Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Too Hot to Cook?

This week we are pleased to host a guest piece by Wisconsin writer Pam Parker. Pam's short stories and poetry have appeared in The Potomac Review, The MacGuffin, Grey Sparrow Press, The Binnacle and other print and electronic venues. She is pursuing a non-MFA MFA by attending writer’s conferences, such as the Tin House Summer Writer’s Festival and the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, where she’s studied with incredible faculty. If she wins the lottery, she may one day pursue an actual MFA, but she’s not holding her breath, so don’t hold yours.

Please read Pam's blog and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Too Hot to Cook?
by Pam Parker

“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” One variation of an old German saying.

Sweltering July heat has created issues for many family cooks. I live in suburban Milwaukee, in a post-WWII home, which, like many has no air conditioning. For the number of days we actually require air conditioning here, my husband and I have opted not to put it in. So, while we’re being good to the environment in terms of energy usage, we have our uncomfortable times. And, though there’s a window unit in the kitchen, there are days when cooking inside seems foolish, and when the heat index is 105, grilling outside seems just as foolish. What’s a cook to do? Fire up the microwave? Put something in the slow cooker in the morning and let it go? Microwaving and slow cooking work as metaphors for writing, and there’s more on that in a post at Pam Writes , but they’re not the solution to please a harried, heat-stroke-approaching writer/cook.

Instead, I turn to a German tradition called abendbrot, which is an elegant way of saying, open-faced sandwiches are wunderbar. Milwaukee happens to be a city with strong German roots, but my family was introduced to this marvelous tradition when we lived in Marburg, Germany for a year. The big meal was served and eaten at lunchtime, a lighter meal for supper. So, how to prepare and serve a satisfying abendbrot?

The traditional offerings are simple:
  • Crusty, whole grain breads
  • Several choices of deli meats and cheeses
  • Butter, mustard (in our house, usually mayo too)
  • Pickles
And, that could be it. It would not be unheard of in Germany, or in my house, to add some type of side salad – here, it’s often cole slaw. I recall a rotkohl (red cabbage) salad sometimes in Germany. When tomatoes are in season and available, they’re often served, too. 

Enjoy with a nice German beer, perhaps a German chocolate bar for dessert.

Guten appetite.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Yeast: We're Still Getting to Know Each Other

"Have low expectations of each experiment but high expectations of yourself to keep at it."

I'll be honest. I'm no gourmet cook. But, in another life, I would be a master baker. I would dive into culinary classes, learn the art of cream puffs and petit fours, tease my friends and family with a loaf of freshly baked bread that I whipped up, on the fly.

Yeast would be my friend.

But, I studied literature in college; I rarely thought about baking. The closest I came to rising dough was during my junior year, when I worked behind the counter at a bakery shop. It was only after I married and had kids (i.e., two finicky eaters, one of whom is allergic to eggs) that I dreamed of making everything from scratch and discovered that baking, like writing, is a mixture of chemistry and art.

Especially when it comes to yeast.

Talk about finicky.

I've made Easy Bread Dough from my Betty Crocker cookbook, attempted a more difficult recipe for Whole Wheat Molasses Bread, and subjected my family to several experiments in pizza crusts. What I've learned is that "easy" is a relative term, whole wheat bread can rise like a boulder (and weigh the same in the end), and pizza dough can taste like cardboard.

But, I keep at it. Working with yeast is like writing for me.  Victoria said it well in her post here last week, when she paired crafting a story with the art of the pastry:
...[R]ewriting and reworking a recipe is the same thing--it comes from the desire to make something good and finding out you need more practice, more poetry books, and a lower oven temp.
Practice. And, persistence. After I read her post, I donned my apron, pulled out my most recent pizza dough recipe, and then approached a sack of flour and a handful of yeast with determination.

The early work of measuring and mixing went well and yielded a pretty ball of dough.

I covered it and let it rise, knowing that Yeast doesn't like me to hover. Later, I rolled out the dough and created a near picture-perfect crust. Look at that, I thought.

I celebrated by loading up the pizza with extra cheese.


Into the oven.
And, pray.

I won't lie. It wasn't the best-ever, but this crust was better than the last. And, that's all that matters.

Do you have a special brand of yeast that works every time? I need to know.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Topfenkolatsche: My perfect metaphor

Canterbury Booksellers broke me in—cheese danish and a cappuccino, random books of poetry with pretty covers and narrow spines, and my journals dotting, dashing in a downtown rain. This was my idea of a literary lifestyle. I was hardly 16.

I wanted to tear books from the shelves and roll in them. I said this out loud, “I want to tear books from the shelves and roll in them!” I thought the ink would seep in leaving the coffee and sugar to fuel me. “I'm going to be famous one day.”

For years into early adulthood the order stayed the same--cheese danish and a cappuccino, poetry books and pens. Write. Write. Write.

And so it seemed, I should begin in cheese danishes with a recipe for Topfenkolatsche—traditional cream cheese (Topfen) danish. And like writing, the only way to begin is to begin. 

I practically planned the day around mixing the pastry dough (1 ½ hours to rise); creaming the cheese, butter, eggs, lemon zest; rolling the pastries; anointing them with lather; folding them into neat packets to rise again (45 more minutes); and baking (30 minutes at 400 degrees). 

The process was systematic and ritualistic. I followed the recipe to the letter.

Then they burned 15 minutes into the 30 minute bake time and I demanded we order a pizza.

I thought this, though--that failing at my first made-from-scratch cheese danish is just like finding that first rejection in the mail slot. That rewriting and reworking a recipe is the same thing--it comes from the desire to make something good and finding out you need more practice, more poetry books, and a lower oven temp. It comes from taking what you can from the masters then tossing it out and starting from scratch.

I recently received my first acceptance from an online literary magazine. To celebrate, I'm going to buy some puff pastry dough and make a not-so-traditional cream cheese danish.

Your turn: Tell us what food means "literary" to you. Or what were you so excited to cook, but ended up needing to remodel? There are no mistakes in cooking or writing, only new tastes to be explored.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Perfect Sauteed Tofu Cubes Every Single Time

By Lisa

Just a little over a week ago, E. Victoria Flynn and Christi Craig and I were tossing around the idea of a group blog over hot-from-the-brick-oven Flying Cow Pizza from Oconomowoc's Farmers Market (I ordered one with artichokes and olives and left not so much as a crumb) and coffee/tea from Whelan's Coffee and Ice Cream. Thank you to the kind worker at Whelan's for documenting our day (we took it as a good sign that we arrived color-coordinated):

Lisa, Christi, Victoria
The result of our conversation? Writing Up an Appetite: Wisconsin Writers in the Kitchen, and I am delighted to start us off with the answer to a question I hear often, both from seasoned cooks unfamiliar with tofu and from young adults who want to learn to make more vegetarian meals: How does one cook tofu so that it's not a flavorless, unappetizing blob?

The secret to crispy tofu that will absorb the sauce of your favorite dish is a three-step process. First, a towel soaks up excess moisture. Then the intense heat of sauteing browns the tofu. Finally, the dry heat of baking firms it up. Time consuming? A little, but the result is well worth the wait. If you thought all tofu had to be bland and mushy, you are in for a real treat.

1. Start with one pound extra firm tofu. Remove from package and drain.

2. Cut in half to form two blocks, then slice each block to halve the width.

3. Lay the four slices evenly on a clean, non-fuzzy kitchen towel.

4. Wrap the towel around the tofu.

5. Weight down with a heavy bowl or pan for at least 30 minutes. The towel will absorb excess moisture from the tofu.

6. Unwrap the tofu and cut it into cubes.

7. In a wok or large skillet, heat a thin layer of peanut or other oil (I like a garlic-flavored stir-fry oil). When oil is hot (and not before!), add tofu cubes, salt lightly, and saute until golden brown, stirring occasionally. (After this step, if you wish, you can marinate the sauteed cubes for 20-30 minutes in your favorite marinade or sauce.)

8. Transfer cubes to a baking dish, and bake at 350 degrees F for 25-30 minutes, until firm and a little "puffy." You can make these ahead of time and refrigerate for later use (warning: very high snack-ability factor, so you might want to make extra). This is another point in the process when you can marinate the cubes, if you wish.

9. Add to stir fry, pad thai, kung pao, spaghetti sauce, or whatever catches your fancy!