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Dreaming of a Burger

No seriously, I’ve been dreaming of burgers, fries and shakes – literally. Opening a burger place next year in our neighborhood. We are at the very early stages of an SBA loan process so patience is the name of the game.  More to come on this saga….

It has been over a year of complete silence. New job, new demands meant no time for creative writing. After a hectic holiday season where I actually did not like myself, I decided that I would go back to writing in 2012. Of course, we are past the middle of January and I have yet to sit down and actually do it. It is not for lack of ideas though, they are constantly flowing. Clever tidbits that I store in the part of my brain labeled: SOMEDAY….. You know, those really funny and clever anecdotes that you know people will just love.

So being the opportunist that I am, I decided to start writing at the beginning of the Lunar New Year. Convincing myself that starting on this day would surely bring me luck.

I decided to invite a few friends over for a simple meal of dumplings and noodles. I often make dumplings throughout the year. Making a huge batch and freezing them for those emergency meals when no one wants to eat out anymore. My kids love it and I believe they associate it with a real home cooked meal, much like they do Chicken and Dumplings in the winter.

Over the Christmas break, we headed up to a small hole-in-the wall dumpling place in Maryland that my husband tried during his lunch break. It is nothing fancy and  to get to the restroom, you actually walk through the kitchen. As you wait in line to use the restroom, you get to see them make the dumplings. I can tell you now, there were easily a hundred health code violations going on which I am sure was why the food was so good. All fresh and made to order. One person rolled out the dumpling wrapper, two people filled it and one person was in charge of cooking them – steaming or pan frying. These dumplings were the real deal – so flavorful and the filling was not dry or tough at all. They reminded me that while my dumplings were good enough for emergency meals, they were far from delicious. In fact, they were awful. The only thing going for them was that I formed them by hand.

So for this Lunar New Year dinner, I decided to take my time and really put the time and effort in to the dumplings. I did not use my food processor which I would normally use to mix everything. All the ingredients were chopped and mixed by hand. I taste tested each batch of filling and adjusted the taste at least three times. I even sealed the dumpling differently, crimping the edges instead of merely making a half-moon. This created a much more compact pocket without a lot of space for the filling to float around in as it cooked. Plus, they just looked nicer.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. The dumplings were in many ways imperfect. The filling could have used more chives, the crimping uneven and the cooking time was hit or miss. Did the guests care? More importantly, did I care? No I didn’t. Today was not so much about the dumplings but about the art of cooking that I have missed over the past year. I innately knew that to create a good dumpling I had to go through all these steps but I just never did it. Too many excuses. Much like my writing. Full of great ideas but just as many distractions. Hopefully, this new year will bring the focus back to the food and the writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pork Dumplings (makes about 50)

1/4 cup finely chopped chives (yes, 1/4 cup!)

1/4 cup finely chopped green onions

2 tsp. freshly grated ginger, plus one whole uncut piece which you can add to the chicken stock

3 tbs. dark soy sauce

1 tbs. seasoned rice wine vinegar

black pepper

2 lbs. fresh ground pork

1 package round (or square) dumpling wrappers

6 cups chicken stock (if cooking immediately)

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine chives, green onions, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and black pepper.

2. Add the fresh ground pork and with your hands, mix the ingredients together until they are well combined.

3. Allow to sit in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to meld. Put a pot of water (or chicken stock if you have it) on the stove and bring to a simmer.

4. Taking one dumpling wrapper, place roughly a teaspoon and a half of filling in the center. Line the edge of the entire wrapper with a bit of water. You can do this by dipping your finger in a bowl of water and running it on the rim of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper in half, creating a half-moon shape. Beginning for the center, begin crimping the edges to seal. I make about four to six folds depending on how much filling I put it.

5. Place on a parchment lined sheet tray (or one dusted with cornstarch) until ready to cook or freeze. To cook, gently slip into a pot of simmering chicken stock. Allow to cook for three – four minutes until the wrapper is puffy. Don’t crowd the pot, for a 2.5 quart dutch oven that has about 6 cups of chicken stock, I would not cook more than 6 – 8 pieces at a time. Adding too many drops the temperature too low which in turn increases the time it takes for the stock to come back up to a simmer. This all leads to the dumplings sitting at the bottom of the pot and sticking. We are not making pot stickers.

6. Once the they are puffy, remove with a slotted spoon, draining as much stock as you can. Allow to sit for about 1 minute before serving.

Dipping Sauce

1 cup low sodium soy sauce

4 tbs. seasoned rice vinegar

1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped

Combine all ingredients and allow to sit for at least an hour. This sauce can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

A side note on not using the food processor for the filling: Processing the meat filling (or any filling in particular), really gives the meat a beating. It gives the meat an almost fluffy texture when raw but a particularly spongy texture when cooked. Think frozen meat balls or microwave breakfast sausage links.  OR….chicken nuggets. They all have that spongy texture. The texture of the actual protein (in this case pork) is lost. The mouth feel is nothing like what ground pork should be because by this point, not only has it already been though meat grinder, by putting it through the food processor, you killed it again.

A side note about freezing: Allow the dumplings to freeze on sheet trays before putting them in freezer storage bags. They can be frozen up to three months.

After a meeting this morning I decided to swing by BJ’s Shopping Club for two things: tissue (because my kids noses are runny) and toilet paper (because…well..). I go in with laser precision for what I need trying not to spend any more time in this anti-farmer’s market venue than necessary.

 As I am waiting in line at the check-out, an older gentleman has in his cart the following items: 1 case (12 cans) of chili, 1 case (again 12 cans) of pork and beans, 4 frozen pizzas, 1 case of Hot Pockets (pepperoni and cheese), 1 box of American sliced cheese (about 1 million slices), 1 pack of hot dogs, 1 big tube of breakfast sausage, 1 case of Jimmy Dean sausage and biscuits, 1 container of chocolate chip cookies and lastly…. 3 big ass bottles of Tums, 2 big ass bottles of Pepto Bismol.

No judgement here because what does my shopping cart say about me?

Gaga’s Doughnuts

Nothing says friendship like sharing your great-grandmother’s doughnut recipe.

It all started on a typical drive down to RFK. I-66 was jammed so Steve decides to take the back roads through Arlington County. We both figure that this does not really save us time,  it just relieves us of the agony of sitting in traffic. I love these detours, they are never dull. Like the one time Steve stopped to buy charcoal  for our tailgate and  nearly got run over by a truck as he crossed/stumbled across the road without looking. Everyone held their breath as the truck driver frantically blew his horn while stepping on his brakes. My kids saw the whole thing. They mention Steve’s near-death experience  EVERY TIME we drive by.

This particular detour got us talking about doughnuts. How as a kid, Steve remembers the owner of Whitey’s making doughnuts on a Sunday afternoon and giving them out to customers. Why Steve was at Whitey’s on a Sunday afternoon is another story. He mentions that he has a particular affection for cake doughnuts and that he has his great-grandmother’s recipe. It calls for the usual pantry suspects plus lard and buttermilk. I almost always have buttermilk in my fridge and Steve, somehow, had lard in his. Because we had nothing better to do the next day, we decided to make Gaga’s Doughnuts.

There is nothing like food having a somewhat slight pork aftertaste when there are absolutely no pork elements in it. So let me say right now, if you are not going to use lard, there is really no point. Well, maybe that is somewhat harsh but to use regular shortening and not have that distinct taste afterwards will not give you the full experience. The smell alone when the doughnuts are frying is so enticing. To me, the doughnuts brought to mind the subtle flavor of pork rinds. Is this so wrong? It is delicious, rich and ridiculously simple all at the same time.

 The recipe is relatively simple to put together and we used his stand mixer to get the job done. The recipe says to allow the doughnuts to rest in the refrigerator for one hour. We of course, did not follow this step and while the doughnuts came out tasting perfect, the shaping and cutting out part could have used a firmer dough. We ended up adding  more flour which in the big picture did not make a big impact on the texture of the doughnut (adding flour to some recipes to make the dough less wet can sometimes throw off the proportions and make the end product tough). The extra resting time also allows the gluten to relax giving you a lighter doughnut.

We decided to fry the doughnuts in the mix of lard and canola for the simple reason that we did not know the heating point for lard. I knew that mixing the two would give us a stable mix when we began frying. Steve pulls out an old school electric skillet (s0mething we both could not remember the name of nor atriculately describe the night before) which regulated the temperature perfectly. Keeping the oil at 375,  allows the doughnut to develop a nice outer crust which acts as a barrier for absorbing oil. Ever had food that was almost oil-logged?  Chances are they fried whatever it was at the wrong temperature (most likely a lower one), allowing it to absorb the oil like a sponge. All that movement when you first put the batter in the hot oil, that is what you want. It cooks the outer layer faster forming that natural crust.

Lastly, we allowed the doughnuts to drain somewhat on a cooling rack lined with paper towels. We immediately sprinkled them with plain white granulated sugar. No glaze, powdered cinnamon, nor sprinkles. Just good old-fashioned sugar. Just like Gaga used to make it.

As the doughnuts were coming out of the fryer, we take our first few bites and exchange that look. The look that says that the doughnuts are so good they have the ability to slow down time and take Steve back to his childhood.  The look that says, this is the thing to be doing on a random Thursday summer morning. Not back-to-school shopping or being at the mall. This is what it is about. Steve calls his mom Jo Ellen, Gaga’s granddaughter,  who has moved to South Carolina. Over the phone he tells her that it is exactly how he remembers it. They go back and forth talking about how each remembers it from their own youth.

My older son, who is nine, helped roll and cut out the doughnuts. He also had first dibs on all the doughnut holes that came out.  I wonder if as an adult (and hopefully a father himself),  if he will look back and think of the time he made Gaga’s doughnuts or in this case he knows them as  Mr. Steve’s doughnuts. I guess it won’t matter as long as he remembers to use lard.

Isn’t making memories what this is all about? The choices we make whether to stay home with the kids or go to work, if we’ve put them in the right pre-school, or if they have the right friends. That all falls to the side when you do something like this and realize that the thing they will  most likely remember is this moment, more than anything else in their pressure cooker childhoods.

Gaga’s Doughnuts

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons lard

2 eggs

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon nutmeg

3 packages lard (for cooking in)

Mix sugar, 3 tablespoons lard, eggs, flour, baking soda, buttermilk, bakingpowder, salt and nutmeg well. 

Chill for 1 hour.  Roll dough into donutshapes and cook in lard or lard/canola oil mix at 375 until brown. We used a the rim of a glass to cut the dougnut and one of those small plastic cups that come with cough syrup to cut out the middle hole.

Roll in sugar. Enjoy.

Allentown Country Fair

image

The name says it all. It was literally…fried dough. Why???

We got invited to a late afternoon cookout and I was tasked to bring potato salad. It was a particularly busy weekend so I weighed my options. Should I buy the potato salad? I contemplated going to Whole Foods where I knew I couldn’t go wrong but would end up spending the equivalent of my kids’ fall clothes budget. We swing by Giant and I look at their prepared foods section and it doesn’t cost much less than Whole Foods (when the heck did this happen??). Giant had a case of pre-packaged potato salad which not only looked suspect to me (I am sure it was FINE) but somewhat pricey for what I viewed it to be. I am standing at the supermarket literally swamped with indecision. The produce aisle is two feet away and I know I can make the salad with my eyes closed. At this point my family is just ready to bolt. We have two and a half hours till we have to leave.

I decide to exercise my culinary skill and make a mad dash throughout the store (it is Sunday and people are leisurely strolling around with their long lists and matching coupons!) for all the other ingredients. We get home and I immediately get to it. I put the potato salad in a serving dish with exactly 45 minutes till we have to leave. Enough time for it to cool down (it can chill all the way in the host’s fridge when we get there)  and allow the flavors to meld. Was I happy to have made it from scratch? Absolutely!

  • 5 pound bag Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in quarters, depending on size of the potatoes
  • 5 eggs
  • scant 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 3 Tbsp grainy mustard
  • 2 Tbsp white vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 bunch chives (finely chopped or snipped)
  1. In a large stock pot, add potatoes and cover with cold water. Heavily salt the water. Allow potatoes to cook until fork tender. About 20 minutes or so.
  2. Boil eggs to make hard-boiled eggs. Peel and slice into rough pieces.
  3. In a large bowl, combine mayonnaise, mustard, white vinegar, salt, pepper, and half of the chives. Mix very well.
  4. Once the potatoes are done, drain very well and immediately toss with the mayonnaise mixture. Add the eggs. Check for seasoning. If you think you need more of the mayonnaise mixture, mix a small batch and slowly add it in small portions till you get the proportion that you want.
  5. Top with more chives and chill.

 It is a very simple recipe but the end result is a creamy kind of potato salad that melts in your mouth. For this salad it is all about the ingredients and the technique. First you have the kind of potato. Yukon Gold is my choice and it is the same one I use for mashed potatoes. It is buttery and not waxy at all. You also have to start cooking the potatoes in cold salted water versus dropping the potatoes in boiling water. This allows the gradual heat build up to cook the potatoes evenly. Dropping it in boiling water will cook the outside part long before the inside leaving you with mush AND uncooked bits. Second is making having the correct mayonnaise to potato ratio. I don’t like my potato salad swimming in mayonnaise so I start with a small amount of the mayonnaise mixture (I did not grow up eating mayonnaise so I am not a fan). This is something you can make your own. Don’t like grainy mustard? No problem. Don’t like mayonnaise? How about substituting plain yogurt? The point is, if you add too much mayonnaise, chances are, you don’t have extra cooked potatoes hanging around to balance the proportion out. Lastly, add the potatoes when they are steaming hot. The heat from the potatoes allows the mayonnaise mix to somewhat and melt into the potatoes making it a more part of the dish rather than something that is just folded in. Adding it on at this point allows the flavors to steep into the potatoes. Think of a traditional macaroni salad. The mayonnaise is always added in when the pasta is cooled down. The mayonnaise mixture for this has to be seasoned very, very well. To do otherwise, all you taste is the mayonnaise and the pasta. In a potato salad, the flavor of the potatoes -not the mayo –  should come out (hence the name…). All these techniques guarantee that you will have a good potato salad that you can truly make your own.

Buttermilk Pancakes

I wake up to my younger son informing me that he is starving and if I could please make him pancakes with honey mixed into the batter. My knee-jerk reaction is to say no but I quickly remind myself that one of the reasons I stopped working is to take the summer off with the kids and have time to do things like this. So off to the kitchen I go.

I know that we no longer have any instant pancake batter so I open my trusty 10-year-old chef’s notebook and look up a pancake recipe. I find one and it calls for buttermilk. I actually have buttermilk in my fridge, left over from making Red Velvet Cupcakes over the weekend. All the other ingredients are staples. I also have blueberries which I decide to throw in for some of the pancakes and the bag of mini chocolate chips that I have in pantry. I believe I bought the bag two years ago (or was it three) and bring it out solely for this purpose. I am now down to a scant quarter cup.

The reason I am so agreeable in making pancakes this morning is that having no real schedule this summer has also meant that we have had no really nutritious breakfasts. The kids are grabbing cereal at 10 am or a piece of toast when the hunger pangs strike. This was my chance to give them something substantial. Another bonus of pancakes is that it is one of the few things that my kids get to choose how they want to eat it. Plain, with chocolate, with fruit, with honey, with syrup. The choices are as endless as the ingredients you want to get rid of in your fridge.

I also used local honey for this recipe. The honey taste did not come out as distinctly as I had hoped but I know for certain that it rounded out the flavors better than sugar could. This recipe makes a pancake that is light and fluffy with the right amount of tanginess.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 Tbsp honey (you can substitute sugar if you need to)
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3 cups buttermilk
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  1. In a bowl, combine all the dry ingredients, whisking to combine.
  2. Combine all the wet ingredients and whisk into the dry ingredients. Mix until just all combined. A few small lumps are okay.
  3. On a hot griddle over medium heat, pour batter in by the 1/4 cup to make 4-5 inch pancakes (I find that this is the size that works best with my kids).
  4. If you are adding any other ingredients, do so now. Once the tell-tale bubbles have began to burst and now look like craters, flip the pancakes over to finish cooking.
  5. Place on a cooling rack (versus a plate or platter). This allows the steam to escape on the bottom side which keeps the soggy-ness to a minimum. A great consideration if you are thinking of storing any leftovers.

Other ingredients you may add:

– 1/4 cup malt powder

– 2 tsp cinnamon

– zest of one lemon

– 2 tsp pumpkin spice

Makes 12- 14  4-inch pancakes. Recipe may be divided.