Thursday, February 19, 2009

Challah

Any idea how many times I've started writing this post? LOTS. I'd sit down with a couple of spare minutes available, then realize a couple of spare minutes weren't enough to do a challah post justice. Because challah? It's more than a bread to me. It's a recurring theme.

The first time I ever heard of challah was in a book I read in 5th grade. The book was about a Jewish family with lots of girls, and I was so enamored of it, I read it about a dozen times. Then I did an oral book report about it which was supposed to last 2 minutes. I spoke for almost 10. I loved the book so much, I wanted to become Jewish, to break a symbolic loaf of bread every Friday night. I wish I could remember the book's title, because I suspect I'd still love it, even now. It was around this time that I learned that I am approximately 1/32 Jewish, but you better believe I CLUNG to that 32nd like Israel was my homeland. I told my father that if I ever had a son, I'd name him Schloimon. I couldn't understand why he didn't love the name as much as I did.

Then, my senior year in college, a friend invited me to make challah with her. We were both English Education majors, but we loved baking that challah so much that we made hypothetical plans to open a bakery. We figured we'd combine our refined use of the English language with our love for baking, and hypothetically called our shop "We Be Bakin"." People will always need bread, we reasoned. There will never be a time when people don't need bread. That's called job security, my friends, and when you're a senior English major staring a potentially job-less future full in the face, even hypothetical jobs sound pretty good.

After I graduated, I moved to live with my aunt and uncle in Newton, Massachusetts. I heard somewhere that the population of Newton is so overwhelmingly Jewish that the town's nickname is actually "Jewton." I don't know if that's true, but most of the people I came to be friends with there were, in fact, Jewish. The day that my friend Wendy invited me to have Sabbath dinner with her family was the day I realized my fondest wish. I felt so honored to be present as they broke challah together, and was even more honored that summer when my friends called me an "honorary Jew."

So. Challah. Not only do I love it when I'm pretending to be Jewish, it also makes great rolls, BLTs, and french toast. For ages, I baked it solely in its traditional braided form, but recently, I started braiding it and baking in a loaf pan for great sandwich bread. Then, for Thanksgiving, I baked it into dinner rolls. Any way you slice it (literally!), challah is a rich, tender, flaky, delicious bread. It is perfect with hearty favorites like stew and pot pie, but it also makes the best sandwiches ever. Give it a whirl! And see if you don't feel a smidge like singing Hava Nagila.

We Be Bakin'!!

Challah
from The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking
by Brother Rick Curry, S.J.

2 pkg. active dry yeast (about 4 1/2 tsp.)
1/2 c. warm water
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. flour
Mix; set aside for 5 minutes to "proof."

In a large bowl, combine:

5 c. all-purpose flour
2 1/4 c. warm water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp. salt
2 eggs

Mix thoroughly, then add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture. Beat for 10 minutes (by hand, or with a stand mixer), gradually adding flour until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 8 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic, adding flour as necessary to prevent stickiness. Place bread in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat, and cover and let rise until doubled--45 minutes to an hour.

Punch down the dough. Work in more flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Divide into six pieces and shape pieces into 10-inch ropes. Braid into two loaves. You may bake this on a cornmeal-lined baking sheet or stone, or you may bake the braided loaves in greased loaf pans. Or, what the heck? Shape the dough into rolls. In any event, cover the dough with tea towels or plastic wrap, and let rise again until doubled.

Glaze with a mixture of:
1/2 c. water
1 egg

And sprinkle with poppy seeds, if desired. Bake loaves in a preheated 350-degree oven. Loaves will take 35-45 minutes, rolls will take less. You'll love the beautifully dark, shiny crust on these beauties!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Refried Beans

I am always repulsed by the refried beans from the can. I mean, I love the flavor, but there's something about prying the strangely-gelatinous pink mass from its metal home that sets me ill-at-ease. Perhaps it looks too much like pet food? Or perhaps it just smells too much like pet food? The sad thing is that I LOVE the taste of refried beans. And I LOVE bean dip, especially out at a restaurant. But are my options really that I have to go to a restaurant to get good refried beans or tolerate the glop from a can? There must be a better way.

So one Saturday morning, I happen to catch America's Test Kitchen on PBS. THey were making huevos rancheros, I believe, and were having the same bean trouble I was. So they figured out how to make refried beans at home without having to first cook the beans and all that. It was quick, easy, and according to them, it was much tastier than the tin-can counterpart. I thought it was worth a try.

Of course, I used their recipe as a guideline, but didn't have all of the ingredients they called for. So with some improvisation, this is what I came up with. I've made it several times since then, and I come dangerously close to gluttony when I have a warm bowl of these beans and some good tortilla chips.

Give it a try--you might be surprised!!

Refried Beans

1 lg. can pinto beans, drained, liquid reserved
1 small onion, diced finely
4 strips of bacon (OR 1-2 Tbsp. bacon fat, if you've got some)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 4 oz. can green chilies, chopped as finely as desired
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. Kosher salt (or to taste)

In a saute pan over medium heat, render the fat from the bacon. Then eat the bacon, leaving the fat in the pan. Cooking does have its perks! To the drippings, add the onion, and saute until it begins to soften. Then add the chilies and garlic, and also the cumin and salt. Saute until fragrant, about a minute or two.

Meanwhile, toss the pinto beans into a food processor or blender, then add the onion/chile mixture on top. Pulse until the beans are as smooth as you like them, adding the reserved liquid until they're your preferred consistency.

Heat olive oil in that same saute pan, and transfer beans to warm pan. Cook over medium high heat until warmed through, just to combine flavors.

Sit down in a comfy chair with these beans and a fresh bag of tortilla chips and sigh contentedly. Then consume the whole bowl. Makes about 2 cups.

ALTERNATELY, you can use these in a Mexican layer dip, or spooned over deluxe nachos, or tucked inside tacos and burritos...I'm just saying, the possibilities are practically endless.

Menu Plan Monday

...and it's actually MONDAY! It's a triumph!!

Well, winter is starting to wind down. And while I will be ever-so-glad when the trees have leaves and all of the snow and sub-zero temperatures are a distant memory, I will sort of miss winter food. There's nothing like a warm pot pie or bowl of chili on a blustery day, you know? Oh, sure, spring and summer food is great, too; with all of its fresh produce, light flavors, and easy preparation, summer food sure is refreshing and healthy. But winter food is like a cozy sweater or a down comforter. Winter food is good for what ails you.

This week, we're stocking up on winter favorites. That groundhog says it'll be six more weeks, which means all of this yummy, stick-to-your-ribs food will soon be a distant memory, too.

Monday
Lemon Sage Butter Roasted Chicken
Saffron Jasmine Rice
Spinach and Cabbage Salad with Homemade Poppyseed Dressing

Tuesday
Pasta e Fagioli Soup
Breadsticks with Garlic-infused dipping oil

Wednesday
Pork Verde Tacos
Yellow Rice

Thursday
Chicken Pot Pie

Friday
Roast Beef
Roasted Potatoes with Garlic and Dill
Glazed Carrots

Saturday
Leftovers

Sunday
Schultzie's Mess (Breakfast)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Taco Soup

When I was a junior in college, I took a very humanitarian Spring Break road trip to Arkansas to help clean up after an F5 tornado destroyed a small town. The sister of a friend of mine lived nearby, so we stayed with her and her husband during our time there, and she introduced me to two delicious dishes. The first was queso dip. I'd had queso dip from a jar before, and loved it, but Rebecca made queso with Velveeta and this fantastic stuff called Ro*Tel. I won't post a recipe for that one; chances are, a)you already know how to make it, and b) even if you don't, you probably gleaned enough from the list of ingredients to surmise how to make it.

The second dish was a chili-like concoction called Taco Soup. Spicy, tangy, and hearty, it was Tex-Mex heaven in a bowl, and I was instantly smitten. Believe it or not, I am an introvert, and because of that, I did not ask her for the recipe for this soul-satisfying soup. But I was able, some time later, to hone its ingredients to achieve the flavor I fell in love with at Bill and Rebecca's house. My recipe has become a trifle more sophisticated over the years, but it is still the smoky, spicy soup I met in Arkansas those many years ago. That, and it couldn't be easier! I'm sure you've seen recipes for this before; here's mine.

Taco Soup

1 lb. ground beef
1 small sweet onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. water or beef broth
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 16-oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 can yellow hominy, undrained
1 can beans (your choice--I like dark red kidney beans or black beans), undrained
1 tsp. ground oregano
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. taco seasoning
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1 bay leaf

Steamed rice
Cheddar cheese
Fritos

In a dutch oven, brown ground beef, and drain. (Make sure beef is browned and not merely gray; color=flavor!) Add in onions and saute over medium heat until onions are translucent. (Beef will continue to brown. GOOD!) Add in garlic, and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Deglaze the pan with water or broth, scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom. Add in oregano, cumin, taco seasoning, and cayenne, stirring well to combine. Then add the tomatoes, hominy, and beans. Stir to combine. Toss the bay leaf into the mixture, and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Serve over rice, topped with cheese, and sprinkled liberally with fritos.

Serves 6.