Never quite follows the recipe. Doesn't really measure. Tastes with her fingers. Somehow, it always works.

In which Chili gets hot.

Posted: March 31st, 2008 | Author: johanna | Filed under: Johanna | 19 Comments »

I’m really happy about having made chili. I made it once before, and I really loved it. I love winging things. I think that there’s an element of pride in the fact that I can (sort of, limitedly) figure out how things will taste together, and cook by intuition. Of course, without any bullshit, I’ll fully admit that a lot of my cooking successes are via trial and error. I’m not at all afraid to screw up in the kitchen, mostly because I think it’s a learning experience. Also because frankly, if I screw up, I can throw it out and make scrambled eggs. I never screw those up.

My chili is pretty much designed to my tastes. I don’t love spicy-hot flavors, but I do love the warm spiciness of Indian inspired foods… cumin, coriander, curry powder…. they seem so warm and comforting to me, and not spicy at all. I like the illusion of heat. But of course, since it’s chili, you have to bust out the hot sauce and the chili powder. Just not blow the roof off.

Making chili is a bit weird for me, because I’m the product of 12 generations of New Englanders on one side, and Polish and Scottish immigrants on the other side. Luckily, my father has a small obsession with cajun and southern food…. he’s read The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American too many times, and I think the pages on Red Beans and Rice, Gumbo, and Jambalaya are all falling out from use. He loves fried chicken, and chicken fried steak. He’s the most southern New Englander I’ve ever met, at least as far as food is concerned. He’s pretty much the reason I cook, because my mom cooks only because you can’t get food from thin air. My dad likes to cook, and he’s a very good cook.

It’s also a bit weird for me to make chili, since as a child, I hated it. This might be because my mom’s chili wasn’t very good the one time I remember eating it, which I assume must be it, since I would eat red beans and rice cold, with cold rice, until there was no more left. Plus, my staunch New England heart is amazed by the fact that I’m in a long-term relationship with a man from Tulsa – a man who swears he’s sort of mid-western, but whose mother cooked sort of southern stuff. In general, basically I’m dating my polar opposite.

As this entry is about chili, I suppose I should mention something straight out:
I put both beans, AND tomatoes, into my chili.

If you’re against either of those things, please don’t give me hate notes. I love it this way. It’s delicious. Even Jesse likes my chili, and he’s the first to admit that he doesn’t really go for beans in chili – or for that matter, tomatoes. Apparently his mom didn’t make it that way. I’m down with that. I’m from New England – I have an automatic handicap. We don’t follow the chili rules, mother effers! We’re crazy! We’re liberal! We’re contentious! Woooooo!!!

Anyways. Chili making takes all day. It involves deglazing with a beer – I recommend Brooklyn Brown, but any fun brown ale will work out. Plus, for my pregnant reader, all the alcohol gets burned out — you can de-glaze with a beer if you’re feeling sassy.

It also involves Fire-Roasted Canned Tomatoes. They’re amazing. They add smokiness that you can really taste. It’s remarkable.

It also involves tasting and stirring every like…. 15 minutes, tops. You’re probably going to have to add more garlic powder, more chili powder, cumin, hot sauce, etc…. which is what I add. Cumin, garlic powder, chili powder, curry powder, and hot sauce. It’s a winning combination, although that’s only with my taste.

The leftovers, again, badass. Best thing ever for lunch today. I really needed this amazingness today.

Plus, when I didn’t want to eat left-overs for dinner tonight, I was able to make scrambled eggs for dinner. And spinach, which I sauteed with butter, salt, and pepper, with lemon juice and parmesan. It was lovely.

Tonight, we begin again. Tonight, I’ll curl up in bed with the boyfriend, and make a grocery list. It’ll be very nice, and it will be a good start to a long and difficult day. But as long as this shopping day ends up better than last week’s….. we’ll be golden.

Next up: In which I cause fishies to surrender.

In which I give up the reins.

Posted: March 30th, 2008 | Author: johanna | Filed under: Johanna | 12 Comments »

Or, In which I get beer on my bum.

Saturday night’s menu was for a pizza. Because my boyfriend has interesting ideas about flavors (that are usually correct – he should have been a molecular gastronomist, I swear), we had a pizza that had green olives, red peppers, pepperoni and mozzarella (and of course, tomato sauce). Most of the way through the baking, spinach and more parmesan were added.

It was, I have to say, delicious. The sweet roasted peppers meshed so well with the salty olives, and the pepperoni and mozzarella were so perfect, and the spinach just added something so nice.

Plus, the crust was lovely. The boyfriend made it, because I was at work, and we wanted to eat before midnight. I’d heard somewhere that a pizza place used Bud in the pizza crust, to make things happier. I advised that the boyfriend did that, but didn’t specify that he should also use water. THis almost lead to a crisis while I was at work, but I specified once I got him on the phone, after I left work, and things were rectified.

He has such little confidence in his abilities, which is sad because he did a fine job on the crust. Plus, he got to use the magic that is my KitchenAid Mixer, and I love letting people share the joy of it. Anyways. THe dough did its thing, and it was wonderful. He did a great job. I need to learn how to make a thinner pizza crust itself, because it’s darn difficult cutting the ones I keep turning out.

And then, of course, while sitting on the couch enjoying a Blue Moon Belgian White with my slice of pizza, I put the beer on the futon next to me, and of course it tipped over, spilling beer all over my ass. I was unhappy, to say the least.

Bonus points for the pizza being even nommier the next day. Cold pizza for breakfast = FOR THE WIN!!!!

Next time: In which chili doesn’t mean that it’s chilly.

In which I get comfy with Comfort Food.

Posted: March 29th, 2008 | Author: johanna | Filed under: Johanna | 14 Comments »

Friday night’s recipe was for good old-fashioned Roni Cheese. As it turns out, I needed this dinner.
Friday night I was at my 9-5 until roughly 8:30pm. Generally, that’s called “teh suck”. When it happens on a Friday, it’s called “kill yourself”. Luckily, I didn’t.
But once I slogged it home, half-starved because I hadn’t eaten since 1 (when I ate Wednesday night’s left overs, because why eat left-overs the day following, when you can eat them two days later, right?) I was glad I’d picked something that I’ve probably made 10 times since I invented the recipe (and for me that’s a lot). Something I could practically make in my sleep. My Roni Cheese.

I usually make it with pancetta, but since we were buying for a week here, bacon was more reasonable, since we eat it with breakfast and I’m putting it in tomorrow night’s dinner, chili. So I chopped up the bacon and shallots, cooked them with a little olive oil until they got all nice, and then made a roux out of hte rendered fat, olive oil, a little butter, the bacon/shallots, and flour. Once that cooked, I added a bunch (too much, in retrospect) of chicken stock, milk, and some heavy cream. I seasoned (always, always taste as you cook, and season. always) and let it simmer while boiling the pasta. When it got to the right consistency, I added the cheese, which my boyfriend was kind enough to grate. I use cave-aged Gruyere and Emmenthaler, both of which I bought at Trader Joe’s, and higher quality versions of which you can find at Whole Foods, or any place that doesn’t only sell it’s own, store-brand of cheese.

Side note. I hate grating cheese. If I had my way, I’d buy everything pre-shredded. But, some cheeses just do not do well with that, which is why it’s worth mentioning that my boyfriend grated the cheese. I really fucking hate my grater, and I hate getting my fingers grated every time I use it. Someday, if I’m rich, I’m hiring someone to grate cheese for me, unless someone invents a grater that won’t grate my knuckles/fingertips before then. I really fucking hate grating cheese.

I added too much chicken stock. Don’t make my mistake. Add about half as much stock as you think you need, then add the milk and cream and see where you are. If you’re using canned stock, add about half the can, about 2 cups of milk, and half a cup of cream. Then add the rest of the can, and slit your wrists with the lid because you didn’t buy the boxed stock that is FAR superior.
If you’re using boxed stock(and if you can’t use homemade, you should ALWAYS use boxed stock), use about a cup, 2 and a half cups of the dairy, and then maybe another half-cup (yes, I know a can of stock is almost 2 cups, but trust me here, that stuff is 98% water. Bleh).

Stir the cheese in a little at a time, with a figure-eight motion, until it’s all in. Let it sit on the lowest heat setting you’ve got until the pasta’s done. Drain, and mix the sauce with the pasta. Start your broiler.

I generally reserve some of the shredded cheese for the top. If you didn’t, that’s ok. Use some parmesan, and sprinkle it all over everything. Then, cover that with breadcrumbs (regular or panko are both delicious), and cover the crumbs again with parm. Broil until the parm is nice and crusty brown. Eat asap. Enjoy.

Now I’ve just given you the approximation of a secret recipe. Even my roommate, who doesn’t really like to admit that I can cook loves this stuff. The Roni Cheese is heavenly. Luckily for me, nobody reads this thing, so I don’t have to worry about you all stealing my recipe. Please still come to my cafe to eat it, once it opens. I came up with this on a wing and a prayer, after a few awful attempts. What can I say, all the roni cheese I’d ever eaten until I was 23 came out of a box. Therefore, you are fully encouraged to mess with this. Add mustard to the sauce. Add chili powder. Don’t use the pancetta. Use different cheeses – although if you’re going to use cheddar, use Emmenthaler as the other cheese, or something not oily. Two oily cheeses do not make a good time. Trust me. Next time, I might add cauliflower or broccoli as I’m combining the cheese sauce and pasta. I don’t know, I’m crazy!!!
Seriously though, this is basically a fool-proof situation, as long as you know what a roux is. You’re learning to make one of the basic sauces in all of French Cuisine, bechamel, by making this dish (that’s what it’s called when you make a roux, then pour in milk and whisk like crazy. ta-daaa!!). Amazing, huh??

We ate this with a delicious nouveau wine that we buy at the Trader Joe’s wine store. Any young red would go well with this, as would most whites, I guess. I’m a wino, but my selection is limited – Riesling, Zin, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Noir, unless Charles Shaw starts making other stuff. :) Sit back and enjoy a meal with which you will be able to feed most everyone (except vegetarians. For them, take out the bacon, and make it vegetable stock. Vegans are fucked, but you already knew that).

Next time: In which I surrender the reins, and let my boyfriend make the pizza dough.


In which I accidentally get beer all over my ass.

In which I am saved from the threat of becoming classy.

Posted: March 29th, 2008 | Author: johanna | Filed under: Johanna | 22 Comments »

Thursday night, one of my friends came over for dinner.

I have bad luck when cooking for friends, because most of the time things take a long time to prepare and cook, or at least they take me away from my friends. I have to focus on the food.

Luckily, I’ve gotten good enough at cooking that I can focus on more than one thing at a time. Marla came over on Thursday night, came home with me once I got out of work, and I made dinner with her standing there, playing Cat Williams stand-up and talking to me.

I made walnut crusted chicken, and goat-cheese mashed potatoes. This is really easy to make, and even the pan sauce was really simple, so I’m going to give the recipe.

Walnut-Crusted Chicken, with Goat-Cheese Mash.
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
1 cup (roughly) of walnuts.
Panko bread crumbs.
1 egg.
Salt, Pepper, Poultry seasoning (or garlic powder), butter, olive oil.
Chicken broth.
Lemon juice.
About 2 pounds of small yellow potatoes.
Chevre (goat cheese). If you want to get fancy, herby or garlicky goat cheese.
Heavy cream.

Smash the hell out of the chicken breasts, until they’re about a half-inch, to a quarter inch thick. I use a rolling pin for this, but I’ve also heard of using a cast-iron skillet, another heavy pan, or if you’re really fancy, a meat mallet. Once they’re sufficiently smashed, sprinkle them with salt and pepper on both sides. Leave them out for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, put the walnuts in a food processor and whirl them around until they’re small, crushed, but not a powder (if you don’t have a food processor, put them in a zip-bag and bash the hell out of them with the rolling pin/skillet/heavy pan/meat mallet’s flat side).

Combine the walnuts with about a quarter-cup of flour, and about the same amount of panko in a shallow, wide dish. Season the breading element with the salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning (or garlic powder). Beat up the egg in a separate dish and season it with the same mixture.

Cut the potatoes in half, if you need to, and put them in a large pot of water. Add salt liberally, and put them on a medium heat to boil. Basically, boil them until they fall apart when you poke a fork into them.

Put about 2 tablespoons of butter, and 2 tablespoons of olive or sunflower oil in a big pan, and heat it over medium heat.
Dip a chicken breast in the egg on both sides, and then put it into the flour/panko/walnut mixture. You’re probably going to have to pack it on, because the walnuts will be chunky enough to not stick. Put the chicken breasts in the pan, and cover. Cook for about 4 minutes, then flip and cover again. The crust will get crispy, and the chicken will stay moist.

If you have to cook this in shifts, scrape out the fallen walnuts between cookings, and add a little fresh butter/oil. You’re going to want to keep the stick of butter out for this dinner.

When the potatoes are done (see above for my indicator of doneness), drain them in the sink. If you’ve done this properly, this will be about the same time that the chicken is getting finished cooking. To help get everything done, you can take the chicken out and put it on a plate, covered with foil, while you’re taking care of the potatoes and the pan sauce. Or you can get your lazy, ungrateful guests to get off their arses and help you.
Y’know. Whichever.

Put the potatoes back into the pot you cooked them in, and let them dry out. They’ll generate some steam while they’re doing it – this will lead to better mash.
When they’re a bit dry, throw in a few tablespoons of butter, a splash or two of cream, salt, pepper, and some of the goat cheese.
Mash and smash. Taste, taste, taste. I can’t tell you how much is right, because mashed potatoes are a very personal thing. Basically…. throw in more or less of all of the above until it brings a smile to your face when you taste. Then, stop, cover, and try to keep them warm.

Now, to the pan you cooked the chicken in. Hopefully, you’ve scraped out the spent walnuts again, and returned it to the (low!!!!) heat. Splash in some chicken broth, say half a cup. You may need more. This will make a fantastic noise and some steam. Scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan, and whisk in some butter. Taste, season with salt and pepper, and add a bit more butter. Taste again. Add some cream (or not. Cream optional.) and whisk. Let it reduce until it roughly coats the back of a spoon, or you realise that you have to serve before everything gets cold. Squeeze in a bit of lemon juice (more if you don’t use cream. Just a little if you do) and add some chopped parsley both to the sauce and the potatoes.

Put the chicken back in the sauce for a minute, to heat up and to get all cozy with it.

Serve the potatoes, chickies, and sauce all together on one plate. Sit back and smile.

My ever industrious buddy brought along a HUGE bottle of cheap white zinfandel. We drink this on nights where we want to follow in our mothers’ footsteps — they’re wonderful women, but classy broads, they’re not. Basically, we killed a big bottle of white zin over dinner, and I don’t feel bad about it. I’m not joking – this bottle didn’t even require a corkscrew. Just pull the tab to break the foil-y stuff, and then twist and pop the top off.

Class. We has it.

If you have a thoroughly non-classy mother, and want to go down this road, serve the zin straight from the freezer, and drink it fast. Sutter Home is preferred.

I love cooking for people who knew me before I was a cook. They’re always pleasantly surprised. And they always tell me so. It’s a great feeling.

Next time…. In which Comfort Food and I get comfy.
In which I I discover I have a Grate boyfriend.

In which we class it up a little.

Posted: March 29th, 2008 | Author: johanna | Filed under: Johanna | 1 Comment »

Or, In which I wish, yet again, that I’d gotten the bigger Le Creuset.

I rarely cook straight from recipes, because honestly, I’m a little afraid of them. If I’m making it up as I go along, and measuring by sight and feel, if I screw up I can blame myself. But if I measure and read and it turns out that it’s not good, then I guess that either the recipe is bad, or I am.

I decided to just take the risk, and planned for our second recipe to be chicken braised in a white wine sauce, with leeks, carrots, and potatoes. I was a little nervous, because this recipe was from Gourmet Magazine, and it involved several techniques, Braising, sweating, browning, boiling…. making a wine reduction and a cream sauce…. All in one dish. I figured this was going to be a shitshow, and take me forever.

Plus, since it’s a riff on coq au vin, it seemed kind of classy and kind of out of my league – as I’ve written before, I tend toward soft, comforting, warm foods that are generally a combination of crunchy/crisp and soft (like Fried chicken and mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese with a crispy cheesy/breadcrumb coating, for example).
In contrast, this dish was going to be soft. All soft. Browned chicken that’s then braised in white wine for half an hour. It sounded delicious, but I was a little nervous.

I needn’t have been, it turns out.
I even managed to have everything happen roughly on-time. I seasoned the chicken pieces, and moved them to one side, while I heated up the oil/butter. Then, I browned the chicken parts while chopping the leeks and shallots. I removed the chicken breasts to a plate to cool, while I browned the other half of the chicken parts. I got ready and browned the leeks and shallots, and then added the chicken. At this point, I desperately wished that when Hylton traded me a Le Creuset casserole dish (blue) for helping him carry his couch down the stairs, he had given me the big red dutch oven instead. Because once the chicken parts were all in the dutch oven, with the browned leeks, and the carrots and pearl onions, there wasn’t room for the chicken and stuff to actually….. braise in the Riesling I poured in.

Anyways. It reduced a bit, and then went into the oven while I started boiling potatoes.

When the chicken was done, the potatoes were too, shockingly enough!!! I drained the potatoes, added parsley, and finished my wine sauce with cream. In the end, it was DELICIOUS.

I was amazed. I’m not used to making classy food. I’m not used to making something from the likes of Gourmet Magazine. I’m used to doing home food. Although I guess, in Alsace, this was home food. In any event, It was delicious. I was proud of this. I was proud of the sauce, and of the chicken, and of the potatoes. Basically, I was proud that my first foray into nice cooking had produced something so…. nice.

I’m quite proud. I just wish I’d had a bigger dish. The sauce would’ve been just a little better, things would’ve been just a little nicer. But in general, I’m very happy that this yummy dinner occurred. :)

Plus, the left-overs were KILLER.

Next time: In which we entertain with dinner, and it doesn’t take forever. Or In which we rescue me from class by drinking a big bottle of White Zinfandel.

In which we see how it goes…

Posted: March 25th, 2008 | Author: johanna | Filed under: Johanna | 1 Comment »

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I had an idea, that was based in the fact that I spend roughly $40 a day at Whole Foods, every time I make dinner. I’m not making recipes up so spontaneously that I couldn’t get the ingredients ahead of time, I’m just too lazy to shop in bulk or plan.
Thus, the invention of a new Monday night ritual – after a dinner of either leftovers, or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, we’re going to make a menu for the next week, and a relevant shopping list. On Tuesday, after work, we’re going to go shopping together, so we can buy the week’s groceries which will, among other things, greatly reduce the amount of money I waste at Whole Foods each week.

Last night, we made the first list.

Tonight, we made the shopping trip, which was remarkably cheaper than I thought it would be.

Tonight, we made the first recipe.

Jamie Oliver’s Chickpea with Leek Soup, and Basic Bread (which Josie bastardizes).

2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed.
1 potato, peeled or not, as you see fit.
2 leeks, white and soft green parts, halved lengthwise and washed well.
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, sliced.
4 or 5 pearl onions, sliced.
About 4 cups chicken stock total. More or less.
Butter, Olive Oil, Salt, Pepper, Parmesan Cheese.

Put chickpeas and potato into a pot. Fill with water to cover, add a little salt, and boil until the chickpeas are good and mushy.

Meanwhile, melt together about a tablespoon or two of butter, and roughly the same amount of oil in a large, pretty sturdy pot. Add the onions and garlic, and shuffle around in the pot for a few minutes, until they let out some of their liquid (this is called “sweating”, apparently.)
Add the leeks.

You will probably not have enough oil/butter. Add more of whichever, or both. You want everything to be nice and shiny, covered with the cooking fat, so that nothing dries out as it’s cooking. Add a little more salt. This will coax out the juices, along with making things delicious.

After about 10, 15 minutes, the leeks will be very very smushy. This is the right time to drain the chidkpeas, cut up the potato, and add the whole shebang to the pot. Cook for a minute or two, and then add some chicken stock. About half. Simmer this for 10-20 minutes (while the bread is baking), then the options begin:
You can leave it as is, finish with some salt, pepper, a little butter, and a little Parmesan, and call it done.
You can puree the whole shebang, and finish with the above. Done.
OR, you can puree half, and leave the other half kind of brothy and chunky, and finish with the above. Done squared.

Either way, you’re going to want to taste, as this can be rather bland if you don’t season all the way through. And you’re definitely going to want to add more broth, if the texture isn’t right for you.

About 2 pounds of All-Purpose flour.
3/4 oz (3 packets or 6 and 3/4 teaspoons) of yeast. NOT INSTANT!!!
2 tablespoons sugar.
2 cups warm water, total.
2 tablespoons salt.

Mix together the yeast with the sugar and 1 cup of water.

In a big bowl, mix together the flour and salt. If you want to add fresh herbs, now’s the time.
When the yeast has gotten kind of frothy, pour it into the flour bowl, and start mixing it together. Depending on your flour, you might need another whole cup of warm water. You may need less. You may need more. You don’t want this dough to be too sticky.

Knead it until it feels done. Roughly 5 minutes, once the dough starts coming together in the bowl.

Put it in a bowl that has been rubbed with butter. I generally cover it with plastic wrap and aluminum foil, and leave it till it doubles in size (which happens quickly, because of the plastic wrap/foil.
Knock it down, and either knead it a second time, or get someone cute and strong, like my boyfriend, to knead it for you. Put it back in the bowl and cover it back up. Let it double a second time, and then gently put it in your buttered loaf pan, or turn it into a ball, rolls, country loaves, whatever, and score the top 3 or 4 times. Let it proof about 30 minutes, while the oven preheats to 425.

Bake for 20-25 minutes. You know it’s done when it sounds like, “THUNK” on the bottom, instead of like a dead “THUD”. Yes, there’s a difference. If you can’t hear it, ask someone who can. Don’t let it burn.

Let it cool, on a rack, about 25 minutes, 30 at most.

This whole situation is delicious together. I’d say that you should do this as soon as possible.

This is the first meal I ever made for my boyfriend that really had meaning behind it. This bread is really quite easy. Basically the whole thing is beautiful and I hope it gets eaten by other people. You’ll like this, you special, lovely people. I promise!!!