Sunday, September 27, 2015

Kathleen: Weekend Baking

This weekend I was meant to go for a long ramble with a couple of my friends.  Sadly, our walk was cancelled (especially sad since the weather was quite good), and I felt it would be a waste of my weekend to use it watching TV and playing games.  So in addition to errands, mowing the lawn, cleaning, and so forth, I have done some baking.

This week the greengrocers had some very cheap blackberries on offer.  Cheap blackberries is not often something I come across, so of course I had to make a blackberry pie.  This is my first latticed blackberry pie in twenty years.  Obviously I have a bit of practice doing lattice ahead of me, but I'm immensely pleased with the results.

Yesterday was more normal cooking; I made a red curry and basic muffins.  The muffins are the same type that Mum used to make when we were children, nothing special but my favorite muffins to make.  This is the muffins, 36 hours after they came out of the oven.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Xan: Kerr Lake 2015!

We have just returned from VongsaCamping 2015 at Kerr Lake. This year's group: Mom, Dad, Kathleen, myself, Catherine, Chris VA, and also a cameo from Monica and Devin. Linden was notably absent, and yet somehow constantly present by phone, despite limited reception and significant timezone differences.

Regardless, good times were had by all. And, as this is technically a food blog, it must be said that we ate particularly well this year. Mom used to say that after a week of camping, regular food tastes amazing. However, I think this has slowly become disingenuous. The food gets better every year and at some point we just started eating better than we typically would at home.

What happened to us and when did we get so spoiled? It's hard to pinpoint a single cause, but if I had to describe the evolution of our camping menu, it would go something like this:
  1. In the beginning, we were like everyone else. Beans and franks, you know? And grill food -- burgers, I suppose, and more franks? Not sure. I'm too young to actually remember the beginning, frankly, but I think it was a very frankly time.
  2. Over the years, we picked up some great camping recipes from other campers. Chicken Chili and so forth. Things that are easy to prepare in quantity with limited tools. 
  3. However, we came to realize that it's so hard to cook anything in the wilderness that we ought to prepare as much as possible in advance. Dad would bring ribs that just needed reheating. Mom would precook onions and sausage and I would premix a dozen spices and then a Moroccan ragout involved nothing more than heating up a can of diced tomatoes together with precooked onions/sausage/spices, ready in 10 minutes.
  4. As more and more partial and complete meals were prepared in advance, planning took on a life of its own. Meals were either planned or panned. And it turns out that if you do 10 times as much planning, you can eat twice as well.
  5. From here, we continued to optimize, optimize, optimize, until we had so many great recipes that it became impossible to even cut the menu down to an amount we could eat in a week. This time, we had to have a two-dinner day to make room for it all. I even stopped catching catfish, which I'm told is an "improvement" in the menu, even though I don't necessarily agree.
What do you think, Vongsas? Is that what happened, or did I just make it all up?

I will now recap the food highlights of the trip, at least from my perspective.

Chapter 1: A cake with True Grit.
A few years ago, we discovered you can make cake in a Dutch oven over coals. Unfortunately, we had a little trouble with the orientation of our Pineapple Upside Down cake, which a certain person extracted from the oven only to drop it right into the sand. It was a very confusing experience. One minute we were looking forward to cake, the next moment we were looking down. We dusted it off as best we could, but it was certainly a cake with True Grit. It could have been much worse, actually, if it had fallen upside-down...or is that right-side-up? Whereas cats always land on their feet and toast always lands butter-side-down, Pineapple Upside Down Cake is guaranteed to land ambiguously.

In any case, this year we took no chances. We did a Texas Sheet Cake instead, which is always the right way up, and I was in charge of removing it from the pot, and there were no accidents, and it was glorious. You don't mess with Texas Sheet Cake.

Chapter 2: The Fires of Mount Doom.
Perhaps you don't know it yet, but there is really only one question you should be asking right now. You should be saying, "Xan, I get that you guys baked the cake in the Dutch oven, but what about the icing?"

You should be asking this because the answer is that we melted the icing on the fiery slopes of the goddamn Volcano we built with our bare hands. 

One tries to minimize the cursing on a family food blog, but in this case we have found that sanitizing only makes the Volcano angry. 

Specifically, what you see here is Chris wielding his trusty 40-oz bottle of 63% ethyl alcohol Germ-X hand sanitizer. The Volcano clearly does not appreciate attempts to clean up its act.

How this happened: Me and Chris are, of course, always looking for new ways to control fire. So I pitched him the idea to build a camping oven from scratch and see how good we could get it going. We quickly put together a small test oven with a few rocks and wet sand:

We were impressed with how well it worked and decided we needed Something Bigger. So we collected a bunch of rocks and dredged the lake bed for mud to act as mortar, which was baked pretty hard by the heat of the oven. Here is the oven in progress:

We found some mystery bricks and an old grate left behind by another camper. The fuel would go on the grate, and ashes would fall below like in a grill.

Some nice flat rocks would make for the roof of the oven and double as a stone cooktop.

We also added a smoking chamber which in retrospect was a mistake, as we did not actually have access to any woods that would be nice for smoking foods. It's mostly pine and sweetgum in the nutrient-poor soil around the lake.

Of course, at some point Chris decided that the chimney should be a volcano, and it was all downhill from there, in a Run-For-Your-Lives, Kill-a-Man-Jaro sort of sense.

To be perfectly honest, after hours of building this behemoth, we were not at all sure it would, you know, work when we lit it up. But as soon as we set it ablaze, smoke just shot out of the volcano.

Of course, we had to name it Mt. Doom.

One fire ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness BLIND THEM!

Anyway, you get the idea. It was pretty awesome. The next day, Chris built up the volcano even more.

Lake mud, cast into the fiery chasm whence it flame!

Sadly, I do not have any pictures of it on fire. Nevertheless, the stone cooktop got hot enough to toast our garlic bread.

Chapter 3: Chop chop! Pull pull! Pork pork!

While Chris was building out the Volcano, I was also engaged in another ambitious project: spit-roasting an 8 lb pork shoulder roast over the open fire. I wanted to make a spit from scratch. This turned out to be difficult. In fact I was fortunate to have access to a couple of particularly helpful tools.

First of all, this year finally saw the arrival of a proper felling axe. We retired our beloved hatchet, affectionately named Old Faithful by Chris, for its longstanding habit of faithfully flying off the handle in mid-swing. I will shed no tears for the departure of Old Faithful, and no fingers either.

Wielding the mighty felling axe, I was able to effortlessly hew the necessary lumber from a downed pine. I fashioned a pair of tripods to hold the spit, and used one of Dad's woodworking tools to remove bark and sharpen the spit itself:

Make no mistake -- that spear would have skewered a wild boar! But I had only purchased an NC fishing permit, not a hunting permit, and so I was forced to rely on the domesticated variety. (For now). We coated it in Memphis Dust and went right through the center.

The idea here is to have a main fire blazing off to the side, which generates embers, which are moved near the pork to cook it under moderate heat in a controlled fashion. The fire itself might contain perhaps a whole tree..

I always do like to include a whole tree in a fire like this, because you can just keep pushing it in as it combusts. This one was long dead and dried, but still quite heavy and Chris helped me to drag it over.

In the absence of a battery-operated rotisserie, draft animals, or fellow campers willing to do my bidding, I simply turned the spit every 20-30 minutes. After 7 hours on the spit, the pork looked like this:

Can you smell that? It smells GUUD!

Not done yet, though, as we were going for pulled pork.

Chapter 3.5: Lightning Strikes!

Pulled pork is an all-day affair. Unfortunately, all the day was not fair. Before the pork could finish, we were beset by a Most Epic Thunderstorm and had to resort to Backup Contingency Rain Plan #1, which was to throw the pork into the Dutch Oven, surround it with coals, cover it with foil, and wait out the storm.

Two hours and two inches of rain later, the storm finished. An hour after that, so did the pork. We pulled it, and dug in!

Pretty good, under the circumstances! And I will say that despite the fall of rain and night, we never once dropped the pork.


Of course this is but a small sampling of the Kerr Lake 2015 menu. I wish I had pictures of all the food, but it's hard when your phone is mostly off. Maybe next time we can try to put together a more comprehensive review. In any case, I hope you have enjoyed this recap of our caper, jumbled as it may be. Yeah, think about it.

An epilog, charred. From the Greek epi- meaning "upon." A log on a log is an epilog. A frog on a log is an epifrog. 

A pig on a spit on a log, to wit: epihog. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Xan: Santa Fe Salad

Catherine loves Chop't, a sort of "Coldstone of salad" chain that is currently found only in DC and NYC. Because we do not currently live in either of those places, I modified a fine knockoff recipe of her favorite salad, the Santa Fe Salad.

Here is my version:

I like it a lot, but I have never had the real thing myself, so I rely on Catherine's evaluation. She says it is really good!

  • 1 head of Romaine lettuce
  • 1 cup of baby spinach
  • 1 cup corn (canned, fresh, or frozen/microwaved)
  • 3/4 cup grape tomatoes
  • 1 avocado
  • 1/2 cup pepper jack cheese
  • Two cooked chicken breasts, chopped (optional)
  • Tex-mex Ranch dressing (purchase from Chop't or make your own, see below)
  • 1/4 cup fried onions
To make your own Tex-mex ranch, mix a quarter cup of ranch with the juice of one lime, 1 tsp paprika, 1 tsp cumin. In the future I will experiment with adding some cayenne.

  1. Chop vegetables and cheese into small pieces! Salad is hard to eat! Make it easy!
  2. Mix ingredients together (including chicken if you are using it), aside from dressing and fried onions.
  3. When ready to eat, toss individual servings with dressing and sprinkle fried onions over top.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Linden: Easter dinner

In England, we get a four-day weekend for Easter - Good Friday and Easter Monday. On the Thursday leading up to that weekend, me and Chris returned to our favorite restaurant - the Theo Randall at the Intercontinental in London.

This is the kind of place where Papa would say to Mama, "Our children have become accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle", despairingly. It is expensive and fancy, in a restful, luxurious, enjoyable kind of way. It also has the most amazing lemon tart, and amazing chocolate cloud cake, and also the beef ragu that inspired me to find, try, and add to regular rotation my pork ragu. And this time, we happened to be there on the day his new cookbook came out, and Theo Randall came out to talk to us and sign his book for us. (It turns out, his ragu tastes better than mine because he adds a stick of butter at the end.)

Now I don't buy a lot of cookbooks (usually, they are finicky and fiddly and either super fatty, use super expensive ingredients, or lots of simple carbs), but I bought his, because it has all three of those recipes. And it was super worth it, because it had a recipe for leg of lamb that I used three days later for Easter dinner. It called for butterflying, which I had not done before but was pretty easy (plus, it meant we did not have to cook a massive leg of lamb for just three of us. I did cut it into thirds and froze the other two portions). Then I seared it and put it in the oven to finish. We had it with a traditional roast dinner.

Plus Yorkshire puddings (which always seem to come out 3 minutes after you've sat down to eat). Every time I cook Yorkshire pudding with roasts that aren't beef, Chris says to me, "but Linden, why are you making Yorkshire pudding? We're not eating beef." BECAUSE THEY ARE DELICIOUS. And, because it's not like the English have ever been able to accurately and faithfully cook any other culture's food, they have no leg to stand on. And, ALSO, because some midlanders told me recently, that in Yorkshire, the HOME OF YORKSHIRE PUDDING, they make it with everything ever, and this roast beef thing was just made up by southerners. SO I WIN. Yorkshire pudding with everything!
The best thing about Easter was that while I was cooking Easter dinner, he and his mum did the spring gardening, and our garden now looks less like a wilderness.

And then for dessert, I made a french apple tart, which . I had a moment when making this where Chris asked, "Is this hard to make?" And I said, "No, it's pretty straightforward, I'm not sure why I didn't make this years ago" and then had to backpedal - BACKPEDAL - because in the negotiations of how often I cook this, Chris thinking it's straightforward is not in my interest, and in reality, it's not exactly Level 1 dessert making (brownies and cookies); it's more like Level 4 or 5. You have to make the tart crust and chill it, prepare the filling, and peel, core and quickly&regularly thinly slice your apples and then arrange them on the top of the tart. I didn't make it 4 years ago because it would have been really hard then. But it is so worth it, except that it disappears so quickly? And Chris got really upset that I sent some of it home with his mum?

It is SO GOOD that I'm including the recipe here. Set aside at least two hours unless you are an apple peeling ninja. (Modified from here)

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup butter slightly softened
1 egg yolk
3 T cold water

1/2 cup butter, softened at room temperature
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 egg yolk
1 T Cognac or calvados or apple brandy (traditionally it's made with calvados, which is a French brandy made from apples, which is different from apple brandy, which is American brandy made from apples. You can substitute cognac, which is what I did because it is more flexible and if I'm going to buy a big bottle of spirits that I'm going to use 1T at a time, I'd rather it work in more than one dish.)
2/3 cup ground almonds
2T all-purpose flour

3-4 medium sweet apples (I used gala) peeled, cored, halved and thinly sliced.
Powdered sugar for sprinkling on top.

1. Pastry: Stir together flour and salt. Add butter, egg yolk and water, and stir until the mixture forms large crumbs. Add water until you can form a ball. Wrap the ball in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 mins. (Pastry dough easily lasts 2 days in the fridge if you're doing this in advance. Wrap it well, and don't leave it next to bananas or onions, because dough picks up fridge odors.)
2. Frangipane: Cream butter and sugar. Mix in egg and egg yolk. Mix in cognac. Mix in almonds and flour.
3. Roll pastry dough out to a 12 inch circle. Put in 10-inch tart or pie pan. Press into bottom and sides. Prick with a fork and flute the sides. Put back in the fridge and chill until firm.
4. Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Place a baking sheet inside oven while it preheats, on a lower rack.
5. Spoon frangipane into chilled pastry and spread into even layer. Arrange the apple slices in an overlapping spiral pattern. Each slice should have one edge pressed into the frangipane until it touches the pastry base, and then overlap the previous slice. Start at the outside edge, and work towards the center.
6. Place the pie plate on top of the baking sheet in the preheated oven. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the filling begins to brown. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Bake for another 10 minutes, then sprinkle sugar over the top of the tart. Return to the oven for 10 more minutes, or until the sugar caramelizes slightly.

Done! Eat warm.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Xan: Flank steak with secret ingredient!

Flank steak, roast mushrooms, salad.

This is going to sound weird, but the secret ingredient to Catherine's favorite flank steak sauce! According to Nathan Myhrvold, marinating the beef in fish sauce will mimic the flavor of dry-aged beef.  I don't think it really nails the flavor of dry-aged beef, but I see where he's coming from. It's a richer, more complex and savory flavor.

Use 3g fish sauce per 100g beef and marinate in a ziploc with air squeezed out, for 3 days. (You can do one day if you like, but then I would cut the fish sauce by half). Thoroughly pat dry and then cook like normal. In this case I have sous videnated the steak at 135. If you are cooking sous vide (and now I'm talking to an empty room), do take the marinated steak out of your bag and pat it dry to get rid of excess fish sauce before cooking. (Fish sauce inside the meat = good. Fish sauce outside = fishy).