20 December 2010

Carrot Cake for a birthday

carrot cake with cream cheese frosting
I'm a big believer in homemade birthday cakes. Unfortunately that doesn't always translate into the time to make them for my friends. When it does I have my usual concerns about making a cake that isn't pretty enough. Certainly no one is going to pay me for my decorating skills. But if I don't over-extend myself on the decorating I can produce an acceptable cake exterior.

Once you start slicing, the pretty doesn't matter anymore, but the flavor and texture of the cake matter with every forkful. This carrot cake was wonderful, flavorful, tender, and just sweet enough.  Cream cheese frosting is a natural with carrot cake, and this one is just right.  The recipe comes from BakeWise by Shirley O. Corriher, who you might recognize as the cheerful food scientist who makes appearances on Good Eats. Corriher uses the science of food to come up with recipes that work perfectly. It's a big book, and I haven't tried all of her recipes (not even close) but I do recommend the book, if only for this carrot cake and the Golden Cake made with the dissolved sugar method. You may never be willing to eat grocery store bakery cake again.

Corriher recommends pulsing the carrots in a food processor until they are very finely chopped. If I had a food processor I would definitely take that route. Finely grating carrots take a long time.  I had to make a couple of adjustments to the printed recipe mostly to leave out the toasted nuts due to allergies.  Below is the recipe as I made it.  If you love nuts in your carrot cake, check out the book for the real recipe.



photo by vcheeseman

Golden, Moist Carrot Cake
adapted from BakeWise by Shirley O. Corriher


For the Cake:

Non-stick cooking spray

2 ½ cups (291 g) self-rising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 Tablespoon grated orange zest

3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 cups (437 g) light brown sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups (329g) finely grated carrots, about 6 carrots

Arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven, place a baking stone on it, and preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit.

Spray two 8”x2” round cake pans with non-stick spray and line with a parchment circle. Lightly spray the top of the parchment. (I used 9 inch pans because I don't have 8” pans. That made the very thin layers you see above. Next time I'll get 8” pans.)

Combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest in a large bowl and whisk thoroughly to combine.

In another bowl, stir together the whole eggs, egg yolks, and brown sugar. Stir in the oil, and vanilla. Make a hole in the center of the flour mixture and stir in the egg mixture a little at a time by hand. Stir in the carrots.

Pour the batter into the two pans, pouring back and forth as necessary to divide them evenly. Drop the pans, one at a time, onto the counter from a height of about 4 inches to remove any large air bubbles.

Place both pans in the oven on the stone. Bake about 30-35 minutes, until the center springs back when touched lightly (or the internal temperature reaches 209 Fahrenheit.)

Cool layers on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert the layers onto cooling racks sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. When completely cool, divide each layer in half horizontally to create 4 layers.

For the cream cheese frosting:

½ cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 2-Tablespoon pieces
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
4 cups (16 ounces) confectioners sugar (I used slightly less.)
1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until soft. Add the cream cheese and beat until blended and smooth. Blend in the sugar, and vanilla. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To frost a four layer cake, divide the frosting in half, and then divide one half in thirds. Use the thirds between the layers, and then half the frosting for the top and sides.

17 December 2010

Savory Bread Pudding


My kids are unpredictable. Restaurant portion sizes are unpredictable. Put them together and I end up with one whole, huge grilled cheese sandwich in my fridge. I have this aversion to throwing away food, especially if I paid someone to cook it for me, so the grilled cheese sits in my fridge for a few days. Grilled cheese is not a food which ages well. I had to do something.

That something turned out to be a super-simple savory bread pudding which used up the grilled cheese and two sausage links that were hiding out in my freezer, waiting to be forgotten. It's even pretty quick since it bakes a skillet already hot from the stove. It's adaptable to whatever crusty bread you might have lying around, and it will be great with or without those two lonely sausage links in your freezer.


Savory Bread Pudding with Sausage, Cheddar and Apples

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion
8 ounces italian sausage
2 small tart apples
6 ounces leftover grilled cheese sandwich, or crusty bread
5 eggs
2 cups milk
salt and pepper
3 ounces cheddar cheese

Place ovenproof skillet over medium heat and add oil.

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit

While pan is heating, chop onion. If your sausage is raw, remove it from the casing, and cook in the hot skillet, using the back of a spoon to crumble it. If the sausage is pre-cooked cut the links lengthwise into quarters, then slice thinly.

Add onions to the skillet. Stir to coat with the oil and allow to cook, stirring occaisionally until the onions become translucent. If sausage is precooked, add it now.

While the onions are cooking core and chop the apples and cube the cheese sandwiches. Add the apples and sandwich cubes to the skillet. Stir and allow to continue cooking.

Beat the eggs and then add milk, salt and pepper. Grate the cheese.

Remove the skillet from the heat. Sprinkle the cheese over the contents of the skillet. Pour the egg mixture over the cheese, making sure to saturate any bits of bread sticking up from the surface.

Place the skillet in the hot oven, and bake about 30 minutes until the center is set.

15 December 2010

Cheater's Polenta


No play-group lunches this week. My boys and I are stuck at home with what I thought was three cases of Coxsackie virus but might be something else. Regardless I've decided to keep us all home until we're not blistered/exhausted/super cranky all the time. (Not everyone has all of the listed symptoms, but we all have at least one of them. Well, not Husband. He's fine. Nothing wrong with him at all. Of course.)

But the show must go on, so here's a meal that's quick to the table if you put a bit of time in the night before. We ate it for breakfast, but it works any time of the day, it's a whole grain and it's versatile. Polenta can be served with any sauce you'd use for pasta, or simply as a side the same way you'd serve rice or potatoes.

If you have an Italian Nonna, she might have stirred her polenta in a special copper pot reserved for the purpose (so says my friend MF.) But I have no Nonna and no patience for things that require constant attention, so I use Madhur Jaffrey's method of baking the polenta instead. If you put it in the oven when your family sits down for dinner you can put it in the fridge by bedtime and then have it ready to go when you need to start dinner the next night.


2 cups stone ground corn meal
1 Tablespoon butter or olive oil, plus more for the dish
1 Tablespoon salt
3 cups cool water (from the tap is fine)
4 ½ cups water in a large pot

Set your 4 ½ cups water to boil.

Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit.

Butter or oil an 8”x8”x4” dish. (Note: a standard square pyrex is only 8”x8”x2”, so use something taller, or just a rectangular pyrex and cook for slightly less time. If your dish doesn't have an oven safe cover prepare a piece of aluminum foil.)

Put cornmeal into a medium bowl. Add cool water in ½ cup increments, stirring after each addition.

When water in pot comes to a boil, add salt and stir. Stir cornmeal mixture again, then add slowly to boiling water, stirring throughout. Return to a boil while stirring. As soon as the mixture begins to thicken, add the butter and then pour into the prepared baking dish. Smooth it out with the back of a spoon, cover and bake for 50 minutes.

You can serve it fresh out of the oven with a bit of butter and freshly-grated Parmesan, or allow to cool and then refrigerate overnight.

The next day remove the polenta from the refrigerator and place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Slice the polenta into rectangles. When the skillet is hot, add a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, arrange the polenta in a single layer in the pan, leaving a bit of room between slices. You might need to do more than one batch. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown, on each side. Serve as you would any starch side, or garnished with your favorite pasta sauce.

13 December 2010

Visions of Gingerbread

I know, I know, it's visions of sugar plums.  In fact, The Night Before Christmas was the first book I ever "read" as a kid.   I had it memorized when I was four.   I might try to make real sugar plums, but these cookies are old-fashioned, too, so in my mind they all get lumped together.  

December is the month of sugar. Cookies and cakes and sweetened hot drinks are offered up everywhere you go. Newspapers and magazines and blogs all publish recipes for sweet things you are expected to bake and share (with your friends and neighbors who are also baking and sharing.) And I start to wonder, when did we start needing quite so many different kinds of cookies? Are they really necessary, all these toffee-coffee-choco-banana-mint thumbprint sandwiches (with lemon glaze!)?

I say NO! No we do not need all those concoctions and I'm going to take a stand, just as soon as I'm done eating this banana-peanut-butter-sandwich cookies. Mmmm...

Where was I? Oh, yes, simplicity! And nothing could be simpler than these gingerbread cookies which snap satisfyingly in the mouth and aren't overly sweet, making them a nice counter-point to hot apple cider or mulled wine. They even store well in a tightly-lidded tin, so you can make a big batch and take them wherever you go for a week or so. And if rolling out dough and using cookie cutters is too complex you can always shaped the dough into logs and slice it into rounds after it has been chilled. Clear off your counters and give them a try.

my cookies, someone else's picture

Gingerbread cookies

10 ounces all-purpose flour (plus more for rolling)
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup butter, softened
3 tablespoons dark molasses
1 large egg
Combine dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Set aside.

Combine brown sugar, molasses, and butter. Beat at medium speed for two minutes. Add egg and beat on high until mixture lightens.

Add flour to sugar mixture and beat to combine. Dough will be sticky.

Divide dough into two pieces and flatten each piece into a disc about 8” in diameter. Wrap discs in waxed or parchment paper and place in the refrigerator to cool, at least 2 hours or overnight. (You can do this step several days ahead, in case you need more time to clear your counters.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove one disc of dough from the refrigerator and place on a floured counter. The longer your dough has been allowed to rest the less sticky it will be, but it will still be a bit sticky regardless, so flour your countertop and your rolling pin liberally. Roll dough to 1/8” thickness and cut with your favorite cookie cutter. Place cookies on a greased cookie sheet and bake 8 minutes until just beginning to brown.

Cool completely on a wire rack. 

Come to my house and I will make cider and we'll talk while some number of small children and pets run around.  

10 December 2010

Something to try tomorrow morning.


I love maple syrup. Everyone else in my house loves maple syrup. But sometimes it's nice to switch things up. And if switching things up means we eat a little more fruit and a little less sugar? Well, that's nice, too.

This would probably work with any berry you happened to have bouncing around in your freezer. We always have blueberries in my freezer because a certain small person likes frozen blueberries on everything. If berries are in season, you can use fresh, but you'll want to add a bit of water (maybe ¼ cup) at the beginning and mash them a bit with a spoon to encourage them to give up some juice.

Blueberry
syrup

Blueberry Sauce for Pancakes (and whatever else you might want to make more blueberry.)

2 cups frozen blueberries
¼ cup maple syrup
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
¼ cup water

Put blueberries and maple syrup in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook uncovered until the berries release enough juice to swim freely.

Mix the flour and water together to form a slurry. Add the slurry to the berries and bring to a simmer until mixture thickens. Pour freely over yummy pancakes, or maybe pound cake, or ...

08 December 2010

What's for Lunch Wednesday: Quesadillas


Can someone better at photography than I am please explain why my sour cream is glowing? I promise it wasn't really glowing.

Black bean and cheddar quesadillas on whole wheat tortillas, served with salsa and sour cream. Beans were cooked as described here. Everything else was store-bought. This was more than enough for the four-year-old, the 18-month-old and the spare toddler. The container is Ziploc brand.

I don't pack many lunches these days. Older is only in school half-days and I'm at home during the day. Wednesdays are my only consistent lunch-packing days, as that's the lunchtime playgroup day. The lunches at playgroup vary widely, from nutritionally balanced to "Here, eat some raisins and goldfish." Honestly if I weren't posting lunches here I'd probably serve ravioli every week, and it's possible that the fruit wouldn't always be part of the plan. It's not that I don't serve my kids a variety of foods, it's that I don't always have great planning skills. (And by "great" I mean "baseline adequate.")

Long term, no one meal matters all that much. It's important to get kids in the habit of eating healthful foods every day, and it's important to offer a variety of foods, even if you think the kids won't eat them. The only way "strange" becomes "familiar" is through repetition. But it doesn't matter if any one meal, or even any one day, is balanced and complete. A varied diet over the course of a week will balance itself out. (So long as varied here means a variety of wholesome foods, not a variety of pretzels and oreos.)

The plan was to have quesadillas for dinner last night. But I didn't get the black beans cooking early enough to pull that off. (Yes, I should know this about myself and keep some cooked beans in the freezer for emergencies, but I don't. See above re: "baseline adequate.") So the boys had ravioli and veggies for dinner and I made up quesadillas after bedtime so that I wouldn't have to deal with lunch today. It worked out well since I had a spare toddler at my house today, and trying to sort out lunches on top of sorting out toddlers might have been beyond me.

Don't forget to check out the other lunches this week.
Bento Lunch

06 December 2010

Stew that laughs at Winter's cold


Chopped

Madhur Jaffery's World Vegetarian is a great resource when you have something vegetarian in your fridge or pantry and don't know what to do with it. I had a bunch of red beans left over from the vegetarian chili that I wanted to use for Sunday dinner. If you google “red beans” you end up with a lot of recipes for Louisiana style red beans and rice, which wasn't what I had in mind. This African stew was just the thing: easy and tasty.

The peanut-butter flavor isn't strong here, the peanut butter adds more creaminess than flavor. My peanut-butter-refusing four-year-old ate his portion without complaint. If you're dealing with allergies I think any mild nut or seed butter would work here.

You can use up beans you've already cooked, a mix of varieties would be fine, especially if you have pinto beans around. The original recipe calls for kidney beans, but I used small red beans. You can cook them just for the occasion, or you can use canned, so long as you rinse them thoroughly. I store my cooked beans without liquid, so, just as if I were using canned beans, I used a low-sodium vegetable broth whenever Jaffrey called for using the cooking liquid.

Leftovers for
Tomorrow's Lunch

Nigerian Red Kidney Bean Stew with a Peanut Sauce
adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian

1 ½ cups brown rice

4 cups cooked small red beans
(or cook 1 ½ cups dried beans with 2 teaspoons salt)
3 Tablespoons canola oil
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 small green bell pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup canned tomato sauce
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ cup water
1 ½ Tablespoons smooth peanut butter
6 Tablespoons low-sodium vegetable broth, plus more for stew.
(if cooking beans from dried, use cooking liquid instead of broth)

If cooking beans from dried, begin about 2 hours before you want to eat.

Cook brown rice according to your preferred method.

In a wide, medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat.

Finely chop onion. Mince Garlic. Seed and finely chop green pepper. Add vegetables to hot oil and stir, cooking until onions are just translucent.

Add the cumin and stir once. Add tomato sauce, cayenne, lemon juice and water. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Put peanut butter in a small bowl and slowly stir in 6 tablespoons of broth. Add this mixture to the beans.

When the tomato sauce has finished cooking add the beans. If you have cooked beans from dried, include the cooking liquid. If not, add enough broth to make stew desired consistency. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer on low for 10 minutes.

Serve hot over rice.

04 December 2010

Toasted Oats: Changing my mind


The lovely and talented Justine left a suggestion on my post about cooking steel cut oats, so I had to try it. I always do what Justine tells me, because in addition to being lovely and talented she's very smart.

Toasted oats, people! You must toast your oats! MUST! Why? Because it makes them taste all toasty and nutty and yum and you will love it. Also, because if you follow my instructions you can wake up to a pot of oats which requires only enough heat to warm through and then it's done. No fuss, no muss.

The night before you want oatmeal for breakfast, measure out your water and put it on to boil. I use a ratio of 1 part oats to 3 parts water. I use an electric kettle and I really think everyone with electricity should own one, but a kettle on the stove will do as well.

Put a large pot over low heat. Toss in a pat of butter (or don't if you'd rather not. This will work either way.) to melt. Measure and add your oats. Add a pinch of salt. Stir gently to coat the oats in butter and to prevent burning.

Go ahead, put your face close to the pot and inhale deeply. It's a gorgeous, comforting smell. Just don't burn your nose. When your water is boiling and the oats begin to smell toasty, pour the water over the oats and put the lid on the pot. Turn off the heat.

Go to bed.

When you wake up in the morning, turn the heat on low again, and stir occasionally until the porridge is not too cold, not too hot, but just right. Eat right away so that some little blonde girl doesn't break into your house and eat it all up.

mmmm....

27 November 2010

Chili and Cornbread: Another Potluck


Chili and
Cornbread

Another potluck, another dish shared and this time Husband was so pleased with it that he requested it again. (I would say that he even went to the store to pick up a missing ingredient, but he loves going to the store, so that doesn't signify.)

Once you've decided to take the plunge and cook some beans, you may find yourself wondering how to turn them into to chili, and then you'll remember that the crazy woman who talked you into cooking dried beans in the first place promised you a recipe. And then you'll come looking for it, and so I figured I'd better get it up here.

This is a great potluck recipe, because it comes together quickly once the beans are cooked (and if you use canned I promise not to tell, just be sure to rinse them well.) the cornbread topping makes it easy to transport without any sloshing and dribbling, and it's easy for folks to serve themselves so they don't hold up the line. The chili itself is vegan, and you could easily skip the cornbread and offer corn chips instead to make the whole thing vegan and gluten-free (so long as you check the label on those chips.)

Three Pots of
Beans

And the random bit of food knowledge today is about the spice aisle. Chile is the fruit. Chili is the stew that is flavored with chiles. Chile powder is the dried, ground fruit. Chili powder is a blend containing chile powder and other ingredients. This version of chili is moderately hot, with a slow burn because I used ground chipotles. If you cannot get ground chipotles, feel free to use whatever ground chile you like. If you want a mild stew, start with just a teaspoon of chile powder and work your way up to the heat-level you like.

Vegetarian
Potluck

2 Tablespoons oil
1 medium onion
1 teaspoon salt
4-6 cloves garlic
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (fire-roasted is nice if you have them)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 Tablespoon chipotle powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
7 cups beans cooked with salt and bay leaves. (I used a mix of black, red and pinto beans.)

1 recipe skillet cornbread (minus the butter for the pan)

Locate your casserole dish. Make sure that it's clean. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat.

Dice the onion and add to the oil along with the salt. Stir and allow to cook while you peel and mince the garlic. Add the garlic and cook until just fragrant.

Add the can of tomatoes with the juices and bring to a simmer. Add spices. Stir to combine.

Add beans, stir, and cover, lower heat to simmer.

Preheat the oven to 450 Fahrenheit.

Assemble the wet and dry ingredients for the cornbread, but do not combine.

Pour the chili into the casserole dish and smooth the surface. Combine the wet and dry ingredients for the cornbread, then pour the batter over the chili and smooth gently. The cornbread will rise and spread in the oven, so don't worry about getting into every corner.

Bake for 15-18 minutes until the cornbread is golden brown. Serve with whatever variety of chips, shredded cheese, sour cream and other toppings suit your fancy and your pantry.

23 November 2010

Beans, beans they're good for your heart...


If two people in two days tell me in real life that they miss me here on the tubes, does that say good things about my writing, or bad things about my real life presence?

Anywho, the past two weeks of silence were brought to you by my “Why am I writing this? Five people read it and I'm in regular contact with them anyway.” crisis. (Hi, five people!) The crisis actually only lasted a week, but then I got food poisoning (not from my cooking) and while I considered posting just long enough to sing the praises of my favorite ginger tea, I decided I'd just curl up in a ball instead.

The family has to eat no matter what crisis I might be having, and a favorite around here is black bean quesadillas. (Don't forget to shred your own cheese!) They're easy, filling, healthful, and once you've made the big pot of beans, you're all set up for another easy dinner later. Just add rice.

Dried beans are a great pantry staple, because they're cheap, nutritious and versatile. Unfortunately, a lot of people get their dried beans as far as the pantry but no farther. The poor beans sit in their bag gathering dust and getting drier and drier until no amount of simmering will save them. Do you have a bag of beans in your pantry?

Well, do you? Go look. Oh, there they are, red beans, leftover from that time you were going to make red beans and rice. It was 2005 and New Orleans cuisine was all the rage because of Katrina. Hmm... lets tuck those away for a just a tiny bit longer and go get some fresh beans. If you're not used to cooking dried beans, it's probably best to give yourself the best odds of success.

The first trick is to buy beans from a store that has a high turnover in the bean aisle. If you're in an area with a large Hispanic population, just go to a large supermarket with a good selection of dried beans and you'll be fine. If not, go to your favorite market and snoop around the bean aisle. Is it a large section? Is there a large variety of beans? Did someone who looks like they know what they're doing just buy some? Fantastic. This is the place. Buy some beans and head home.

Your second step is to sort and wash your beans. Pour out the amount you want to cook into a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and pick through to remove and discard broken, misshaped or discolored beans, as well as any small stones or clumps of dirt. I buy my beans in bulk and while my black beans are merely dusty, my pinto beans always have a few clumps of sandy soil that need to be picked out. Put the picked over beans in a strainer and rinse, stirring with your hands, until the beans are free of dirt.

Put your beans into a medium-large pot and add enough water to cover by 2”. I've messed around with ratios trying to figure out cups of water to cups of beans and I never get it right, but if I put my index finger on top of the beans the pot, and add water up to the middle of the second knuckle I get it right every time, no matter how many beans I have or what pot I'm using.

Now we come to controversy #1: to soak or not to soak. You don't NEED to soak. Soaking the beans doesn't produce any magical change in the beans except that they will need less time to cook after you turn the heat on than unsoaked beans. Soaked beans take about an hour on heat, unsoaked beans about two hours. But if you don't plan far enough ahead to cook beans directly, you're certainly not going to plan far enough ahead to soak them. So, soak them if you want to, or don't. Whatever.

Fast on the heels of controversy #1 is controversy #2: when to salt. Conventional wisdom says that if you add salt at the beginning of cooking your beans will never cook, and will remain hard and gritty even if you boil them for days. This is poppycock. You can salt now and everything will be fine. I use about ½ teaspoon salt per cup of beans.

What else you put in your beans depends on what you like and what you're going to do with the beans. For pinto beans and cornbread, I use a bay leaf, some black pepper, a garlic clove and a tiny bit of cayenne. For black bean quesadillas I use all of the above but swap out some chipotle powder for the cayenne because I like the smoky flavor. If you are the type to have bacon or ham hocks or smoked turkey legs lying around your house, by all means add a bit of one of those. I'm not, so I don't.

Cover and put the pot on the heat, bring to a boil then turn down the heat to a bare simmer and allow to cook until beans are tender, about 2 hours if you didn't soak ahead of time. (Not lentils, they're done in no time at all and are the subject of a different post altogether.)

If two hours seems like a really long time to wait for your beans to cook, cook them the night before and keep them in in the refrigerator overnight, or cook a huge batch and keep them in meal sized portions in the freezer.

Beans and cornbread make a lovely simple supper, or there is an almost infinite variety of beans and rice dishes. You could even cook up a couple of different types of beans for a nice vegetarian chili (coming soon!).  Now that you've made one batch successfully go back to your pantry for that bag of red beans and make some red beans and rice.

10 November 2010

What's for Lunch


My lunches are pretty plain. The four-year-old got leftovers (his request) today and the toddler and I got more ravioli. Some of the lunches over at What's for Lunch are so much prettier and more creative than mine, but I still post my pictures. I have two reasons. The first is you, dear reader, who probably came here from there. I love checking my stats after I post a lunch box, because it means I can see the map light up with visitors from all over. The other reason is that I enjoy looking at the lunches so much, even the ones which aren't pretty, that I feel like I ought to share something of mine in return.

So here is what we had for lunch today. If you're a visitor or you've been lurking, please take a minute to say hello.

LeftoversPinto beans, cornbread, peas, apple ginger muffin

Oh, look, more
raviolicheese ravioli and mixed veggies, apples, pound cake

Containers are Ziploc brand.

Bento Lunch

09 November 2010

Book Review: All in Just One Cookie



by Susan Goodman and Timothy Bush

If there is a small person in your life who loves cookies this book is a great way to introduce the idea that ingredients all come from somewhere other than the grocery store. Grandma gets a call that guests are coming over so she starts whipping up a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Her cat and dog do research online and in real books, to find out where the flour, butter and the rest of the ingredients come from. There's a simple narrative and a lot of sidebar type sections, so you can read as a bedtime story or take the time to dig in deeper. My then three-year-old loved it, and I think it would be quite popular with kids who are independent readers as well. The illustrations are charming, and the full recipe is given at the end of the book so you can try it out, too.

(This is an unsolicited review. No goods or services have been received in exchange for this review. I am not affiliated with the authors, publishers or booksellers.)

08 November 2010

Skillet Cornbread


If I could only take one thing with me to a desert island it would probably be my cast iron skillet. It would be useful for bashing the local fauna on the head and for cooking said fauna over an open fire.*  Though I am not on a desert island my cast iron skillet is still in daily use, and has developed such a lovely patina that I don't need to grease it to cook an egg so long as I have properly preheated it first.

There are a few tricks to cast iron, and anyone who loves their cast iron will tell you what they are and they'll all be different and you'll get confused. Here's what I do with mine: cook with it often, scrub with hot water and a plastic scrub brush, heat it dry on the stove-top, repeat. It is a frying pan. Its ancestors helped tame the West. You don't need to coddle it.

My favorite (right now) use of my cast iron is cornbread. There are two basic forms of cornbread: Southern and Yankee. Southern cornbread does not have sugar in it. Yankee cornbread does. I don't think preferring one over the other says anything about the state of your palate, your sense or your immortal soul, though some people believe otherwise. I make Southern cornbread because sugar in the main course confuses me. Here's my recipe:


What, you wanted directions? And maybe something more legible than the fine art pictured above? Okay, but only if you promise to try the recipe. This is really, really good cornbread, especially when it's still hot. I usually serve it with pinto beans, but it stands up to spicy chili and pretty much anything else you want to pair it with. If you don't have a cast iron skillet, you can use an 8”x8” casserole dish.

alien moon

Cornbread

2 Tablespoons butter (for the pan)

¼ cup butter

1 cup cornmeal
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda

1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup milk


Preheat oven to 450 Fahrenheit. If using casserole dish, put the 2 T butter in the dish, and put the dish in the oven while it heats.

Melt the ¼ cup butter and set aside to cool.

Combine the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly, you want to make sure that the baking soda and baking powder are distributed evenly.

In a medium bowl beat the egg. Stir in the buttermilk and milk. Stirring constantly, add in the ¼ cup melted butter.

If using a skillet, put it on the stove-top on high heat and add the 2 Tablespoons butter. Heat until butter begins to bubble.

Add the dry ingredients to the buttermilk mixture and stir until just combined. If using casserole dish, carefully remove it from the oven (hot!) and place it on a stable heat proof surface. Pour the cornbread batter into the hot skillet/ casserole. Immediately place skillet in oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Check after 15 minutes and rotate if necessary for even browning.

*I would probably only smack the fauna on the head if they attacked me first. Besides, if I were really alone on a desert island I'd probably eat a poisonous berry and die anyway.

06 November 2010

Don't Overthink Hospitality


I sat on the picnic bench at the playground across the street, watching my son and his friends chase each other around. “You seem to have this kid-birthday-party thing down.” said another mother. I shrugged and I think I remembered to say thank you. It was a very simple party, which is why I was able to pull it off. And that's the secret, if such a thing can be called a secret. I know my limits. I cannot pull off a four course dinner party, so I serve family style. (Though I think I once did a 3 course meal. That was before I had children.) I cannot manage a theme birthday party with handmade invitations and goody bags and decorations and a fancy cake. So I host parties on the playground and serve un-fancy cake.

It's not that I'm a simplicity snob. I don't think that my family style dinners are better than other people's four course meals. In fact I think that four course meals are marvelous and I often wish I were the kind of mother who could do the adorable themed birthday parties. I certainly wish I were the kind of person who could produce a platter full of twee cupcakes with marzipan penguins on them.

I was at a different birthday party today, hosted by a mother who also has this birthday party thing down. There was a table of snack things, a counter of drinks and there was cake and singing. My younger son managed to crumble his scone into every corner of the living room. {Sorry, (not)Maud! The offer of a crumb hunting beagle still stands.} Kids played. Parents chatted. I discovered that a good friend of (not)Maud used to be good friends with good friends of mine and that we had used the same birth educator.

That is really the goal of getting people together: to celebrate milestones and to connect with each other. That doesn't require fancy cakes or four courses. It requires that you give people something from the best that you have and that you accept something from the best that others have. If you happen to have a gift for penguin cupcakes, then sharing that is appropriate. If you happen to have a gift for finding the best Indian take-out in the area, then sharing that is appropriate. The Leftoverist makes an excellent argument that even a McDonald's apple pie can be a loving invitation to community. (If you don't already read In Praise of Leftovers you really should.)

Don't over-think your efforts to host others. Hospitality doesn't have to photograph well. It just has to create a space of welcome.

05 November 2010

Life was Sacred

This is from my archives, originally published in May 2006.  I was taking a class on the Hebrew Scriptures, which is why this starts with a quote from Deuteronomy, but even if you're not a Jew or a Christian the thoughts this reading triggered about food and what we do with it are still relevant.  When I wrote this four years ago there was a burgeoning awareness about food and the importance of knowing where your food comes from but it was not as widespread as it is today.  Even now though, there are plenty of people who think that what we eat and how we eat don't matter.  What we eat and how we eat and who we eat with all matter.  There is more to food than calories, more to nourishment than the recipe you choose.

Nevertheless, you may slaughter your animals in any of your towns and eat as much of the meat as you want, as if it were gazelle or deer, according to the blessing the LORD your God gives you. Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat it. But you must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God at the place the LORD your God will choose—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns—and you are to rejoice before the LORD your God in everything you put your hand to. Deuteronomy 12: 15-18

And thus was the act of worship divorced from the act of slaughter and meal preparation. Originally, the slaughter of a domesticated animal was a sacred act, a recognition that all life was sacred. As part of the reforms in Deuteronomy worship was centralized at the temple in Jerusalem. In order to make it possible for people in the outlying areas to have meat for their meals, the rules were changed. Now only the animals that were part of the tithe needed to be slaughtered in the sacred way. The day to day relationship that people had with their meals changed.

For most of the ancient Israelites, the fact of slaughtering an animal for meat probably wasn't all that different before and after the reforms. Everyone would have been aware that the lamb roast in front of them had been fuzzy and bleating just a few hours before. Even for the wealthy, the connection to food was tight. But by removing the act of worship from meal preparation, the connection began to loosen. Slaughter became a more casual act.

Most modern Americans have no grasp on how their food gets to their table. Meat comes packaged in styrofoam trays. Muscle is yummy, and good grilling. Stomach and pancreas are gross and no one should ever eat them. Leather can be skin so long as we don't actually discuss it. Americans eat more meat per capita than anyone else. But we don't want to think about it. We don't want to think about what's left over when you remove the meat from a carcass, and we don't want to think about what happens to those leftovers.

We don't really want to think about our vegetables, either. No one wonders where their broccoli comes from, or how their potatoes got to their supermarket from Idaho. No one ponders the life of their asparagus. Sure, it's just a vegetable, but it was once alive. That's how it is able to nourish us. We cannot thrive on inorganic material. We are life, and life needs life.

There's another issue at stake as well, that of preparing the meal. No matter how the food gets to your kitchen, it's not a meal until it's been prepared and served. If it hasn't been prepared and served, then it's still just food. A meal, prepared by you or for you is a nourishing thing. A meal is alive in a way that food is not. I like feeding people, and generally they're quite appreciative. Most of the people I feed are single, and food tends to be whatever they reheated, eaten in front of the television. It's not a meal. It can be yummy, and even healthful, but it's not a meal.

They don't need to be exciting, these meals we feed each other. Soup and salad is fine. Macaroni and cheese is fine. Chicken parts and green beans are fine. It is the act of preparing and serving that make them special. Sure, if you're me, you worry that the breadcrumb crust on the mac and cheese isn't brown enough, but the people you're serving don't care. I never care about stuff like that when someone has served me a meal. A little burnt around the edges, a little late because it took longer to cook than you thought, a little simple because you don't know how to do anything else? It all counts. It's the action that matters. Preparation and serving are still sacred acts. Without them, a meal is just food.

04 November 2010

Meal Plans

Except for the occasional magically delicious pasta salad, I am actually pretty bad at winging it. If I get towards dinner time and I don't have a plan then I end up saying “spaghetti” and grabbing the jar of sauce from the pantry. It's not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that I'm happier when I don't feel like I'm resorting to an easy meal quite so often. So I need to plan. I went to the grocery store today, and before I went my husband and I talked through a partial plan.

Here's what I'm going to make in the next couple of days:
  • Black bean quesadillas (actually made these tonight.)
  • Chili with beans and either chips or corn tortillas depending on the results of a future trip to the store.
  • Beans and cornbread, adapted from the Pioneer Woman's recipe
  • Braised cabbage with red beans and rice from the Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen
  • Vegetable soup

And there are two things I'd like to get to making in the next week:

  • Korean-style beef served with spinach, green salad and rice from Madhur Jaffrey's Cookbook, which I picked up from a used cookbook merchant at the Farmers' Market. The limiting factor here is that it serves 6 so I need to invite guests. (Yes, I suppose I COULD scale it down, but that violates the spirit of the book, so I feel duty-bound to feed this recipe to family and/or friends. Would you like to come over?)
  • Cinnamon rolls from Uprisings. I made them years ago, and really appreciated that they were a sweet breakfast treat that wasn't a sugar bomb. They definitely fit in here and I want to try them again.

What do you want to cook this week?

03 November 2010

What's for Lunch: mini-ravioli




Okay, so there's no recipe here. It's just boiling and slicing so we can get to the playground. The mini-ravioli are from Trader Joe's and are very popular around here. As you can see, the toddler couldn't even wait for me to take a picture before he snatched a sample. They cook in 15 minutes. I just put the frozen peas in the colander and drain the cooked ravioli over them. This warms the peas and helps cool off the ravioli so it's ready to eat or cover for transport. Sides today were a clementine and half an apple. The container is a Ziploc I found at Target.

Check out the other bentos at What's for Lunch Wednesday.
Bento Lunch

02 November 2010

Slightly Easier: Oatmeal Whole-Wheat Bread


ANaNoBloPoWriMoPhoToGoGo

Or something. I'm as likely to post every day for 30 days as I am to become a GoGo dancer, but the improbable is not the impossible (and besides, impossible things are happening every day.)

What I am likely to do is change my mind about stuff, even/especially stuff that I have written authoritatively about in the past. So when I talk about having to knead bread dough for 20 minutes just after the sponge stage and again after the first rising, you can hold out hope that I'll offer up an easier alternative sometime in the future.

Like now, for instance.

Using the recommended procedure in The Tassajara Bread Book (which I commend to you) you can cut out the second kneading and replace it with another rise which does increase the time a bit, but it's inactive time, so that's not so bad. Tassajara also gets you out of washing to bowl after the sponge, so it's environmentally friendly, too!

Give it a try with this Oatmeal bread recipe. It's moist and flavorful and toasts up beautifully. It is too dense to be a good sandwich bread, but it is an excellent delivery vehicle for your favorite jam, and it uses up any leftover cooked oatmeal you might have.

Oatmeal bread
with honey

Oatmeal Whole Wheat Bread

For the sponge:
3 cups lukewarm water
1 ½ Tablespoons yeast (2 packets)
¼ cup honey (or brown sugar if you want it to be vegan)
4 cups whole wheat flour

For the dough:
up to 1 ½ cups cooked oatmeal
4 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup oil (or butter)
up to 4 cups whole wheat flour

Combine water, yeast, flour and honey your largest mixing bowl. Stir to combine, then beat 100 times. Cover with a clean, damp kitchen towel and allow to rise about 45 minutes.

When the sponge has risen, fold in the oatmeal, salt, and oil. Fold in the remaining flour 1 cup at a time until the dough becomes too stiff to knead. Flour your scrupulously clean counter liberally and dump the dough onto the flour. Begin to knead, adding small amount of flour as necessary to prevent sticking. Knead for 15-20 minutes. Because of the oatmeal, this dough will be stickier than a straight-up wheat dough. If the dough is still unreasonably sticky after you've added in 4 cups of flour, oil your hands to continue kneading until the dough is smooth and supple, if still a bit wet. Form the dough into a ball.

Oil your mixing bowl. (Just grease right over whatever was left from the sponge. It will be fine.) Place the dough ball in the bowl and turn it once so that the top is oiled. Cover with a clean damp kitchen towel and allow to rise until nearly doubled in size, 50-60 minutes. It is ready when you can leave an imprint in the top of the dough when you lightly press it with two fingers. If the dough springs back, it needs to rise a bit longer. If it sighs and deflates a bit, it has risen too long. It will still taste great, but keep a close eye on it during the next rise.

Fully risen

Punch down the dough gently but firmly, flattening it out as much as possible inside the bowl. Form it into a ball again and flip it once. Cover with the towel and allow to rise again. This rise will take less time than the first, so check it after 40 minutes (or sooner if the room is very warm or the dough over-rose last time.)

Punch down again and return the dough to your cleaned, lightly floured counter. Divide the dough in two roughly equal pieces. Allow pieces to rest while you oil two loaf pans.

To shape loaves, knead one piece of dough 5 times, then flatten into a rectangle with the short end about as long as the length of the loaf pan. Roll the dough into a tight cylinder and pinch the long seam. Then pinch the side seams. Place the loaf into the pan with the seam side down and press lightly to form the bottom of the loaf to the pan. Repeat with the second ball of dough.

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit

Cover the loaves and allow to rise for 20-25 minutes depending on how warm the room is. With a sharp knife, cut a ½” slit along the top of the loaf.

Bake for 45-50 minutes. Remove from pans to cool, and allow to cool at least 10 minutes before slicing. Once the loaves have cooled completely, they will keep well wrapped tightly in plastic in the refrigerator. I generally keep the loaf we're eating wrapped in a kitchen towel on the counter and the second loaf in a freezer bag in the refrigerator until needed. These also make excellent gifts for your toast loving friends.

01 November 2010

Linking: Vegan Pozole


Michael over at Herbivoracious is working on a cookbook. I'm very excited about it, and you should be, too if you're at all interested in vegetarian cooking that uses real food and plays with flavors. As part of writing the book Michael put out a call for recipe testers and I volunteered. He sent me a recipe for Pozole Rojo de Frijol, a vegetarian version of a traditional pork stew.

I loved it. The kids liked it. The husband liked it. It must be said that not everyone at the table liked it, but I think that was my fault for misjudging the audience, not the fault of the recipe. I will make a couple of changes next time: I'll use slightly less lime juice, slightly less water, and I'll up the chiles. I used the minimum this time, and there was very little heat.

Obviously someone trying to write a cookbook doesn't want his recipes reproduced all over the internet, but I am allowed to link to it. So go read the recipe, try it for yourself, and then check out more of his blog.


30 October 2010

Saturday Morning: Yogurt Blueberry Pancakes


The frozen blueberry makes regular appearances on the four-year-old's breakfast dish. Oatmeal and plain yogurt, both breakfast staples, are almost always topped with frozen blueberries, and if breakfast isn't quite ready yet, a bowl of frozen blueberries is requested as an appetizer. Naturally, blueberry pancakes are quite popular around here.

Yogurt
blueberry pancakes
(The blueberries are on the bottom, waiting to surprise you with their juicy deliciousness.)

This is a very thick batter, so the pancakes will take a bit longer to cook than you may be used to, and don't expect popping bubbles to tell you when they're ready to flip. Just keep an eye on the sides, and don't cook them too hot. By the time I get to the second round I generally have my skillet on the lowest setting. (My stove-top runs a tiny bit hot, so aim for medium-low and adjust as necessary.)

Blueberry Yogurt Pancakes
yields ~16 4” pancakes

1/3 cup butter
12 ounces (about 3 cups) white whole wheat flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
3 cups yogurt
1/2 cup milk

1 cup frozen blueberries (or fresh, if they're in season.)

Melt butter and set aside.

Preheat griddle or skillet on medium-low.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. It's important to combine them thoroughly since even distribution of the leavening makes for evenly fluffy pancakes.

Break eggs in a medium bowl and whisk until slightly lightened in color. Stir in yogurt and milk. Slowly pour in the butter while stirring the yogurt and egg mixture.

Add the liquid ingredients to the flour and stir until just combined.

Give the griddle a very light coating of butter. Pour batter by the serving spoon full (a scant ¼ cup, I think.) Sprinkle 1 heaping teaspoon full of blueberries on top of each pancake. Cook until golden brown on the bottom and the sides are beginning to cook. Flip gently and cook another minute. Like waffles, these will emit steam as they cook. When the steam starts to slow, the pancake is ready.

Serve with maple syrup or honey.

29 October 2010

The Giants of Lilliput, or, Why my kid ate broccoli.


I don't have many hard and fast rules for feeding my children. Kids are all different and they keep changing and you just don't know what's going to happen from one meal to the next. One rule I do keep is this: if your four year old, who has been rejecting broccoli out of hand for three years, suddenly agrees to eat the trees of a broccoli forest so long as you make some carrot people to go with it, then you make that child a broccoli forest with carrot people in it.

A walk through
the forest

As you can see, the carrot people are very tall, so we dubbed them carrot giants, which is fitting since the four-year-old has been talking about giants a lot recently. The four-year-old not only ate his carrot giants and broccoli trees, but announced that he would like to eat broccoli “more times than this.” Whee!

This is a slight variation on Mollie Katzen's “Enchanted Broccoli Forest” recipe from the book of the same name. You can buy it new, find it in a used bookstore, or do what I did, and filch it from someone who bought it back when it was new the first time. It's a great book if you're trying to ease into eating less meat, and it has a great section on baking. 

Because the carrots and broccoli are only cooked in medium oven for a short time they stay crisp. You could steam them slightly ahead of time to soften if you like, but then the broccoli will lose some of its inherent tree-ness, which might disappoint any tree-eating dinosaurs you bring to the table.

The stems of the broccoli are cut fairly short. You can save the leftover stems to peel and cook another time, or, if you're organized enough, chop them finely and cook them with the rice that will make up your forest floor. If you've had trouble with brown rice in the past, try Alton Brown's method. It's what I use anytime I have to cook more than my rice cooker can handle.

The Giant's Forest

1 pound fresh broccoli

2 cups brown rice
3 cups water

1 large carrot

1 Tablespoon butter
1 medium onion
½ teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic
juice of half a lemon
2 Tablespoons minced fresh dill
3 Tablespoons minced fresh mint
¼ cup minced fresh parsely
pepper and cayenne to taste

optional:
½ cup sunflower seeds
¼ pound sharp cheddar (or Swiss) cheese

¼ cup butter, melted


Wash broccoli, then cut florets 3”-4” high with flat bases. Set aside.

Cut off the ends of the broccoli stalks, and peel any tough skin. Chop stems fine and add to rice.

Cook rice, broccoli and water together using your preferred method. (If you're going to simmer it on the stovetop, it will take 40-45 minutes.)

Scrub the carrot and cut lengthwise into quarters, then into pieces about 2” long.

About 10 minutes before the rice is done, preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit. (Unless, of course you're baking your rice, in which case you can just skip this part.)

Lightly butter a 9”x13” casserole dish.

Melt 1 Tablespoon butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Chop onion and add to the skillet with the salt. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally for five minutes, until the onions are soft and beginning to brown.

While the onions are cooking, mince the garlic, juice the lemon and mince the herbs.

Add the garlic and lemon juice to the onion and continue cooking until the garlic becomes aromatic, about two minutes.
While the garlic is cooking, grate the cheese.

Remove the skillet from the heat, stir in the rice, herbs, sunflower seeds, cheese and pepper. Taste and correct seasoning if necessary.

Melt the ¼ cup butter.

Spread the rice mixture in the prepared dish. Stand the broccoli trees and carrot giants in the forest, rooting them in the rice mixture. Pour the melted butter over the trees.

Cover the dish gently with foil and bake 20-25 minutes, until heated through.

22 October 2010

A stuffed apple for Justine

...and anyone else who needs a fast, hearty breakfast.


Breakfast on
the Go

We all have days when we don't have time to sit down and eat a bowl of oatmeal. I used to have them all the time, days when all I had time for was an apple in the car, but needed more than an apple to keep me upright until lunch. This stuffed apple was one of my grab and go breakfasts back then, or I'd wrap it up and eat it for lunch on the days when I didn't have time to pack something balanced. The peanut-butter provided a kick of protein and good fats. The dried fruit provided a bit of sweetness and chew. And the apple provided crunch, fiber, juiciness and clean hands.

It's a simple and versatile meal. Just slice the apple in half and use a pairing knife, grapefruit spoon or melon-baller to carve out the seeds, stem and flower, then fill with peanut-butter and dried cranberries as above. Or use raisins, chopped dried apricots, currants, dried blueberries, dried cherries. Swap out the peanut-butter for any other nut or seed butter, or skip the dried fruit and use a nice cheese spread as a filling. You could also use cream cheese, but cream cheese has no nutritional value, so go into that with your eyes open. Add some cinnamon and brown sugar and call it dessert.

To store, smoosh the apple back together and wrap up in plastic wrap, foil or a napkin and shove into your coat pocket.  Be careful not to overfill, or you'll be forced to lick off the extra that leaks out the side, and that would be terrible.  The apple will keep happily all day that way, or you can make it a night ahead and keep it in the fridge until morning.

21 October 2010

Three bowls of oats

What do you think of when you think of oatmeal? It is sweet powdery packets mixed with boiling water, or microwaved with milk? Is it flakes cooked to thin paste on the stovetop? (Was that leading the witness?) Is it nutty, chewy wholesome steel-cut oats, finished with butter and a bit of honey, or some dried fruit? (That was definitely leading the witness.)

If oatmeal makes you think of peaches and cream packets or those flakes, I humbly suggest you try the other kind. It's possible you're intimidated by it. It takes too long. It's more expensive than the flakes. You don't own a spurtle.

Papa Bear's
Porridge

Now, I am not an oatmeal expert. I was born in Texas, not Scotland or Ireland, and the portions of my family that were from those lovely oat-filled places moved to the mid-West of the United States and assimilated long before I was born. But I do know that not only are steel-cut oats better for you than the packets (which are really no better nutritionally than cold cereal) but they're so much tastier that while they do take longer than the flakes (and certainly longer than the packets.) and it does cost a bit more than the cannister with the smiling be-wigged man on the front that they're worth it (unless it's a choice between paying the heating bill and the steel-cuts, in which case by all means by the store-brand flakes and God bless.) And don't just check out the price of a canister of McCann's and declare poverty. I buy mine in a much more sensibly priced cardboard canister, and any store with a bulk-food section will probably have steel-cut oats for a reasonable price. As for the spurtle, I'm sure it's very good at its job, but I've never had a problem using an ordinary wooden spoon or a silicone spatula.

Why do steel-cut oats taste better than their steam-cooked, rolled flat cousins? First, because the rolled oats have to be steamed to roll flat, the starch inside has already been cooked once, which means it won't seep out and create a lovely creamy sauce for your little oat friends to swim in, think risotto. Second, by the time they've been steamed and rolled and cooked again there just isn't much structural integrity left, so they don't have contrast in texture between the oats and the sauce. Steel-cut oats, in contrast, create a beautiful creamy sauce and retain some chewiness.

Mama Bear's
Porridge

This is a story of threes, so I have three ways to cook steel-cut oats to share. My basic ratio is 1 part oats to 3 parts water. The canister (and most other places) say 1 oats: 4 water, but I prefer my oatmeal to be a bit less soupy, so I use less water. You can play around with the ratio to find what you like best without changing the basic cooking procedure. I also use a tiny pinch of salt per ¼ cup of raw oats. It's just a wee bit of salt, but it does make a difference, so unless you really, really cannot have salt, please put it in.

[edit: 12/4/10 Based on Justine's comment below, I've adapted my stovetop method, and you should too.  Check it out here.]

Stove-top: In a large saucepan, combine oats, water, and salt, and bring to a boil. Keep an eye on it here, as all that lovely starch will happily make big gluey bubbles and boil right out of the pot. Once the pot is boiling, stir, cover and reduce heat to lowest setting. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 40 minutes. You can reduce the cooking time by soaking the oats, water and salt in the pot over night and then cook as above. These can be done in as little as 20 minutes, so do keep an eye on them. 

Rice Cooker: I did it this way until my family's appetite for oatmeal outgrew my rice cooker's capacity. I clearly need a bigger rice cooker. Because of the gluey bubbles issue, I recommend filling your rice cooker no more than 2/3 full. My little 3 cup cooker therefore only accommodated ½ cup raw oats and 1 1/2 cups water. You can use the porridge setting if your cooker has one, but if you only have an “on” switch that will work as well. My cooker had a timer, so I could set it to be ready at 7:00 am and it would beep at me to tell it was ready as I dragged myself and my son out of bed. If you don't have a timer, you can buy one of those plug in timers and set it that way, or just set up the oats the night before and then remember to go hit the on button before you get in the shower.

Crock-pot: Easy, easy, easy: oats, water, salt, lid, turn it on low, go to bed, wake up to oatmeal.

Baby Bear's
Porridge

Once it's cooked, what do you do with it? You can stir in a bit of butter if you're feeling extravagant, or not, if you're feeling austere. You can top it with honey or milk or cream or maple syrup or dried fruits or chopped nuts or fresh fruits or frozen fruits or brown sugar. Or you can decide to go savory and add soy sauce, or fried onions, or scallions or a poached egg or cheddar cheese and bacon. There's no reason it has to be sweet, or breakfast for that matter.

Err on the side of making too much, whatever you do, unless you're being very strict about calories, because ¼ cup of raw oats doesn't make a huge bowlful. And if there are leftovers, just store them in a lidded bowl in the fridge until the next morning, when they are happy to be reheated for a breakfast that's even more convenient that the little powdery packets. (You could even make a week's worth in the crockpot and then dish out what you need each morning. Voila, your timing issues are solved.)

As for the rolled oats? They are good for three things:

  1. Granola
  2. Seal up a handful in the toe of an old (washed) stocking or a bit of cheese-cloth and toss in the bath anytime you're feeling dry, itchy or insufficiently pampered. Soak both you and the oats together, squeezing the oatmeal packet occasionally until you feel better.

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