.  It's like I'm sending my child off to preschool for the first time (I'm not a mommy but... My inherent mommy instincts, and other reliable sources, tell me that this is a reasonable comparison).

Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

1/3 c (5 1/3 tablespoons) softened, unsalted butter
1/3 c packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 1/3 c all-purpose, unbleached flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
3 small or medium very very ripe bananas, peeled
1/2 c bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  In a medium bowl, use a rubber spatula to fold the brown sugar into the butter.  Once combined, stir vigorously, mashing against the side of the bowl (you're helping to make little air pockets by cutting the sugar crystals in the butter this way).  Stir in the vanilla and eggs thoroughly.  On top of the wet mix, add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Stir the leavening and salt into the flour a little before folding all the dry ingredients into the wet (it'll help make sure the leavening is evenly distributed).  

Into a gallon-size plastic baggie, add the peeled bananas, then seal out as much air as possible.  Mash the bananas, until only a few small pieces are left whole (you could mash it all the way, but I like having a couple little nuggets of whole banana).  Cut one of the bottom corners of the baggie, and squeeze the banana pulp into the bowl.  Stir in the banana until just combined, then add in the chocolate chips.  Pour into a prepared loaf pan, and bake for ~45 minutes, until the batter is barely set.  When you press on the top, the loaf should be firm, but the exposed flesh beneath the cracked crust should look not quite done.  It'll carry-over cook when you take it out of the oven.  Let cool to room temperature before slicing and devouring.

Macaroni and Cheese

It's that time of year again: FINALS WEEK.

I apologize for going AWOL on you all this week, when I had fortold of this most excellent, awesome, favorite macaroni and cheese from Ina Garten last Saturday.  My dad scooped me up from campus that morning and we went gallavanting about Chicago, gathering goodies from here and there, eating everything in sight, and making copious amounts of macaroni and cheese.  We had a lovely time of it, and he sent me home that night with a full belly, much needed R&R and daddy-daughter time, and an armful of goodies, including two pans full of the aforementioned mac n' cheese.  Needless to say, John and I have survived these late tenth-week-of-the-quarter, ominous-with-impending-doom nights by the forkful.

I've been using this recipe in particular for years now.  Whenever I've wanted to make mac n' cheese, this was the go-to recipe, because it's pretty much perfect.  I sometimes change the cheese ratios, add in extra ingredients here and there, revamp the crust; but really, this recipe doesn't need much fiddling.  If you're afraid of the butter, the whole milk, or the cheese, well, you should be eating a salad instead of this.  I'm weary of the American tendency to rework decidedly non-diet-friendly recipes in order to make them diet-friendly - to want your cake and eat a Lean Cuisine too.

That's not to say I don't try to rework recipes to include more wholesome sweeteners or fats - I sometimes make my favorite banana bread recipe with Muscavado sugar, a whole-wheat-all-purpose flour mix, and yogurt.  If you remember my rant about the wholesome-healthy distinction, my food philosophy revolves around respect for both my ingredients and my body.  My body benefits from eating a salad in a different way than from eating a brownie, but when these extremes are balanced, so is my body.  And just as I respect the vegetables, cheeses, and other ingredients in my salad, I respect the chocolate and butter I use in my brownies.  I don't try to put apple sauce, whole wheat flour, and Sucanat into my favorite brownie recipe not only because the chemistry will be off (since that recipe wasn't meant for such substitutions), but also because it becomes a Special-K bar instead of a brownie.  By respect for ingredients, I mean that I consciously bring ingredients together that will complement one another, such that each bite is a cohesive thought - so that you don't take a bite and say, there's something missing.  Now, clearly I don't always achieve this, and at 1 in the morning the only effort I'm interested in expending on my food is making toast with jam; but hopefully, you understand my overall concept here.

In terms of this recipe, I'm imploring you not to say ooooh I'm craving mac n' cheese but it's so bad for me, so I'll just use skim milk, whole wheat pasta, reduced fat cheese... because you've missed the point. The point of macaroni and cheese is to realize that you're indulging, and to accept fully that responsibility.  And to enjoy every forkful of it.  You can go to the gym later.

Macaroni and Cheese

~5 teaspoons Kosher salt
1 pound pasta (I like to use cavatappi, the curly ones that look like long elbow macaroni)
1 quart, or 4 c, whole milk (if you just have 1 or 2% on hand, you can use either of those also)
1 stick unsalted butter
.5 c all purpose flour (Wondra flour also works here)
20 ounces, or 6 c, grated cheese (I like 1 part Gruyere to 2 parts extra-sharp Cheddar)
.5 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
.5 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1.5 c Panko bread crumbs
.5 c grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk, stirring often.  Bring a large stock pot half-full of water to a boil, then add ~1 tablespoon of salt and the pasta.  When the pasta is just under al dente (when you bite into it, there will still be a bit of unpleasant chewiness in the middle, so it's slightly under-done), remove from the heat, drain, and add back to the pot.

Meanwhile, in another saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Whisk in the flour, then cook ~2 minutes to remove the raw flour taste.  Add in the warm milk, whisking to prevent lumps from forming.  Let the sauce come to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and stir in the cheese.  It's easier to do this in batches, adding one handful at a time and letting it melt almost completely before adding another.  Stir in the black pepper, nutmeg, and ~2 teaspoons salt to taste.  Add the sauce immediately to the pot of pasta.  You want to time the sauce so that it's waiting for your pasta to be done, not the other way around.

Pour the pasta with cheese sauce into a baking dish.  You're going to think there's too much sauce, but trust me, the pasta will soak up the extra sauce as it cooks and cools down to eating temperature.  In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs and Parmesan, then sprinkle it over the top.  Bake for ~35 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.

Parsnip, Celery Root, and Chickpea Soup with Red Thai Curry Sweet Potato Wedges

Chicago is melting.  The air is still crisp, but it hardly bites, and the little oases of earth around the urban campus are saturated with melted snow.  This is the liminal time between winter and spring, when nature can't make up its mind either to allow the snow to melt away completely, or to preserve the dirty and darkened masses, still holding onto their jagged shapes.  This is the liminal time when I'm wanting spring produce, but I haven't yet abandoned my impulse to purchase root vegetables and citrus, instead of facing anticipated disappointment at the quality of out of season fruits and vegetables.

Oh but friends, I found the most beautiful basil.  Not the withered, brown leaves I've been seeing all winter, but plump and verdant sprigs with the brightest of leaves.  I framed this soup to be the perfect canvas for a luscious pile of basil, a winter canvas for a burst of spring.  Also, I just really like soup.  Can you tell?  I must have five different soups on here now.  And then wammy, you dunk in a robustly flavored and crisp wedge of sweet potato, baked to perfection in a hot oven.  I was very pleased with myself for thinking of it, having fantasized about sweet potato fries all day for some reason.  I mean, I do think about food a lot, different flavors and techniques and so many ideas; but I remembered that there were two sweet potatoes left over from my taco adventure, and it occurred to me that I should make oven fries with them, and it was all over.  Adding cornstarch to the seasoning really helps create a crispy crust in the oven, without frying.  Not that I don't like fried foods, but I try to stay away from them most of the time, and I'm not a fan of frying things at home (All the mess, and that leftover oil?  No thank you.).  

I left the soup's flavor mild, carried by the unique essences of the parsnip and celery root, not only to highlight the basil, but also to provide a foil for the pungent flavors of the red thai curry on the potatoes.  If you can't find it, or don't want to, don't worry about it.  I used it because I happened to buy some a few months ago, and I didn't want to let it go to waste.  It has a wonderful aroma, with a hint of sharp spice, and its flavor profile is not at all like that of the product generally called Indian curry.  I'd recommend mixing some ground paprika, cumin, sage, and cayenne together for a similar effect.  Also, if you're not familiar with celery root, it's ugly as all hell.  Seriously.  But it tastes wonderful, like a turnip with the aroma of celery.  Just use a sturdy vegetable peeler to remove the gnarled skin and reveal the white flesh beneath.  And parsnips, well, I love them.  It's as if a carrot's essential sweetness has been concentrated so much that the vegetable turned white (public service announcement: this is purely my fantastical account of a parsnip, and what concentrating flavors has to do with color change I haven't the foggiest).  I find that there's more of an aromatic element to parsnips than carrots, which I find very appealing.  All of my fellow parsnip lovers out there will understand.

Parsnip, Celery Root, and Chickpea Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped 
2 garlic cloves
Salt, to taste
1 parsnip, peeled and chopped into .5 inch pieces
1 celery root, peeled and chopped into .5 inch pieces
28 ounce can chickpeas, drained 
4 c (1 box) vegetable broth (I like to use a clearer broth so the flavor isn't as strong)
2 sprigs basil, leaves removed and set aside
1 lemon, quartered

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-low heat.  Add in the chopped onions and salt, then let them sweat and caramelize for ~15 minutes.  It's important to cook them for this amount of time, as this develops crucial flavor for an otherwise simple soup.  Once the onions are slumped, transluscent, and becoming caramelized, add in the garlic and cook another ~5 minutes.  

Stir in the parsnip and celery root chunks and chickpeas, sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, then cover with the vegetable broth and a can-full of water (rinse out the empty can of chickpeas and use that to add the water).  Add in the basil sprigs.  Bring to a boil over high heat, then cook over medium ~25 minutes until the root veggies are soft enough to yield to the pressure of your spoon crushing them against the side of the pot.  Remove the basil stems.  Continue to crush the chickpeas and root vegetables until the broth's texture has been thickened by these mashed ingredients.  Serve piping hot with a mess of torn basil leaves on top, a squeeze of lemon, and these red thai curry potato wedges:

2 sweet potatoes, washed and cut into thin wedges (I cut each potato into quarters, then quartered each of these)
~2 tablespoons canola oil
1.5 teaspoons corn starch
1.5 teaspoons red thai curry powder
.75 teaspoons salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Toss the potato wedges enough oil to coat them lightly.  Mix the corn starch, curry, and salt together, then sprinkle over the wedges.  Massage the spices into the potatoes to coat them thoroughly.  Bake in a hot oven for ~25 minutes, turning after ~15 to get both sides nice and crispy.  Be sure to share them, lest you end up eating them all yourself.

Stewed Black Bean and Sweet Potato Tacos

Guys, I have a Facebook page now!  Exciting!  Like me!

Okay I'm exhausted from all of those exclamation points.  Let's calm down and talk about my life.  Okay?  Excellent.  I try not to post too much information about myself on here, since this is for the food and not a complain/brag/rant/tell-you-all-about-everything-I'm-doing blog.  But I'm in a sharing mood.  And I've gotten turned down from a few summer internships recently, so I'm feeling a little depressed about that (since I take everything personally, and clearly they just don't like me and I'm a bad person, yep, yep we'll go with that).  I simultaneously understand about myself that I am overly sensitive and take a lot of things personally which aren't personal at all, and can't help but feel slighted when I get those manufactured, overly polite emails about how x company regrets to inform me that they've chosen another candidate blah blah blah.  But... But... I'm so cool guys, you'd really like me, really I'm actually more awesome than that person you've already chosen, hrumph.  And my spoon dives into the Nutella jar once again and finds its way to my mouth, as I stare at the computer screen wondering why I'm not good enough.  Alas, I shall keep trying, but it's still not very encouraging.  Finals week is also approaching, so I'm wondering how much time I'll even have to apply to more jobs.  And deadlines for a lot of summer jobs are coming up.  I'm not stressed about it at all hahahahahahaha (read: hysterical laughter).  

I shall find my salvation in food!  I just pulled together this meal one night for dinner, and I was really pleased with it, so I wanted to share it with you.  And it's really cheap to make - I got four meals out of it (one of which was eaten by John, so I probably could've split that one into two) for about $6 (and this is the land of Hyde Park, where everything is ridiculously overpriced).  I stewed the chunks of sweet potato with just enough stock and water to keep them submerged until they had cooked through, then I let the extra liquid evaporate so I would have a thick black-bean-sweet-potato filling for my tacos.  I really like corn tortillas, so that's what I used, but you could just use flour ones, or lettuce leaves if you want to be like that.  And since everything is better with avocado, you know I didn't pass up the opportunity to buy several of them when they went on sale at Hyde Park Produce.  They're all gone now.  I don't know what happened...

Stewed Black Bean and Sweet Potato Tacos

1 (15 ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
~2 tablespoons canola oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
2 sweet potatoes, washed and chopped into .25 inch chunks
~1.5 teaspoons cumin
~.5 teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt, to taste
~4 c liquid (I used ~3 c chicken stock and ~1 c water because that's what I had)
1 small red chili, seeded and chopped finely
2 limes
2 avocados
12 corn tortillas, warmed up

Heat the oil over a medium flame, then add in the garlic and half of the chili.  Season with a little salt, then saute for a couple minutes until just beginning to brown.  Stir in the sweet potatoes, then season with salt and let those saute also to develop some caramelization.  Add in the cumin and paprika, then the drained black beans and your stock-water combination.  Turn the heat up to high until the liquid begins to bubble, then turn it back down to medium or medium-low and simmer until the sweet potatoes become soft.  Add more liquid as needed, to keep the sweet potatoes submerged.

Once the sweet potatoes are cooked through, turn the heat up to medium-high and allow almost all the liquid to evaporate.  Adjust the seasoning to your tastes, then serve with lime juice, chopped chili, sliced avocados, warm tortillas, and an extra sprinkle of salt.  I didn't think it needed cheese, the avocado was delicious enough, but it's up to you.