The Artful Kitchen

The Artful Kitchen is a blog about art, food, and culture. The premise is that you can make beautiful, tasty, and healthy things at home--domestic works of art! Happy reading!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

No resolutions, no problem

The holidays are always hectic, and this year was no exception for me. That means I've been trying to ease into the New Year, sort of picking myself up, dusting myself off, and making some plans--but not resolutions. For the last few years, I haven't done resolutions. It's not that I don't think people should make plans, or change their lives if they want to, or use the new year as a time to start some new's just that I think you can do those things or make those changes at any time. Before I say anything else, let me be clear about this: if starting a new project at the new year works for you, then that's awesome and I wish you well in whatever it is that you are pursuing. Ok, that said, here's why I don't do New Year's resolutions any more: they all feel like part of a huge marketing ploy, and the biggest by far is the join a gym/weight loss/ "healthy eating" package-deal resolution. I'm not opposed to any of those goals, but I am opposed to the huge marketing push wherein spokespeople start talking about "swimsuit season" (in January, even!) and trying to make people feel guilty for indulging in some holiday treats. In one weekend, I saw Mariah Carey's creepy commercial pushing Jenny Craig (although it never says that she actually lost weight using Jenny's plan), Jennifer Hudson's Weight Watchers commercial where she kills Lenny Kravitz's beautiful, non-weight loss related song "Believe," and even a Charles Barkley ad for Weight Watchers for men. I'm fine with the idea that the new year represents a new opportunity, but not with the message that you are not living your life to the fullest if you are "overweight" or that it is ok for people to call a fellow human being "the bread truck" (or having weight loss show like the "The Biggest Loser" with its offensive double meaning and implications about the worthlessness of fat people).  Even though I have never been a Barkley fan, I don't think calling the man "the bread truck" is OK, and I just want to state for the record that I'd deck anyone who gave me a nickname even remotely approaching that one. You have been warned.

So what is a foodie and a person of size to do in the face of so much media pressure? I've been working out and it's all good, but I don't do it because the media tells me I? Do I need to now carry around a tiny notebook in which I keep track of my carb intake? Am I supposed to eat powdered food, go to meetings where they weigh me and then shame of praise me on the basis of what the scale says, or start drinking my meals or replacing dinner with cereal? Hell to the no. I guess I just have a different, and I hope more expansive, view of wellness. For me, eating well and being healthy is, in part,  about eating real food--not powder, not Lean cuisine, not stuff that is loaded with preservatives, artificial ingredients and dyes, and tastes like cardboard, but is considered "fine" because it doesn't have any fat or is low-cal/high fiber/low on the glycemic index/insert faddish diet thing here. Preparing food at home gives me a better sense of what I'm consuming as well as giving me a sense of balance since I put energy out in preparing my meals and then, of course, consume that food and generate more energy that allows me to do other things. When I cook, I have fun, bond with others, and learn things. I am creative, I experiment, I think fast. I have kitchen hustle like you wouldn't believe. I'm guessing even Charles Barkley would be amazed at my deftness and agility. So it was a very mild form of protest, but I intended my lack of resolutions and my weekend of cooking as my own private rebuttal to the dieting ads that felt like they were coming at me from all sides. I spent New Years weekend at home cooking with my honey, watching sports on TV (who scheduled the Winter Classic and the Rose Bowl game so they conflicted? WHO?!), and playing a totally addictive new game we got for Christmas. It was heavenly, and at the end of it all, there were homemade tamales, chocolate chip cookies, and a loaf of oatmeal sourdough bread (tamale recipe to follow in an upcoming post, but it's still being perfected).

If you find that you must, must diet as part of a New Year's resolution, then I'd never try to talk you out of it, but the people that conceive of the corporate ad campaigns that make tons of money from giving people body shame and making them obsessive about fat intake, gym time, etc., well, I hope they get hit by a bread truck. ;) Ok, ok, so I don't really wish that upon them. What I do wish is that all of you have a very happy and healthy 2012, however you define those things.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Candies!

Making Christmas cookies is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the holiday season, especially because my goofy, wonderful husband and I have a tendency to be really silly, dancing around the kitchen and turning cookie making into a full-on event. This year, though, we thought we'd also give Christmas candies a try, and we have Food Network to thank for this brilliant idea. On a recently aired episode of Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Guy helped a master candy maker at Disney World make candy canes from scratch. It was amazing to see all the steps that go into hand-crafting those delicious treats, and I was particularly fascinated watching Guy and his mentor pull the dough on the candy hook, stretching it like taffy, and then modeling it so that the strips of red and green could be worked in. I love candy canes but am, like most people, familiar with the really inexpensive, industrially produced kind. It was a revelation to see the craftsmanship that went into making the ones at Disney. My husband and I were inspired to try making some candy at home, but even though we appreciated everything that went into making candy canes, that seemed just a tad too intense to try at home. Plus, we're busy spending all our money buying people presents, so there's not a lot floating around to buy candy-making equipment (not to mention that I have no idea where I'd put a candy hook in my tiny kitchen).

When my December issue of the Food Network magazine came in the mail, I found the perfect solution in their edible gifts section. We modified one of the recipes they included to make our very own delicious and very festive peppermint bark. It was inexpensive to make, especially since I saw a tin of the exact same stuff at Trader Joe's for $9.99. It is also really easy since, unlike cookies, you don't have to work in batches, and the whole process is pretty quick from start to the hardening stage. It's also easy enough that you can make it with kids (or very child-like adults) as your special helpers.

First, finely chop 12 oz. of semi-sweet chocolate. You can also use chocolate chips for this part, in which case you do not need to chop them. I actually used both chips and chopped pieces of chocolate since I had a bit of both in the pantry already. You will need another 4 oz. of chocolate in a little while and should have it handy, so if you're chopping, chop another 4 oz. now and set it aside.
Next, you need 1 c. of broken peppermint pieces. Even after my rhapsodizing about the craftsmanship of candy canes, we bought some of the cheap ones and smashed them...but I'd never do that to the hand-made ones--honest! You can use starlight mints or candy canes. Just put them in a large plastic bag, place on a sturdy flat surface, and roll over them with a rolling pin. This will cause some initial breakage but won't actually get the pieces small enough, so once you've exhausted what you can do with the rolling pin, give them a whack with a hammer. No, I'm not kidding. See?
Once your candy pieces are ready, melt the chocolate. You have three choices here: microwave, double boiler, or in a saucepan. I just did mine in a saucepan, stirring constantly and watching closely, and I'm pleased to say that it didn't scorch. While the chocolate is melting, melt 1 T. vegetable shortening. Once the chocolate is melted, add the 1 t. melted shortening and then stir in the additional 4 oz. of chocolate. If you'd like a mintier bark, you can add some peppermint extract here (I didn't do so but would next time around--I'd go with 1/8-1/4 tsp).

When the mixture has melted and is smooth, use a spatula to spread it on a parchment-paper lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle the candy mixture on top, pressing down to make sure larger pieces adhere.
Allow the candy to harden. I needed to leave mine overnight, so I just covered it with plastic wrap and stuck it in a cold oven...just don't forget it's in there the next day! Once the candy is hard, break it into pieces. Don't worry about it being uniform--that's not the point (and not really possible, either).
Your peppermint bark is now ready to enjoy, or to give as an edible gift.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Allrecipes shout out!

I love, love, love Like other sites, it is searchable in a variety of different ways and has a virtual recipe box that allows you to save things that look interesting, and it lets you leave reviews on particular recipes. But I think it's great because it has a couple of features some other sites don't.  Namely, it allows your average users to post recipes and to tweak existing recipes and save those tweaks as custom versions (although I should say this is available to members at the supporting level). I find this enormously helpful for those times when I want a new recipe, but I want something another average person made in their kitchen with regular equipment and ingredients, not something out of Bon Appetit magazine that requires ingredients out of my budget and ok, fine, I'll say it, knowledge beyond my current culinary skill level. I also like that there are a number of affiliated food blogs with interesting and handy dandy information, as well as online groups that have sprung up within the allrecipes framework, such as one that specifically looks for recipes that do not have a photo posted, vote on one they all want to make, and then users all add their photos and reviews to help round out the site (and have some fun, too!).

I'm nursing a repetitive stress injury (from too much typing! blah!), and it has seriously curbed my kitchen experimentation over the last week or what better time to cop out a little and just point you towards awesome things other people are doing online?

Here are a couple of great dishes from that I've made recently, and that I would highly recommend. Happy browsing, happy cooking, and best of all, happy eating!

Turkey and Yam Tacos

These are fooddude's Turkey and Yam Spicy Tacos, which I've made twice so far and which are definitely going into the normal dinner rotation. It takes a little while to do the chopping, but otherwise is a fairly easy, healthy recipe with absolutely delicious results. You can tweak it, too, adding elements like beans or rice, changing the heat level, and choosing different salsas for a different flavor. I've actually only made it with store-bought tomato salsa, but will try it with a homemade tomatillo salsa as soon as I can get some decent tomatillos at the store. You can find the recipe here.

Slow Cooker Latin Chicken
I'm a sucker for a good slow cooker recipe. The best ones, in my opinion, make healthy meals that have a great fragrance to make your house smell lovely all day long. Crock pots are like magic--even though you might put a lot of prep into dinner earlier in the day, when it comes time to eat I always have that great feeling like dinner made itself. This is a great dish that combines the flavors and textures of beans, dark meat chicken, and sweet potatoes. It's a total winner, and it's even good reheated ( I stuck some peanuts on top of the leftovers for some additional texture--yum). I always make it with kidney beans and have served it on both rice and couscous. You can find the recipe here.

Lastly, I found a fabulous and very easy recipe for challah on There is a version in Claudia Roden's award-winning volume The Book of Jewish Food, but it makes four loaves and while I have mad bread-baking skills, I do not possess mad math skills. I just didn't think I could scale it since I only wanted to make one loaf. I still had to cut the recipe I used in half, but that was much easier for me. This is actually the first loaf of bread I've ever made using a recipe I found online (all the others have come from physical cookbooks), but I found it very clear and was surprised that making challah is really no trouble at all--as long as you're going to be home long enough to let it rise three times. I made the sweet version by adding extra sugar, since that's the kind that I came to love as a child. The bread is tender, has just the right density, is slightly sweet (but still not really a dessert bread), and thanks to the egg wash, has a perfect crust. You can find the recipe here. Oh, and please don't judge my bread-braiding skills. It looked better before I baked it, but presentation isn't everything.

Thanks to all the great allrecipes cooks who have inspired me and who have, more than once, saved me from dinnertime doldrums.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

The Best of the Season

Since my husband and I have been traveling a lot lately, we really needed to spend a weekend at home. Last weekend was officially Sit on the Couch weekend, and oh, we watched sooo much football. But in between games I did manage to make up a big pot of Shaker Cider Stew, something my mom used to make when I was a kid and that was always a big hit. I vividly remember coming home one chilly day when I was about 12 to find the house filled with the sweet smell of the stew and that heavy, earthy smell of freshly baked yeast rolls. I had been having a blast out with my friends, but when I got home and saw that mom had been putting so much effort into dinner while I was out made me feel really content and loved. If only this memory had surfaced a few times during those teen years, I might not have been quite as horrible to my mother, or at least I might have thought twice about it.

Shaker Cider Stew is not something my mother concocted herself, but in my mind it is absolutely her recipe, and I think it's sort of funny how that works. I'd never read a great book and be like "it's mine now!," even if it becomes a part of who I am on a deep level. But food, it seems, is different. Make something enough times and it seems to be yours--it becomes the thing you are known for at social gatherings, to the point where your invitation to the event ends with "oh, and can you bring your (insert name of awesome dish you make that everyone loves here)?" This proprietary thing is interesting from a familial standpoint, too, where you can only pass the secret sauce recipe, grandma's fudge recipe, etc. etc. to other members of the family, as if "privileged" kitchen knowledge must be kept secret to assure that no matter what year it is or where you live, your family will always have one thing it can make better than the Joneses. Making a recipe a certain number of times is like adopting it--it becomes part of your repertoire, and you love it and care for it over the years, even though sometimes it isn't as good as you hoped. It's amazing how often I find myself saying something like, "oh, my pumpkin pie recipe calls for...," even though there's no "my" about it. That shit came off the back of the Libby's pumpkin puree can. And it was delicious.

I suspect that my mom's Shaker Cider Stew recipe is from one of the many cookbooks she had in her collection when I was growing up, but we've adopted it and been making it for almost two decades. When my mother made me a scrapbook-style "family recipes" cookbook as a Christmas gift, she included this recipe,  so as far as I'm concerned, she's claimed it. I share it with all of you as a sort of tribute to her. I hope it'll make your home smell lovely and fill your belly well.

Shaker Cider Stew

2 T. all purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
2 lbs. beef stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 T. oil
2 large onions, sliced
1 c. water
1 c. apple juice or cider
2 medium rutabagas, peeled and chopped (4 cups)
6 medium carrots, chopped (3 cups)
2 T. snipped parsley
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. dried marjoram, crushed
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/3 c. cold water
3 T. flous
6 small potatoes, peeled, cooked and mashed

In a paper bag, combine 2 T. flour, 2 tsp. salt, and the pepper. Add meat cubes, a few at a time, shaking to coat the meat.

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, brown meat, half at a time in the hot oil. Return all meat to the pot. Add onions, the 1 c. of water, and apple juice or cider. Cover and simmer about 1 1/4 hours or until meat is tender. Add rutabagas, carrots, parsley, the 1 tsp. salt, the marjoram, and thyme. Cover and simmer 30 minutes or until vegetable are cooked. Blend the 1/3 c. of water and 3 T. flour; stir into the stew. Cook and stir till bubbly. Transfer to a serving bowl and spoon mashed potatoes around the edges. (also good without the mashed potatoes, and you can probably substitute turnips for rutabagas if you want, although I've never done so).

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

A whole lot of failure and sometimes, maybe, a little success

I think the title of this post basically sums up what cooking is for me, but with this addition: that the successes are so rewarding that I'm often willing to overlook the failures. Cooking is about experimentation, at least for me. Sure, I use recipes, but I also tweak them, discard them completely, invent something new, add an ingredient on a whim, completely misread instructions and inadvertently do something that dramatically changes the results...basically, it's a crapshoot, but that's a terrible way to refer to something you're going to put in your mouth, right? I mean, I know what a crapshoot is, but we all know what it sounds like, right?

I decided I'd share with you a few recent kitchen misfires since I'm not exactly your Martha Stewart type and I'm not afraid to say that things went wrong. I don't think any cook should be embarrassed to make a mistake, but then, that's much easier said than done. This is a photo of an apple chicken curry I made using a recipe on, one of my fave sites. I hold the author of that recipe completely blameless since my first time making the recipe, I decided to incorporate a bunch of suggestions from the comments other people left, and to also add ingredients no one in fact suggested, and, in my final act of madness, decided to use a totally different cooking method. Basically, I made a completely different dish without test-driving the recipe I claimed to be using first. The results were edible, decent even, but a far cry from a true curry. I was disappointed.

Then there was the Sopa de Xim Xim incident. I had bought a cookbook called Hot & Spicy Latin Dishes at a used bookstore for a whopping twenty-five cents. I'm pretty sure it's out of print. Sopa de Xim Xim (Peanut Soup)  sounded awesome and different--it's got beef, onions, bell peppers, peanut butter. I like all of those things when they're together in Thai food, although there we are talking more about peanut sauce than peanut butter. Anyway, I decided to take my chances, except that the soup called for a habanero and I know I can be kind of a wimp about heat. It helpfully suggested that I could substitute three jalapenos, but for a reason I cannot now fathom, I was convinced this was a direct equivalence and would still be too hot. I made a big pot of the soup as directed, but with only 2 jalapenos. I tasted a small spoonful and it seemed ok, so I served it up for dinner, dug in, and tasted what was basically meat and veggies floating in liquidy peanut butter. Determined to fix it, I added some garlic and another jalapeno to try and give it some spice. That helped, but the damage had been done and I never could get past the idea that I was basically eating meat cooked in peanut butter. It turned my stomach, and my poor husband just couldn't win. If he didn't want to eat it, I was bummed. When he took an enthusiastic mouthful, I turned on him and shouted "I can't believe you're eating this!" Did I mention that cooking can kind of play with your emotions, especially when you've worked hard on something that no one--not even you--will eat? There's no photo of this one because it went down the drain, and I went to Taco Bell. That's right, the fruits of over 2 hours of labor were chalupas containing something that is definitely not actual meat.

So what is my point in telling you this? Well, it's because it's weirdly cathartic to share these little mishaps because it allows me to see that that's all they are--little mishaps. I didn't burn down my apartment, or get jalapenos in my eye (again, that is), or give anyone a food-borne illness. I just screwed up, and it happens to everyone, all the time. Actually, in the second instance, I didn't really screw up, I just took a chance that didn't pay off, and everyone does that all the time, too. Well, not everyone, but it's part of leading an exciting life where you actually try new things. So in the end, this post isn't really for you, dear reader, but for me. I accept my kitchen mishaps for what they are, and I vow to soldier on. Next adventure, please!

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Arkansas Black

I ended up at Whole Foods somewhat randomly yesterday. I didn't really need anything, but it was the closest place I could think of that had both a cafe and a clean public bathroom, so I stopped with the hubby to have an iced coffee and a mini cupcake. While enjoying our sweet treats I remembered that I needed a red bell pepper for dinner after all, and that's how I ended up taking a spin through the produce department.

I love the produce department at Whole Foods--it's bright, shiny, and full of delicious organics and little oddities. If I'm not careful, it's a place where I can drop some serious cash on bizarre impulse buys, since I am exactly that kind of person that is taken in by produce that seems "exotic." Yesterday, I managed to bypass the squid-like Buddha's hand fruit but was completely taken in by some interesting looking apples. I ended up buying two lovely, deep red Arkansas Black apples (although mine were grown in California).

I ate one of my Arkansas Black apples this morning and it was delicious--extremely dense and totally unlike any other apple I've ever had. The flavor was very sweet and the apple was juicy. In fact, it was so sweet and juicy that it was almost like eating cider, if you can imagine. It had a little acidity in the finish and actually reminded me of what my pie apples taste like once I've sprinkled some sugar and lemon juice on them to keep them from oxidizing. A nice, hearty apple, it would be ideal for juice or cider and will definitely hold up well in baked desserts. I can't wait to try it in a pie or apple crumble some time soon.

I noticed that the label indicated that the Arkansas Black is an heirloom variety, and frankly, that was part of its appeal in the produce aisle at the store. I have been really influenced by Cary Fowler's outstanding TED Talk on the need to protect biodiversity and his involvement with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. I make an effort to buy different kinds of produce and let my dollars tell the places I shop that I'm a consumer who supports bio-diversity. The fact that the apple was local was just icing on the cake, as it were. But I digress. Fowler's TED talk is actually relevant here not only because it's about biodiversity, but because one of the examples he uses to address crop diversity is apples and the notion of ancestral apples that families once grew and named after themselves. His comments on the Fowler apple, named for his family, are amusing and make one wonder about what crops one's ancestors might have grown, and whether they are still being cultivated. Thinking about his comments on the Fowler apple, I couldn't resist finding out a little more about the Arkansas Black.

According to the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture, the Arkansas Black was probably first cultivated on the Braithewaite farm around 1870 in the Northwest corner of Arkansas. It grows in swampy areas and is prized for being a "good keeper" that can last anywhere between 2-6 months if kept in cold storage. The longer it is stored, the darker the skin becomes, turning from a deep red to a black color, and the fruit itself becomes less acidic. It's also an apple that, like the rest of the apple industry in Arkansas, has never quite bounced back after the damage done first by the 1920 codling moth infestation and then by Dust Bowl conditions and the ensuing Great Depression. I have Romantic notions about reviving heirloom crops and am happy that this delicious heirloom apple is becoming more widely available, but also can't help but think that commercial enterprises have a lot to gain from reviving this specific type of apple since longer shelf life minimizes waste and increases profits. In any case, it's a darn tasty apple, and I it was fun to both try something new and do a little foodie research.

In doing some reading about the Arkansas Black, I came across another blog worth mentioning here. Adam's Apples is a blog all about, well, apples, and it's amazing how many varieties there are. Adam tastes them, photographs them, and posts information about the different varieties, including their flavor, size, where they grow, etc. It's fun reading, and basically a fruit-based and far less insane version of Ron Swardson's steak diaries (any other Parks and Recreation fans out there?!). It also makes me marvel at the diversity that remains in the world, it makes me want to keep protecting it, and, frankly, it makes me hungry to keep trying new things.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Back from the Big Apple

I've just returned from a trip to New York, a fabulous city full of great eats and great art. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time. I love New York, but I don't love the totally unsecured internet connection in the hotel, so as you can see, I did not end up doing any blogging while there.

Out of all the museums in all the countries I've visited thus far, I have to say that MoMA is probably my favorite. The collection is fabulous, the floor plan clear and well thought out to anticipate the needs of visitors (free audio guides, bathrooms on every floor--hurrah!), the special exhibitions are outstanding (I highly recommend the current de Kooning retrospective). In short, it's a great institution, but the bonus for me was finding out that MoMA is also a great place to get something to eat.

MoMA offers three dining options. There's Terrace 5, a cafe that had a humongous line that I opted to skip, as well as the James Beard Award-winning French-American restaurant The Modern on the ground floor, which looked like the kind of place that was going to sucker-punch my wallet, so I skipped that, too, but found utter bliss at Cafe 2. Make no mistake--this is not your average museum cafeteria. Cafe 2 offers delectable upscale fare for reasonable prices. You're probably going to pay $14-20 per person for lunch, but oh what a lunch you'll get. There are no soggy sandwiches here--just inspired fare like the Wild Mushroom Tart with a huge dollop of creme fraiche on top and a crisp, lightly dressed salad on the side. I was so impressed with lunch that after a few more hours of wandering the galleries, I returned for a cappuccino and a piece of pumpkin cheesecake. The cappuccino had the perfect amount of foam, with a little heart design that gave me exactly the boost I needed to get back on my tired feet and do some more walking. The cheesecake was outstanding--rich and velvety but not too dense, and with a deep pumpkin flavor. The vanilla creme fraiche on top was a perfect accompaniment, and there might not be anything more delicious than sugared pepitas.

I'm sorry that I can only offer this blurry photo. Maybe I was too embarrassed to be another tourist taking a picture of my food at one of the communal tables and didn't bother getting a picture that was in focus, or maybe, and more likely, I was in a hurry to take the damn photo and eat that cheesecake!

If MoMA hadn't already won my heart for so many other reasons, it's very possible that the pumpkin cheesecake would have done it. It wasn't just that it was a pleasurable late-afternoon snack, but rather, it seemed to enhance the entire experience of visiting the museum. The pleasure of looking at the art, of watching other people, of doing things at my own pace--it all sort of culminated in this moment when I stopped to eat something delicious and reflect on everything I had already seen and done, as well as providing a little sugar burst so that I could go on and experience more. It was the kind of moment that makes you feel grateful for all of the things you have, and grateful for the small pleasures of life. It was poetry--the kind of moment that comes to you when all of the conditions are right, and that I frankly think is much less likely to happen in the dingy cafeterias with hard plastic chairs that serve greasy grilled cheese sandwiches.  I love the idea of an art museum as a showcase for the culinary as well as visual and performing arts.

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