Cooking TM_CW_MOLE_FI_001

A labor of love.

Ask any cook who knows their Mexican cuisine, and that’s what they will tell you about mole, one of Mexico’s most iconic and decadent contributions to the culinary world.

A far cry from the lackluster “chocolate sauce” one might find in Americanized Mexican food joints, authentic mole plays host to upwards of 30 ingredients, including chile peppers, nuts, spices, fruits, tortillas and sometimes chocolate, and can take 4 to 6 hours to make correctly.

“You really have to be passionate to create [mole], because it’s not easy,” Carlos Gaytan, chef of Michelin-starred restaurant Mexique, explained to me on a recent frosty morning in Chicago. “You have to find the balance over time of sweetness, spiciness, bitterness; all those elements you need for the mole to be a success.”
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The Whole Chicken Project TM_WC_SOUP_FI_001

Chicken soup is more than just another meal. It’s the thing that parents feed their children when they’re sick. It is one of the best things ever to take to families with brand new babies. And on a cold day, there is nothing more warming than a bowl of steaming chicken soup.

It’s a cultural touchstone and I firmly believe that every home cook should know how to make a batch from scratch. And so, for this final installment of the Whole Chicken Project, that’s what we’re going to explore. All you need is a chicken, a few veggies, and a handful of herbs and seasonings.
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The Whole Chicken Project TM_WC_CURRY_FI_002

The curry of my childhood was chicken legs, onions, carrots, potatoes, and a few raisins in a highly spiced, tomato-based sauce. We ate it over steamed brown rice to sop up the juices and with plenty of garnishes like yogurt, diced apple, and fresh cilantro leaves.

It wasn’t until I was well into my second decade of life that I discovered that our curry wasn’t the only version. Throughout my teens and twenties, I took great pleasure in exploring the curries of the world and tried every one I could.

These days, though I appreciate and enjoy the many disparate versions of curries out there in the world, I find that this time of year, when there’s a chill in the air and it’s dark out by 6 PM, I want nothing more than a bowl of the curry my mom always made.
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The Whole Chicken Project TM_WC_SLOWC_FI_001

I learned early that a good slow cooker is both a budget and sanity saver on busy days. I bought my very first one at a thrift store when I was 23 and living alone for the first time. It held four quarts, was avocado green, and cost $3. In those days, I would make cheap, filling things like split pea soup and pots of long-simmered beans flavored with just a little bacon.

I still make some of those same comforting dishes that I started with, but in more recent years, have discovered that one of the very best things that a slow cooker can do is make a tender roast chicken.
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Culinaria TM_CU_WAFFL_FI_002

There is an old Pennsylvania Dutch saying: weeche Waffle sin Dudelarwet ferlore, which means “soft waffles are love’s labor lost.” In the Pennsylvania Dutch universe, there is probably nothing worse than a soft waffle, a bedroom euphemism for male dysfunction. So ingrained are waffles in our culture that less-than-perfect specimens are ready objects of contempt.
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DIY TM_DY_SEITAN_FI_001

If I was in charge of All Food Everywhere, I would fire whoever made the decision to name tofu the ambassador of meat substitutes. Now, I don’t want to insult tofu — like a child who gets a puppy instead of a kitten for a pet, I have learned to love tofu after spending a few years with it. But even for me — a tofu enjoyer of five years and counting — there is still something about tofu in its raw state that turns me off. Sure, when tofu converts try to convince the uninitiated, they bring up a very good point: tofu tastes like whatever you cook it in. But while this is mostly true, it doesn’t stop tofu from having a consistency that can vary between pudding and hard cheese, but never retaining the best qualities of either. The worst offender is salad-bar tofu, the tofu that’s put out as more of a visual courtesy than an edible ingredient. Here’s a tip: If you have not tried tofu before, do not try salad bar tofu. It’s like eating a bean-curd-flavored cube of Jell-o.

But then…then there’s seitan. MORE

DIY TM_DY_TORTIL_FI_001

I don’t know the life expectancy of a food product like the flour tortilla. What I do know is that, in the early 2000s, that poor bugger had a midlife crisis. Like an ’80s pop star who doesn’t realize a new generation of fans only like him ironically, the flour tortilla became famous again, but not on his own merits. No, the poor tortilla wasn’t loved for his flavor or spunk. Rather, fueled by the Atkins craze, he was loved for being a low-carb alternative to bread. He was a pawn, a rube, a sandwich-delivery device. And that poor, naive tortilla loved it. He even agreed to change his name for the Atkins people: abandoning the traditional moniker and letting himself be known simply as “wrap.” It’s not quite the same thing as buying a Corvette and growing a ponytail at 50, but I dare say it’s close.
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First Person

Adventures in Cheesemaking

One engineer's mishaps and misadventures on the road to mozzarella

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It was Friday, one o’clock in the morning, four hours into my supposedly two-hour homemade mozzarella recipe, and I found myself standing before a pile of cheese more akin to a ball of warm cauliflower than an artisanal dairy product. The “cheese” crumbled between my fingers like wet sand, and when I cautiously sampled a pinch of my work all that came to mind was damp, salty cardboard.

My desire to make cheese arose from my desire to eat cheese. I have an old habit of researching foods I tend to eat, and that research often results in an attempt to recreate my favorite dishes at home. As a student of the sciences, I set out on my cheesemaking ordeal under the impression that if I could solve differential equations, analyze blood flow models, and pass a course titled “Chronobioengineering,” I would have no problem separating curds from whey to make a little cheese.
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The Whole Chicken Project TM_WC_GSTEAM_FI_001

There are so many foods that do well when steamed. This gentle cooking technique produces crisp, tender broccoli, makes for impossibly delicate salmon, and has long helped British cooks with their dessert courses when no ovens were available.

Still, when it was first suggested that I consider steaming a whole chicken, I was a little unsure. I was afraid that I’d produce something rubbery and bland. It seemed like a process destined for disappointment.

As I looked into it, I quickly discovered that there’s a long tradition of steamed chicken and that, if done right, the process produces a moist and mild-flavored bird. And so, I set to collecting the necessary ingredients to properly steam a chicken. I picked up a bamboo steamer at an Asian market, got my hands on an organic chicken, and gathered ginger, green onions, garlic, and white wine.
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The Whole Chicken Project TM_WC_AUVIN_FI_001

When I was in high school, I realized an essential fact about myself. I am not a perfectionist. I am entirely satisfied with a job done to the point of being good enough. I like to work hard and derive a great deal of pleasure at a task done well, I just don’t like making myself crazy over the minutia.

A good example of my tendency to accept “perfectly good” over “aggressively perfect” is in my attitude towards the classic French dish, Coq au Vin. Truly, it is a marvel of a dish, requiring you to brown and then remove onto a plate a parade of ingredients. The Julia Child recipe even instructs you to blanch your bacon slivers before introducing them to the party, lest it bring too much smokiness to the table.

My version is far less work and still manages to taste quite spectacular (and it’s just perfect for this Whole Chicken Project of mine). It might not be a perfectly divine as the classic dish, but it is one-tenth of the work and that satisfies me down to the bone.

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The Larder homemade chips and salsa

I am the daughter of a devoted sports fan. My father follows most major flavors of professional athleticism (he is lukewarm about hockey). He is devoted to college sports, regularly attends triple A games, and even stays up-to-date with football scores from the high school my sister and I attended.

And so, though I don’t care a whit what happens in the world of football, basketball, or baseball, I pay a tiny bit of attention for my dad. I make a point of reading to just enough each fall to be able to talk about the World Series with him. I listen to his thoughts about the Oregon State Beavers and the University of Oregon Ducks. And come Super Bowl time, I provide the game day snacks. MORE

Baking

Sour Power

In search of a desirable grapefruit dessert

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A pile of juicy grapefruitWhy are there no classic grapefruit desserts? We love orange souffle, Key lime pie, and lemon bars (and cookies, cake, tart, curd, pudding, ice cream), but the only grapefruit dessert that springs to mind is grapefruit sorbet. Which doesn’t count. Sorbet is extremely cold juice, and however delicious, it is not really dessert.

Is the dearth of grapefruit desserts because people associate the fruit with misery and dieting, not pleasure and indulgence? Or is there something in the nature of a grapefruit that doesn’t lend itself to dessert?

I decided to try grapefruit in different dessert formats. Here with the results:

Cookies. By substituting grapefruit (zest and juice) for lemon in a basic Martha Stewart recipe, I ended up with a tasty cookie that made peoples’ mouths tingle and tasted like Fresca. In a good way! But while all the cookies were eaten, no one begged me to bake them again. MORE

The Whole Chicken Project TM_WC_FIRST_FI_001

I roasted my first whole chicken when I was 21. A senior in college, I lived in a little house off-campus with two friends. We took turns cooking and ate together most nights. That first chicken was a sad, scrawny little thing that I managed to first under-cook and then, in an attempt to correct it, overcooked it mightily. My kind housemates suffered through that meal with me, but we all knew it was not my best work.

In the 10-plus years that have followed, things have improved. I cook whole chickens on a regular basis and have a reliable method for making a tender, juicy bird. (Low, slow cooking is the key.) It’s my go-to for dinner parties and busy weeks, but lately, I’ve found myself longing for something more. MORE