Monday, January 31, 2011

I'm Back--with Waffles

During my computer deprived time these last two weeks (Or months?  Wasn't it months?), I tried to continue posting using David's computer when it was unoccupied. That effort didn't go so well, for two reasons--one of them a good one.

First, even with a computer to use for what would seem to be plenty of time, it wasn't the same because it wasn't mine.  I felt the same lack when I didn't have my own desk and my own kitchen while we lived with David's parents between houses.  A space, a desk, and tools of my own focus my intentions into action in a way that peripatetic borrowing can't.  While we could technically have gotten by with one computer, and I really didn't want to spend the money on a new one, my own machine sitting on my own desk gives me a place to touch down and set to work in a more flowing fashion, with everything at the ready.

The secondary reason for my lack of communication was improvisational cooking.  Busy Sundays and no research tool left me unable to do my usual recipe-based planning, which left me with no recipes to share, which left me less motivated to write, for what were you fine folk to do with the inspiration certain to be fomented by my fabulous writing and photography?  Of course, I could have written my own recipes, had I paid any attention to ingredient amounts, etc, but I was a little too caught up in the easy doing to be the observer that blogging requires. 

The easy doing part is what makes the secondary problem the good one--for me anyway. I may have wished for something more concrete to share with my tiny corner of the world, but I also savored the freedom of three weeks in a row of extemporaneous cooking. Ideas flowed, the gears did not grind, and it was wonderful. I regretted not writing but reveled in being how I've always wanted to be, one of those people who can just think up dinner pretty much single handedly. That confident freedom was the real reason I went to culinary school, after all. (Although now that I'm paying for it, I sometimes wish that it had been because I wanted a paying job from it.)

But wait.  I said I had waffles.  Let's get to that part. 

One of the few recipes that I used in the last couple of weeks was dug up to give purpose to seltzer water left over from a failed spontaneous drink experiment.  Not being aware of edible, rather than drinkable, uses for the stuff, I conducted a recipe search that yielded two appealing ideas--tempura batter and waffles. 

We shall speak no more of tempura until I have had a little more practice,  but the waffles bear mentioning.  Plus, there's a recipe, so you could even try them, too.  

I've always been, I hate to say, a little disappointed in the waffles I've made. They've turned out more crisp than fluffy, sometimes even downright crunchy, without enough tenderness or chewiness to balance out all that crustiness. The problem may be our gifted waffle iron, which tends to make thin ones, reducing the chance for much of an interior at all, let alone a fluffy one.   Or it may be that the operator (that would be me) needs to get over her fear of overflowing batter and put more on the iron. Whatver the reason, waffles have always been a bit of a let down for someone who almost always prefers to make my own everything.

These curious waffles managed to improve my feelings. Even on our skinny iron, they had the promised combination of crusty outside and tender inside.  They just might convince me to make waffles more often...or to buy a Belgian waffle iron in the hopes of more fluffy interiors...or both.

Who knew bubbly water could work so much magic? (It does the same thing in tempura batter, but I'm still not talking about that.) 

I did make one change to the recipe I used as my guide.  Our friends at Cook's Illustrated contend that butter is bad for waffles because it contains water in addition to fat (yep, learned that at school), which evaporates and dries out the interior of the waffle. Based on their recommendation, I subbed canola oil for the butter in the recipe.  

This may not be the waffle recipe with which to spend my life, but it's definintely an improvement over others I've tried.  And isn't January the perfect month for improvement? 

Club Soda Waffles
from I'll Bite

Makes: ??  Depends on your waffle iron

2 cups all purose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons oil
2 large eggs
14 ounces (1 3/4 cups) club soda or seltzer water

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Add the oil, eggs, and seltzer and whisk until smooth.

Heat a waffle iron. Brush with oil if it isn't nonstick.  Pour the amount of batter your waffle iron requires on the grids.  Close the lid and bake until browned and crispy.  Serve right away, or place a rack over a baking sheet and keep the waffles in a warm oven until they're all ready.  Or cool them, slide them into a resealable freezer bag and freeze.  Reheat in the oven.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

How to Save a Night--and a Mind

Sometimes I'm actually free to listen to what poet Mary Oliver calls "the soft animal of (the) body" without conflict.  Last evening was one of those times.

One the way home from work, Dave and I both were quite sleepy. Once we arrived back at the barn, that soft animal of mine did not want to cook supper, which she usually loves to do.  She wanted to order a pizza, eat it with champagne and a side of  healthy, conveniently-leftover broccoli slaw, and go to bed early.

So that's what we did. And it was wonderful. Candle light, thin crust, bubbles, and relaxation in our good pajamas--all those pleasures turned our dragging night into a micro-vacation.  Holy "Life is Beautiful," Bat Man!

In years past, I would have pushed through.  I would have made dinner anyway, ostensibly because it's healthier (which it is), but also because I was afraid to not meet certain standards for myself. I feared that letting go and doing what I wanted to do was the ticket to becoming a convenience-food-warming loser.

Thank goodness I've finally learned that occasionally one needs to let down and let go of everything for just a bit, after which everything is better. And whatever you were worried about getting done, gets done, and more happily at that.  Like writing this post.  So there.  Gentle wisdom at last.

That soft animal is a pretty good old girl.  Thank goodness I know that now, too.  It makes life finer indeed. And a lot more fun!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Random Reason to Rejoice #12

The color energy in my stack of yoga blankets.

I've had them all for years but hadn't gathered them together until recently.
Suddenly I'm delightfully aware of their fuschia commonality,
 which I never noticed before.
The old is new again through synergy.

Monday, January 17, 2011

So That's How They Do That?

In recent days, I've had a little light shed on a couple of personal mysteries. 

First was the issue of computer dependence. I used to wonder how anyone could be so attached to their machine, whiling away hours of their life looking at....stuff, and acting as if their arm had been removed when they were without it. Now I know. It's all happened to me. I get sucked into the interweb void instead of actually doing something on a regular basis. (It's so interesting, so engaging. So devouring.) And now I find myself sprained, if not amputated, by cyber absence.

Alas, my laptop, my trusty window on the world of Whatever I Want to Know (recipe research, yes!), is in a coma brought on by a virus, or perhaps the program intended to remove the virus. The Chief Technical Officer isn't quite sure. What we are both certain of is that all virus planting hackers are sick indviduals who should be beaten with a sack of barbed wire.

But back to my point. I get it now. I understand how computer attachment and mourning come about. I came to rely on it for so many things, and am now bereft of its support.

Well, not totally bereft. I do have access to Dave's computer when he's gone or feeling giving (he was dependent way before I ever was) and to computers at the offices where I work two days a week. I can still keep up with my email and blogs. You know--all the important things. I'm mainly deprived of entertainment, the whiling away bonus.

That may not be such a bad thing. I'm at least a new enough junkie that I remember life before the computer and, more specifically, the internet. In the recent absence of my brain candy dispenser, I have reverted to (Heavens!) activity. I cleaned the bathroms and sewed two table runners last Saturday--because I had to have something to do. I've got other languishing projects that may get my attention soon while the resuscitation efforts continue.

Of course, three days a week I'm home alone with Dave's computer, so maybe I'll still be surfing rather than sewing, even though creative productivity felt so good that one day. We'll see.

The other mystery that has come a little clearer for me in the last week has to do with food spending. I ran across a blog (you know, in all that whiling away time) written by a couple who try to spend $30.00 a week on food--in Brooklyn, of all places. I wondered how in the world they did that. I consider myself a fairly frugal girl, but I've never made my food spending ride that low on a regular basis--and I'm in Kentucky, where the cost of living should be significantly lower than New York.

Well, now I may see how that could be done, aside from the phenomenon of hitting the bar you set. In the absence last Sunday of both my new favorite menu reserach tool and the time to do menu planning anyway, I made a non-list-bearing trip to the grocery store for basic supplies. Since then, I have brain-stormed dinners for the week from what was on hand after purchasing just $23.00 of food. (The $2.00 of non-edible supplies for a top secret project that may someday beautify this humble blog were not counted.) 

After that experience, I'm thinking that digging up interesting recipes to try, even if I do start now with what's already on hand, may create additional ingredients to purchase, thereby driving up spending. It's just a theory at this point. One incidence doesn't prove anything. But it does make that couple's mysterious feat a little less mysterious.

As Phoebe of Friends once said, "That is NEW information." Now if I could just figure out HTML and the new Blogger editor, I might really know something. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Breaking Up

Ladies and gentlemen, I regret that I must inform you of a break up. The relationship had been tenuous for some time, and I've made all the concessions and accommodations that I am willing to make for the alleged benefits provided by my ex-mate. It just isn't worth it anymore.

Wait, that sounds terrible. But it's not my husband I'm talking about--or any other human. I'm done with that mechanical kitchen mate, the dishwasher.

 Sorry, but this is goodbye.

I wasn't going to have one anyway. (Remember my rant about how I didn't want to include a dishwasher in the house we thought we were going to build? ) Then we moved into our barn where a dishwasher had already been installed. So I used it because...well, it was there, and it seemed wasteful not to do so. And I also liked loading and unloading it.

That patterned cycle was the only part of the dishwasher relationship that I did enjoy. (I just love tasks that make tidy circles.) I welcomed the challenge of fitting it all in, which can be sometimes miraculously accomplished by careful rearranging. Oh, and I am just the woman for that. (But I'm not obessessive. Not at all. Really. I just like patterns. Don't you? Oh... Well. Moving on then.)

Unfortunately, there came to be many things to not like about using the dishwasher. Like the horrid mineral film left by our apparently super-hard water on what used to be clear drinking glasses.

Behold the nastiness.

A similar negative transformation was experienced by dark plastic utensils, too.

Then, as I said before, there are so many things that aren't dishwasher safe regardless of water chemistry: wooden spoons, non-stick and cast iron skillets, my beloved and constantly used commercial sheet and loaf pans. I still regret the damage caused to one of the former after a trip through a friend's machine and one of the latter after a trip through the mother-in-law's. Goodbye forever, beneficially shiny surfaces.

Before I knew it, the quantity of items that I banned from the dishwasher for their protection had ballooned to the point that I had 20 minutes of hand washing even with the dishwasher's alleged convenience in play. With that much time demanded, what would be the extra work of a few plates and bowls? The cereal bowls, if not rinsed carefully, came out with grainy speckles still on them, anyway. Frankly, the labor saving device was saving me little of it and doing a worse job at even what it could handle safely. After six months of such disapointments, I realized that it was time to end this partnership, for we were unequally yoked.

Since I've made that decision, my bright husband has reinstated the use of a convenience tool I'd forgotten we owned, one that we used to great advantage back in our previous dishwasher-less days and one I do heartily endorse--the dish wand. Well, that's what I call those sponge-headed, hollow-handled quick cleaners that can handle a few dishes at a time, eliminating the all-day dish pile up that is a little daunting without a machine or a drying partner. He was very fond of this little tool back when he was the dishwasher. Perhaps that's why he reconnected with it first. Whatever the reason, we're all buddies again now.

Mother's little helper
After weeks of DIY dishes, I have not yet regretted my decision. I'm slowly working on rehabbing my most damaged glasses, which may require a strong solvent, and re-adapting to sponge bathing breakfast dishes and stray take-out pizza night plates as we go.

My only real problem with hand washing in our current location was that I had no dish rack and no modern standard double sink, a bowl of which makes a handy place to discretely hide the plastic coated homeliness of the basic variety. But our traditional New Year's Eve trip to the city solved that problem. I found a low profile number at Target, designed by Michael Graves, that I can stand to look at on my grandma sink's highly visible drain board. (The big red bull's eye didn't let me down.)

There are dish-pile moments when I wish the appliance had lived up to its promise of conveniently sparkling dishes. I did appreciate the neatness of having somewhere out of sight to put those dirty ones, and an article I read last week claimed that dishwashers use less water than hand washing (although I try to be stingy with the water, and they didn't discuss the electricity use). But I can't abide the damage factor caused by the hardest water I've ever encountered, and I'm not convinced that convenience is always the best thing for me anyway. Maybe I'll burn a few more calories while I swab and rinse the old fashioned way, which is probably just about perfect for this rustic place anyway. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Jam Crumb Bars

This year's turning was not what I would have wanted. I took sick after Christmas and hadn't my usual enthusiasm for looking fondly back and hopefully forward. I did pick myself up enough to enjoy our now traditional All Day Extravaganza in the city (I was determined), but the rest of the free days were spent coughing, resting, reading, grousing, and wishing I felt better in all kinds of ways. I could go on about my funk, but the world doesn't need that. Let's focus instead on one bright spot in the minor misery that is life with a cold when one wants to be celebrating. Of course, it's edible.

Not knowing that I would be sick, I had committed to prepare lunch for the volunteer staff of the local free medical clinic shortly after the new year arrived. I wasn't sick unto incapacitation, so I got myself into the kitchen and did it gladly if weakly. As often happens, doing good for others did me good as well: I perked right up once I tied on my power apron and got moving.

I whipped out and packed up some chicken salad, broccoli slaw, and carrot salad with lemon-tarragon vinaigrette. Them came time to package their dessert of apricot crumb bars, one of which I allowed myself to sample. (There were more than enough, and I had to be sure they were good, right?) That little bar turned out to be my bright spot for the day.

In fact, I was moved enough by it that I actually thought of telling you all about it. And I hadn't had anything good to tell anybody for days. Just ask my husband. (Or not.)

What a delight! A moment of excitement and pleasure in a crappy week. Maybe it was my reward for doing a good deed or a sunny sign that I was soon to be on the mend (And I was. I haven't had a coughing spasm all day. Yay!). Or maybe these simple little sweeties were just good enough to pierce my fuss fog and prove that my spirit was still alive in there somewhere.

The bars are basically a classic struesel mixture of flour, brown sugar, oats, and butter baked up in a pan with jam in the middle. Pretty darn simple, really, but surprisingly good. I love it when simple smacks you up side the head with more goodness than you expect, so that you spontaneously exclaim "Whoa, that's good!" to your empty kitchen and then wish the batch wasn't destined for those fine folk serving the needs of the medically deprived.

And to think that I only made this particular dessert to use up my half jar of apricot preserves. Necessity is such a good mother sometimes.

Well, that's not actually the only reason I made them. I did remember getting a compliment on a batch years ago. (Boy, was she right!) Plus, they were that thing I love---EASY! Pulse up the streusel in the food processor, pat half in the pan, spread with preserves, pat the other half of the streusel on top, and bake. That's it.

Right now we have no need of sweets. We're still finishing off Aunt Justine's annual candy box, and the best turtles I've ever eaten are waiting for their turn. Oh, but when we do, I must make these with whatever jam takes my fancy. I have a feeling that the Mr. will love them, and they're next door to healthy, what with the oats and the lightening up done by the folks at Cooking Light, in whose cookbook I found the recipe.

So here's my only New Year's resolution: I resolve to remember these easy, buttery, pantry-staple-using, toasted-flour-flaunting bars forever. Happy 2011!

Jam Crumb Bars

Adapted from the Crunchy Oat-Apricot Bars recipe in the Complete Cooking Light Cookbook.

Yield: 18 bars
Can be doubled and baked in a 9 x 13 pan for 3 dozen bars.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
5 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup apricot or other preserves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the flour, oats, brown sugar, butter, and vanilla in a food processor, and pulse 10 times or until oat mixture resembles coarse meal. You could also do this step by hand with a pastry blender or two knives.

Press half of the oat mixture into the bottom of a 9 x 9 inch pan coated with cooking spray or lined with parchment long enough to stick up above the bars, which will make for easy lifting out of the whole thing, which in turn makes for easier cutting. No mangling the first bar that way. Your call.

Spread preserves over the oat mixture. Sprinkle remaining oat mixture over the preserves and gently press.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown. Cool completely in pan on a wire rack.