Monthly Archives: February 2015

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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