As news outlets would not let us forget, last week marked a year since many of us in the western world settled into this Pandemic Reality that continues to be a fact of our lives. A year ago, I came home for what would become the longest spring break ever and returned once again to residing in a place that was not a small, one bedroom dorm, AKA – a place with a fully equipped kitchen (not left in disgusting states of disarray by college students). The time that would normally be spent traveling far and wide to different cafés and bakeries was replaced by taking long walks around the neighborhood while waiting for dough to proof. Hours in the kitchen kneading, folding, simmering, frying, and playing fridge-jenga with sheet pans, pie plates, and cake tins in need of cooling. Culinary marathons exploring the limits of my production capacity. My knees would grow tired in the third quarter and demand I take a seat while continuing on, or I would find that I had mis-judged my timeline and I would be under the wire to get everything done by the self-imposed deadline, or a whole dish would get lost in the shuffle and need to be finagled into a speedy existence as best as possible. But at the end of it all there was a tangible and taste-able result of my labor, a satisfaction many of us reveled in this past year. We took pleasure in learning about new dishes, and in doing so other cultures. In researching recipes to garner a dish’s many regional nuances, determining its essential character, and bringing it from the page to the plate. In tasting produce and products that had never been tasted before, we traveled somewhere new despite the forced quotidian sameness of our surroundings. In learning how to make the most of the garden, which sometimes included sharing it with others as well as powering through the deluge of zucchini. Small delights were found in perfect bowls of oatmeal, the ideal cluster of granola, or a simple in-season-tomato sandwich.
Needless to say, I’ve cooked a lot. On the very few days I have not cooked in the formal sense, I have at the very least prepared food, tended to it, or spent time reading about it. And while there are jobs and projects of a non-culinary nature that have shaped these past 365 days for me as well food is, as always, the main identifier of my time. So, this week I thought I would go through what’s been happening in the quarantine kitchen – both the things that have been returning champions throughout the year, and some recent newcomers.
Onions do so much heavy lifting making other things shine in sauces, soups, and salads. They are a cooking necessity without which very little of what I make would be possible, or at least good. They are the essential component of eliciting a “Something smells good” yet they are often fulfilling the role of a bass player, providing the rhythmic undercurrent that lets the melody shine with little appreciation for its efforts. Not often the part of the song that’s actively commented on, much less praised. But when able to tend them till jammy and caramelized, they are the star of any show.
The time at home to plan and prep has meant that things that may have formerly been simple with few embellishments have been able to get intensive treatment and any fixing one might imagine to make it ideal. Burgers that would previously have gotten a slice of cheese, lettuce, tomato, and raw onions, are now hard pressed to be found without a batch of caramelized onions (though sometimes I’ll make a quick pickle of some red onions, similarly wonderful in a different, acidy way). It takes some time, about an hour or a little more in total, to slice a handful of onions and simmer them with some olive oil and butter and a splash of vinegar (red wine usually, balsamic sometimes) and maybe some stock for intermittent deglazing if there’s a splash or two without a use in the foreseeable future. But with a podcast on and the savory smell of onion growing gradually deeper time passes quickly, and I am rewarded with one of life’s greatest condiments.
I try to make enough to have some left after whatever they were made to go with that night, as a wonderful use for them always comes up. Tucked into grilled cheeses. A weekend omelet or frittata. Atop a pizza with peppers and sausage, or even better, some fig, pear, goat cheese, and a drizzle of balsamic. Mixed into a pasta with literally anything else. Anything it touches turns to gold. It is an extremely simple, easy, gift you can give to yourself that will continue giving for meals to come.
A couple weeks ago I finally got around to making the French onion soup I had been thinking about since the first frost hit way back in fall. It was a star in its own right – another example of the power of caramelized onions – but what I have been thinking about since that meal was the veggie panini I made to go with it. What was born out of creative deliberation over how to make the main attraction a full meal while adding some veggies gradually became the most involved and delicious part. Homemade panini bread was baked that morning, producing soft rolls with enough structure to support the contents to come but yielding enough to take being pressed in the waffle iron, our makeshift panini press. Both ovens were firing at 425 degrees in the afternoon to roast some multicolored carrots, red peppers, eggplant, and mushrooms till devoid of excess moisture and ready to give the most of their umami possibilities. All these were laid strategically atop a slathering of fig and ginger jam (perhaps my favorite Stonewall Kitchen spread) along with some sundried tomato and pickled red onion, and topped with the same mix of baby swiss and fontina that was used to top the soup (there was no gruyere to be had at the farm stand). The result was a crispy, roasty, meaty but meat-less sandwich that could rival any of your classic hot sandwich combos. The fig and carrots got the sweet, the eggplant and mushrooms covered savory, the ginger gave a touch of sharp spice while the roasted red pepper, tomato and onions cut through more seriously with their acid, and all was brought together with the rich, gooey cheese. And while it certainly held up as a beauty unto itself, it certainly wasn’t hurt by a dip in some French onion soup. It was the sandwich of my dreams, and I look forward to making it a reality again someday soon.
Dumplings of Many Shapes and Sizes
I got into making homemade pasta a couple years ago and have been fine tuning my technique whenever I get the chance ever since. I’ve never had a pasta roller or extruder at my disposal, so every piece of tagliatelle or fettucine has been rolled and cut by hand. The dough is mixed in the food processor now (I simply do not need to put myself through making the well out of flour on the countertop, inevitably having it break open and trying to manage egg seepage when I have the technology to prevent it), but it is still certainly an endeavor for one with time. When the time is there though, and the dish is one where a fresh pasta would shine, it is one of my favorite ways to spend time in the kitchen. And when I really want to invest in a labor of love and settle in for some kitchen time, I make that dough into dumplings.
Just like the making of the dough itself, my dumpling folding and forming technique has been under constant improvement. With every batch, every shape, and every different type of dough I learn a bit more and get a bit better. When an Italian ravioli or tortelloni, it all begins with the familiar pasta dough – mostly AP flour, a little semolina, salt, a few eggs and an egg yolk or two, and some olive oil if needed – after it has rested for a couple hours and is rolled as thin as possible so I can see my hand though it clearly. Sometimes, I do my best to get it into a rectangle so I can dollop my filling on in inch and a half intervals on one half and fold the other of it, sealing between each dollop and cutting into individual pieces. If not looking for the square shape (or, more likely, I couldn’t roll it right) I cut it into 3-inch rounds, place the filling slightly off-center, and fold the larger portion of dough over, sealing with the other side that is lined with water. The first couple formations can be riddled with first pancake syndrome, but once my fingers get in the groove the process can become meditative. A brief dip in some well-salted boiling water, maybe a minute, then transferred to toss in a sauce and there is little that is more special or comforting. Recently the combos have been a classic four cheese ravioli with a homemade tomato sauce and mezzelune with a homemade maple squash filling in a brown butter and sage sauce, the extra filling from which became gnocchi, creating a combo dish that was a very happy accident.
Outside of Italy, though, I have been working on my dumpling pleating with jiaozi. While the first batch of jiaozi ended up being completely pleat-less, lucky enough to be properly sealed and filled, the subsequent attempts have gotten gradually cleaner as I improve on the texture of the dough, amount of filling possible, and get a feel for proper handling. And while it was not entirely necessary to carry the technique over in my pierogi making, it was impossible to pass up the opportunity to continue honing my newly acquired fine motor skills. Whether filled with ground meat, scallions, and ginger, or potatoes, onions, and sour cream, I will be happy to pleat a slew of dumplings to go for a steam, fry, or boil.
I’ve also been working with some wonton wrappers making a couple of batches of crab Rangoon and wonton soup. The ease of having the wrappers ready-made is offset by never seeming able to fully seal an entire batch properly. No matter how good they look laid out on the sheet tray, the fry oil reveals all sins when a small leak sputters and spurts hot oil up at me in revenge for having to come in contact with the cream cheese and crab mixture. And while the price to pay was less painful with the soup, the separation of pork filling from wonton wrapper as they drifted apart in the aggressive boiling water felt similarly spiteful on the part of the wontons. But the latest round of Rangoon, while not perfect, managed to stay almost entirely intact, and get perfectly golden brown on both sides without burning my face. With a little more practice, I am determined to get these as confidently incorporated into the dumpling repertoire as the rest.
The Step Stool
The tool that has emerged as a sleeper hero of the kitchen in the past couple of months has been the small step stool. Yes, it has long been appreciated for helping my 5’3” body reach pots and pans from the uppermost shelves, or handle our ginormous bag of AP Flour, but its MVP status has been solidified by its gift of leverage.
Rolling out dough, be it for pasta or pie, takes a little elbow grease. And when you’re as close to level with the dough as I am, it can take a little bit more than usual. But a little added height allows me to get my full weight behind the rolling pin to produce smooth, even(ish) sheet. The same principal applies if I’m trying to carve away at something particularly tough (think buttercup squash), allowing me to put a bit more of my strength behind my knife. It can even help to just a wider view of things while stirring over a tall pot or fussing over the finishing of a layer cake. I never really realized just how big a difference the height I was coming at could make until I took a step up and saw the view from up there.
Pi Day 2021
Last year we celebrated Pi Day and the beginning of the eternal spring break with a delicious cherry macaroon. This year saw a fruit pie as the star again in the form of a blueberry pie that exhibited the essence of pie excellence. The recipe for the filling was taken from the Tartine cookbook, a Christmas gift that has continued to give in multitudes this year. For the crust, though, I used what has become my standard for pie as I did not have einkorn flour, and trusted the proportions and process that has taken diligent and documented perfecting. After a quick mix (and for a third of the blueberries, a light mash) with a few simple ingredients, the blueberry filling was poured into an unbaked crust, lidded, and placed in the oven for a grand total of an hour and twenty minutes.
It was a good thing that the assembly and bake were so simple and relatively quick, because while the actual labor of the pie was minimal, the most important ingredient was a long, unrushed cool. The minimum mentioned was four hours, but a healthy 6-8 is really safest. The golden, glossy crust is hard to resist for that long, but our patience was rewarded when we cut in that night and were not met with any soggy seepage, but instead a firmly set filling that kept a perfect triangle when lifted from the pie to the plate. Topped with a little vanilla ice cream, and you had a mouthful of summer despite the violent chilly winds gusting outside. Good fruit is certainly a treat on its own, but they shine their brightest when given just a little extra love in the form of pie. It got me very excited to get picking from some local bushes and trees, gathering fresh fruit destined for a little sugar, lemon juice, and a pastry casing.
By the end of the weekend, during which I will execute some of the more elaborate and involved things on the list, we are often left with a bungle of leftovers of varying unity. And while sometimes it is perfectly enough to reheat it all as it was, sometimes the proportions are not quite right, or the main is gone leaving just a couple odd sides or vice versa. It is for these occasions that fried rice comes to the rescue. Any scant leftovers are made abundant and new again with a bunch of rice, some peas, and whatever seasoning feels right for what we have. Leftover ham can be thrown in with some peppers and canned pineapple with a sweeter sauce for a Hawaiian fried rice. Extra dumpling filling and scallions meet again with a little soy, hoisin, and rice vinegar. Leftover grilled shrimp tossed with a bunch of lime juice and fish sauce. Korean fried chicken shredded and tossed with a stray bit of cabbage eggplant (and any kimchi that’s lying around for those who like). Any veggie giving us warning of being on its way out can easily be incorporated, helping us avoid food waste. It’s never formally written into the week’s food plan but is one of the things that has been made most consistently as we have worked with what we have had these past twelve months.
Bread (Other than Sourdough)
Yes, I did go and am still on a sourdough journey (shoutout to Demeter, my new starter who I just fed today and is going strong and healthy!) like everyone and their freaking friend during this quarantine. But I would be amiss not to mention all the other, beautiful, less hyped loaves that have kept us from walking down the bread aisle more than a handful of times these many months. Between the soft, buttery dinner rolls, absurdly puffy English muffins, billowing brioche loaf (and buns for burgers), nutty whole wheat, airy ciabatta, and crusty artisanal loaves, the freezer is replete with a bread for all occasions at all times, there for us whenever there is not time or energy to make the appropriate one for that day’s dish. The process of each brings its own lesson, and its own opportunity to make something truly transformational and eternally wonderous. If what yeast can do isn’t awe-inspiring than I don’t know what is.
Perhaps one of the doughs I have worked with most this quarantine is pizza dough. A few different types have graced our pizza stones, but our tried and true is this one from Giada De Laurentiis. I’ll up the quantities by half to make two, 13-inch pizzas with a thin, airy Neapolitan-style crust, enough for dinner for three and a serving of leftovers for lunch. One will often have some sauteed mushrooms on top for my Mom and I, the other definitively mushroom-less for my Dad. Perhaps there’s sausage, pepper, and onion. Maybe pepperoni and black olives. Or kalamata olives and pickled onion. Or roasted red pepper and eggplant. Or the aforementioned caramelized onion, pear, fig, and goat cheese. Artichoke hearts and feta on a pesto sauced pie. Even a Hawaiian pizza or two has been seen around these parts. And when the mood strikes, I’ll slip on some anchovies on half of one, the marine acidity cutting through the cheese, bread, and sauce. With a good crust, all is good. And while it took a few rounds to get the feel for the pizza peel and just how much it wanted to be floured, a system has been developed that has homemade pizza within a day’s reach without a doubt. Or maybe we’re more in the mood for some calzones? Maybe with some garlic knots? Whichever way the crust comes to bear the cheese, sauce, and toppings, it is a great light at the end of the week, especially paired with a local IPA and maybe followed by some Ben and Jerry’s.
Whether it be found in these weeks’ recent hits or the dishes we have kept coming back to, the daily products of the kitchen have been the foremost bellwether of where we are – both in time and in life in general – this past year. It has been one of the few ways special dates were marked, that we connected with far away friends by making their favorite dish in their honor, by granting ourselves a treat at the end of a long day. The kitchen has been where I have likely spent the majority of my time. Certainly, where every day has ended without fail. And that consistency has allowed me a great deal of growth in my culinary skill and exploration of different techniques and flavors that have been slowly incorporated into my repertoire. I’m looking forward to being able to reflect on a lot of positive changes this time next year, included in that being the new adventures and traditions to be created in the kitchen.