Simple braided bread

I learned to knead from my mother. I remember her beckoning me over one day and showing me how she worked a mass of bread dough back and forth across the counter. She put my hands on the dough, explained her method: push the dough forward with the heel of one hand, pull it back with the other hand. Push right, pull left. Push right, pull left. I practiced alongside her, pushing and pulling the dough, until the movement worked its way into my muscles and became a reflex.

It’s a funny memory, because when I was first teaching myself to cook, I always imitated my father first. He’s an extravagantly creative cook, the kind of cook who barely ever glances at a recipe. He’s great at making kitchen-sink stews, pulling out the entire contents of the crisper drawer and the spice cupboard and having his way with all of it. I’m my father’s daughter in so many ways, and fundamentally my cooking temperament matches his. I have limited patience for recipes and rules, and an overwhelming tendency to tinker and embellish. For a long time I stuck stubbornly to that, insisting that it was the way I was made.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my mother’s way of cooking has value for me too. She’s more deliberate in the kitchen, more of a planner. She has a drawer of recipes that she consults regularly, and keeps a stable of favorites in heavy rotation. Where my dad is creative, she’s curious; she’ll seek out an existing recipe to learn the techniques, then adapt it to what she likes and has on hand. She also bakes, which my father doesn’t really do, because the precision and deliberateness required come more easily to her. Slowing down like this isn’t natural for me, but I think it’s good. I’ve expanded my repertoire of dishes, adding things that require a bit more forethought and deliberateness than a kitchen-sink stew. I’ve realized that repeating recipes, and learning a few standbys to make repeatedly without thinking, are things to celebrate rather than hang my head over. Particularly as a blogger, paying attention to the way my mother uses recipes has helped me improve my own.

Over the years, I’ve learned on my own what a good bread dough feels like–soft, supple, almost fleshy–and how to know when it’s risen enough. But every loaf I’ve baked comes back to that push right, pull left that Mom taught me years ago. Knowing how to knead has grounded me, in a way. So when I went over to my parents’ house the other week to bake with my mother and sister, there was no question I was going to make bread. This was a gorgeous, airy loaf, with a thin crackling crust and a delicately spongy interior–perfect for sopping up soup. I kneaded the dough while Mom watched, and then she helped me braid the dough and sprinkle it with seeds. We bickered over how long to let it rest–it turns out she was right. After all these years, I’m still learning.

braided seed bread

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Chicken chorizo meatloaf

I really can’t leave well enough alone. A little while ago, I made some tasty little cocktail meatballs with chicken and chorizo. They were a raging success, and I blogged about them and set the recipe aside. By rights, that should have been it.

And then I kept thinking about them. I had a theory that meatballs and meatloaf were just the same thing in different guises. Clearly, the only way to prove this was to try the recipe again in meatloaf form. So I did, and I think it’s even better this way.

The quantities here yield a fairly small meatloaf, enough for four hungry eaters or six demure ones. I love just how different it is from a traditional meatloaf’s beefy softness and sugary glaze. The flavor is deeper and more interesting, with the spicy sourness of the chorizo tempered and rounded out by the mild-mannered chicken. I added a poblano pepper to the vegetable mix this time around, which was lovely both for its sharp flavor and the flecks of green it contributed to the loaf itself. The whole thing is vaguely Southwestern in flavor, a sort of Tex-Mex thing, which makes it both special and casual, the kind of homespun main course that impresses without coming off as fussy.

When I made this recipe as meatballs, they turned out loose and soft, threatening to collapse under their own weight. With the meatloaf version, that wasn’t a problem. The mixture shaped easily and held together perfectly, baking up slightly crusty on the outside and incredibly juicy within. Even though it took us close to an hour after the meatloaf was cooked to actually eat it, it was still warm and inviting inside when we sliced it. It yielded obligingly under a bread knife, as easily as cutting warm butter.

There’s also another reason this works better as a meatloaf, I think: the texture. The recipe calls for crushed tortilla chips in place of the usual breadcrumbs. Last time, I wrote that processing the chips in a food processor would break the chips down finer; I was wrong. I tried processing them, which didn’t accomplish much, so I switched to bashing them in a zip-top bag with a rolling pin; after a lot of noise and mess, they were still much coarser than ordinary breadcrumbs. In meatball form, that chunkiness was less than ideal; in meatloaf, it’s wonderful. I find traditional meatloaf texture to be a bit boring, and this is anything but, with soft nuggets of tortilla and slippery bits of onion and pepper. That alone is enough to earn this recipe a spot in my regular dinner rotation.

chicken chorizo meatloaf

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Stuffed sweet potatoes with chipotle black beans and greens

Most of the recipes I post on this blog are one-offs. They’re things I dream up, cook, photograph, eat, enjoy, and then never make again. But every so often a new recipe is so simple, so tasty, and so adaptable that it wriggles its way into my regular rotation and lives there for months before it ends up here. This is one of those.

I got the idea for these stuffed sweet potatoes from a brilliant recipe over at The Kitchn. The basic premise is this: you scrub and roast a few sweet potatoes until they’re squishy all the way through. (Use small sweet potatoes, since they’ll cook more quickly and give a better flesh-to-filling ratio.) Sweat an onion, garlic, and a few flavorings in oil, then add a bunch of chopped greens and a splash of some flavorful liquid. Let the greens wilt for a few minutes, then stir in a drained can of beans and warm the whole thing through. Cut a slit in each sweet potato, drizzle the flesh with oil or butter, and pile it high with the filling. Grab a fork and a steak knife, and devour, skin and all.

That’s the outline, and I’ve had a lot of fun filling it in. Sweet potatoes need strong flavors to cut through their baby-food sweetness, and the best fillings I tried are tangy, smoky, and spicy all at once. The original recipe used white beans, shallot, rosemary, fresh lemon, and chile flakes. I’ve also done a Spanish-inspired version, with chickpeas, sweet onion, smoked paprika, and preserved lemon. But this version is my favorite so far: black beans, red onion, chipotle, and lime. Based on a few rounds of trial and error, I recommend using a bit more chipotle than you might otherwise like; even if the filling is searingly spicy when you taste it from the pan, the sweet potato will tromp all over it. Be brave.

One other great thing about this recipe: it’s made to be made ahead. You can freeze the filling in portions, and bake the sweet potatoes a few days in advance; just reheat as many portions as you need in the microwave. During the last couple months of 2014, when I was commuting two hours each way to work, I’d come home and throw together a potato as a late dinner. Since New Year’s, I’ve been working from home, and eating these as a hearty desk lunch. And if I ever burn out on this flavor combination, I’ll just start experimenting with others.

chipotle stuffed sweet potato 2

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Green vegetable soup with miso

One of the first things Sam and I did after we got the keys to our new place was to sign up for a CSA membership. It’s been great fun so far, having a big box of exuberantly dirty produce show up quietly on our doorstep every other week. We stuff it all into the fridge, and then methodically cook or snack on it for the next fourteen days. Normally I relish this kind of cooking challenge–being handed a bunch of ingredients and told, “Go!” But, if I’m being honest, my creativity has been wearing a little thin.

So this recipe is a case of extremely fortunate timing. Last Tuesday, I opened our CSA box to find, among other things, a huge bunch of dinosaur kale, three bundled broccoli heads, a bunch of gorgeous carrots, and a lemon. On Wednesday, I opened up my RSS reader to find a Food in Jars post with a soup recipe calling for kale, broccoli, carrot, and lemon. All it took was putting two and two together, and I had lunch for the rest of the week.

Marisa from Food in Jars calls this “hippie soup,” which seems accurate. For one thing, it starts by boiling vegetables instead of sweating them in oil. You just toss a big pile of greens and herbs, an armful of broccoli florets, some alliums, and a grated carrot into a pot with water, and cook everything until it’s blendable. The recipe called for nutritional yeast, which I didn’t have and don’t intend to buy. But I had some white miso in the fridge, and figured that adding it would give the soup body and savory saltiness. I also tweaked the ingredients a bit based on my mood and the contents of the fridge, swapping scallions for onions and skipping the spinach in favor of more kale. The soup came out vividly Christmas-green, and the flavor was surprisingly complex–I was worried it’d be bitter, but it was mellow and herbal instead. It definitely tasted “good-for-you” green, but in the best way. (I suppose this is how people feel about green smoothies, but I like this soup way better than any green smoothie I’ve ever had.)

Normally, when I write recipes, I try to give approximate weights and volumes for things like “a bunch of kale” or “the juice of a lemon.” But I’m not doing that here, because precision really, really does not matter with this soup. This kind of recipe begs to be fiddled with, and the greens and herbs are totally interchangeable. I used kale and parsley, but this recipe is a great use-up for whatever greens and leafy herbs you have around–chard, spinach, radish greens, beet greens, turnip greens, collards, carrot tops, cilantro, arugula, watercress, etc. You want about half the mass of the soup to be leafy greens and herbs of some kind, and the other half to be broccoli, scallions, carrot, and garlic. Beyond that, go nuts.

green veggie soup with miso

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Bison bolognese

Sam and I moved in together just as the weather took a turn for the colder. I’m actually glad it worked out that way, because I’ve jumped right into cooking lots of slow, stewy things–my favorite way to turn a house into a home. Our freezer is already full of stock, soup, and sauce, the bones of many hearty homemade meals to come. And when it came to the bolognese, I went a little overboard.

Shortly after the move, on a weekend day when we unexpectedly had no plans, I got a wild hankering for a nice rich meat sauce. It suddenly seemed utterly urgent that we have bolognese for days, not just a single dinner’s worth but a freezer-full. So I pulled out a Marcella Hazan recipe I’d had bookmarked for a while and set about making a double batch of sauce. We had pasta to use up anyway, I reasoned, and besides, I like a full freezer.

I swapped out bison for beef, because I like the flavor better and thought the substitution would make the sauce special. It took hours and hours, the way so many good sauces do, and became the basis of an incredibly comforting pasta meal that night. I’ve been slowly working through the leftovers, poaching eggs in the sauce and eating it with bread. It’s familiar and ultra-comforting: rubbly and meaty and rich, the perfect thickness for coating pasta or cradling eggs.

Now, honesty time. The bison in here was delicious, but also nearly indistinguishable from beef. Normally, for burgers and soups, I prefer ground bison to ground beef. I like where the flavor lands: very much like beef, but a little gamier and leaner. In a slow-simmered sauce like this, though, I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference. The meat nearly melts into the sauce, and the gaminess and leanness do too. It tastes for all the world like a classic beef bolognese–just a really, really good one.

bison bolognese

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White bean and tomato soup

Well. That was an adventure.

Back in August, I wrote about being overwhelmed and making jam. Sad to say, the jam-making tapered off soon afterward, but the being overwhelmed continued for a while. In the four months since I last blogged, I’ve been working through a little cascade of life changes. I moved in with my boyfriend. I quit my job. I started a few tentative steps along a new career path. I’ve spent an awful lot of time lately unpacking boxes and sending out applications and jumping on every networking happy hour invite that comes my way, all while slogging through a particularly grey bout of SAD. It’s been a challenge.

But things are settling now. The move, at least, is done. We’re slowly making our new place into a home. And as a big part of that, I’ve been cooking almost every day. Our new kitchen may be tiny, but it’s getting a workout.

The very first thing I cooked, the day after we moved in, was a pot of my grandmother’s bean soup. This is one of those recipes that speaks instant comfort to me, that tastes like winter and rain and the holidays. I can picture my grandmother standing at the stove, with a stained apron tied over her lavender sweat suit, wearing a pair of bedroom slippers that might be as old as I am, stirring an enormous pot of beans and tomatoes. This was a staple every Thanksgiving, and often on Christmas Eve (my aunt’s birthday) as well. It’s simple, nutritious, and freezes like a dream. It felt like the perfect thing to make to turn our new apartment into a home.

This is one of those soups that’s so much more than the sum of its parts: dried white beans, soaked and simmered until they’re starchy and tender, mixed with a sauteed mirepoix and some diced tomatoes. Using dried beans makes the broth fragrant and thick, and cooking the vegetables down into a sauce before adding them to the pot makes the whole thing deep and resonant. Then there are the finishing touches: a spoonful of cooked orzo and a drizzle of olive oil to top off each bowl. The orzo must be cooked separately, rather than boiled it into the soup itself, so that it stays firm and toothsome rather than relaxing into the broth. And the olive oil adds fruitiness and gloss to the bowl, making it vivid and hearty all at the same time. This is how I ate soup as a child, and how I ate it that night in our new home, staring down the barrel of a new stage of adulthood and willing myself to be ready.

grangy's bean soup

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Apricot jam

“I am overwhelmed.” It’s a sentence that’s been floating in and out of my consciousness a lot lately. I hear it, clearly, in my own voice, echoing in the windy rush of everything going on in my head. Scrambling at work to hold on to every last balloon string; churning at home to keep up with chores and groceries; bouncing through weekends from parties to game nights to family gatherings to dinners out. “I am overwhelmed.”

I’m not a high-energy person. I’m a deliberate thinker, a night owl, a long sleeper. So I don’t feed off of this kind of stuff. It grinds me down. I’m not really sure what to do about it, since I can’t give in to the urge to lock the door, turn off my phone, and hibernate for a week. So I’m trying to find and open my release valves, and manufacture projects for myself that will let out some of the steam. More and more, I’m realizing that jam-making is one of those valves for me.

A few weeks ago, my neighbor Jess and I got together after work for a Monday night canning session. I had a big haul of apricots from a friend’s tree, so ripe and ready that they were disintegrating in the bag. We threw them in a pot with a whole lotta sugar and some lemon juice, and cooked them down into a chunky, spreadable goo. Then we threw some jars in the oven, boiled some lids and rings, and processed everything a jar or two at a time in my little mini-canning pot. No flash, no fuss, no extra herbs or spices or tea leaves or booze; apricot jam doesn’t need any of that. It’s absolutely incredible when it’s simple like this, treacle-sweet and fragrant, cheerful and familiar. It’s an old-fashioned food, apricot jam, and that stodginess seems to suit me right now.

At one point while transferring jars in and out of the hot water, I snapped my tongs closed on my finger. The next day I had an irregular reddish bruise that engulfed most of my fingertip. It was tender but not painful, and I could look at it for several days as a reminder that “I am overwhelmed” doesn’t need to be my default state. There are still a lot of balloon strings to hold onto, a lot of chores, a lot of social obligations, but sometimes it’s necessary to shut all that out and just make something good to eat.

apricot jam (plain)

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