Friday, 29 October 2010

Unemployment Leads to Fancy Pie

So a while back I wrote about an apple pie I
had made with apples from the tree in the yard. I didn't get around to writing about it yet, but shortly afterward I made another apple pie, this time with a mixture of apples from the yard and apples from the store (braeburn I think...) just because. Also just because, I decided to make this the fanciest pie I had ever made. There is a picture of it on the right pre-eggwash and pre-baking. That's right...I made a lattice top pie out of leaves. And I would like to mention that I did not have a cookie cutter or anything of the sort (although I did try to make one out of various materials, but that is another hilariously bad and embarassing story). I hand cut each leaf, which explains the asymmetry and varying sizes. I blame the fact that I am currently unemployed entirely for this far too fancy pie.

Better than being fancy, though, it adhered to my "pie should not be stew" rule. Look how nicely it held it's shape after being cut. Better still, the general opinion was that this pie was better than the last one because the first was a bit on the dry side, whereas this one was moist and tasty without becoming runny.

Mmmm...baking success. Maybe this season I will try making pumpkin or pecan pie.

Tomorrow I am going to be having one heck of a cook-a-thon to make some yummy things for an Oktoberfest style party, and then I have to throw together the rest of my self-made costume for Sea Tea's costumed Halloween Show (which everyone should come to this Sunday), so I should have some interesting posts up soon-ish about those.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Venison Stew

We have a bunch of deer meat in the freezer that we need to cook up, so I decided to make some hearty venison stew. My usual method of cooking involves researching a bunch of recipes similar to what I want to make and then cooking up basically some sort of mixture of what I found with whatever harebrained spin I want to put on it.

First I cooked up about half a pack of bacon. Then I started with trimming the steaks. I was warned that cutting off the silver skin, gristle, etc was even more important with venison than with other meats to make sure you don't end up with an over powering gamey taste. After it was all trimmed and cut into about 1/2" pieces, I covered it all with some Worcestershire sauce and smokey flavoring stuff I found in the fridge (I could never actually write recipes considering this is the way I cook....).

I mixed some flour, black pepper and garlic salt together in a shallow dish. In a few batches I tossed the venison chunks in the flour mixture and then cooked them up in the pan I cooked the bacon in. Waste not, want not!

Next I went to work on the veggies. I chopped up a bunch of mushrooms, three carrots and a large onion. I cooked the chopped veggies in garlic and oil with some salt, pepper and oregano. Once they were just about cooked through, I added a small can's worth of tomato paste and some red wine vinegar.

I wasn't sure whether chicken broth or beef broth would best compliment the flavor of the deer meat, so I did half and half. Altogether it was about 5 cups of broth. I mixed in my tomatoy-veggie slop, the venison and chopped up bits of bacon. I threw in a sprig of rosemary and some bay leaves.

While the main part of the stew of was happily simmering away, I chopped, simmered and glazed a bunch of shallots. When they were almost done I added some chopped parsley before mixing it all in with the rest of the stew.

I am extremely pleased with how the stew came out. It ended up needing no extra seasoning, which I always consider a sign of success. It was flavorful, thick and very meaty. I had gotten a loaf of rosemary olive oil bread at the store that went really well.

I really like making soups and stews so I imagine I will probably make a few more during the coming fall and winter months.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Spiced Wine Pears

Recently, my parents planted a pair of pear trees (hehe...pair o' pear). This year, they produced some fruit. They might not be the prettiest pears, but I knew I could turn them into something tasty. They were hard as rocks when they were first brought into the kitchen, but after a couple days they had ripened up a bit. I peeled them and sliced each one into about 8 slices. I put them in a saucepan with just enough red wine to cover all the slices. Then I added a generous amount of both white and brown sugar, some cinnamon sticks, some whole cloves and some nutmeg (yes, I put nutmeg in everything...what of it?)

I left the whole mess to simmer for roughly two hours. I stirred it regularly and enjoyed the rich and delicious smell that was filling the house. At the same time I was roasting a pan of vegetables so it had some weird competition.

The process was a little strange. I noticed it was getting a little thicker, but I really wanted it to get to a syrupy almost-pie-filling texture. And it made that jump in thickness surprisingly quickly at the end. I pulled out the cinnamon sticks and cloves (not wanting to make another mistake like I did with leaving bay leaves in the squash soup).

The pears ended up sitting in the fridge for a few days before we finally pulled them out to eat them. Since I had cooked them with pie filling in mind, I figured it would be best with some vanilla bean ice cream. I reheated the stewed pears and spooned it over the ice cream.

It was VERY rich and almost too sweet. I was thinking of spiced wine the whole time I was cooking it and that's what it ended up tasting like. The 'rentals also gave it a positive review. If I were to make it again, I would probably put less sugar in and/or add some lemon juice to cut the cloying sweetness.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Sea Tea Interview

So I realize I had the squash bread post up for a while. I have a few posts already ready to go, but they are all about cooking. I want to throw a little variety in, but I just started a new temp assignment and have been rather improv busy this week. So, I hope you will be happy watching this short interview about Sea Tea Improv with Dan and Julia (two of the original members). As a bonus, about halfway through their talk you can see me from the September show pretending to be a lot more badass than I really am.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Squash Bread

In probably the last harvest from the backyard garden, my mother had a few butternut squash, some of which needed some spot removal. They therefore needed to be used ASAP. I had already made squash soup (mmm...remember the squash soup?) so I wanted to do something different. That's when I found this recipe from my favorite recipe website, Eating Well.

I followed the recipe pretty much exactly, which is rather rare for me. When it comes to baking, I pretty much consider it a mystical science that really shouldn't be messed with unless you know what you are doing. In fact, the only thing I did different was add nutmeg and not add allspice (cuz I couldn't find any...). I baked the squash just like I did for the soup. I did do something probably a little funky. I used a blender to make the squash puree and then just added the eggs, oil, sugar and honey right into the blender. I figured it would save me from getting another kitchen appliance dirty and accomplish the same thing.

Here is where I would stick in a picture of the finished baked bread, but the only picture I took was crappy and blurry. It made the kitchen smell fantastic. I know I said in my post about my squash soup that I wanted it to smell like autumn and I hate to repeat myself, but this bread definitely smelled like autumn. All those lovely spices. Yum. I brought some of the loaf to my improv practice and it was eaten up pretty quickly.

I liked it for breakfast, all warmed up with a bit of butter and a nice mug of coffee. I loved it because it was moist and also sweet but without being overly so. You can taste the squash but it's nicely balanced with the spices and honey/sugar. This recipe would be absolutely perfect for delicious squash muffins. If/when I make it again, that's probably what I'll do.

It actually reminded me a lot of the delicious banana bread that my grandmother used to make. My mother said that it made her think of spice cake.

I think the best compliment, though, is the fact that there was only one tiny piece left from the double recipe I had cooked three days before.

Ahh the joys of hiding vegetables in baked goods.

Carving Pumpkins, Toasting Seeds

I really like Halloween. Although I don't get excited about it as I used to, I still really like a lot of stuff about it. I think part of the reasons I like Halloween is that (at least in my eyes) it is a very creative holiday. When I was a child, we NEVER bought my costume. I, and to a much larger extent my mother, would make my costume every year. We would also go overboard and turn the entire front yard into a graveyard including having Death (with scythe in hand) hanging from the attic window. Although those may not be things we really do anymore, this year we still carved jack o'lanterns.

I can't remember the last time I carved a pumpkin, but this time I wanted to choose a design that was geeky and would require some effort and patience. I went to the interwebs for inspiration and found some pretty interesting stuff. Without meaning to, I found a picture that inspired my mother to carve the pumpkin you see on the left here. Pretty awesome. That pumpkin just makes me smile when I look at it. The pumpkin on the right my dad carved...with a CHISEL. It's pretty hardcore and creepy. I think it's safe to say I have the coolest parents ever.

It took me a while to pick a design. I saw a ton of geektastic pumpkins out there, my favorite probably being a Deathstar jacko'lantern that was intense. If you search for "geeky pumpkins", it's one of the first things that comes up. Everything I found seemed to require way more carving talent than I had faith I have, or was overdone. For example, I love the idea of pumpkin pi, but it feels like everyone and their cousin has made a jack o'lantern with the pi symbol on it.

Anyway, this is what I ended up making. If you recognize it, I give you so many geekpoints. It is the white tree from Lord of the Rings, the crest of Gondor....or at least one interpretation of it. The hardcore Ringers out there will probably point out I did not include the seven stars, but to you I say....I ran out of room at the top. I really like how it came out.

After sticking a candle in mine and mom's, I put them on the front steps. (Dad's is even creepier when it is half lit from the porch light.)

Today I heard a weird noise out front and realized it was a kid getting dropped off by a bus. I happened to catch the kid staring at our front porch and grinning. I am going to assume it was because of the pumpkins. The big question now is, was he laughing because he is a LOTR dork, he is amused by a pumpkin cyclops, or because it's really just polite to smile at a jack o'lantern that is smiling that big at you?

One of the best parts about carving pumpkins, though, is nomming the seeds. From all those pumpkin guts, my mother patiently separated the seeds (while I was still carving). We left them out to dry last night. Today I tossed them with some oil and seasoning before baking them for about 20 minutes or so. Instead of just doing plain salt, I sprinkled them with an herb seasoning mix that is meant for popcorn. I figured if it's good enough for popcorn, it's good enough for pumpkin seeds. I think they came out pretty tasty.

And the picture above amuses me because when I first uploaded it, it was upside down and looked like a delicious pumpkin seed stalactite. Mmm...

Until next time.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Butternut Squash Soup

For a few days, there were two lovely butternut squash sitting on the table just begging to be turned into something delicious. Considering the fall weather, I figured a nice thick, creamy soup would be the best choice.

I started by cutting each one in half, generously rubbing some butter and dusting a bit of ground cloves on each piece. I covered each piece in tin foil and put them in a baking pan with a bit of water on the bottom. After about an hour in the oven at 350 degrees I had soft, falling apart squash that was nice and moist.

While that was cooling, I chopped a ton of vegetables. Two carrots, two onions, three or so stalks of celery, four red potatoes (although maybe only three would have been enough) and about a handful of garlic cloves (I really like garlic). I sauteed those up with some butter, salt and ground pepper in the cast iron pan until they started to soften. I wish I had had a bigger pan...that was a lot of vegetables! Cooking them took longer than it should have and making sure everything was evenly cooked without tossing veggie pieces all over the stovetop was annoying.

I ended up peeling the skin off of the squash and then chopping it up. It was so softened that when I tried to scope the meaty bits out of the skin it just kept falling apart.

All the sauteed veggies and the oven roasted squash went into a big pot with about 7 cups of chicken broth, just enough to cover everything. I also did some seasoning at this point. Just some bay leaves, more ground cloves, more pepper. Unfortunately, my nose was still very stuffed when I made this soup, so cooking was still difficult.

Considering how soft the squash was after being pre-cooked in the oven and how soft the vegetables were after their slow saute in the pan, I only had to simmer the whole shebang for about half an hour before I deemed it ready to be blended. I had to blend it in sections because their was so much. It took at least four full batches in the blender to go through all of it. (I may have overfilled twice as well, leading to the dogs getting a free snack). I added a little heavy cream each time to add to the creaminess.

After all of it was blended and back in the pot there was a preliminary taste test/smell. My mother was home but she found it difficult being my surrogate nose, probably because I asked questions that made sense in my head, like "Does it smell balanced?" that for some reason didn't make sense to her.

It was a bit bland at first, but after some fiddling, it turned out SUPER TASTY. I kind of just had at it with the spice cabinet so I can't be exact with what I added, but I know it involved garlic salt, cinnamon, oregano, nutmeg, ground pepper. In retrospect those sound weird to all be together, but I wanted it to taste like autumn and in the end it did.

My one stupid mistake? I forgot to take out the bay leaves before blenderizing. D'oh! Oh well, little bits of dried spice bits in an otherwise awesome soup are forgivable....right?

One last thing. When I talked about blocking knitted squares, I shared a picture of my dear dog Ben cowering under the ironing board because it was windy out. Well, it was windy while I was chopping vegetables for this soup too, and Ben likes to be as close as possible to his humans when he is scared.

This picture may be a little hard to figure out, but this is Ben squeezed between the counter/oven and my legs. The angle is from my point of view looking down at him, while he looks up at me with his big puppy dog eyes.

Until next time!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

8-Bit Improv

So far this blog has been entirely about cooking and crafting so it's probably time to talk improv. I've been doing improv since college and started actually getting paid to perform at bars and the like while I was in China for the last two years. Before I even got back to the US I was looking for improv groups back home so that I could keep it up. Luckily for me, Sea Tea Improv (get it?) held auditions almost immediately after I moved home and I got in. My first show at the Brew Ha Ha comedy club with them was last month, the next one is on Halloween. Spooky.

Today I wanted to mention a game we practiced on Tuesday because it was unlike pretty much any game I had played before. I am 98% sure that one of the Sea Tea peeps, Joe, actually invented this game. It's a bit hard to get your head around, but it's a really interesting concept if you think about it.

His idea is that you treat the stage as though it is the entire universe. And this universe, just like in an 8-bit video game, is forever repeating. So if I walk off the stage on the right, I should end up walking back on the stage on the left without any delay and having crossed no space in between.

Got it?

Now, of course there is no way for me to actually walk off the stage in one direction and instantaneously appear on the other side. That's why we work as a team. If I walk off one side, another actor walks comes on the other side and becomes my character. If I walk off in the middle of the sentence, they should come on and finish it. If I walked off backwards/sideways/with both hands in the air, they should be walking on with the same orientation. We even tried to more complex stuff last night, like reaching offstage so that your partner had to be your arms/head/whatever.

It was a bit of a challenge, but really fun and interesting. It's definitely a game where you need to have a bit of group mind going on so you can almost anticipate what your partner will do and react immediately.

If people want to check Sea Tea out, the next performance is at the Southington Apple Fest this Saturday, and the next Sea Tea show is at the Brew Ha Ha in Hartford on Halloweeeeeeeen.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Stirfry and a Stuffy Nose

I noticed broccoli on sale at the grocery store a while ago, so I bought two big heads with a whole dinner plan in mind. Grilled chicken, steamed broccoli and cheesy broccoli couscous. Unfortunately, while shopping my Dad called with a minor but urgent emergency (it's a boring story that pretty much just involves me driving all over CT) so I had to check out immediately. Aka, sans chicken.The broccoli sat in the fridge for a while, awaiting a new plan. I got some chicken the other day, but for some reason decided to make stirfry instead of my original meal idea.

The only problem is that when cooking this I had a bit of a cold. Now, I don't know how everyone else cooks, but I cook almost entirely dependent on my nose. My nose tells me when something is done cooking or whether it is seasoned right or missing something. So cooking with a stuffy nose for me is like cooking half blind with only one hand. I did the best I could, though. I whipped up a marinade/sauce incredibly impulsively with oil, soy sauce, Chinese vinegar, sesame oil and fish sauce in varying amounts. I then thrust it under my Dad's nose and asked him if it smelled ok. When he declared it's aroma "delicious", I decided it was probably the best I could do and tossed the chicken in it. (Side note, any picture I take of raw meat with the flash on looks GROSS).

Since we have no wok, I did the cooking in a cast iron pan. I would like to take a moment here to talk about cooking times. Different foods take different times to cook. It drives me crazy when I watch people cook with little regard for cooking times. Either they cooked the same food, but chopped different sizes (which can drastically effect how long it takes to be "done", especially with meats), or cooked many different things together for the same time. Either way you end up with some of the food being undercooked and some being incinerated. I am certainly far from an expert on getting cooking times right, but I do make an effort and I am learning the rhythm.

I started with the onions since I like the flavor of them, but I liked my onions super soft. Then some garlic. Then the chicken. Once the chicken was nearly done, I added the broccoli. I wanted it to be cooked but still crisp. I tossed everything around to make sure it was mixed well (which was hard considering the food to pan space ratio I had). The whole time I was cooking, my parents were very cruel and kept commenting on how good it smelled.

I served it all over some Asian noodles. No picture of that, sadly, because I was too busy eating it! I could vaguely taste it, and I think it was good.

Taking a second look, none of these food pictures taken with the flash look very appetizing. I'll have to work on getting more natural light when I try to photograph my cooking.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Crafty Gift

Last Sunday I went to a wonderful wedding of two of my friends from college, Sarah and Coz. They are pictured on the left being very adorable having their first kiss as a married couple. They had a very cool, very fun and very non-traditional wedding. One of my favorite things about it was how crafty it was! Many of the things at the wedding, from Sara's dress, to the flowers and their wedding rings were all purchased from Etsy. I used to have a store up there myself and after I finally get some gainful employment, I will probably open it up again.

Now, Sara and Coz hadn't registered, so that left me with a bit of a dilemma of what to get them as a gift. I didn't want to get them something they might not need/want that would just take up space. And I am pretty against just giving good friends money. It's so impersonal!

I am hoping that they have opened their gifts by now so that I won't be spoiling any surprise by revealing what I did do for them here (I don't even know if they know about/read this blog anyway, so the point may be moot).

I started by making a card for them. The nicest and thickest paper I had was some resume paper (recycled! whoo!). I thought it would make sense if I made them something Chinese themed. I first attempted to write in calligraphy a lovely Chinese poem I found online. It said things like "I hope we are together until the flowers bloom in winter, the snows fall in summer and heaven mingles with the earth". But it made the front look really busy and I am a bit of a perfectionist. In the end I just wrote one word as best as I could, "Double Happiness", the character for a happy marriage. I outlined that with some nice red and gold ribbon (traditional good luck colors in China). I lined the inside with rice paper and wrote my message on it, being sure to sign with "Sproffee" (the nickname most of my college friends know me as) and my Chinese name stamp (the tiny red block on the bottom there), which is the Chinese translation for "Sproffee".

Here is a better view of the front (I covered up their full names just to keep their privacy) and their actual gift. The name "Sprof-O-Gram" came from my good friend Claire. I thought it was rather ridiculous and perfect. In short, my gift to them is a coupon to have my use one of my weird hobbies to create a gift for them. I gave them a few suggestions, such as having me knit them a blanket, having them invite some friends over and have me cook a gourmet meal for all of them (with dessert!), have me hire out the improv group I recently joined to perform for them at some event, etc. At first I was a little nervous that they might think this was a weird/corny gift, but after seeing how crafty their wedding was, I hope they like this idea. I can't wait to find out what they choose for me to do. No matter what, it will be an excuse for us to hang out again, and it will be more personal than cash.

It was wonderful to see not only the happy couple but also so many old college friends of mine that I haven't really seen in a long time. Some I hadn't seen since I left for China two years ago, one I hadn't seen in over three years. Here is a fun group picture with everyone from the wedding who went to the same college. It sucks that people live so far apart, which makes getting together a little difficult. Thank goodness for events like weddings where we can all get together.

Congrats again Sara and Coz! And thanks again for inviting me!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Notzucchini Update

So I did spend a good part of yesterday baking up the rest of the eggplant (aka, notzucchini) that mom brought home. I said sixish in my last entry because I hadn't actually count. And I was right to be unsure, because it was actually seven.
The main reason I wanted to post, though, is because in my last entry I said I had covered the slices in salt because it was supposed to draw out the liquid and therefore the bitterness of the eggplant. The last two times I had cooked them, I had covered them in salt and for some reason then splashed a bit of water on them. I guess I thought it would help coat each piece evenly with salty water. This time I put just a generous sprinkle of salt between layer after layer of slices and then left them along for an hour. When I came back to rinse and get to the cooking, I was surprised to come back to a colander of sweaty eggplant.

I took a couple of pictures (of course) because I was surprised at how much liquid was actually drawn out of the eggplant.

Anyway, I think there is enough now. It took about 5 batches in the oven, and I used 6 eggs, a whole stick of butter, about 2.5 hours of labor (not including the hour wait for the eggplant to get all leaky) and a significant amount of breadcrumbs to cook those last 7 notzucchinis. But now there are about 6-7 ziplock bags full of tasty tasty baked eggplant slices. We are ready to party! about 70 days.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Baked Eggplant For A Crowd

My parents are having a big wedding anniversary celebration thing in December. There has been some discussion of what they are going to serve for food, but the plan is to have mostly Italian nummies. One thing my mom wants is to have some eggplant parmesan. And she'd like it to be with some nice in-season eggplant....
Remember the part when I said the party is in December? So the obvious solution is to bake the eggplant now and freeze it and use it in December. She brought home a whole bunch of eggplant that she's been getting from a farm stand in Hartford. And I've been cooking them!

Apparently eggplant have a tendency to be bitter? I guess I haven't really eaten enough of it to know. The way to avoid it (according to the Internet, knower of all things) is to let them sit around covered in salt for a while to draw out the moisture and then rinse it all off before cooking. I also squeezed a little extra moisture out of each and every piece before dipping it in my eggbuttter concoction and shaking it in breadcrumbs. So far I have I had two serious baking sessions, resulting in four ziploc bags in the freezer full of nice layers of baked eggplant slices. That won't be enough though, so I will be repeating the whole process later today with the 6ish new eggplant waiting in the kitchen.

I like how neat and orderly they look all baked up. Except for that last row on the right which refused to conform. If you are noticing the tiny holes in each slice that's because I used a skewer to get each piece out of the breadcrumbs to try and prevent losing to much topping and to try and avoid cross contamination between my eggbutter concoction and my breadcrumbs. I also used a skewer to flip each piece mid-baking, which took some fancy manuevering. I am proud to say the usual clumsy me did not get burned once during either baking session!

Just one weird last note...So while I was cooking I was thinking to myself how I didn't know that eggplant was called anything but eggplant until I moved to China. Where my Canadian co-workers called it aubergine. They were telling me about this vegetable for quite a while and were surprised I had never heard of it before. The same confusion happened over cilantro (which they called coriander). And to add to the confusion, for some reason for this whole entry I kept wanting to talk about how I was baking zucchini, which is SUPER WRONG. My original title for the entry said zucchini, not eggplant, and the above picture is saved as "Baked Zucchini". I blame the cold medication I'm on.

That's all for now!