Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Easy Great Bread at Home in 5 Minutes

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

I’ve written about my sourdough baking, and I got comments and emails about people’s love of home-made fresh bread. But it’s an hours-long process, requiring attentive measuring and careful timing, with uncertain results, particularly for newbie bakers. With Farm-to-Market’s wonderful bread on supermarket shelves, and Fervere producing some of the best breads in the world, you can avoid the whole hassle for 4 or 5 bucks.

But you can make your whole house smell like baking bread for cents a loaf, and be rewarded with a truly top-notch bread, way up there with Farm-to-Market, without worry and without scheduling your day around it. I don’t mean to sound like a street corner evangelist, or a side-show barker, but, seriously, I mean YOU, you should have fresh bread this week.

The secret is cold, wet dough. You spend a few minutes mixing together 3 cups of water, a table spoon and a half of yeast, two teaspoons of salt (more or less, depending on your taste), and six and a half cups of flour in a bowl with a spoon (no kneading), let it sit, covered loosely, for a couple hours, then put it in your refrigerator. Over the next couple weeks (if it lasts that long), you put flour on your hands, grab a grapefruit sized chunk of it, shape it into a sticky ball, let it rest for 40 minutes, and then bake it in a 450 degree oven for half an hour or so. Your hands are dirty for under 5 minutes, and you’ll be pulling an awesome loaf of bread out of the oven in less time than it takes for 3 episodes of “Scrubs”.

I meant to post a picture of one of the loaves I made this week, but it fell victim to breakfast toast.

If you want to learn more, and make the bread even better, this article is what turned me on to this miracle method, and it has a few tips that are absolutely worth it, like using a pizza stone and putting a pan of water in when you bake the bread. The authors of the article also have a blog and a couple books (Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking and Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients). I haven’t even read the books yet – the Kansas City Public Library (yea, Waldo Branch!) is working on it for me – but I’ve been wildly impressed with the breads I’ve made over the past couple weeks.

The Time When Tips Die

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

The time that passes from when I finish my meal to when I receive my tab is the time that good tips die. It’s a time when good waiters show their attentiveness and earn rewards, and bad waiters cost themselves money I would have been happy to give.

I’m a patient diner and a generous tipper. Where else in your economic life can an adjustment of a couple dollars either way have a direct impact on the happiness level of a hard-working person? On a $15 bill, I can be an ass for $2, a decent human being for $3, a good guy for $4 and a working class hero if I don’t insist on getting a measly buck back from my $20. Most days, I’ll invest in some good karma.

I don’t blame waiters for mediocre food, I don’t blame them for long preparation times, and I’m not fussy about whether my water glass is refilled every time I take a sip. I get annoyed with them for not having a clue about their beer list, but the problem is so widespread I assume there must be some union rule forbidding them from knowing what malted beverages are available, so I grudgingly forgive even that incompetence. Unless I see them hanging around chatting with coworkers, I assume they’re working hard and doing their best.

But my patience lasts only until my plate is empty, or moved to the side. At that time, I expect the waiter to notice, ask whether I want dessert or another beverage, and begin preparing the tab. That is the time period that most impacts the size of my tip.

A couple weekends ago, we had pizza for Saturday lunch at an “upscale” pizzeria in Brookside. The food was better than I had been led to expect (including some inventive salads), and their beer list included Magic Hat #9, so the stage was set for a generous tip. But we became invisible to the waitress when the pizza was shoved to the side. With laser-like focus, she swooped in to seat take orders from tables near us, without even a sideways glance at the table she had already served.

To me, that is like serving a dessert with a roach in it after a fine meal. It ruins what has come before. A pleasant 35-40 minute lunch has been capped off with a 10 minute annoyance of trying to pay for it. Her tip reflected my annoyance, and she probably figured she had gotten stuck with a lousy tipper. 10 minutes earlier, she would have been pleasantly surprised.

Missing Meals – What Kansas City has Lost

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Kansas City is a great restaurant town, and I think it’s even getting better. We are blessed with more creative chefs than I can count, and they keep moving us forward. But, every now and then, my thoughts will trip back to restaurants that have disappeared, and I’d like to step back in time for a couple hours. Here are a few places I would visit, in no particular order:

1. Leonard’s, for biscuits and gravy. Leonard’s was a previous occupant of what is now Governor Stumpy’s, and they put out the best biscuits and gravy I’ve ever had. The gravy was peppery, with lots of tasty sausage, and the biscuits were soft with a crisp crust.

2. La Mediterranee for lunch. On the east side of the Plaza, a quiet, elegant French restaurant used to serve top-notch fare on fine china with white tablecloths for around $5.

3. Al Roubaie’s (sp?) for lobster. Up the hill on Main from the Plaza, back when Main went straight over the creek, was a spotty little restaurant with a great lobster special. If I recall correctly, you got lobster and sides for $15, and it was a feast.

4. Thirsty’s Cantina for lunch. I don’t know how they packed so much flavor into a simple chicken sandwich, but it was wonderful. There used to be a great bar in the space now occupied by Panerra in Westport. They also served a burrito thing I can’t remember the name of (chicken cantina?), but it was filled with chicken in a creamy, cheesy sauce with just enough jalapeno to make it shine. All that, plus chips and salsa.

5. TJ Cinnamon’s. I know that the name lives on as a corporate asset of the Arby’s chain, but, if you weren’t around to experience it, you have no idea how mouth-watering a walk through Ward Parkway mall could be back in the mid-80s. The aromas of butter and cinnamon wafted through the then-active halls of commerce. The rolls were warm and soft – the size of softballs – and they were individual treasures, not boxed products.

This trip down memory lane has not truly been a lament. I think we have more, better restaurants today than we did 20 years ago. I wouldn’t even trade the dependable neighborhood friendliness of Governor Stumpy’s for the breakfast of Leonard’s. Things change and they sometimes get better. But these are some fond food memories I have of Kansas City . . .

Where is the Best Mole in Kansas City?

Friday, October 30th, 2009

I’ve never made a great, or even a very good, mole. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve even really tasted a great mole. I feel like a whole world of culinary awesomeness awaits.

Mole is a broad word that includes thick Mexican sauce. Guacamole is a form of mole, though that’s not what I’m talking about when I express my desire to taste a great mole. I want rich, peppery, complex sauce that steals the show from the sweetest pork, the juiciest chicken, the freshest fish, or whatever is served with it.

I know that I’m still not being specific enough. There are moles that range from green to nearly black, and flavors that range from fire to peanutty. I’ve read Rick Bayless’ cookbooks and even spent a day trying to make an ambitious green mole from one of them, but it was merely okay.

Where in Kansas City can I find good versions of this labor-intensive sauce? Are the jarred varieties any good? Any advice for an open-minded, eager-to-learn gringo?

Pasta Carbonara in Minutes – and the Fiction of Recipes

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

For most dishes, recipes are an inspiration, not a road map. There’s no point in stressing over exact measurements for most recipes – differences in technique and ingredients are going to make your dish an individual creation anyhow. Relax, be yourself, and make it the way you like it.

Pasta carbonara is a great example of this approach. In essence, it’s bacon and eggs with pasta – breakfast bolstered for dinner. Calvin Trillin argues that it ought to replace turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, though I don’t go quite that far. Turkey deserves its place as a once-a-year struggle, while pasta carbonara ought to be in the regular rotation of weeknight dinners.

Here’s how I made it last night. I am completely capable of writing this in the traditional format of recipes, with a list of ingredients followed by cooking instructions, but I’d prefer to break out of that mold. This is not a scientific formula to be slavishly recreated. I started a pound of pasta boiling, and fried up a third of a pound of pancetta, adding a a few cloves of minced garlic when it was almost crisp. When the garlic was softened and the pasta cooked to my liking, I tossed the drained pasta in with the pancetta along with a little bit of the pasta water, removed it from the heat, tossed in 4 eggs I had whipped with salt and pepper, stirred that vigorously together, and then stirred in about a cup of parmesan and some parsley.

That’s all, folks. In the time it would have taken to heat up two microwave dinners, I made enough pasta carbonara to make dinner and a couple hearty lunches.

At almost every point in that brief recipe, though, there was room to add your own preferences. I used pancetta this time, but bacon works great, and so does prosciutto. Go with your preference. I used a pretty heavy hand with the garlic – use as much or as little as you like, and add it early if you want its flavor to mellow and meld, or add it late if you want it to be sharp. Use as much or as little pasta water as you like to get the consistency you prefer, or toss in a little white wine to give it a touch of acid. Use as many eggs as you see fit, and substitute different cheeses for the parmesan – or simply use a different grade of parmesan. (I was lazy last night, and used the parmesan that had been grated at the store – I could have easily upgraded by buying a chunk of real parmesan and firing up the food processor.) If you want, you can add capers or olives, and you can toss in herbs.

Even if I had set out to accurately recreate someone else’s recipe, it’s doubtful that I could recreate exactly what the recipe writer makes. How crisp is crisp pancetta? What brand of pancetta are we each using? They’re not all the same. Even the pasta and eggs have subtle differences and vary in freshness – not to even mention the possibility of home-made pasta. The cheese is a wild card – even IF we both chose parmesan, it’s unlikely that they’re going to taste very much the same.

Most recipes are springboards to get you started creating. Don’t fear the recipe police. Go with your preferences.

Osceola Cheese – Disappointment on Highway 13

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

When traveling through Missouri, there are lots of fascinating spots to visit for a quick break. Those brown Missouri Department of Conservation signs point to dozens of small parks, and the flea markets and antique shops hold treasures.

But the Osceola Cheese Shop is not one of them.

Always crowded with slow-moving sample-takers, the store is harshly lit, poorly laid out and filled with cheese that mostly tastes like American with artificial flavorings. On top of that, you get “gifts” offered by an attached Christian bookstore and Precious Moments figurines next to dew rags festooned with the flag of the Confederate Losers.

It manages the difficult feat of being completely tacky without even offering visitors an opportunity to be ironically amused by kitsch. It’s a cheese shop that can’t even be engagingly cheesy.

Italian Meatballs

Monday, October 5th, 2009

I love meatballs. I’ve had fancy, lowbrow, Swedish, baseball-sized, Himalayan, frozen, crockpotted, sandwiched, fried, marble-sized and other varieties I can’t even remember. If there’s a meatball on a menu, I’m a sucker for it.

So, yesterday when I decided to add a carnivorous twist to my vegetarian spaghetti sauce, meatballs were the obvious choice. But not just rolled up pieces of ground beef – I wanted something that would stand up to the long-simmered tomato sauce.

2 pounds of lean ground beef, a half pound of ground pork, a little less than a half pound each of pancetta and prosciutto cut into tiny pieces, 3 eggs, some bread crumbs, some red wine, spices and Italian parsley, tossed in a bowl and mixed. I browned them in olive oil, then put them in a dutch oven for an hour at 350, covered in the spaghetti sauce. The recipe makes too darned many meatballs – a crowd of 10 barely put a dent in them.

Few things are better than meatballs on an autumn afternoon, but two things that come close are the aroma of spaghetti sauce and meatballs filling the house, and leftovers.

Not A Restaurant Review – Mezzaluna on Gregory

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

I had lunch at the freshly opened Mezzaluna now occupying the former Papa Keno’s space at Gregory and Rockhill (formerly Waldeaux Wines and Liquors, and Circle K when we moved into the neighborhood 20+ years ago). Before I get started describing the experience, I want to make a quick acknowledgment that I am not a real restaurant reviewer. I fear that sometimes we bloggers get a little full of ourselves, and think we’re the equivalent of a legitimate restaurant reviewer, because we go to restaurants and write about our experiences.

That’s kind of like claiming you’re a football player after tossing the ball around on the lawn, or claiming you’re a golfer after a round at Cool Crest. Just because you go through some of the motions doesn’t mean you’ve played the whole game. Tiger Woods does more than putt on felt, and there are a lot of Xs and Os in a real football game.

Real reviewers know a lot more than I do, and work a lot harder. I’m about to spout off on a restaurant I have visited once, by myself, for lunch, during their “soft” opening. I have no experience in opening a restaurant, and I don’t have any advanced culinary training. I haven’t written a ton of reviews, and I haven’t studied the work of the great restaurant reviewers.

A proper restaurant reviewer would approach his or her task with a wealth of experience in the restaurant and journalism businesses, and would visit several times with multiple friends to get a sense of the breadth of the menu and the skill of the service. It’s easy to laud or lambast a restaurant for one meal, but it’s not a fair assessment, nor is it particularly helpful to the reader. Your praise of a lamb chop doesn’t give a vegetarian much of a guess about what to expect.

I write all this not to belittle those of us who happen to publish on a blog – there are some top-notch true restaurant reviewers on blogs who have the skills and put in the effort to do first-rate reviews. I write all this simply to pay proper homage to those who work while I play, and to heighten the readers’ awareness of the rigor required of real restaurant reviewers.

Now that all that is out of the way, I’m happy to be welcoming Mezzaluna to the neighborhood. It’s a small Italian restaurant with a menu full of the basics, a good wine list and a nicely-done beer list, enhanced by a few craft brews on tap. The downstairs space is nice but a little utilitarian, with floor-to-ceiling retail coolers covering one entire wall, left over from the space’s days as a liquor store. The upstairs space is surprisingly elegant, though, with cloth-covered chairs, white tablecloths and a pleasant breeze when the garage-door walls are opened. The guys at the table next to me ordered a bottle of wine (well-served by the waiter who swore it was the first time he had ever, in his life, opened a bottle of wine), and I envied the prospect of staying there for the afternoon, sipping wine with friends at tree-level.

The menu included several tempting options, all within the $8-12 range, including all the classics like ravioli, chicken parmesan, caesar salads, etc. I sought and accepted the waiter’s advice in choosing between the Pizza Mezzaluna (a carnivore’s concoction with garlic) and the lasagna. He recommended the lasagna, and it was a generous serving of well-prepared meat, cheese and pasta. It stood out for its restraint – some lasagna beats you over the head with dark red marinara sauce and spicy sausage, but this one was more elegant. The meat featured ground veal and a delicate hand with the spices, and the sauce was tamed with cream. I’d recommend it highly.

I visited the restaurant on its third day, and there were the expected kinks in service. The credit card machine was not working, and the waiter was stretched too thin serving both upstairs and downstairs. Given his apparent lack of experience (never having opened a bottle of wine), he did a fantastic job, with a friendly, relaxed style while running up and down the stairs.

I look forward to returning sometime soon for dinner, and sharing wine with friends in the upstairs space. Mezzaluna should thrive as an elegant addition to the neighborhood.

Pasta with Chicken and Olives – Simple Sophistication, Quick and Easy

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Elaborate recipes are great fun, but some days I just want something quick and easy. Those are the days for Pasta with Chicken and Olives. Thanks to the development of olive bars and rotisserie chicken in grocery stores, I can have this on the table in thirty minutes or less.

The olive cart at my local grocer is small but wonderful. For this recipe, I have a bias toward green olives – they tend to be a bit firmer, and their flavor goes well with chicken. But the key is to pick out a blend. I pick out a mix of 2 cups or so of olives, black and green, mostly pitted, along with a few bright red Peppadew peppers (read their odd story here)
and some caper berries. (If you’ve never used caper berries, just cut off their stem and prepare yourself for a briny, grainy treat.)

Don’t use the slotted spoons when scooping out your olives. That juice is key to infusing the dish with flavor. I usually wind up with juice covering about half the olives.

When you get home, start a pot of water boiling for the pasta (use your favorite variety, though I prefer good old fettucini). Take about half of the meat off the chicken, in bite-sized chunks. Set it aside, and chop the olives, peppers and capers into smaller pieces. No mincing, just breaking them up a little. Dump them with the juice into a pan big enough to hold the pasta when it’s ready, and heat them up.

Then go to your refrigerator and see what enhancements you want to toss in. A little Siracha sauce is great. Pepperoncini add a spicy bite. A little garlic flavor from a splash of bottled Garozzo’s Amogio sauce is great. A squeeze of lemon or a little white wine works, too.

Once the pasta is cooked just a bit shy of al dente, drain it and toss it in with the olives. Add the chicken meat and cook it for 5 or so minutes so that some of the juice flavor gets into the pasta, and the dish is heated through. Mix it all up and serve it.

If you have a loaf or crusty bread or a salad, all the better, but the meal is satisfying as is. It’s a lot cheaper than getting a pizza delivered, and it’s even better for lunch the following day.

Free Yeast for Baking

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Few things on earth are as satisfying as a loaf of home-made bread of sourdough. First, the aroma spreads through the house, and then you get to saw through a rich dark crust and taste that still-warm bread. It has a tang that elevates it over blander loaves, and it’s all yours for a bit of patience and less money than the cheapest supermarket fluff.

Sourdough yeast is wild yeast – not from a packet or a jar, but from the air and surfaces surrounding us. Yeast is everywhere, hoping to find the right opportunity to start converting sugars and starches into carbon dioxide and alcohol. If you give yeast that opportunity and capture its carbon dioxide in a glue of flour and fluid, you have bread dough.

Thousands of varieties of yeast exist around us. Over time, civilization has cultured the “best” varieties, and these are the ones you find in foil packets in the grocery store. They are wonderful at what they do – produce consistent loaves with dependable rise and a neutral flavor. Now, they even have rapid-rise versions that do all those things in about half the time the prior generations had to invest in their bread.

Sourdough yeast is different. It has a tangy, distinctive, sour taste. It rises on a slower schedule, and can be finicky about whether it will rise at all. Sourdough yeast is typically kept in starters, some of which have been passed down for generations and originally gained fame when gold prospectors left their civilized yeast behind and started fresh cultures of wild yeast in the Wild West (you can get a free starter of a Carl Griffin’s Oregon Trail strain from 1847 here, for the cost of a self-addressed stamped envelope).

It’s easy to make your own starter, though. Saturday morning, I mixed a cup of flour and a cup of water, and put it in a loosely covered jar and let it sit. By Saturday evening, a layer of yellow-brownish fluid had formed on the surface, and I mixed it back in. Sunday morning, it looked kind of foamy. This morning, it had risen up the jar and fallen back down, and is ready to be “fed” with more water and flour.

The yellowish stripe in the second picture is “hooch” – a layer of fluid with alcohol in it, but nothing you would want to drink. You can either mix it back in or wait for it to rise to the surface and pour it off.

I have captured the wild yeast, and, as baking season returns, I’ll be able to create my own unique versions of sourdough loaves, biscuits and even waffles.